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 report card is out

The National Marine Fisheries Service today released its annual statistical report card, providing, in their words, a “snapshot documenting fishing’s importance to the nation”. We’re reviewing the full report today, and those who like to dive into the fisheries weeds as much as we do can find the PDF version on the Fisheries Service website.

NOAA’s press statement, released in conjunction with the report, made clear their top-line takeaway: “US seafood landings reach 17-year high in 2011″, it announced. And it certainly is true that landings and ex-vessel prices are up in a number of fisheries — a direct consequence of the science-based management reforms that have been implemented over the last two decades.

Another top-line number? The percentage of seafood consumed here that was imported jumped by five percentage points to 91 percent. (If you’re wondering, the three top imports in 2011 were shrimp, canned tuna, and tilapia fillets.)

What a staggering number for an ocean nation with a rich fishing heritage.

Is this a problem? With more than nine out of every ten mouthfuls of seafood we swallow being shipped to us from abroad, should we be alarmed? Should we be more aggressively searching for ways to turn the tide?

Two qualifiers on today’s number. First, it goes both ways. The seafood sector is a global market, and plenty of fish landed by US vessels are sold to markets oversees. I was fortunate enough to go dogfishing out of Chatham, MA a few months back. Dogfish is a sustainable American fishery — and essentially 100 percent for the export market. Second, as NOAA is quick to note, a portion of the seafood that is imported into the United States is also, in fact, caught here: it’s simply exported overseas for processing and then re-imported back to us.

Still, there’s a huge cloud hanging over the US import market. While US fisheries are increasingly stable, global fisheries are a decidedly mixed bag. Many are chronically overfished, and by some estimates more than 20 percent of fish landings globally are the catch of pirate fishers. This illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing presents a massive threat to ocean health. And here’s the uncomfortable truth: until we take more concrete steps as a nation to bring traceability to our seafood supply chain, American retailers and consumers are unwittingly fueling demand for this product.

Increasingly, American retailers are seeking to adopt responsible buying practices and US consumers by the millions are opting for sustainable choices. Their efforts are making an enormous difference. But until we as a nation do better on seafood traceability, we’ll be left to wonder where that fish really came from. For a country committed to ending overfishing and building a prosperous fishing future, we can and must do better.

Should the government interfere with New England’s fishing fleet?

It’s an election year, in case you’ve been in the hold of a boat for nine months.  One of the debates I hear over and over again is whether no government or very little government is better. Before you say “no government“, and reapply the tape to your Ron Paul poster, let’s remember how government subsidies helped to build the fishing industry in New England, and let’s talk about how the government is now being asked to step in again to dismantle part of the fishing fleet.

New England lawmakers are said to be mulling some emergency relief for the embattled New England groundfish fleet. Ask any northeastern fisherman and they’ll shake their head and tell you that things are not right. And it boils down to this simple fact: there aren’t enough fish for the number of boats out there. This sucks. Big time.

The reason for this is complex (surprise, surprise) and partly a mystery. For starters, the ocean ecosystem off the northeast may be shifting due to nearly half a millennium of fishing, climate change and Cod knows what other global and local forces.  But this isn’t the only problem facing the fleet.

After World War II, the United States was falling behind in the fishing game and foreign vessels were catching more fish offshore than domestic fishermen. The government responded, starting in the 1950s, with subsidies to the fishing industry. In 1976 the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act established the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, in large part to give domestic fishermen preferential access to the nation’s rich fishery resource.  These subsidy programs (including financing for boat-building, tax-less gas, and new markets), plus a bat-sh#@-crazy optimism on the inexhaustible supply of fish out there resulted in just enough boats for the good times, but way too many boats for today.

Now, since the government helped to create this “overcapacity”, it can help undo it, right? This is an area of hot debate. As I argued in my post from last week, whether we should have a permit or a boat buy-back system, and how we should design said buy-back program, would depend entirely on the vision we have  for the future of New England fisheries.  If the government or other fishermen buy up permits from fishermen who want to get out of the fishery, do the fish those permits would have caught still get caught, or are they put aside?  Would this result in the well-heeled corporate fishing conglomerates coming out as winners at the expense of the small-scale fisherman?  Would the program actually help with overcapitalization, or exacerbate existing problems?  Would such a program result in a long-term benefit to the ecosystem? What about the socio-economic landscape?

As government and the public mull the value of a buy-back program in New England, these questions need to be answered. The trade-offs we face need to be well understood before the government “helps” again, and it would be a lot easier to find the “right” balance of ecological, economic and social benefits if we had a common vision in mind.

OK, now you can fix your Ron Paul poster. And once you’re done with that, focus hard on Capitol Hill. The prospects of a New England buyback gaining momentum are real. The likelihood of other regions positioning themselves to receive funds as part of any package? Also very real. The danger that a rushed injection of federal dollars will be a missed opportunity to, in Mike Conathan’s words, “hit the reset button” — in New England and elsewhere? Depressingly real. If that mistake is to be avoided, the time for action is now.

