About Allison Ford

Director of Strategy, Marine Fish Conservation Network. Follow me on twitter @allioford

Patience: good for more than just waiting for the fish to bite

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Whether or not you agree with the New York Times’ Mark Bittman that we need to fundamentally re-make the American food system (full disclosure: I do), his recent column has a piece of advice that we in the fisheries world could also take to heart: have patience.

Mr. Bittman gives nod to something I have often felt, as an observer (and at times participant) of fisheries, food systems, and movements that are working to move them towards sustainability: frustration at the magnitude of the challenges we face, and fear that we’ll never quite get there.

It’s pretty obvious that frustration and fear are running deep for many people in the fisheries community these days. It may stem from different places, but ultimately it brings us to the same point. With fishery disaster declarations all over the country, increasingly firm catch limits being implemented, and some of the weirdest weather we’ve ever seen heralding climactic shifts both on land and water, fishermen have every reason to fear for their livelihoods—a basic human fear that most all of us can relate to. Where is your next meal coming from? How are you going to afford to send your child to school? Or simply pay your rent or mortgage?

On the other side, environmentalists and community activists are on the front lines of observing the consequences of our often over-zealous use of natural resources. It would be hard to see the damage that we’ve done and not feel fear for the future; and frustration about the inability of policy makers to protect against those very real fears. This fear is slightly more abstract, but no less real or valid: the fear of destroying something that once seemed boundless, and having to explain to our children and our children’s children why there are no more fish. It’s epitomized in Mark Kurlansky’s rather bleak, but powerful book World Without Fish, which chronicles three generations of a family of marine scientists and their fishermen friends, who go from catching groundfish to herring to eels, to jellyfish as everything else disappears. The final panel in the graphic novel section of the book shows a small child asking, “Mommy, what’s a fish?”

But Mark Bittman asks us to step back from our fears for a minute. He points out that the scale of the movement must match the magnitude of the problem. Building movements of such magnitude takes time. And to do work that may unfold over a long period of time—past our lifetimes perhaps—takes extraordinary patience.

It’s easy to look back and say, the environmental movement has been going strong for 40 years; how much more patient do we need to be? In fact, you could make a case that in the United States we’ve had a thriving environmental movement for more than 100 years, when conservation became an issue of national consideration in the 1890s. But you’d be missing out on the nuance of what these movements were working towards, and what we now need to achieve. In fact, the history of the push for conservation and environmental protection is long and complicated, and fraught with inner conflicts. That’s a story for another post, but the take away for right now is that the goals of the movement have not always been unified, or clear.

Our current work of shifting towards more sustainable patterns of living in everything we do—including fishing—certainly stems from the ideas and policies that these movements set in motion. But in many ways our current challenge is different. Our current challenge is to take the understanding that we must do something differently, and put it into motion, against an opposition of the status quo (who would understandably just prefer that we would all just go away and let them fish as much as they want to, thanks), against the wishes of less pragmatic idealists (who think we ought to just stop fishing period) and against the odds of a system that is built to resist change.

Ideas about managing our resources in such a way that we do not destroy either the resource or the human activity it supports have been with us for some time. Usually they were lone voices speaking up against the grain, such as an early visitor to the Bering Islands named Jakovlev, as described in Callum Roberts’ The Unnatural History of Sea. Jakovlev reportedly petitioned the authorities to restrict the take of the sea cow, which had proven to be a gastronomic boon for the traders of Kamchatka.

Of course he was unsuccessful and the sea cow is now extinct. But increasingly, those lone voices picked up speed, and increased to a pitch that became harder and harder to ignore. Now, I would argue, they’re pretty commonplace. Even the most radical anti-conservation voices adopt rhetoric claiming to support conservation. And while this might make it a bit harder to pick out the authentic conservationists from the crowd, it means that the idea that conservation and sustainable use of natural resources is essential has won. Nobody is arguing for overfishing anymore, and that’s a powerful thing.

We would be mistaken to think that the rhetorical win is the end game though. For years, fishermen and conservationists have been worrying about declines in fish stocks, and with good cause. US waters have been heavily fished for generations, and in most regions, they’re worse for the wear. New England is the poster child for overfishing, with its once iconic fisheries having given way to now equally iconic fisheries collapses. And yet even the most vocal critic of current fisheries laws and management would probably acknowledge the need to conserve the resource, for the preservation of the fishing industry and the hope of a future one. Unfortunately, years of chronic overfishing are being met with rapidly changing climactic and environmental conditions that could thwart even our best intentions for managing a resource that not only puts food on the world’s tables, but defines a regional way of life. These problems run deep, and they are complex. And as frustrating as it may sound, they can only be addressed with a deep breath, a sense of perspective, and, à la Mr. Bittman, patience.

