Ghosts of 2012: fisheries funding is unfinished business for the new Congress

As members of the 113th Congress are sworn in today, they face inboxes overflowing with business left unfinished by the 112th. Two of the biggest outstanding items — the Sandy relief package and resolution of the budget sequestration extended in the ‘fiscal cliff’ agreement — have serious implications for our nation’s fisheries.

Let’s look first at the Sandy debacle. The frustration expressed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie yesterday is shared by fishermen around the country who have suffered harm as a result of natural disasters hitting specific fisheries upon which their livelihoods depend. That’s because the Sandy relief package is the vehicle through which such funding, if it’s to be provided at all, will be appropriated. As FishHQ readers know, the package that passed the Senate in December included $150 million in critical fisheries disaster funding. However, the outgoing House, despite promises from its leadership to the contrary, failed to schedule a vote.

The good news is that Speaker Boehner has now re-committed to getting this done, and has slated House floor time for tomorrow and January 15. But even if a relief package ultimately does pass, there’s no guarantee that fisheries disaster funding will survive. As we noted recently, some have misguidedly attacked fishery disaster funding as ‘pork’, and a concerted effort to strip the funding was mounted in the Senate — and can be expected in the House.

And then there’s sequestration. Yep, you’re right, that was supposed to be settled in any fiscal cliff deal. But the best New Year’s Eve negotiators could do was defer across-the-board spending cuts by two months. As we’ve noted before, if sequestration were to take effect it would spell serious trouble for the information infrastructure upon which modern fisheries management depends. Specifically, it could rip 8.2 percent out of the ‘Operations, Research and Facilities’ (ORF) account of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, imposing further austerity on the ‘wet side’ of NOAA, with both the health of our fisheries and the prevalence of fishing opportunities destined to suffer.

Everyone in Washington has a theory about how the sequestration drama will play out. But amidst all the punditry and political games, it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of what the on-the-water impacts of across-the-board cuts would mean.

On sequestration, and fisheries disaster funding, the 113th Congress has plenty of work to do.

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.

Word to the wise: salmon ain’t pork

The tragically epic proportions of Superstorm Sandy remain fresh in the nation’s memory — and its painful impacts are still being felt by many in the region. Congress is inching towards passing a disaster assistance package that can provide some measure of relief. That’s welcome news for all those who suffered in Sandy’s path — including the region’s fishermen.

Last month we urged Congress to act during its lame duck session, to provide funding for fisheries disasters that have been officially declared — not only in states impacted by Sandy, but also certain fisheries in New England, Mississippi and Alaska where a formal disaster declaration has been made by the Secretary of Commerce.

With the Sandy disaster package being prepared, our friends in Congress stepped up and successfully included $150 million in funding to help those devastated by these disasters. In response, a number of media outlets and commentators have condemned such spending, labeling it as ‘pork’.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) has been a champion for fishermen and coastal communities affected by fisheries disasters.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) has been among those lawmakers who have championed the cause of fishermen and coastal communities devastated by fisheries disasters.

Well. Let’s be very clear about one thing: the fishermen and coastal communities who are struggling to survive in the face of these disasters desperately need our help. Fisheries disaster declarations are no arbitrary process: they are made in accordance with statute, specifically the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Among the many hoops that must be cleared to satisfy the National Marine Fisheries Service Disaster Assistance Policy, the causes of any claimed disaster must be beyond the control of fishery managers to mitigate through conservation and management measures. In other words, economic hardship precipitated by overfishing or other poor management practices are not grounds to make a claim.

Sure, let’s have a debate about fiscal responsibility and the deficit. It’s only proper that lawmakers and interest groups scrutinize government spending and debate the difficult tradeoffs that must be made between revenue and expenditure. But to target emergency funding for fishermen and coastal communities who through no fault of their own find their livelihoods jeopardized, and to characterize it as some kind of new “bridge to nowhere”, is deeply insulting.

Just like Sandy’s victims, these folks deserve our compassion, not contempt. We’ll continue to work with our friends on Capitol Hill, and do everything possible to ensure they receive some measure of relief.

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.

The Usual Suspects

121213 Sushi #traceability

Original photo credit: flickr user avlxyz CC BY 2.0

What: “White tuna”, “wild-caught salmon”, and “red snapper”

Where: New York City

How: New York City is the latest metropolitan area found to have a high incidence of seafood mislabeling.

