About Sera Drevenak

Director of Policy and Outreach at the Marine Fish Conservation Network

Uncle Sam – keeping a seafood traceability list, and checking it twice

Uncle Sam, however, seems to be much more of a pushover than old Saint Nick ever was.  Getting on the naughty list for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing requires monumental stupidity, and really all you have to do is say please to get back on the nice list.  I don’t know about you, but at my house Santa’s naughty list is long and it’s a semi-permanent designation.

NOAA released its naughty list last week.  Ten countries who have engaged in illegal fishing practices, shark finning, or the bycatch of protected resources.   OK, let’s dish.  This is the fun part.  They are: Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Panama, the Republic of Korea, Spain, Tanzania, and Venezuela.  These “naughty nations” violated rules ranging from banned drift-nets, to quota violations, to discarding plastic trash at sea.


There are some promising stories stuck in this report.  Columbia, in an attempt to regain a positive citation (and continue to be able to export fish to the US) revoked several commercial fishing licenses and kept those boats at dock.  They get a big wah-wah for landing on the list again this year for separate violations.  There are also some predictably overwhelming pieces.  Ecuador, for example, boasts a laundry list of vessels and illegal activities with very little in the way of planned corrections.  In a case like this, the US Government will work with Ecuador to correct the problems, or they will have to export their catches elsewhere.

In some ways this fight seems hopeless.  The Earth’s ocean is a huge place, and the violations listed in these reports are likely the tip of the ice-continent of illegal fishing.  But, if these reports can increase the compliance of other countries with fishing laws even a little bit, there will be benefits to our domestic fishermen and to everyone who buys seafood in the US.   As the second largest importer of seafood on Earth, leveraging that power for sustainable fisheries and a healthy ocean seems like the least we can be doing.  The next step is a full traceability program so that we will know what our seafood is and where it came from.  Until then, let’s choose domestic seafood when we can.  If you’ve been buying all of your fish from Ghana, this is a good opportunity to reform your ways.  You never know, Santa may be checking his list against Uncle Sam’s, and you’ll end up with a stocking full of Tanzanian mussels.

Good Seafood Fraud?


China helps to fuel the international demand for shark fins; and fishermen, in order to meet this demand, illegally kill and waste sharks all over the world every day.  A recent Chinese shark fin scandal, though, has the world saying “meh.”  

The Global Times reports that these fake shark fins on the market are made of gelatin and algin.  “The contents of real shark fins and fake ones made with gelatin are almost the same, and the textures are also the same. Also they will do no harm to humans if they are made with food standard gelatin and algin,” said Gao.  In fact, Gao expands, fake shark fins are better for you because they’re not loaded with heavy metals.  

Could this seafood fraud be good for Chinese seafood lovers and the oceans?  Our crack team will keep you up to date.



Frankenstein’s monster was not really a monster at all. In truth he was a misunderstood creation ill-equipped by his creator to function in the world.  Cobbled together in a workshop by a mad scientist heedless of the full consequences, he caused all sorts of problems when accidentally set loose out in the world. Critics of genetically engineered salmon, widely dubbed “Frankenfish”, aren’t trying to beat up on poor monster fish. But they are fearful of the consequences this “creation” could have in the ecological world.

Right before the holidays, the Food and Drug Administration approved plans for a salmon farming operation (located in Canada and Panama) to import genetically modified salmon into the US. As these plans snake through approvals from other federal agencies and public comment, we need to make sure that we’re seeing the forest for the trees.  The idea of genetically engineered fish is a bit terrifying for all the wrong reasons.  The real monster here is not a half-salmon half-shark with sea urchin spines sewn on the dorsal fin (that would be awesomely terrifying, though).  The real monster is the possible disruption of the already fragile and taxed marine ecosystem with some “new” species.

Even without genetic dabbling, this happens all too often in the form of invasive species.  Lionfish introduced in South Florida in the 1990s have displaced reef fish across parts of the US, damaging fisheries and imperiling native fish species. Lionfish aren’t genetically engineered (although they kind of look made-up), they are just exotics.  They’ve still caused significant problems in the invaded ecosystems though, which in turn have posed major fisheries management challenges for those whose livelihoods depended on functioning marine ecosystems.