It’s been less than 40 years since the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 passed—the grandfather of our current Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. And it’s been just over 5 years since this law was reauthorized, with significant changes in the tools that it directed managers to use to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. There are a lot of opinions out there about how the law is going. Some of the members of our community love it, and tout its successes. They point to the highest number of rebuilt fisheries in a year ever (2011), and the slowly declining number of stocks that have to be declared subject to overfishing. Others bash its extensive bureaucratic reach, and bemoan its overreliance on a body of science that is far from conclusive. And most of the rest sit somewhere in the middle.

With reauthorization of the law on the horizon, and enormous challenges to fisheries continuing to emerge (illegal and pirate fishing, seafood fraud, ocean acidification and temperature rise, fisheries disasters) along with the age old question of how many fish we can sustainably catch, it’s essential that we have patience—both with the time that it will take to solve these problems, and with each other. It’s the only way forward, and there’s no use in trying to go back.

Victims of Sandy need help now – but they’re not the only ones

It’s no surprise to those of us who watch fisheries issues closely here in Washington that fisheries have gotten pulled into the political fisticuffs over a hurricane Sandy aid package. The uninitiated casual observer might easily wonder what’s fisheries got to do with Washington, and what’s Washington got to do with fisheries? As Sera has pointed out in the past, the ties are intricate and long-standing.

It’s unfortunate that funding fisheries disasters is being used to make a political point deriding Washington’s love of “pork”; a claim that, as Matt has pointed out, is grossly inaccurate. Those who are claiming that providing federal funding for fisheries as part of an aid package directly meant to help victims of Hurricane Sandy (that’s Sandy, not Isaac, or wildfires, or droughts or…) are frankly missing the forest for the trees.

There’s no question that Hurricane Sandy was the biggest disaster of 2012. It was literally a freak of nature, and it caused widespread damage the like of which we’ve rarely, if ever, seen. As such, the demand for aid was met with little questioning; with such a wide range of impact, politicians from up and down the east coast were met with little resistance when they asked for help. Nor should they have been.

But just because Sandy was the biggest disaster, and the most riveting to watch unfold on TV, doesn’t mean that other communities across the country suffered any less when disaster struck them. Unnoted by the national media, communities in Alaska suffered from disappearing salmon runs. In the Yukon River, a fishery generally valued at $1.5 million produced revenue of $0. This is a fishery that supports not only commercial and sports fishermen, whose businesses suffered from the disappearing fish, but subsistence fishermen, who suffer from the lack of food. As Alaska Senator Mark Begich tweeted in response to criticisms against “pork”, “This is about food & survival, and it’s serious.”

Equally serious is the condition of the New England groundfish fishery, where disappearing cod is leading to deep quota cuts. The exact reason for the fishery’s decline is unclear, but fishermen had been fishing according to science based catch limits, and pretty much all signs point to environmental causes, including changes in the ocean that are linked to climate change. Again, not a disaster noted by the national media, but that doesn’t mean the suffering of those affected by it isn’t all too real. In the words of Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, “this economic disaster is New England’s underwater equivalent of a drought, where the drops in stocks of fish are causing serious economic harm to fishing businesses, their families, and their communities. These people need help.”

A third disaster was declared in the Mississippi oyster and blue crab fisheries thanks to extreme droughts the year before. And when Hurricane Sandy hit, the Department of Commerce quickly granted fisheries disaster status to New York and New Jersey. It was the fourth, and certainly the biggest disaster. But do the people who suffered from it deserve aid any more than those who were already suffering?

The arguments of those who are insisting that this aid package is about Sandy and Sandy only have offered no good arguments as to why aid should be granted to the sufferers of one disaster, but not another. If the standard news cycle is any indication, Americans have short attention spans that are held by flashy things just until the next showy story comes around, be it a worthy topic like a natural disaster or gun control, or a lesser one, like the Bieb just being the Bieb.

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In an editorial this week USA Today declared that states asking for funding that had nothing to do with Sandy should put their outstretched hands back in their pockets. And while beating the drum for federal spending cuts damn the consequences is certainly in-line with the mood in Washington, it ignores the fact that nature on steroids is in many ways a result of another area in which we’re pretty out of control—fossil fuel consumption. As long as the government is subsidizing the activities that are leading to the unhinging of nature for the benefit of one part of the American public, spending a meager $150 million to help some of the American’s whose lives are in upheaval as a result of these policies is the least they can do, whether that upheaval came in the showiest storm of the season or not.

In the joined voices of the Senators from New York and New Jersey, who are facing the challenges of rebuilding from a disaster first hand, “All disaster victims have a right to expect their government to help them rebuild, whether they live in Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, New York or New Jersey.”

Or Alaska. Or Mississippi. Or Massachusetts. Just sayin’.

A historic vote for menhaden

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has made the historic move to apply a coast-wide Total Allowable Catch (TAC) to the menhaden fishery. They have also voted to reduce the catch by 20% of historic levels.