The Story: Oceana continues its series of recent investigations into seafood fraud by testing samples from New York area restaurants and markets. As with Los Angeles and Boston, it may be hard to find correctly marketed seafood in the Big Apple; 39 percent of the 142 samples tested were mislabeled. Large, national chain retailers had the lowest incidence of seafood fraud at 12 percent, while 40 percent of samples tested from smaller, independent retailers were mislabeled.

Researchers found that all of the 16 sushi restaurants included in the study had mislabeled seafood. The most common culprit at sushi bars is marketing the infamous, gastric upset-inducing escolar as “white tuna”, a label that the FDA has established as only appropriate for canned albacore tuna. Language barriers may be the cause of some of these instances of mislabeling, says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana and an author of the study. “The bottom line is that if you go to a sushi bar, it’s a good idea to ask questions because sushi is an art form. They’re very proud of the fish they serve. So there’s no harm in asking, ‘Well, what is that?'”

Other examples of mislabeling found in the city include farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild-caught Pacific salmon, and thirteen different species of fish inaccurately being marketed as red snapper. One fish subbed in for red snapper is tilefish, a fish that the FDA has warned contains high amounts of mercury, and so shouldn’t be consumed by children and pregnant or nursing women. “It’s unacceptable that New York seafood lovers are being duped more than one-third of the time when purchasing certain types of fish,” says Warner.

What We Can Do: With a complex supply chain and various motives for not labeling seafood correctly, finding the source of seafood fraud in the industry is difficult. As long as we continue without a reliable system of seafood traceability in our country, seafood fraud is likely to remain a problem. Until then, ask questions about your seafood. “If vendors don’t know that their customers are demanding this kind of information, they’re going to get away with it forever,” Warner stated.

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.

Well that’s not what I heard…she said WHAT about menhaden?

Ahh, the public process. That sacrosanct American tradition of deciding what the hell to do by gathering in a meeting hall, drinking bad coffee and boring each other to tears . It wouldn’t be the same without the escalating op ed and editorial wars leading up to a decision, as all the players start to get their last arguments in.

Want to know the he said/she said about menhaden before tomorrow’s showdown? I’ll do my best to keep this updated as the opinions, blog posts and editorials come rolling in. Let me know if I missed any.

Basic meeting information

Webinar access to the meeting

The Agenda for the meeting

Background

A timeline of Atlantic menhaden management

News articles

A vote on menhaden could ripple along the Atlantic [Daily Press]

Fisheries panel to rule on menhaden [Baltimore Sun]

PolitiFact Rhode Island fact check Pew Environment Group says the Atlantic menhaden population has declined by 90 percent in recent years [PolitiFact Rhode Island]

Regulators to vote on menhaden catch limits [AP via Virginia Pilot]

Menhaden Defenders want big turnout [Asbury Park Press]

Showdown looms on menhaden harvest [Capital City Gazette]

Record profits in menhaden as management battle brews [Daily Press - behind paywall]

Battle brews over small, vital fish [New York Times Green blog]

Small fish, huge role [Delmarva Now]

Big vote on small fish [CT News Junkie]

Longer features

Omega Protein hiring hundreds of foreign workers boasting jobs in the US  [The Public Trust Project]

The oiliest catch [Conservation Magazine]

Op eds, blog posts, and editorials

Bruce Franklin, author of the The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden catch limits vital to ecosystem, economy [Asbury Park Press]

Pew’s Lee Crocket: The Bottom Line: Big turnout for little menhaden [National Geographic]

Channel Fish Co. of Boston: Menhaden fishery needs reasonable – not drastic-action [New Bedford Standard Times]

Peter Baker of Pew responds to Channel Fish Co., says Strong action on menhaden best for coastal ecology, economy [New Bedford Standard Times]

Channel Fish Co. of Boston again: Environmentalist’s evidence on menhaden self generated [New Bedford Standard Times]

Matt Wuerker’s visual representation of the situation in an editorial cartoon [Politico]

Fly & Light Tackle Angler: Historic vote this week could determine future of Atlantic fishing [Orvis News]

Monty Deihl, Omega Protein’s fishing operations director: Menhaden not overfished, not endangered [Fredricksburg Freelance Star]

Citizen Vince Staley disagrees: Save the menhaden today or lose jobs tomorrow [Fredricksburg Freelance Star]

Jim Brewer, columnist for the Charlottesville Daily Progress: Save the crabs and menhaden [Daily Progress]

National Aquarium Blog: A crucial moment for most important fish in the sea [National Aquarium]

Record numbers ask for menhaden protection [Sun Journal New Bern]

 

[Updated 12/14/12 10:00 am EST]