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.

The name game: seafood mislabeling


Original photo credit: Christopher Mace

What: Red snapper or Pacific Ocean perch…who knows?

Where: Los Angeles County, California

How: A recent investigation has revealed widespread violations of seafood labeling requirements in LA County.

The Story: The Seafood Task Force, a collaboration among the LA County Department of Public Health, California Department of Health, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examined seafood from restaurants and markets in the LA area. Some samples were sent for genetic testing to determine the species. Of the 103 samples of seafood, 74 were found to be mislabeled.

The most common violation was the failure to represent the country of origin. When country of origin information was included, it was frequently misrepresented. Another common violation was selling a product labeled as one species, but substituted with a less expensive and sometimes less desirable species. Examples include:

  • Pacific Ocean perch (Pacific rockfish), tilapia, silk snapper, sea bream, and pollock sold as red snapper
  • Fluke (summer flounder) sold as halibut
  • Imitation crab, abalone, and octopus sold as the real product
  • Crawfish sold as lobster

In a couple of cases, escolar was being sold as “white tuna,” a species of fish that does not exist.  Escolar is also called the “ex-lax” of fish by some in the industry because large amounts of it can cause severe gastrointestinal upset, a fact which many consumers are not aware of. Not that they could have avoided it had they tried…

Seafood mislabeling can be costly; and guess who’s paying for it? You may be paying $14.99 per pound for what you think is red snapper, but getting Pacific Ocean perch, which has a value of less than half, at just $6.99 per pound.  Indeed, none of the “red snapper” samples tested by the Seafood Task Force were actually red snapper.  Seafood mislabeling can also be dangerous. Consumers with seafood allergies and pregnant women may have trouble avoiding certain fish and shellfish if they don’t know what is really on their plate.

Don’t feel bad about getting snookered though; it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you as a consumer are purchasing one species of fish when you’re actually getting a totally unrelated species. As seen below in an image provided by Oceana, once a fish is filleted it can be very difficult to distinguish. Can you tell the difference between the properly labeled fillet and the imposter?

Original image credit: Oceana
Correct answers are : 1. Fish on the left is escolar or oilfish. 2. Left is Nile perch. 3. Right is mako shark. 4. Right is rockfish. 5. Left is farmed Atlantic salmon.

What We Can Do: To solve this problem, we need a reliable system of seafood traceability. Not only are consumers being duped, but retailers are as well.  Since the mislabeling can start at the very beginning of the supply chain, with the fishermen and fishing companies, retailers may also be unaware that their product is not what it seems.  We all deserve to know what we are eating, and those in the industry that participate in legal, sustainable fisheries ought to have recognition.

The people behind the fish

One of the great things about working on national fisheries as a Network is that we get to know a wide diversity of people doing interesting things in the fisheries world. It’s easy, when talking about fishermen and environmentalists, to come up with some sort of a stereotyped dichotomy: a salty, wind beaten fisherman in a yellow slicker and a young, earthy land-locked tree-hugger of an environmentalist. It’s not very accurate, but like it or not, it’s how we simplify our world. From the front lines of the national fisheries movement though, I have yet to meet a single person who would fit into one of these types.

Instead I meet a wide range of people doing truly fascinating things. Some of them are fishermen. Some of them are environmentalists. Some of them are scientists. Some of them don’t necessarily identify with any of these descriptors, but they do science, or go fishing, or advocate for smart, science-based conservation. This is our community, and they’re pretty awesome.

When we say we bring together a diverse constituency, we really mean it.

It’s hard to talk about such a community in the aggregate sometimes, without slipping into generalizations — the small things we may have in common, but that might not fully define us. Of course there’s benefit to finding commonalities; in fact, It’s one of our strong suits as a Network. We may come from different places, think different things, and have differing attitudes and opinions, and still be able to coalesce around a common interest. Then we can say, for example, that across the board, the fishermen we work with are conservationists who want to conserve the resource that supports their way of life. How individuals define ‘conservationist’ and how exactly they think the resource should be conserved may vary widely; but the general statement still stands.