The board has taken a break for lunch; after the break, they’ll be discussing allocation.

There will be many policy reads, scientific assessments, and discussions about the board’s historic decision to come, so for now I’ll just echo the words of just about everyone I bumped into in the hallway; this is a historic moment for menhaden.

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Said Phil Kline, former fisherman and longtime environmental activist, “This is historic. Maybe some people were hoping for higher cuts, but the fact is, now we have a playing field. This is what we need to get on the right road with a defined set of rules. We’ve never had that before. The fact that they established an allowable catch at all is historic.”

Although there were several attempts to delay the vote, most commissioners seemed eager to make a decision. They moved quickly through various motions, and tried to limit any debate on questions that had been mulled over for years.

The biggest drama in the crowd came when the board took on the question of what level of cuts they would approve. As the board debated a 10% reduction, conservationists and anglers in the crowd raised yellow signs that declared support for menhaden conservation. In response, yellow shirted Omega Protein workers got up and paraded silently through the room in a circle that ended up with them lined up in front of the board. They stood there through the debates, until the chairman asked everyone to be seated for the board to caucus before a vote. Everyone did, but not without some last minute shouting; an angler yelled out that the decision was “about the entire bay, not just Omega” which provoked several responses from industry, such as “some of us don’t have the luxury of fishing for fun”.

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This afternoon the board will consider how to allocate the catch.

Well that’s not what I heard…she said WHAT about menhaden?

Ahh, the public process. That sacrosanct American tradition of deciding what the hell to do by gathering in a meeting hall, drinking bad coffee and boring each other to tears . It wouldn’t be the same without the escalating op ed and editorial wars leading up to a decision, as all the players start to get their last arguments in.

Want to know the he said/she said about menhaden before tomorrow’s showdown? I’ll do my best to keep this updated as the opinions, blog posts and editorials come rolling in. Let me know if I missed any.

Basic meeting information

Webinar access to the meeting

The Agenda for the meeting

Background

A timeline of Atlantic menhaden management

News articles

A vote on menhaden could ripple along the Atlantic [Daily Press]

Fisheries panel to rule on menhaden [Baltimore Sun]

PolitiFact Rhode Island fact check Pew Environment Group says the Atlantic menhaden population has declined by 90 percent in recent years [PolitiFact Rhode Island]

Regulators to vote on menhaden catch limits [AP via Virginia Pilot]

Menhaden Defenders want big turnout [Asbury Park Press]

Showdown looms on menhaden harvest [Capital City Gazette]

Record profits in menhaden as management battle brews [Daily Press - behind paywall]

Battle brews over small, vital fish [New York Times Green blog]

Small fish, huge role [Delmarva Now]

Big vote on small fish [CT News Junkie]

Longer features

Omega Protein hiring hundreds of foreign workers boasting jobs in the US  [The Public Trust Project]

The oiliest catch [Conservation Magazine]

Op eds, blog posts, and editorials

Bruce Franklin, author of the The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden catch limits vital to ecosystem, economy [Asbury Park Press]

Pew’s Lee Crocket: The Bottom Line: Big turnout for little menhaden [National Geographic]

Channel Fish Co. of Boston: Menhaden fishery needs reasonable – not drastic-action [New Bedford Standard Times]

Peter Baker of Pew responds to Channel Fish Co., says Strong action on menhaden best for coastal ecology, economy [New Bedford Standard Times]

Channel Fish Co. of Boston again: Environmentalist’s evidence on menhaden self generated [New Bedford Standard Times]

Matt Wuerker’s visual representation of the situation in an editorial cartoon [Politico]

Fly & Light Tackle Angler: Historic vote this week could determine future of Atlantic fishing [Orvis News]

Monty Deihl, Omega Protein’s fishing operations director: Menhaden not overfished, not endangered [Fredricksburg Freelance Star]

Citizen Vince Staley disagrees: Save the menhaden today or lose jobs tomorrow [Fredricksburg Freelance Star]

Jim Brewer, columnist for the Charlottesville Daily Progress: Save the crabs and menhaden [Daily Progress]

National Aquarium Blog: A crucial moment for most important fish in the sea [National Aquarium]

Record numbers ask for menhaden protection [Sun Journal New Bern]

 

[Updated 12/14/12 10:00 am EST]

Menhaden showdown is almost upon us

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It’s time for a menhaden showdown.

Tomorrow the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board meets in Baltimore to make a decision on an amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for menhaden. The decisions made tomorrow could substantially impact not just the menhaden fishery, but the health of the entire Atlantic, which is, frankly, desperately in need of something good right now.

If you’ve spent any time in the fisheries world at all, you probably know the basics about menhaden: small oily forage fish, most humans find it kind of gross, but fish, seabirds and other marine critters love it. We two legged critters mostly grind it up into fish oil, fish meal and fertilizer, or use it as bait.