Needless to say, we would like to try to prevent these fish-astrophes by being cautious, and by not risking introduction of exotic species into ecosystems not prepared for them. Genetically engineered salmon is specifically being altered in order to grow nearly twice as quickly as natural salmon; a quality built for a profit driven market, but not for a balanced marine ecosystem. If fast-growing salmon with bits of ocean pout DNA were to escape, there are justifiable fears they would wreak environmental havoc upon wild populations.

This is one reason why the current approval is being criticized: for being too myopic and failing to think through the scenarios of escapement — and the ecological damage that Frankenfish could wreak.  Current studies have focused on the consequences of genetic alteration, not necessarily the consequences of species introduction. Although it is claimed the particular genetically modified fish in question is safe because they’re all females and all triploid (having 3 copies of its DNA instead of the usual 2), the promised resulting sterility as not universal, and not without unstudied risks. I’m not one who says we shouldn’t pursue this kind of aquaculture under any circumstances, but we do need to carefully analyze the potential impacts. So far, the FDA has fallen short of this kind of robust analysis.

In “Frankenstein”, Dr. Frankenstein laments that “but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”  If only the good doctor had been required to do a NEPA analysis, he could have avoided all the tragedy that followed.

You can comment on the decision, asking for a full environmental impact statement to be undertaken that fully analyzes the ecological risks of the introduction of these Frankenfish into the marine ecosystem. The comment deadline is February 25, 2013.

Christmas at the Caribbean Council meeting this week. Have a Christmas rum punch, on me.


Christmas is the BEST time to be in the Virgin Islands.  There’s a local Christmas song that says “I’d rather be dead than miss Christmas in Christiansted.” and I agree in principal, if not in the details.  The Caribbean Fishery Management Council meets today and tomorrow in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.  They won’t be in Christiansted, but the Frenchman’s Reef hotel in St. Thomas is not too shabby.  Not only did I attend these meetings for years, I am a Cruzan from St. Croix, St. Thomas’ nearby neighbor island.  When we talk about US fisheries, the Caribbean is often disregarded.  They even refer to themselves as the red headed step-child of the US but I think that the exchange should be greater.  Mainlanders can learn as much as they can teach in terms of fisheries management in the islands.  In the interest of shining a light on this region every once in a while, I wanted to give a brief overview here.  There’s a ton of bad news in Caribbean fisheries, which I’ll get to, but first the good news.  The good news is that there are fishermen, scientists and local government officials dedicated to sustainable fisheries and willing to do whatever it takes.  That’s a powerful force.  There is a local fisherman’s group, the St. Thomas Fisherman’s Association which conducts its own scientific research, plans its own trap reduction programs, and asks for closed areas.  Scientists at NOAA have also been applying themselves to the region, thinking outside the box and inventing new ways to assess these fisheries.  These are all great things, stupendous things, things that can make a real difference.

Caribbean fisheries will need all of this passion and dedication because the situation isn’t pretty.  The marine environment in the Caribbean has been called an “ecotastrophe”.  Climate change, growing populations and poor building practices have led to dying and dead coral reefs while decades of overfishing has collapsed many predator fish populations.  Until the last 10 years, fishermen reported fish by the gear used to capture them, mostly “pot fish”.  As you can imagine, a data sheet that lists 2,000 pounds of pot fish is not terribly helpful for species-by-species management.  Also MRFSS and MRIP do not even operate in the Virgin Islands, so recreational fishing is a black hole of information.  The photo below is one I took on a port sampling trip in St. Croix a couple of years ago.  This is a commercial catch coming in to the pier in Fredericksted.  You can see some juvenille goatfish, a blue tang, cowfish, a French grunt, rock hind, and lots of young stoplight parrotfish.   There were also butterfly fish and gray angelfish in this haul. The groupers and snappers of three decades ago are rare now. It’s disheartening.  When I was a kid jumping off that pier in Fredericksted and hanging hooks with hotdogs over the edge, we caught snappers, groupers and sharks.  I have watched since the mid-eighties as the reefs and fish populations around St. Croix have changed, and then disappeared.  ImageIt’s difficult sometimes to sit in the Caribbean Council meeting and argue for a 5,000 pound annual catch limit or recreational accountability measures with a straight face.  So I am thinking of all of the Caribbean council members today, struggling toward happy hour.  There are two lessons I have learned in stark relief from Caribbean fisheries.  The first is that “good” science is completely relative, and management is possible no matter how terrible you perceive your science to be.  The other is harder.  It’s that there are tons of other factors wreaking havoc in our oceans, but we can’t use “fault” as an excuse to manage less well.  We have to keep adapting.

