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.

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

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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.

NOAA proposes new coral listings under ESA

Don’t start your weekend just yet.

A draft proposal released by the National Marine Fisheries Service today seeks to list 66 coral species under the Endangered Species Act. That’s a huge number, potentially more than doubling the total number of listed species under NOAA’s purview.

Staghorn coral; Photo credit Frank Starmer; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Staghorn coral; Photo credit Frank Starmer; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

More from the agency’s announcement:

  • “In the Pacific, seven species would be listed as endangered and 52 as threatened.
  • “In the Caribbean, five would be listed as endangered and two as threatened.
  • “In addition, we are proposing that two Caribbean species—elkhorn and staghorn corals—already listed under the ESA be reclassified from threatened to endangered.”

Today’s proposal doesn’t come out of the blue. On the contrary, the Biological Review Team that considered the listings was convened more than two years ago; and a public engagement process was conducted by the agency earlier this year. Still, it’s fair to expect that this issue is about to become a whole lot more prominent and attract far more interest — including from fishermen.

Should fishermen be worried? Well, yes. The most frightening part of today’s agency proposal is the science that underpins it. Twenty-five percent of marine fish call coral reefs home. And this makes clear that they face myriad threats. Of the 19 specific threats identified, the three major ones relate to climate change — namely rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and disease. For the last generation the principal threat to the health of US fisheries has been overfishing. Today’s announcement is another reminder that for the next generation the array of threats may be more diverse — and the solutions may be even more challenging.

How any final ESA listing impacts fishing opportunities remains to be seen. It’s worth noting that there’ll be no immediate action. Rather, this starts the clock on a 90-day comment period that will include public hearings. It’s also important to remember that any final listing should do nothing to reduce catch limits in any federal fishery — although it may have implications for how those fish are caught.

The bottom line is that ocean fisheries don’t exist in a vacuum — they’re part of a complex marine ecosystem that must be healthy if our fisheries are to remain productive. Today’s announcement is a reminder that in key parts of that ecosystem, all is not well.

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.