Like many issues in fisheries though, it gets much more complicated when you dig into the management issues. And menhaden has a very long history of complicated management to keep track of. Alison Fairbrother of the Public Trust Project has gone where few journalists have gone before and actually paid very close, regular attention to both the workings of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and Omega Protein, the company that profits from menhaden to the extent that they have spent years trying to influence its management. This project has resulted in some really fascinating articles on the politicization of science in the management of the fishery, as well as this handy Atlantic menhaden management timeline that succinctly lays out the management of menhaden over the years, starting in 1981 when the Commission first took charge of what I would guess to be their most headache inducing fish. The timeline is a fascinating retrospective of what I would bill an agency very reluctant to take proactive management measures to save a fish that mattered to a lot of people. The fact that they finally did was thanks to the hard work of vocal anglers and community activists up and down the Atlantic coast.

Of course not everyone sees this as a good thing. Omega Protein, the company that reaps significant private gain from this poorly managed public fishery has lobbied tirelessly against additional restraints on fishing menhaden. In the lead up to tomorrow’s decision they have made efforts to characterize the issue not as one of private profit, but of jobs and culture. Their argument as I read it boils down to ‘we should be able to keep exploiting menhaden because we’ve always done so and the culture of our coast is based on it’ and ‘we employ a lot of people’.

Regular readers of this blog will know that we here at FishHQ firmly believe that the management of fisheries is indeed a social question, and impacts of management decisions on fishing families and coastal communities should very much be considered before making them. Tradition is a strong force, and there’s no doubt that Reedville, Virginia where the only menhaden processing plant left on the East Coast is located, has a complicated history with the fishery. But that is not, in and of itself, a good reason to allow for unsustainable fishing of menhaden. In fact, I’d call it rather ironic that the company wants to rest on the laurels of a fishing tradition while consistently undermining the very ecosystem that supports that fishery by sucking massive amounts of fish out of it every year to be reduced into industrial products, many of which are shipped overseas, far from the nutrient base that created them.

With the Commission considering cuts of as much as 50% of the annual harvest, Omega Protein has attempted to make this seem like an issue of job loss— that public sore spot so salient that scores of issues that have nothing to do with jobs suddenly become “a jobs question”. Unfortunately for the beleaguered Omega Protein, painting this as a jobs question raises questions about these supposedly sacrosanct jobs. The Public Trust Project’s Alison Fairbrother points to information that suggests that good quality jobs are perhaps no more at the top of Omega Protein’s agenda than is basing their business off of truly science based management though. In spite of support from the local union for Omega Protein on this issue, the article raises some important questions about the jobs Omega Protein is offering, and some practices they employ. Her article is worth reading in full.

This is not to say that those employed by Omega Protein would not potentially weather hardship in the case that cuts are made; they very well might, and we should acknowledge that, and feel empathy for them. Job loss is scary, especially in these uncertain economic times, and I don’t wish it on anybody. However, while those employees may experience pain that we do not wish upon them, the responsibility for this is does not fall upon the Commission, whose role it is to manage a public fishery for sustainable use for all the coasts’ peoples, or the advocates who are speaking up for a fishery management approach that doesn’t unhinge the very ecosystems upon which so many of them depend.

The choice to build a company beholden to private shareholders upon a public resource was Omega Protein’s, and regardless of how many hardships this choice may now be revealed to cause, they have no more right to exploit this resource than anyone else.

Because among all the rhetoric of jobs and community, if you listen hard enough, they will own up to their true interest: said Omega Protein spokesperson Ben Landry in the Daily Press, “We have shareholders and our duty is to maximize the resources that they’ve provided us.”

Finally, some straight talk. This is what their record bears out too—they are in this for the profit, as a private shareholder-beholden company, and any other moral standing they try to throw into the path of good management should be taken not as “the main issue” but as the distraction that it is.

It’s been a long fight for rules that will hopefully lead to sound management of Atlantic menhaden, and tomorrow’s showdown should be worth the wait. The Commission is meeting at Best Western Plus Hotel and Conference Center, Chesapeake Room, 5625 O’Donnell Street, Baltimore, Maryland starting at 8:30 a.m. and menhaden is slotted to take up most of the day’s agenda, which you can review here. If you’re in the area, I highly encourage you to attend; word on the street is that there will be a sizeable turnout. If you can’t make it but want to follow along, you can tune in via webinar.

New to menhaden but want to get caught up fast? If you’re looking for a basic primer, here are a few:

For a just the facts ma’am approach, check out the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation’s menhaden fact sheet.

For an advocacy perspective, Menhaden Defenders is the coalition leading the charge.

For a thorough look at the politics of menhaden science and management, The Public Trust Project has a number of articles worth reading, including the above mentioned menhaden timeline.

If you’re a really fast reader and want to seriously dig in, Bruce Franklin’s The Most Important Fish in the Sea is well worth the read.