When most people look out over the crystal clear waters in the VI, they exhale, relaxing.  I hold my breath, waiting, afraid that my muse, my childhood playground, and the resource that sustains my island home will be gone the next time I look.  The Caribbean council doesn’t make it easy to keep up with what they’re doing, but I make an effort to keep up, and I’m always here if you want to know more.  The only thing I like talking about more than fisheries is the Virgin Islands, so you might not want to get me started on the two things combined.

Black sea bass are packing on those holiday pounds

I was on the Jersey shore a couple months ago just before it was slammed by superstorm Sandy.  I wasn’t there fishing, as I would have liked to have been, but attending a meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  I was there for an ancillary meeting, but walked into the main meeting room just in time to hear the conversation about black sea bass, which continues at public meetings this week, and I’ll tell you what, I almost turned around and went right back outside.  Instead, in a fit of pique, I grabbed an old friend who was also sitting in the room, and whisper-yelled obscenities as if he were responsible for what I was hearing.

Black sea bass, like red snapper before it, is rebuilding very quickly to a sustainable level (a level at which they can replace themselves).  This should be a great thing, a marvelous thing that we celebrate together, a magical mixture of sacrifice, foresight and fish fornication that creates jobs!  Instead, it’s a huge old mess.  Part of rebuilding is that we have to allow some of the fish we would normally catch to survive, and get older and bigger.  So even if we catch the same number of fish as last year, they (on average) weigh more, so the catch in pounds is higher.

The result is that fishermen perceive an abundance of fish at the same time that a weight overage may cause a shortened season.  Regulations that appear to tighten every time things get better are not confidence inspiring.  This feedback loop is what inspired my obscenities in New Jersey. Even though this should be a temporary problem caused by the speed of the recovery, it is no less real to those on the water for its transience.  If you are able to listen in to the advisory panel discuss black sea bass tomorrow, you will no doubt hear this frustration boil over. The Mid-Atlantic Council will either have to further lower catch limits on a rapidly rebuilding fish population, or violate its own science-based recovery plan to alleviate economic impacts.

Atlantic menhaden vs. Pacific sardine: fight fight fight

Let’s get ready to rrrrrrrumble!

This east coast, west coast battle can seem pretty evenly matched at first.  Atlantic menhaden and Pacific sardines have in the past, both been predominant species in their ecosystems.  They have both recently hit very low levels and managers are wrestling, in both cases, with how to maintain sustainable populations. And remember, both of our contestants are forage fish. That means they need to be in tip top shape: sustainable both for the fisheries that exist directly by fishing these tiny powerhouses, as well as for the predators that rely on menhaden and sardine for their survival.

Managing these fisheries is different from managing a bigger fish like cod or grouper, partly because the meaning of “sustainable” is a bit different.  These forage fish populations fluctuate with sea temperatures and other environmental variables, so managing these stocks the way you would a cod can lead to drastic declines in the fishery. A whole different strategy is needed, and management is really where our fighters make it or break it.

In the blue corner, weighing in at 659,000 metric tons, down from a high of 6 million metric tons… the Pacific sardine.  The Pacific Fishery Management Council manages Pacific sardine as a forage species–that means they leave fish in the water for predator needs.  Between 5% and 15% of the fish can be taken by the fishery in any given year.  

In the red corner, weighing in at 700,000 metric tons, down from a high of 3.5 million metric tons… the Atlantic menhaden.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission currently manages menhaden as a single stock with no connection to the ecosystem.  In recent years more than 30% of the available fish were being removed by the fishery, mostly by an industrial reduction fishery that turns the oily little fighters into lipstick, swine feed and fish oil.

