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.

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.

Even experienced chefs need traceability to help to avoid seafood fraud

What: Maryland crab….or is it?

Where: Crab purchased at the DC fish market was supposed to be Chesapeake blue crab from Maryland, but it was eventually ID’ed as Indonesian with the help of the consumer’s scientist friend.

How: Deceptive labeling that fooled even a seafood expert. Upon closer examination, the fine print clarified that it was IMPORTED by a Maryland company, but was not in fact Maryland crab.

The story: Barton Seaver is a National Geographic fellow and a chef with a passion for sustainable seafood. He not only cooks seafood really really well, he’s an advocate for sustainable fisheries and healthy coastal communities that provide us awesome things to eat. In short, he knows his fish.

And yet, as he blogged yesterday over at National Geographic, even renowned seafood chefs shopping for seafood at their local fish markets need clear and descriptive labels to avoid seafood fraud. It took the help of a crab scientist in Maryland to point out a small detail that proved this crab to be something other than the chef expected. Read the full story at National Geographic.

The solution: A system that protects seafood consumers and US fishermen who are working to create sustainable domestic fisheries by letting us know what, exactly, we’re buying and eating. #traceability

Why are we asking all the wrong questions to manage fisheries?

We all can agree, I think, that fisheries management tends to be crisis-driven instead of preventive.   Even after 30 years of one emergency after another, we still rarely have the stomach for regulations before they are the only alternative to complete ecological and economic collapse.  But I don’t believe that this is the biggest problem we have as a community of people who engages on the issue, or even as a public who shares rights to a natural resource.  The biggest problem we have is that we don’t ever talk about the real issues.

Now, there’s a darn good reason for that.  The real issues are monumental and we have to think about the answers.  Instead, we argue about whether to set a 10,000 pound trip limit or a 17″ size limit, have a catch share program or limited entry, buy permits back from struggling fishermen or let the market take over.  These questions are hard, but that’s because they are complex social and economic questions masquerading as simple fisheries management.

Setting a low trip limit, for example, seems like an innocent way to constrain catch, but it has social and economic ramifications.  Low trip limits favor small boats and diversified fishermen.  High trip limits favor large boats who fish for one species.  These are generalizations, but instead of arguing over the poundage of the trip limit each year for each species, shouldn’t we talk about the issues underlying this and every other argument?

What do we want our fisheries, coastal communities and ocean to look like in 50 years?

If we knew the answer, in a detailed way to this question, many of the belabored arguments over fisheries management minutiae would cease.  The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is attempting this process now, and we’ll see whether they can go deep enough.  If so, the visioning exercise should be replicated in every corner of the country.  Which coastal communities do we want to remain fishing communities, and what level of fishing keeps them that way?  How many boats do we want catching fish?  Do we value small-business fishermen in small coastal towns over super-efficient large-boat processors?  Do we value the historical and cultural value of the fishery, or the simply value that fishermen have to the surrounding economy?

It’s hard to imagine ever answering these questions, because we anticipate big disagreements based on deeply-held beliefs about our communities and ourselves. But ignoring the questions doesn’t get us off the hook; the choice to ignore them is an answer in its own right. Each time we shrug our shoulders as a small-business fisherman goes out of business or watch docks be converted to condos, that’s an answer. And maybe it’s not the one we would have chosen if we’d actually had a hard but important conversation.

Join us on facebook: you complete me

Fisheries management… It’s endlessly complicated. We use more acronyms than NASA, and counting fish is like counting trees, only you can’t see them… and they move.  I have a Master’s degree in the subject and have worked in fisheries for 10 years and I’m still occasionally baffled.

The original intent of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1976) was that fishermen would manage the nation’s fisheries.  Instead, fisheries management is now a career in and of itself.  I have met many of you super-fishers out there who manage to make a living on the water and still attend council meetings, and I don’t know how you do it.  I’ve seen career fishermen studying up on dome-shaped selectivity curves, and I salute you.  It’s much easier for me to spend all of my spare time fishing than for you to spend your spare time in Marriott conference rooms listening to Robert’s rules of order.

I am new here at FishHQ and I am dedicated to working with you.  I want to hear your opinions, understand your issues, and find areas where we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.  We may not always agree on every issue, but I want to provide fishermen with the tools that they need to participate fully and constructively in the management of our fisheries.  To that end, I have set up a facebook page and I invite every fisherman and stakeholder to join the conversation.  Share your news with us or weigh in on a current event.  Challenge the current thinking, or of course, invite me to go fishing!