Ray Toste says ‘it’s your fish’

Back in November I promised you a segment with more people and less fish, and today I’m delivering with a profile of life-long fisherman Ray Toste.

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Ray lives in Westport, Washington and taunts me mercilessly every time I talk to him by telling me all about the beautiful Pacific view he’s looking at RIGHT THAT VERY MOMENT. When not taunting land-locked West Coast ex-pats, Ray fishes out of Washington and Alaska, runs the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association, and serves as an advisor to the Marine Fish Conservation Network. He’s been fishing for salmon, shrimp and crabs since he was 19 and he’ll be the first to tell you that that was a long time ago. His three sons are all in the fishery.

Ray recently took time out of his schedule to pen an op ed on seafood traceability, and why it’s important from his perspective. The op ed ran in the Olympian last week and is well worth a read. In the opinion piece, Ray refers to a story that went around earlier this year, about a Louisiana restaurant that was claiming to sell salmon burgers made out of sports-caught wild Alaskan salmon. This raised heckles in Alaska because it’s highly illegal to sell sports-caught salmon. Turns out it was a false rumor; the burgers weren’t illegal, just mislabeled. And that’s not illegal—just misleading.

But even before Louisiana restaurateurs were running around claiming to be selling sports-caught wild Alaskan salmon, Ray was on the traceability bandwagon. He took a few minutes to talk to me about his history of championing smart fisheries management off the boat as well as on.

FishHQ: Ray, how long have you been seeing problems in seafood labeling?

Ray: A long time. I remember I was fishing in Puget Sound probably over ten years ago, and I went into a supermarket. They were labeling salmon they had for sale fresh, only it was completely out of season. I went to the manager and said, ‘this isn’t fresh’ and he tried to contradict me, he said ‘yes, it’s fresh’.

I told him, ‘that fish isn’t being caught anywhere in the world right now.’ Then he backed down and he said ‘well, it’s fresh frozen.’ And I said, ‘then you better say it’s fresh frozen!’
It was a big chain, and I happened to know someone in the corporate office and I called her up and complained. When I went back next day, they had labeled it Fresh Frozen.’ Making sure that people know that there is a difference is important.

I was also very involved back in the early days of farmed salmon with creating a distinction between farmed and wild caught salmon. The difference in the fish, in the quality, is enormous, but there was no labeling. I take some credit for starting the wild caught craze—me and some fishermen in Kenai Alaska started a Kenai Fishermen’s Cooperative to establish the difference between wild and farmed salmon—we founded Kenai Wild and it was the first wild salmon craze, but I don’t think we realized how big it would get.
Years later I was in Washington DC and I saw on a menu—I wish I could remember the restaurant, but I can’t—I saw Kenai Wild Alaskan salmon on the menu, and it blew me away! All that way, and there it was, Kenai Wild, a premium salmon. People got hooked.

FishHQ: As a fisherman, why do you think traceability is so important?

Ray: Traceability is not only good for fishermen, it’s good for consumers, and we need consumers who realize the value of their fisheries. Ultimately, I like to tell people, it’s not our fish, it’s yours—your natural heritage. Most Americans the only way they’re going to have access to these fish is through us. So we are the best stewards of it because it’s our business to bring it to you and because to overfish, or create problems, reflects on our income and the bottom line, and your natural heritage.

Another reason is quality. The quality of our product on the boats has really increased in the last 20 years; 20 years ago we didn’t refrigerate our salmon or ice or bleed anything. Now, as soon as it comes out of the water it goes onto ice or something even colder than where it came out of. It just makes it a better product. When you’re importing fish that isn’t labeled, you just don’t know what you’re getting. We may be importing seafood that is really well taken care of, but without the proper labeling and checking of it, we don’t know it. The solution is traceability.

Ray’s not alone in championing traceability—more and more fishermen are seeing it as a solution that protects the investment they have made in healthy wild ocean fisheries.

You can read more about Ray and the crabs he fishes for in fellow Network advisor Dr. Judith Weis’s book Walking Sideways, which we profiled here on FishHQ last month.

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Fishery disasters on four coasts share a common thread

Fisheries disaster declarations made waves earlier this year when the Department of Commerce made them official in three disparate parts of the country. But as Matt points out in FishHQ this week, “the difference between a token and a meaningful federal disaster declaration is cold hard cash.” We didn’t expect any action on this pre-election, but as Congress came back to DC for a fast and dirty lame duck session, we’re hoping to see fisheries included in the final funding bill. Working with fishermen and environmentalists in our community, we sent a letter to Congressional leadership this week urging them to support fishermen and fishing communities in need.

The disasters that have been declared—and those that haven’t but ought to be, due to the recent impacts of Hurricane Sandy—are not a result of overfishing or mismanagement, but the complex consequences of varied but troubling environmental factors. All three declared fishery disasters, and the pending request from New Jersey following Sandy, are in a state of disaster due to environmental factors that go beyond controlling fishing effort.