Still, to show the wide range of people we work with and the truly awesome work they are doing, it’s important now and then to dive a little deeper and get to know the basic building blocks of our community: the individuals in it and the work they do. On occasion here at FishHQ, we’ll be featuring a member of our community doing something notable. You’ll get to learn a little more about the awesome people who are part of a movement to build a prosperous fishing future, and we’ll get to brag about all the cool people who are standing by our sides, leading the charge. It’s a win-win.

We’re kicking off with an interview with Dr. Judith Weis, a long-time Network friend and adviser, about her new book on all things crabs — Walking Sideways.

If you like these features or FishHQ in general, you might consider signing up to receive our e-mails. They go out regularly with a comprehensive perspective on what’s fresh in the fisheries world, and regularly include the feature Like the Fish Love the People, a mini-profile on a member of our community.

Think you or someone you know should be featured? Get in touch.

Fishermen weather the storm

Visualization of Hurricane Sandy’s widespread impact; credit: NOAA

Note: current updates are being made at the bottom of this post as we find them. Please add yours in the comments!

First and foremost, we hope all of you managed to stay safe during Hurricane Sandy, wherever it hit you, and whatever your moniker of choice ended up being. Bonus points if you stayed warm and dry. The fish can head to deep water, and the birds can fly on through, but those of us with neither fins nor feathers batten down the hatches, stock the cupboards and hunker down until the storm passes. Fishing news from this coast slowed to a near stop, although the news that was being made will affect us all for a good time to come.

In Rhode Island, fishermen prepared their boats as best they could. Some fishermen were determined to catch that last fish, warnings be damned. Sandy took to New Jersey late afternoon Monday, doing significant damage to coastal homes and businesses. Fishing piers up and down the coast were hit hard, with news that the Ocean City, Maryland fishing pier had been destroyed circulating as early as Monday mid-day. Impact reports are still rolling in, and there are ultimately too many stories to list here, but CBS News has a state by state impact report here.

Away from the front lines of the storm, debates are raging about where Frankenstorm came from, how it’s related to climate change and what other measures we could have taken to prepare for it (Paul Greenberg says: more oysters). One conversation of note is the renewed concern that’s circulating about gaps in the federal budget that would have funded the satellites that allow us to track this storm with such accuracy. We are already facing holes in satellite coverage as a result of austerity cuts to NOAA’s budget, and although the administration has tried to plug the hole by shifting funds from other programs (including fisheries), this is a major reminder of how appropriations—a process that often plays out as a closed-door, abstract game for the wonkiest of wonks—translates into real life impacts. We’ve worked very closely on NOAA’s budget here at the Network, and will come back to that soon. The takeaway right now is that this matters.

In other storm related fish news, fresh fish will likely be in short supply around the country thanks to the fact that 600 miles of coastline was being battered by unfishable conditions. If you’re in Chatham, you can go straight to the source though; the Cape Cod Hook and Line Fishermen’s Association still has power and plenty of oysters for their Meet the Fleet event. Now that’s how to beat cabin fever.

We’re also keeping an eye on scheduled meetings and events that have been disrupted by Sandy and have been postponed or canceled. Of particular note: the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission has postponed some menhaden hearings along the coast. Their press release is here, and the Herring Alliance has a helpful list of which meetings have been postponed or rescheduled.

Let us know if we’ve missed any important fishing related storm news in the comments—we’ll also update as we find more.

[Update 10/31/12 5:40 p.m.]

Richard Gaines gives a rundown of the storm’s impact on the fishing industry, but not without a few barbs out for the government. His sources speak largely of a static market for fish due to widespread transportation system shut-down. reports that the port of New York still does not have power. [subscription required]

This story points to raw and partially treated sewage that spilled into rivers and estuaries along the coast as a result of the storm. Virginia has suspended shellfish harvesting in the Chesapeake as a result.

And Climate Central has a great roundup of all the places the web is talking about Sandy.