Even with the seemingly precautionary management of Pacific sardine, there are still some who say that the Pacific Council is being too risky, endangering the sardine fishery and the marine food web. The Pacific Fishery Management Council met last week and set the sardine quota at 66,495 metric tonnes; down from last year’s quota, but not significantly.

Fishermen and fisheries managers believe that the fishery is tightly managed, but not all environmentalists agree. Oceana’s California staff fears that “history is repeating itself” and will lead to a crash the magnitude of the one that inspired John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Still, other environmentalists chose to focus on the larger move that California managers are making towards embracing ecosystem based management when it comes to forage fish. Ocean Conservancy scientist George Leonard applauded commitments by both the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the California Fish and Game Commission for signaling that they were ready to move towards more comprehensive ecosystem based management.

Whether or not the sardine management is glitch free, it is certainly better than the hands off management that Atlantic menhaden enjoys. We all like a little freedom, but the best fighters know that discipline is essential to standing a winning chance. Menhaden management is in need of some serious discipline in the form of management that adheres to the science rather than the politics. You can read our most recent post on menhaden management here, and I encourage you to get up to speed quickly. Menhaden is locked into the management fight of its life, and the more support it gets the better it’s likely to do. After being told by the public last year that management of menhaden needed to be tightened up (91,000 people weighed in during public commenting), the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will have a chance to set reasonable and precautionary limits on menhaden harvest when they meet this December.  The Council is accepting comments through this Friday (the 16th of November) and we encourage you to weigh in asking managers to do the right thing.

So, who wins this fight?  So far, in the 7th round, menhaden is getting its a$# handed to it, but we still have a chance to fix the problem.  Unfortunately, it’s not just menhaden and sardine in the ring.  We’re all there–fishermen, environmentalists, predators and prey, dependent upon fishery managers to be honest referees in order to ensure robust and vibrant fisheries in the future. It’d be even better if we could get there without any black eyes.

New England Fishery Management Council to meet next week: herring, and groundfish and scallops, oh my!

After a Monday spent reflecting on the sacrifices made by our armed forces, the New England Fishery Management Council will don its own battle gear for its November 13-15th meeting in Newburyport, MA.  There are a couple of items on the agenda I want to draw your attention to:

  1. Herring!  We’ve spent some time recently at FishHQ talking about menhaden, but they aren’t the only forage fish in the sea.  Final additions to the herring catch limits options will come forward.  Should the management of these forage fish be more conservative? If so, how do we determine the allowable catch level?  The final vote on these limits is scheduled for January, 2013.
  2. Groundfish Framework 48.  If that doesn’t raise your blood pressure, you haven’t been paying enough attention to New England fishery management.  Framework 48 will set allowable catch levels for cod, yellowtail flounder, and many of the most infamous fish in the NE.  Watch for tussles over groundfish closed areas.  The Council is considering allowing fishing in areas that have been closed for decades in order to alleviate short-term financial hardship.

Like a good Council should, the NE Council makes it possible for anyone interested to listen in from home.  Even better councils archive those recordings, btw.  If you haven’t attended a Council meeting, and think you’re ballsy enough to handle it, I encourage everyone to do it at least once.  Yes, you’ll feel nauseated the whole time, but you’ll get a unique peek into the bizarre system we have chosen to manage our ocean’s public resources.  Nowhere is the axiom more true that rules are made by those who show up.  So show up!

Spin free science

There’s a tremendous amount of focus out there on how terrible, sucky, whack, wild-ass, and just plain poor fisheries science is. Now, there’s nothing wrong with questioning science. In fact, science is all about questioning things. But too often in our nation’s fisheries debates, the back-and-forth isn’t serving a constructive end. And at least part of the reason is that scientists are not always good at communicating science in a clear, understandable fashion to people who are too busy fishing to follow the many, intricate, convoluted steps that it takes to do good science. In short, we’re in desperate need of more plain spoken, spin free science in the fisheries world.

In the ongoing back and forth between fishermen and scientists, there appear to be frustrations on both sides. I think that many times scientists say “I don’t tell fishermen how to fish, they shouldn’t tell me how to run models.”  Unfortunately, this is just as unhelpful as the other side — folks like the Recreational Fishing Alliance’s spin machine that stokes fires of government mistrust in order to pad their membership — using tales of troll-like enviro-scientists plotting to ruin coastal economies and put fishermen out of business just for fun.

