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’.

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.

It’s getting acidic in here…so take off all your shells…

Ocean acidification…it’s no joke, but for some reason I can’t stop joking about it. Maybe because if I don’t, I’ll want to curl up in a corner and cry myself to sleep. Because when it comes to fisheries, ocean acidification feels a little like the rug getting pulled out from under us just as we’ve figured out how to stand. Here in the United States, we’ve finally got a good fisheries management system in place that’s starting to show results—recovering stocks, less overfishing. So now let’s change the entire chemistry of the ocean and see if we can keep up. Haha! Good one, universe.

There’s been a lot of talk about ocean acidification the last few weeks, starting with this piece by Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post. Ocean acidification is the changing pH of ocean waters as a result of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. CO2 is of course better known for causing global warming. But when we pump CO2 into the sky it doesn’t all stay in the atmosphere: vast quantities are absorbed into the sea. Climate change also appears to be leading to increases in water temperature in the ocean, spelling potential trouble for ecosystems that are conditioned to very specific temperatures. This is especially problematic for stationary species such as coral reefs, but also has wide ranging implications for the overall climate; for example, warmer ocean temperatures have been linked to stronger and more frequent tropical storms.

Scientists are using whatever resources available to them to measure climactic changes in the ocean and to try to understand their implications. When it comes to acidification, scientists know with certainty that the chemistry is changing frighteningly fast. They know less about how the ocean’s biology — including its fish stocks — will be affected.

But even if we don’t know everything that’s coming down the pipe, scientists are already seeing some all-too-concrete danger signs. One is playing out on the West Coast of the United States, where the LA Times reported this week that ocean acidification has already started killing baby oysters.

Wikimedia commons PD-ART-LIFE-70.

Even if baby oysters aren’t as cute as baby polar bears (except for Lewis Carroll’s oysters: I have always found them charming), this should be cause for genuine alarm. West coast shellfish industries are worried, because shellfish appear to be on the front line of species hard hit by acidification. Crabbers in places like Westport, WA and Alaska’s Bering Sea have expressed their growing worries to us directly. Biological impacts on fin-fish are further removed and less certain. But some fear that profound changes in ocean chemistry will alter the marine food web’s delicate balance, hurting these stocks too.

Scientists from around the world gathered in Monterey, CA last month to discuss ocean acidification, and it doesn’t sound like it was pretty. In addition to shellfish, they expressed fears that coral reefs would be hit hard (bad news for fish who depend on coral reefs as the ocean’s prime singles bar), and micro-organisms such as plankton and krill (also bad news for the gazillion species that rely upon them for food).

You know who does like ocean acidification though? Harmful algae and sea urchin. I always thought those guys were jerks. The LA Times reports:

“Dave Hutchins, a USC oceanographer, has found that harmful algae, common off the California coast, “like high C02 conditions.” Experiments in his lab reveal that acidified waters trigger these microscopic plants to produce more toxins that contaminate clams and mussels. These shellfish, in turn, can sicken or kill humans who eat them.”

and

“Gretchen Hofmann, a UC Santa Barbara ecologist, has found that purple sea urchins, for instance, are far better at tolerating higher acidity than are commercially grown Pacific oysters.”

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Purple sea urchin, being a jerk

Although the threat of ocean acidification isn’t going to be hammered out at the next fishery management council meeting — and reducing fossil fuel use has vexed the international community for decades — there may still be steps we can take to respond to the problem at hand. The Governor of Washington state, Christine Gregoire has appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel to address the problem of acidification on Washington’s shellfish industry. The panel has been meeting all year, and state legislators are expected to release a bill in response to the panel’s recommendations by the end of this year.

Interestingly, one problem with past efforts to mitigate climate change through national legislation was the perceived lack of a broad base of support across the political spectrum. Yet as the Baltimore Sun pointed out in an editorial today, a recent poll of America’s sportsman (including hunters and fishers)—who tend to lean conservative—showed overwhelming concern about climate change, and support for policies that would move to mitigate it. A lot of commercial fishermen and other seafood industry folks (such as shellfish farmers) are also actively worried about acidification and its impacts on their industry. This runs counter to the notion that climate change is some sort of a fringe issue, pushed forward only by polar bear huggers. In fact, climate change is of concern to just about everyone with a pulse, whether they want to hug a polar bear or shoot one. That sounds like a pretty broad base to me.

For those who’ve worked tirelessly to curb overfishing, acidification is yet another reason to be proud of our efforts — and inspired to keep working hard to finish the job: there’s reason to believe that healthy ecosystems are more resilient to changes such as acidification. But the fact remains that we’re working to build a prosperous fishing future in an ocean where the proverbial rug is being pulled out from under us. We have our work cut out.

Update: I’m not the only one cracking jokes at the ocean’s expense; yesterday Grist published this awesome ocean acidification primer. Must be something in the water…

[Updated 10/19/12 with additional links and references]