[Update 11/1/12 12:40  pm]

A swordfish crew from New Bedford got swept up in Hurricane Sandy while at sea; they have made safe landing in Shelbourne, Nova Scotia. They are reported to be exhausted but alive. Significant damage was done to their boat.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources is calling the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay “less than expected“.

The Savannah Morning news offers a forecast of how Sandy will affect local fishing in Georgia.

[Update 11/2/12 11:12  a.m.]

National Geographic has posted a write-up on the recovery of fishing communities after hurricanes, including a look at potential disaster declarations and their history in the Mid-Atlantic.

Asbury Park Press predicts that no one will be fishing the Jersey coastline anytime soon. Harbors are destroyed and it may take a while for fish to come back after the storm.

Long Island Newsday features similar devastation to the Long Island fishing community.

More on how Sandy is impacting seafood supply and demand, including low demand due to continued wide-spread power outages, and difficultly in the supply chain.

We have word from a longtime Network friend and New Jersey member that he and family are safe, although they suffered significant damage to their home of many years. Our hearts are with them and all the others coping with loss.

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.”


“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]

And the moral is…it’s time for a different kind of fish story

Hey, wanna talk about government and moral values? Oh, no, hey, come back…it’ll be fun, seriously.

We spend most of our time here on FishHQ talking about fisheries, fishermen, and occasionally the fish themselves. In the few weeks since we launched, we’ve celebrated some successes (billfish, record US catch) and highlighted obstacles to healthy wild ocean fisheries (tar balls, politicians). We’ve also pulled back a little from the day-to-day and explored a little what this is really about (hint: it’s not just the fish…).

In the wider world, beyond all the simplistic rhetoric on the campaign trail, some Americans are moving beyond the stale ‘big government vs. small government’ questions, and considering what the spectrum of effective government activity really is. Very few of those conversations are about fish; but that doesn’t mean we fish wonks shouldn’t pay attention. Because questions about the legitimate reach of government go to the heart of how we manage our fisheries and, by extension, what our coastal communities look like. These are conversations about equality, rights, authority, freedom, justice and what we as members of this society are entitled to. In short, what the hell the Founding Fathers meant by ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Although we may not think about fisheries management in these terms very often, our underlying assumptions about what our society should look like shade the much more mundane, specific questions of who has the right to fish how much and where. Environmentalists and fishermen are held up as being at odds with each other so much that it’s become a stereotype. But really fishermen are part of a long history of conservation in the US—both as sportsmen in the early days and later as commercial fishermen who realized that they would fish themselves right out of business if they didn’t put some limits in place. As one of our fishing members pointed out to me when I first started working at the Network: “most of us understand the need for some regulation. It’s like playing football: it wouldn’t be very fun if there were no rules and everyone was just running all over the place randomly with no clue what to do. The rules make the game.” (Exception to this rule: Calvinball).

It’s an important time for fisheries. We’ve finally implemented science-based catch limits for all federally managed fisheries, which Congress required us to do when they reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006. More fisheries were declared rebuilt in 2011 than in any other single year since we started counting, and we are finally winning the fight against overfishing. But there are also a lot of valid concerns about our fisheries—both about how they’re being managed, and other external factors that will affect them such as ocean acidification and pollution. To be sure, we have some tough conversations ahead. But the underlying principles upon which those conversations are based matters.

In his groundbreaking work on morality and political values, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out core moral pillars upon which most of our political beliefs are grounded. He then points out how our political beliefs are an amalgamation of where we stand on these moral pillars. His work is well worth delving into, but the conclusion he reaches again and again is that we all share values across a moral spectrum, and that policy decisions that make sense flow from dialogues that acknowledge these common moral pillars. Such decisions are superior to ones reached when one side out-argues the other.