The Chinook salmon fishery in Alaska was declared a disaster due to incredibly low runs this year. The annual average value of the Chinook fishery on the Yukon River fell from $1.5M, to produce $0 revenue according to the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game. Nobody knows what caused the fall off of salmon, but scientists are looking to the ocean (as opposed to the freshwater where these anadromous fish spend some of their time) as the likely scene of the crime. Alaska Dispatch has a thorough summary of some of the guesses scientists have hazarded, and the various types of research that could be conducted to shine light on the question.

There are many fascinating potential causes for the low runs—predator interactions, bycatch of salmon in other fisheries, changing ocean conditions—all of these alone or in combination could be contributing to salmon population declines. But this is no academic question to be pondered in the ivory tower. People throughout Alaska rely on salmon for subsistence and the failing fishery has already led to social unrest as some angry villagers ignored the closures set by the Department of Fish and Game. Fishers will be left with empty hands unless Congress puts its weight behind the disaster declaration and appropriates funds.

In Mississippi, the disaster for the blue crab and oyster fisheries is much more clearly attributable to severe flooding of the lower Mississippi River in the spring of 2011. The flooding caused dramatic changes in the salinity of the Mississippi sound and wiped out nearly 8,000 acres of oyster beds. The region had still not recovered from previous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, and a drought that preceded the flooding. The Sun-Herald quoted Scott Gordon the Shellfish Bureau director of the Department of Marine Resources noting “The Western Sound has seen one disaster after another…and has not completely recovered.”

The last disaster that was declared in September was the groundfish fishery in New England. This case falls into the scientific mystery category more than the Mississippi disaster. In spite of the fact that fishermen have been adhering to catch limits on groundfish, the stocks are not recovering, putting New England fishermen and the industry that supports them in a real bind. New England governors began calling for the fishery to be declared a disaster when scientists discovered that certain groundfish stocks were at much lower levels than scientists had anticipated. Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank noted in making the disaster declaration that “diminished fish stocks have resulted despite fishermen’s adherence to catch limits intended to rebuild the stocks.” Scientists are working with what they have to answer the question of what’s going on with groundfish, but as in Alaska the factors are myriad and complex. Some scientists are worried that record high temperatures in New England waters could be to blame—and if they are, it’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon.

New England fisherman at work; photo credit Flickr user mitulmdesai CC BY-NC 2.0

With Congress back in session, fishermen, public officials and seafood industry workers are discussing the likelihood of the disasters being appropriated funds in what is otherwise expected to be a continued season of austerity. In New England, stakeholders don’t necessarily see eye to eye on how the cash—should it materialize—should be spent.

We hope those suffering because of these disasters are given some relief. But responding to disasters after the fact isn’t enough, and fishermen and coastal communities should prepare for a wider discussion about how we manage fisheries in this changing world.

President Obama made a tepid statement this week about tackling climate change sometime in his second term—after the economy, jobs and growth are all taken care of. And while fishermen and others who are dependent on healthy, functioning ecosystems may be pleased to hear it’s at least on his list, the way it was framed feels a bit disconnected with the reality of what a shifting climate is going to mean for the economy, jobs and growth in the future. For the millions of Americans unable to do their jobs due to droughts, floods and hurricanes—not to mention the more enigmatic changes taking place (such as ocean acidification)—creating jobs that are going to sink into the climate quick sand might not be as solid a game plan as the President no doubt hopes.

Do the current crop of fisheries disasters portend what’s to come? Like a major storm, no one disaster or event can necessarily be attributed to climate change. But the fisheries disasters we’ve seen in 2012 raise uncomfortable questions about what’s really causing fisheries disasters at this scale that would be irresponsible to ignore.

All your crab questions will finally be answered

Ever had a pressing question about crabs that you just couldn’t get answered? You’re in luck. There’s now a book for that. And Dr. Judith Weis, of Rutgers University in New Jersey, wrote it.

Original photo credit Petr Jan Juračka/Fotopedia; CC BY-NC 3.0

Crabs are fascinating creatures that keep fishermen fishing, seafood lovers salivating, and people born in June crabbing all over the world. We had a chat with Judith about all things crabs in anticipation of getting our hands on her new book, Walking Sideways; The Remarkable World of Crabs.

Judith has worked with the Marine Fish Conservation Network since 2008. A biologist and marine ecologist, she has spent her career studying salt water estuaries and their ecological dynamics.

FishHQ: Tell us about your research.

Judith: You mean 40 years of research in a nutshell?

FishHQ: Yup. Just the highlights.

Judith: I’m interested in the ecology of estuaries and estuarine animals; especially how they deal with stresses in their environment, including pollution, invasive species, things like that. I’ve mostly studied fishes and crabs. I’ve also done some work on shrimp.

