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.

Isaac oil is BP oil, and it’s still doing damage

More than two years out and the BP oil disaster is still doing damage and breaking hearts up and down the Gulf of Mexico. When Hurricane Isaac hit, we shared concerns (and photos) from fishermen in Alabama and Florida that the unusual staining and foam they were seeing on their beaches was related to the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and subsequent cleanup efforts. Soon after, scientists from LSU confirmed that oil found on Louisiana beaches was indeed from the Macondo well. Researchers from Auburn University in Alabama followed suit. The damage continues to emerge—the heart-break has been ongoing.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: fishermen were amongst those hit the hardest by the BP disaster. Not only did they face fishery closures during the cleanup, but they also live with the daily uncertainty of the long-term consequences of the disaster in a region of the country where things don’t stay quiet for long. Just when some dared hope things were starting to stabilize, Hurricane Isaac stirred things up again. Oil was seen all along the hurricane’s Gulf path, and the consequences of the disaster were front and center once again.

AP reports that fishing closures off the coast of Louisiana due to “weathered gobs of BP oil” were supported by fishermen who acknowledged the importance of ensuring that seafood was consumable. A local fisherman was quoted in the article, saying “every time I stand up I get knocked back down.”

Meanwhile in Florida, fishermen and seafood industry workers gathered to give voice to frustration over poor conditions in Apalachicola Bay—which is hurting oyster farmers and the local seafood industry. The challenges facing oyster reefs in the bay are myriad and complex, but amongst the concerns expressed at a recent County Commission meeting were the impacts of Hurricane Isaac as well as lingering fears over the impacts of the dispersant used following the BP disaster. Earlier last week Florida Governor Rick Scott issued a request to the Department of Commerce that the bay’s fishery be declared a “fishery resource disaster” under the Magnuson Stevens Act.

It’s not all bad news in the region though. On Monday President Obama signed an executive order authorizing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to be set up. The Council was established as part of the RESTORE Act, and is set to replace the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. The new Council will select eligible restoration projects that will be funded by Clean Water Act fines, which are still the subject of proceedings between BP and the US Department of Justice. Some of the remaining questions hinge on whether the disaster was an “accident” or the result of negligence. A forthcoming study that was announced just this week compares the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion to the 1998 Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea (still considered the worst offshore oil disaster in terms of lives lost). The study’s author suggests negligence, finding “several depressing similarities” between the two cases.

The final settlement (or court ruling, if a settlement can’t be reached) is expected to range from $5 billion to $20 billion, so the findings will be significant for the future of Gulf restoration—and the fishermen and coastal communities who are continuing to feel the pain. There are no doubt a number of proposals being incubated in anticipation; one in particular has been hatched by fishermen and environmentalists who have teamed up to propose restoration of the Gulf Bluefin tuna population. We hope to see more such proposals that will acknowledge the importance of fisheries to the Gulf region as a whole.

Hurricane Isaac, and the continuing Deepwater Horizon tragedy

News reports today have Hurricane Isaac claiming its first fatalities—a devastating natural disaster in its own right. Isaac is also the latest chapter in an ongoing man-made tragedy for the Gulf of Mexico and many of its residents—including its fishermen. Already, Isaac has become yet another painful reminder that for many, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is far from over.

Among those most directly impacted by the initial well blow-out in 2010 were the Gulf’s fishermen. In addition to feeling the pain of their beloved fishing grounds being suffocated by oil and dispersants, they felt sucker punched by the immediate economic impacts of not being able to continue to earn their livelihoods in the days after the Macondo Well explosion. Many are angry about specific aspects of the claims process, and some continue to feel cheated by it.

Gulf fishermen I work with also live in constant fear of the ongoing impacts the Deepwater Horizon disaster is having on their fisheries; and of the long-term ecosystem implications of that unprecedented discharge of oil and dispersant into the Gulf of Mexico. They know well the sobering example of Pacific Herring in Alaska, which collapsed four years after the Exxon Valdez disaster and to this day has never rebuilt. Some fishermen in the region continue to report sick fish, but are torn about sharing what they’re seeing for fear of hurting consumer demand for their product. And many continue to observe features of the ecosystem that they don’t believe were present before that dark April day in 2010.

Several news items about Isaac have flagged the possibility of the hurricane dredging up buried oil that remains present in vast quantities in the Gulf. I haven’t seen any reports of actual sightings in the press to date. But yesterday I received several calls from fishermen with disturbing reports, and two of them have now sent me photos they captured yesterday around Perdido Key.

I’m sharing a few of those images here with the big caveat that I’m not a scientist or an expert on the Gulf ecosystem, and I’m not in a position to offer an opinion on whether these images reflect ongoing impacts from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I AM in a position to confirm that these images are authentic and from a trusted source. The fishermen who took them have never seen anything like this on their beaches before and they fear that this is ongoing fallout from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

I welcome comments or direct communications about this from folks with more expertise. And as litigation and potential settlement talks continue, I urge all of us to keep a spotlight on the impacts of this continuing, man-made tragedy.

According to the fisherman who captured this image, it was “like a foamy detergent washing up on our beaches” on the Alabama side of Perdido Key yesterday afternoon.

“What has me the most concerned about the foam is the colors that are present. I’ve never seen anything like it before”, the fisherman who captured this image told me.

This image was captured at 4:40PM yesterday on the Alabama side of Perdido Key. “There were families out checking out the beach and walking around in this stuff, including little kids”, said the fishermen who captured this image.

The stain on the beaches around Perdido Key yesterday afternoon “was like the stain on the side of a bathtub after you drain filthy water” according to the fisherman who captured this image.