Of course, attempts to out-argue—or out-scream—your opponents are ubiquitous in fisheries. And for some extremists, opposition to any kind of regulation is most easily couched in simplistic terms that reference a “right to fish”. In one sense, this line of engagement speaks to widespread angler opinions: access to fishing is one of their primary concerns. But the funny thing is, when asked to rank the factors that could influence fishing access, the majority of anglers cited residential and commercial development of coastal areas as the top threat to access, not excessive regulation. Other concerns are poor management of access, disability access, and poor signage. Hardly the work of an international conspiracy, as some at fringe groups would have you believe. Portraying it as such is fear mongering, and it’s taking us in the wrong direction.

The truth is, we can talk about access or competing ocean uses without playing to people’s fears. Indeed, the more you consider the values underlying the perspectives of anglers and environmentalists, the more you start tapping into the deeply held positive values that, as Professor Haidt points out, we largely share. Stakeholders of all stripes can relate to the equity dimensions of access to local fishing spots. And the desire for inter-generational equity—the idea that future generations should be able to enjoy a world with healthy wild ocean fisheries—is universal. Surveys show that anglers value time spent fishing as a way to connect with family and friends—something we can all relate to. Other fishermen enjoy the sport for the chance to enjoy the sanctity of nature, tapping into our spiritual human needs. After all, a profound respect for nature—both its beauty and its functionality, is what led many environmentalists and fishermen to their respective professions in the first place. We might come to this respect from different places; but once we’re there it’s a much better starting point for a conversation on how we manage it than a face-off of two mobs.

Our values and convictions are deeply held, and hard to put aside—whether we’re debating education, health-care, the economy, or fisheries. And sometimes they will conflict. But being able to step outside the stereotypes and hear each other where it counts is essential if we’re to move forward to a prosperous fishing future—instead of back. Also, I bet it will result in some really good fishing.

Will you be eating pirate booty when you enjoy your next seafood meal?


of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported. The chances that your most recent seafood meal came from a domestic fisherman have for years been vanishingly small; but they shrank even further in 2011 according to new numbers released by NOAA this week.

As Matt pointed out in an earlier post, serving up a high percentage of imported seafood to American consumers isn’t inherently problematic: we have a global seafood marketplace, and American fishermen often have a chance to export their product to foreign nations as well as to compete in the domestic market.

But here’s the problem: the global seafood marketplace has a long way to go before it’s filling those of us who care about healthy oceans and productive fisheries with much confidence. Exhibit A for the squeamishness: by some estimates more than 20% of fish caught globally are the product of illegal, unregulated and unreported catch (what we fish nerds refer to as IUU but what is increasingly referred to as pirate fishing).

This is part of an increasing divergence between the health of domestic fish populations on the one hand and global fisheries on the other — a divergence that is not sufficiently understood by the public and the popular media. In the United States, our fisheries are rebounding. Yes, there are still very significant challenges, as the recent fisheries disaster declarations made depressingly clear. But the report card released by NOAA this week is just the latest evidence that in many fisheries stocks are rebuilding, catch is up, and ex-vessel prices are putting more money in the pockets of fishermen — and by extension the coastal communities where they work. This isn’t a uniform trend, but it’s happening in many fisheries and it’s a huge success story.

Global fisheries, by contrast, remain in crisis. Too much fishing on the high seas occurs without the kind of enforceable regulatory safeguards that are essential. And too many vessels are fishing in foreign-country EEZs where basic safeguards are not in place. That is the context in which pirate fishing is occurring — with devastating impact in waters around the globe. By some estimates, as much as 22% of world fisheries production comes from these illegal sources, inflicting global losses of as much as $24 billion annually. And here’s the kicker: when seafood is imported into the United States, we have almost no way of knowing what it is, where it comes from, and whether it’s legally caught.

When you take a long, hard look at this set of facts, it’s impossible to feel entirely comfortable with that 91 percent figure. We as a nation are doing increasingly well managing our fisheries, and American consumers and retailers are making more and more sustainable choices. But we need to do better when it comes to policing seafood imports. In short, we need to work urgently to stand up a seafood traceability system in the United States so we know where our next seafood meal is coming from.

And until we do, even the most sustainability-conscious consumer often won’t know for sure that they’re not sitting down to a tasty dish of pirate booty with a side of organic greens.

Original photo credit NOAA