Please join us on our facebook page and let’s keep in touch.

Do fish vote Republican?

With the party conventions kicking off this week, we’ve officially entered the political “silly season”. Just like other Americans, millions of fishermen are sizing up the candidates and deciding who to support. Which begs this question: If a civic-minded snapper or democracy-lovin’ dogfish were handed a (waterproof) ballot, who would earn their vote?

In our “red-state, blue-state” world, the answer is supposed to be easy. According to our popular dialogue (although not always the actual data) voting groups divide neatly along party lines. Gun-owners vote Republican. Environmentalists vote Democratic. Pot-smokers back Ron Paul….

Like many things in fisheries, it ain’t that simple. Even within our dysfunctionally polarized political system, fisheries management is one of those issues that attracts awesomely strange bedfellows. Liberal Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and conservative Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina are proud cosponsors of multiple fisheries bills. And the same was true 35 years ago, when Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Warren Magnuson (D-WA) worked across the aisle to pass the nation’s foundational fisheries law that bears their name.

It’s no different for Oval Office occupants. Bill Clinton delighted in signing the landmark Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, while George W. Bush lent his signature to the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act a decade later. Today on Capitol Hill it seems that for every Republican fisheries champ like Senator Lisa Murkowski there’s a fishermen-lovin’ Democrat like Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.

When I worked in the US Senate my boss was a Democrat – an inspiring and thoughtful lawmaker from the renowned ocean state of New Mexico. This week I’m in Tampa for the GOP convention: spending time with Republican friends and meeting with folks who’ll be key players on fisheries if Americans elect Mitt Romney to the presidency. I can confirm first-hand that there are plenty of fish-lovers proudly flying Republican colors in Tampa this week, as will no doubt be the case for the Democrats next week in Charlotte.

Conservation-minded hunters and anglers are among those attending the GOP convention in Tampa this week; and almost all of them shoot clay pigeons better than me. (From today’s Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation event)

As you think about who to support in November, be sure to check out candidates’ fisheries records – and agendas. There are some odious representatives on both sides of the aisle who don’t deserve your vote. But it’s clear that as far as fisheries are concerned, party designation doesn’t mean a lot. Fisheries are truly bipartisan, so it’s important that we are too. There are lots of things to consider in the upcoming election, but for our snapper and dogfish friends, party label will not be what matters most.

I’m not choosing between fish and fishing. Are you?


I am an avid fisherman.  Oh yeah, and I’m also concerned with the sustainability of our fisheries and the health of our oceans.  There are those extremist voices out there that would have you believe that being conservation minded is anathema to fishing.  That somehow we can’t use a natural resource and conserve it for the long term at the same time.  This is ridiculous. I started surf fishing with my father in Cape Hatteras when I was 4 years old.  I have a picture of my first fish, a 6 inch croaker that I seem to be studying intently.  I still get antsy in the summer, dreaming of bluefish blitzes and fighting false albacore on a fly line.  I have worked as a kayak fishing guide in Florida, and the picture above is from my recent fishing trip to Alaska.

So, when a letter to the editor from last week refers to me as a “wacko environmentalist that wants to stop fishing altogether” I am torn.  On the one hand, this kind of extremist nonsense shouldn’t be worth spending time on.  After all, Mr. Bob Zales, the author of the accusation also believes in vast worldwide environmentalist conspiracies to conquer 80% of the world. Having worked in the environmental world, I can tell you, they’re not that well organized.  On the other hand, extremists like Zales seem to be monopolizing the conversation on fisheries and it’s time that more reasonable and balanced people stepped in.

Folks like Zales want you to believe that when you support efforts to be precautionary and rely heavily on science, you are anti-fishing, anti-small business, and plain old anti-American.  The truth is that these guys value short-term personal economic gain over the long-term health of our oceans and fisheries.

The vast majority of fishermen I know are very conservation minded.  Like me, they want to take their sons and daughters fishing and inspire fishing dreams in generations to come.  These are the fishermen that we here at Fish HQ listen to, speak for, and work with to create robust and sustainable fisheries, and I know there’s more of you out there.  I urge you, the silent majority of reasonable anglers to be silent no longer.  Speak up for future fishermen and for the ocean they will depend upon.