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.

The Thin Blue Line: border crossing and illegal fish

130107 #traceability Coast Guard photo (1)

Original image credit: United States Coast Guard

What: Blacktip, bonnethead, and bull sharks

Where: Four miles south of the Texas coast

How: Last month, a US Coast Guard ship from South Padre Island came across an illegal, five-mile long gillnet full of dead sharks 17 miles north of the US-Mexico border. Among the casualties were 225 blacktip, 109 bonnethead, and 11 bull sharks.  No arrests were made since the boat that set the net was not found.

The Story: “Gill nets indiscriminately kill any fish or marine mammal it snares across miles of ocean, often leaving much of the catch spoiled by the time it is hauled in,” said Coast Guard Commander Daniel Deptula. Because of their destructive impact on fish, turtles and marine mammals, gillnets have been banned in Texas state waters since 1981; however, the Coast Guard recovered 49 miles of them in 2012 and the numbers are on the rise. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports that incidents of pirate fishing with gillnets off the coast have doubled since 2011. “The seizures are far past any other year in my 16-year career,” said Sgt. James Dunks said.

The Coast Guard reports that the illegal nets come from Mexican fisherman crossing into the US’s Exclusive Economic Zone to fish because the Mexican fish stocks are so depleted. “Well you get too many people fishing for the same thing, they’re not catching as much, so they’re going to search new territory to try to find more fish,” Dunks said. The growing fear is that pirate fishing by gillnets will cause our Gulf of Mexico fish stocks to resemble those of our neighbor to the south. The Coast Guard believes that the sharks were destined to be finned, a practice where only the fins are cut off the fish to be sold while the rest of the carcass is tossed back into the sea.

What We Can Do: A reliable system of seafood traceability would help consumers to avoid pirate fish and put pressure on fishermen and fishing companies worldwide to supply legal, sustainable seafood for US tables. Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing (IUU) doesn’t just happen in remote corners of the Pacific; it happens here at home and affects YOUR fish. For now, support local fishermen that are involved in positive fishing practices by doing your homework and asking questions about your favorite seafood.

UPDATE: In a separate incident, a Mexican fishing boat captain has just plead guilty to charges of failing to “heave to” after ramming a US Coast Guard ship that caught the boat fishing illegally in Texas waters; the captain performed the maneuvers in an effort to flee and escape prosecution.

Frankenfish

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

In the land of cod, not all is as it should be

original photo credit: NOAA

Original photo credit: NOAA

What: Atlantic cod vs. Pacific cod

Where: Boston, Massachusetts

How: Many restaurants and markets in the Boston area are mislabeling seafood (still), but some are blaming the supply chain for their mislabeled menu items.

The Story: The Boston Globe conducted an investigation into seafood sold at Boston area restaurants and markets for the second year in a row, visiting many of the restaurants they tested last year in their award-winning investigation into seafood mislabeling. Even after being called out for mislabeling in last year, many of the restaurants tested this time around were repeat offenders. Out of the 76 samples taken, 58 were found to be mislabeled. In most cases, less expensive fish is being substituted for more costly species, and much of the substitution that takes place uses imported fish.

In several examples, fish being marketed as locally caught Atlantic cod was actually previously-frozen Pacific cod, which many people find less appetizing, and which sells for half the price. Some of the retailers blamed their seafood supplier for the mislabeling, and sent the Globe’s reporters hunting down the murky seafood supply chain looking for answers–and responsibility. Some restaurants did take the results seriously and promised to change their practices and menus, whereas others got defensive. The restaurant manager at Ken’s Steak House was quoted saying, “We’re too busy to deal with such silliness.”

Seafood mislabeling is far from silly, no matter how busy the staff at Boston restaurants may be. As the Globe’s report suggested, mislabeling may stem from different motivations, from trying to maximize profit, wanting to be seen providing a constant supply of hard-to-get seafood, or in response to customer preferences for “local” catch. But lying about where that fish was caught isn’t just a rip off for consumers; it distorts reality for seafood consumers, who might be unaware that their local favorite is in dire straits if it keeps showing up in today’s specials. We shouldn’t be surprised that it may be hard to find fresh Atlantic cod on the East Coast;  Atlantic cod has been overfished for generations, and changing ocean conditions further hamper population growth. Fishermen are dealing with difficult cuts in their quotas, and consumers should know about it.

What We Can Do: With all of the seafood fraud happening in the US and around the world today, the Globe raises a good question: who is to blame? In the end, a poorly regulated seafood industry is the real culprit. Fishermen, retailers, and consumers would all benefit from seafood traceability, which would bring much needed transparency to the seafood supply chain so we can stop pointing fingers, and get back to eating our delicious, well labeled fish.

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.

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.

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.