There’s clearly often a disconnect between fisheries scientists and fishermen themselves. There have been efforts to break down the barriers — cooperative research being a highly successful one — but we need to do better. So let’s talk, no bullsh*$, about fisheries science, and let’s start by all getting on the same page about our expectations.  I once had a fisheries science professor who said that if we could see through water, there would be no “science” in fisheries, just a census. The fact is that we don’t understand very much about the ocean and the fish that live there partly because we can’t see them.  The models that scientists use to determine a fishery’s status as overfished and/or undergoing overfishing are forecast probabilities of different outcomes, sort of like hurricane models forecasting different storm tracks.

These models take into account biological information about the fish like how fast they grow, when they reproduce, and how well they survive after being caught.  They also account for removals by fishing and natural deaths.  These models do not give us a clean answer, such as: there are 3.451 million red snapper in the sea.  Instead, they respond to “random” events and variables like ocean currents, temperature shifts, prey availability etc. in order to find the range of possible answers as well as the answers that are more likely than other answers.  Let’s look at the results of a stock assessment below. This is a graphic representation of the stock assessment for South Atlantic black sea bass from 2011.

Each dot represents the model’s results, given one set of assumptions and circumstances. Look at how many dots there are!  That means that there are so many variables at play, that it’s possible to get any of these answers, but where the dots cluster, is a set of more likely answers. Any dot to the right of the vertical line indicates overfishing (taking fish faster than they can reproduce).  Any dot below the horizontal line indicates an overfished population (the population is at a lower level than can sustain itself). So for this stock, almost all of the dots are below the line—this means that only a few sets of variables conspire to leave the stock at a healthy level. The vast majority of circumstances result in a stock at a depleted level. The overfishing status is not as clear, which we see because the dots are centered around the vertical line.  The green lines indicate the most likely status of the fishery, and as you get further from those green lines, the less likely that answer is.

Yup, that’s it. This is the poor-ass science you’ve heard so much about. Not so scary up close.  Now, if I want to catch the maximum number of fish possible without leaving a single extra one out there, then this chart of dots is poor indeed. All it tells me is the likelihood that the stock is healthy. Managers (and their science panels) have to make some decisions about future catch levels that have a good chance of moving the stock and its fishery into the healthy, productive area of this chart.

Our best science can’t give us the exact answers we want from it, so we are left with choices.  Here are just a few.

  1. Manage our fisheries to account for uncertainty in the science, meaning that on occasions we’ll forgo some immediate-term fishing opportunities
  2. Gather more data to reduce scientific uncertainty, often meaning that we spend a ton of tax-payer money to do so
  3. Disregard the science and rely on some other information

There are problems with each answer, but certainly number 1 is the easiest and quickest, and I think that’s why we’re seeing it.  We are also seeing some movement on number 2, such as additional monitoring and data collection, and revamped science programs.  But when we choose door number 3, and say that we shouldn’t listen to the science, I would like to hear the alternative.  To what or to whom should we listen? To you? To me? To some other guy or gal? That doesn’t seem all that much better, does it?

The truth is, choosing door number 3 is one of the things that got us into this overfishing mess in the first place. The fact is, science is a tool that we use to make hard decisions. Sure, the sharper the saw the less difficult it is to cut down the tree. But without the saw at all you’re plain out of luck.

In the often heated discussion about how we manage specific fish stocks, calling out the science as bad is kind of a dead end right now. Maybe there aren’t enough data points, maybe we could monitor certain interactions differently, maybe we can’t afford to pay for enough eyes on the water, or analysts in the lab. But the science itself isn’t bad. It’s just science. Imperfect, yes, but still ultimately the most useful tool we’ve got.

I’m not being sarcastic or snarky (this time) when I pose the question: what would work better? I’d genuinely like to hear your concerns and suggestions, in the comments, or on our Facebook page.

Menhaden’s moment of truth

It’s crunch-time in the years-long battle to save what many people call the most important fish in the sea: Atlantic menhaden.

