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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

130111 news search google trend sandy vs the bieb

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

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

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

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.