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.



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.

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.

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.

Fishermen weather the storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Gaines gives a rundown of the storm’s impact on the fishing industry, but not without a few barbs out for the government. His sources speak largely of a static market for fish due to widespread transportation system shut-down. reports that the port of New York still does not have power. [subscription required]

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

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

[Update 11/1/12 12:40  pm]

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

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

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

[Update 11/2/12 11:12  a.m.]

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

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

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

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

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

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.