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 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.

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.

A status quo election? Not for fisheries

Since the moment polls started closing last night, DC types of all political persuasions have been wading obsessively through the Election Day returns. First and foremost, the angst was over whether preferred candidates had won. Beyond that, folks have been madly trying to read the tea leaves on how the political and public policy landscape has been altered. Confession time: I’ve been one of them.

In the coming days I’ll be sharing some of my conclusions with FishHQ readers who may be interested in what the election is likely to mean for fisheries. And a constant theme in those posts will be how significant the implications of this election have already been for the fisheries world — and how much is likely to change in its aftermath.

One popular refrain last night and this morning is that this was a status quo election, and at a superficial level that’s true: President Obama has won reelection; the Senate majority has been retained by the Democrats; and Republicans will continue to control the House. But to suggest a status quo outcome in any deeper sense would be, in my view, very wrong-headed. The reality is, when it comes to many of the most important dynamics that have shaped Washington over the last two years, this is another change election. And when it comes to fisheries specifically, a lot of key chess pieces are about to move.

I’ll be examining those changes in detail in subsequent posts. But here are some quick morning-after takeaways:

  • Although the occupant of the White House hasn’t changed, we’ll see very significant turnover in key executive branch personnel — including, in all likelihood, at the cabinet level (Commerce Secretary) and in agency leadership (NOAA Administrator).
  • Some of the most prominent and influential congressional voices on fisheries will be packing their bags after choosing to retire or suffering electoral defeat. Institutional knowledge on Capitol Hill is being lost, while opportunities to reshape the debate are being created.
  • The transformation of the New England congressional delegation to a one-party enclave is now largely complete. The triumph of Democrats over Republicans in critical House and Senate races will have significant implications for how fisheries politics plays out in this vital region.
  • With all sides focused on avoiding the fiscal cliff, and daunting federal budget realities looming, the resources that enable the information infrastructure upon which our fisheries management system relies are set to come under even greater pressure.

As you absorb the implications of last night’s results, we hope you’ll tune out the cable chatter from time to time, and instead tune in to FishHQ. We’ll strive to bring you the best insight and analysis on what it all means.

Happy election day!

Well, it’s finally here. After countless hours of electioneering and over a billion dollars spent by candidates fishing for your votes, it all comes down to today.

Here at FishHQ we don’t have a partisan preference, and we’re not endorsing either aspirant for the White House. First and foremost, that’s because issues in fisheries almost invariably transcend partisan lines. Check out what I wrote whilst attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa back in August for why we believe that when it comes to fisheries, party designation doesn’t mean a whole lot.

But that isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t consider fisheries when you vote. There are some candidates who are champions on Capitol Hill, and others who have worked consistently against the interests of commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. We urge you to research the candidates before casting your ballot. One useful tool for recreational anglers may be Keep America Fishing’s presidential candidate questionnaire, which you can check out on their website. Alternatively, you can take some inspiration from the views of other hunters and anglers, gauged recently by Chesapeake Beach Consulting. Or, perhaps you can just follow the lead of Legal Seafood, whose presidential straw poll of diners has had Obama supporters ordering the mahi-mahi and Romney partisans opting for the pan-seared cod. Results will be released today, and we’re betting they’ll be analysed more thoroughly than the AP exit polls….

Voters won’t just be choosing candidates in the voting booth today. Those animated about the potential for GMO salmon to be approved for human consumption will be closely watching the results of Proposition 37 in California. Ocean Conservancy’s George Leonard has been an active supporter of the ballot initiative, and his take for National Geographic is worth reading. Ezra Klein also has an “everything you need to know” on Prop 37 for the Washington Post. Across the border in Oregon an initiative to ban non-tribal commercial salmon fishing with gillnets in the Columbia River will be decided today.

We’ll be analysing the results closely tonight, and sharing our perspectives on the outcome in the coming days. You can look to FishHQ to have the most thorough and insightful analysis of what the results will mean for fisheries in the 113th Congress and over the next four years.

New England Fishery Management Council to meet next week: herring, and groundfish and scallops, oh my!

After a Monday spent reflecting on the sacrifices made by our armed forces, the New England Fishery Management Council will don its own battle gear for its November 13-15th meeting in Newburyport, MA.  There are a couple of items on the agenda I want to draw your attention to:

  1. Herring!  We’ve spent some time recently at FishHQ talking about menhaden, but they aren’t the only forage fish in the sea.  Final additions to the herring catch limits options will come forward.  Should the management of these forage fish be more conservative? If so, how do we determine the allowable catch level?  The final vote on these limits is scheduled for January, 2013.
  2. Groundfish Framework 48.  If that doesn’t raise your blood pressure, you haven’t been paying enough attention to New England fishery management.  Framework 48 will set allowable catch levels for cod, yellowtail flounder, and many of the most infamous fish in the NE.  Watch for tussles over groundfish closed areas.  The Council is considering allowing fishing in areas that have been closed for decades in order to alleviate short-term financial hardship.

Like a good Council should, the NE Council makes it possible for anyone interested to listen in from home.  Even better councils archive those recordings, btw.  If you haven’t attended a Council meeting, and think you’re ballsy enough to handle it, I encourage everyone to do it at least once.  Yes, you’ll feel nauseated the whole time, but you’ll get a unique peek into the bizarre system we have chosen to manage our ocean’s public resources.  Nowhere is the axiom more true that rules are made by those who show up.  So show up!

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]