FishHQ: What makes a crab a crab?

Judith: A crab is a crustacean with ten legs and claws like a lobster or shrimp, but instead of having its abdomen sticking out behind (lobster tail), it is tucked underneath.
There are two major groups: true crabs (Brachyura) which have 10 legs, and anomurans, which are not true crabs, and appear to have only 8 legs because the last pair is greatly reduced. This second category includes hermit crabs and king crabs, where the abdomen is only partially tucked underneath. Without getting into taxonomy, the anomurans include some creatures that look more like lobsters than crab, such as the squat lobster, which is also called a galatheid crab.

FishHQ: Although you’re a biologist, you write about more than just the biology of crabs, covering a spectrum of crab-human interactions.

Judith: There is a wide spectrum of how humans interact with crabs. I include several chapters on this, including crab fisheries, which features another Network member, Ray Toste of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association. There’s also a chapter on eating crab that looks at all the ways people use crab for food, local crab delicacies, and the range of crab dishes throughout the country.

I wrote a whole section on crabs as pets, specifically pet hermit crabs that are sold as beach souvenirs but are often not properly cared for; they need very specific humidity levels. Hermit crabs are particularly interesting behaviorally and ecologically because they basically spend their lives trying to get a bigger shell wherever they grow; it’s the main focus of their lives.

One area that was interesting was the cultural aspect of crabs: crabs in mythology, crabs in astrology, crabs in children’s books, adult literature, crab festivals and what they signify. My scientific research has been largely focused on the local crabs here in New Jersey, but in researching this book I learned an enormous amount about crabs in other parts of the world, and the way people interact with them.

FishHQ: In your book you feature fisherman Ray Toste of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fisherman’s Association. What did you learn from Ray?

Judith: Ray really helped me learn about the different issues that arise in managing the crab fisheries over on the West Coast, and elsewhere. There are a lot of issues that come up outside of the biology; the question of rights to fish, and who gets them. And of course there’s the issue of overfishing that all fisheries have to face. It’s important to understand the ecology of crabs and how they interact with fisheries. A great example is the Atlantic blue crab, which was declining throughout the 1990s and the early 21st century. There was a winter dredge fishery in Virginia that would happen in the part of the Chesapeake near the mouth, where female blue crabs would migrate to in the winter, to bury themselves in the sand and incubate their eggs, to be released next spring. But the trawl fishery would capture females and the next generation of crabs — it was a very good way to reduce the population quickly! Finally, in 2008 I think, they closed that fishery and the population rebounded quite quickly. It was good evidence for understanding the fishery dynamics.

FishHQ: How do you feel about that?

Judith: I’m a conservationist. I understand that fishermen need to make a living, but it needs to be balanced. If you have too many boats and too many people fishing, it might be more than a fishery can sustain and that doesn’t make any sense.

FishHQ: But you see value in working with fishermen to incorporate the scientific knowledge into the fishery?

Judith: If fishermen cooperate with scientists, it can be a wonderful partnership to increase our knowledge. There are many cases where they are cooperating to the benefit of both parties — what we ecologists call mutualism.

You can order Walking Sideways directly from its website; or even better, ask your local bookstore to stock it! You’ll support your local business, help Judith promote her book, and find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about this fascinating topic.

The people behind the fish

One of the great things about working on national fisheries as a Network is that we get to know a wide diversity of people doing interesting things in the fisheries world. It’s easy, when talking about fishermen and environmentalists, to come up with some sort of a stereotyped dichotomy: a salty, wind beaten fisherman in a yellow slicker and a young, earthy land-locked tree-hugger of an environmentalist. It’s not very accurate, but like it or not, it’s how we simplify our world. From the front lines of the national fisheries movement though, I have yet to meet a single person who would fit into one of these types.

Instead I meet a wide range of people doing truly fascinating things. Some of them are fishermen. Some of them are environmentalists. Some of them are scientists. Some of them don’t necessarily identify with any of these descriptors, but they do science, or go fishing, or advocate for smart, science-based conservation. This is our community, and they’re pretty awesome.

When we say we bring together a diverse constituency, we really mean it.

It’s hard to talk about such a community in the aggregate sometimes, without slipping into generalizations — the small things we may have in common, but that might not fully define us. Of course there’s benefit to finding commonalities; in fact, It’s one of our strong suits as a Network. We may come from different places, think different things, and have differing attitudes and opinions, and still be able to coalesce around a common interest. Then we can say, for example, that across the board, the fishermen we work with are conservationists who want to conserve the resource that supports their way of life. How individuals define ‘conservationist’ and how exactly they think the resource should be conserved may vary widely; but the general statement still stands.