Anecdotal accounts of this odd oily fish indicate that they once swarmed up and down the east coast in huge schools and in numbers unimaginable to us today. Even more recently, scientific studies have shown that menhaden have declined 86% in the last 25 years, and that they have been exploited at too high a rate for at least 50 years. Half a century!

These fish used to be the main food for dozens of popular food and game fish like striper and bluefish. They’re not widely know as good eatin’, although I have a neighbor named Cornbread who swears by menhaden and mayonnaise sandwiches. No joke. He says everybody used to eat them because they were so abundant and easy to catch.  Cornbread’s culinary proclivities aside, these forage fish are an integral part of the marine ecosystem, transforming the plants they eat into a moving fish feast.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, the problem is that Cornbread can’t go out and catch the filling for his sandwiches like he used to. And more importantly, critical recreational populations like stripers are being starved by menhaden’s declining numbers. Or to answer the question in another way, the problem is big, it’s powerful, and it has a name: it’s Omega Protein Inc.

Omega and its shareholders make a lot of money turning menhaden into lipstick, swine feed, and fish oil. For years, as recreational fishermen and local communities observed signs to the contrary, Omega claimed that the fishery was in fabulous shape. So, no regulations necessary, right?  When a 2010 assessment once again proved their optimism to be unfounded, Omega wasn’t about to realign their business operations to the reality on the water. Instead, they hired scientists and lobbyists to influence, cajole, and filibuster the science-based management process.

But something inspiring has happened in response. A grassroots movement led by recreational anglers has emerged, opposing Omega’s efforts to dictate the management of menhaden to serve its own ends. Fishermen from all over the country have led a massive push to return the menhaden fishery to a sustainable level, while also accounting for the needs of predator species like striped bass.

The fight has been decades-long, and has not been easy for those who have stuck through it. But finally, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. In December the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will finalize new rules for the menhaden fishery. Specifically, the Commission is voting on Amendment 2 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden. If adopted, the plan could reduce the quota by up to 50% (to make up for the 50 years we’ve been exploiting it?), leaving more menhaden in the water for the many other fish stocks that like to eat it.

Now is the time to raise your voice with thousands of other anglers, seafood lovers, and coastal residents who value fish, fishing and healthy oceans. You have until November 16 to submit public comments, which are critical in countering Omega Protein’s lobbying efforts. Act now and tell the Commission to protect Atlantic menhaden, and do your part to conserve the most important fish in the sea.

The data 99%

If fish could rise up and occupy the bland, spotless streets of Silver Spring, they would hold little signs proclaiming that they are the 99%.  You wouldn’t see pollock or red snapper in front of NOAA’s administrative offices, marching in circles.  They are the 1%, the elite, the 230 fish stocks deemed economically important.  NOAA tracks its success on how much we know about these 1 percenters.  These guys get the gold standard stock assessments (the ones that take a couple dozen scientists and fishermen a year to do), and they get them often.  We can harvest a high level of these fish pretty safely since we know so much about them.  But what about the thousands of other fish that make up the awe-inspiring and often fragile web of life in our oceans?  They are the 99%.

They are the grass porgies (shown protesting above) and flat needlefish, which will likely never have high-level stock assessments.  But they are also the targeted fish whose assessments are a few years old, or have uncertain results.  Setting annual catch limits for these 99 percenters has become a challenge; yet in the midst of every challenge are the solutions and I want to briefly talk about two regions that are addressing the 99%.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council will assess more than 20 unassessed groundfish stocks next year, and though the details are not public yet, this is likely to provide an example of how to collect and utilize data for the 99%.

The Caribbean Fishery Management Council is eyeball deep in fisheries that have never been assessed, but over the past couple of years innovative assessment methods have been used to gather as much data on these fish as possible.  A new assessment begins this week, and scientists will discuss the methodology for creating the best scientific assessment possible for the 99%.

Both of these processes should be illuminating and help us to move forward in solving the complications that have come with setting annual catch limits.  Even absent the requirement for annual catch limits, we should strive to base our stewardship of ocean resources on the best science possible.  There won’t always be as much data as we would like there to be, but managers around the country are figuring out how to set responsible limits for all fisheries, not just the top 1%.