Isaac oil is BP oil, and it’s still doing damage

More than two years out and the BP oil disaster is still doing damage and breaking hearts up and down the Gulf of Mexico. When Hurricane Isaac hit, we shared concerns (and photos) from fishermen in Alabama and Florida that the unusual staining and foam they were seeing on their beaches was related to the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and subsequent cleanup efforts. Soon after, scientists from LSU confirmed that oil found on Louisiana beaches was indeed from the Macondo well. Researchers from Auburn University in Alabama followed suit. The damage continues to emerge—the heart-break has been ongoing.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: fishermen were amongst those hit the hardest by the BP disaster. Not only did they face fishery closures during the cleanup, but they also live with the daily uncertainty of the long-term consequences of the disaster in a region of the country where things don’t stay quiet for long. Just when some dared hope things were starting to stabilize, Hurricane Isaac stirred things up again. Oil was seen all along the hurricane’s Gulf path, and the consequences of the disaster were front and center once again.

AP reports that fishing closures off the coast of Louisiana due to “weathered gobs of BP oil” were supported by fishermen who acknowledged the importance of ensuring that seafood was consumable. A local fisherman was quoted in the article, saying “every time I stand up I get knocked back down.”

Meanwhile in Florida, fishermen and seafood industry workers gathered to give voice to frustration over poor conditions in Apalachicola Bay—which is hurting oyster farmers and the local seafood industry. The challenges facing oyster reefs in the bay are myriad and complex, but amongst the concerns expressed at a recent County Commission meeting were the impacts of Hurricane Isaac as well as lingering fears over the impacts of the dispersant used following the BP disaster. Earlier last week Florida Governor Rick Scott issued a request to the Department of Commerce that the bay’s fishery be declared a “fishery resource disaster” under the Magnuson Stevens Act.

It’s not all bad news in the region though. On Monday President Obama signed an executive order authorizing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to be set up. The Council was established as part of the RESTORE Act, and is set to replace the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. The new Council will select eligible restoration projects that will be funded by Clean Water Act fines, which are still the subject of proceedings between BP and the US Department of Justice. Some of the remaining questions hinge on whether the disaster was an “accident” or the result of negligence. A forthcoming study that was announced just this week compares the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion to the 1998 Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea (still considered the worst offshore oil disaster in terms of lives lost). The study’s author suggests negligence, finding “several depressing similarities” between the two cases.

The final settlement (or court ruling, if a settlement can’t be reached) is expected to range from $5 billion to $20 billion, so the findings will be significant for the future of Gulf restoration—and the fishermen and coastal communities who are continuing to feel the pain. There are no doubt a number of proposals being incubated in anticipation; one in particular has been hatched by fishermen and environmentalists who have teamed up to propose restoration of the Gulf Bluefin tuna population. We hope to see more such proposals that will acknowledge the importance of fisheries to the Gulf region as a whole.

Estuaries, eelpout and essential fish habitat

Our mission here at the Marine Fish Conservation Network is to advance healthy oceans and productive fisheries. Oftentimes that has us focused on policies to regulate fishing effort. For much of our two-decade history, bringing an end to overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks has been our overriding priority. But there’s another issue lurking in the background: fish habitat. The truth is: you can’t talk productive fisheries without talking about where those fish live.

The health of fish habitats is indelibly linked to the health of fish populations on which recreational anglers and commercial fishermen alike rely. Simple as that. But even if you already care about fish habitat, trying to make a difference can be frustrating. Many decisions that have a huge impact on ocean habitat are made by non-ocean-focused government agencies, with little input from fishery managers. For fishermen who spend countless hours working within the Fishery Management Council system or seeking to shape the thinking of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the idea of carving out time to bang down the doors of the Department of Interior, the Pentagon and the Department of Energy has limited appeal; but in truth, the activities of all these agencies play a huge role in the health of fisheries.

So where to start? The best place is probably the Office of Habitat Conservation within the National Marine Fisheries Service. Last month, Buck Sutter was announced as that Office’s new Director. And implementation of a new habitat blueprint is at the top of his inbox. The blueprint seeks to address “the growing challenge of coastal and marine habitat loss and degradation”, and it could be an important process for fishermen to know about.

Additionally, several Councils have invested more heavily in habitat-related work in recent years. Although there are limits to what Councils can achieve in terms of regulating external threats to regional fish habitat, ensuring that fishing activity does not unduly impact essential fish habitat is vitally important, and well within the Council’s ability to address.

Separately from government, a national coalition of groups seeking to revitalize critical estuaries should be on the radar of everyone who cares about healthy wild ocean fisheries. Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) does incredibly important work, most especially through hands-on, community-based restoration initiatives. In cooperation with regional organizations, they seek to protect and restore national treasures such as Narragansett Bay, Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland Blue Crab like a healthy Chesapeake habitat almost as much as I like them on ice.

One of RAE’s key initiatives is a biennial national conference aimed at “uniting the national restoration community, key decision makers and local citizens”. That includes fishermen and all others who care about healthy wild ocean fisheries. Their next national conference, in Tampa, October 20-25, is fast approaching; and RAE President Jeff Benoit advises that this week is the last opportunity to take advantage of early bird registration. Take a moment to learn more about October’s national Restore America’s Estuaries conference; and if you can, consider registering this week.

Whether or not you’re in a position to be there in Tampa, be sure to stay tuned to FishHQ for more on habitat conservation. Essential fish habitat is an indispensable building block of healthy wild ocean fisheries, and we’ll be highlighting this issue in the months ahead. Stay tuned for ways you can plug into the process.