Still, to show the wide range of people we work with and the truly awesome work they are doing, it’s important now and then to dive a little deeper and get to know the basic building blocks of our community: the individuals in it and the work they do. On occasion here at FishHQ, we’ll be featuring a member of our community doing something notable. You’ll get to learn a little more about the awesome people who are part of a movement to build a prosperous fishing future, and we’ll get to brag about all the cool people who are standing by our sides, leading the charge. It’s a win-win.

We’re kicking off with an interview with Dr. Judith Weis, a long-time Network friend and adviser, about her new book on all things crabs – Walking Sideways.

If you like these features or FishHQ in general, you might consider signing up to receive our e-mails. They go out regularly with a comprehensive perspective on what’s fresh in the fisheries world, and regularly include the feature Like the Fish Love the People, a mini-profile on a member of our community.

Think you or someone you know should be featured? Get in touch.

Fishermen weather the storm

Visualization of Hurricane Sandy’s widespread impact; credit: NOAA

Note: current updates are being made at the bottom of this post as we find them. Please add yours in the comments!

First and foremost, we hope all of you managed to stay safe during Hurricane Sandy, wherever it hit you, and whatever your moniker of choice ended up being. Bonus points if you stayed warm and dry. The fish can head to deep water, and the birds can fly on through, but those of us with neither fins nor feathers batten down the hatches, stock the cupboards and hunker down until the storm passes. Fishing news from this coast slowed to a near stop, although the news that was being made will affect us all for a good time to come.

In Rhode Island, fishermen prepared their boats as best they could. Some fishermen were determined to catch that last fish, warnings be damned. Sandy took to New Jersey late afternoon Monday, doing significant damage to coastal homes and businesses. Fishing piers up and down the coast were hit hard, with news that the Ocean City, Maryland fishing pier had been destroyed circulating as early as Monday mid-day. Impact reports are still rolling in, and there are ultimately too many stories to list here, but CBS News has a state by state impact report here.

Away from the front lines of the storm, debates are raging about where Frankenstorm came from, how it’s related to climate change and what other measures we could have taken to prepare for it (Paul Greenberg says: more oysters). One conversation of note is the renewed concern that’s circulating about gaps in the federal budget that would have funded the satellites that allow us to track this storm with such accuracy. We are already facing holes in satellite coverage as a result of austerity cuts to NOAA’s budget, and although the administration has tried to plug the hole by shifting funds from other programs (including fisheries), this is a major reminder of how appropriations—a process that often plays out as a closed-door, abstract game for the wonkiest of wonks—translates into real life impacts. We’ve worked very closely on NOAA’s budget here at the Network, and will come back to that soon. The takeaway right now is that this matters.

In other storm related fish news, fresh fish will likely be in short supply around the country thanks to the fact that 600 miles of coastline was being battered by unfishable conditions. If you’re in Chatham, you can go straight to the source though; the Cape Cod Hook and Line Fishermen’s Association still has power and plenty of oysters for their Meet the Fleet event. Now that’s how to beat cabin fever.

We’re also keeping an eye on scheduled meetings and events that have been disrupted by Sandy and have been postponed or canceled. Of particular note: the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission has postponed some menhaden hearings along the coast. Their press release is here, and the Herring Alliance has a helpful list of which meetings have been postponed or rescheduled.

Let us know if we’ve missed any important fishing related storm news in the comments—we’ll also update as we find more.

[Update 10/31/12 5:40 p.m.]

Richard Gaines gives a rundown of the storm’s impact on the fishing industry, but not without a few barbs out for the government. His sources speak largely of a static market for fish due to widespread transportation system shut-down.

Seafoodnews.com reports that the port of New York still does not have power. [subscription required]

This story points to raw and partially treated sewage that spilled into rivers and estuaries along the coast as a result of the storm. Virginia has suspended shellfish harvesting in the Chesapeake as a result.

And Climate Central has a great roundup of all the places the web is talking about Sandy.

[Update 11/1/12 12:40  pm]

A swordfish crew from New Bedford got swept up in Hurricane Sandy while at sea; they have made safe landing in Shelbourne, Nova Scotia. They are reported to be exhausted but alive. Significant damage was done to their boat.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources is calling the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay “less than expected“.

The Savannah Morning news offers a forecast of how Sandy will affect local fishing in Georgia.

[Update 11/2/12 11:12  a.m.]

National Geographic has posted a write-up on the recovery of fishing communities after hurricanes, including a look at potential disaster declarations and their history in the Mid-Atlantic.

Asbury Park Press predicts that no one will be fishing the Jersey coastline anytime soon. Harbors are destroyed and it may take a while for fish to come back after the storm.

Long Island Newsday features similar devastation to the Long Island fishing community.

More on how Sandy is impacting seafood supply and demand, including low demand due to continued wide-spread power outages, and difficultly in the supply chain.

We have word from a longtime Network friend and New Jersey member that he and family are safe, although they suffered significant damage to their home of many years. Our hearts are with them and all the others coping with loss.