Archive for the ‘Sustainable fisheries’ Category

The State of Fish

Thursday, April 28th, 2016
(nature.com)

(nature.com)

We’ve known for a few decades now that we’ve been fishing the oceans at unsustainable levels. We have also over that time developed reasonable management strategies to help overfished stocks recover. So where are we now?

Global catch of fish, in millions of tons. It levels off, even delcines slightly, which looks hopeful - but it isn't: more boats search harder for fewer fish (worldoceanreview.com)

Global catch of fish, in millions of tons. It levels off, even delcines slightly, which looks hopeful – but it isn’t: more boats search harder for fewer fish (worldoceanreview.com)

A more accurate picture of the reported global catch, separating industrial from artisanal and recreational fisheries, and including the bycatch currently estimated to be about 10 million metric tons per year as well as the illegal unreported catch that reached about 30 mmt at its peak (nature.com)

A more accurate picture of the reported global catch, separating industrial from artisanal and recreational fisheries, and including the bycatch currently estimated to be about at about 10 million metric tons per year as well as the illegal unreported catch that reached 30 mmt at its peak (nature.com)

A new and remarkably inclusive report on the status of over 4500 of the world’s capture fisheries – that’s about 78% of them – indicates that most of them are in poor shape, overfished and heading toward collapse. No surprise there. About a third are in tolerable biological shape – which means not collapsing toward extinction, but not necessarily in good economic shape. So the overall picture is bleak, everywhere.

There are exceptions – on the coasts of some countries such as the US and Australia fisheries are recovering under strictly enforced regulations. On the other hand, China has indicated it wants to increase fish consumption by 50% within 6 years, and it already is the most voracious of the fishing nations.

The report then asks how each fishery would fare under four distinct recovery approaches, and models the outcomes. The first is the famous ‘business-as-usual’ don’t change anything scenario that we know leads to oblivion – everything dwindles and collapses. The second is if some modest conservation practices are accepted – and the outcome here is only a little better

The third approach is also familiar, the maximum-sustainable-yield model that has been used to manage many fisheries for decades. It is certainly is a lot better than open access, unregulated fishing, but few fisheries have actually recovered very much under it.

The fourth is ‘rights based fisheries management’ – more difficult, with short-term pain, but a long-term impressive benefit. It would involve reducing fishing effort to sustainable levels, stabilizing overfished stocks, reducing or eliminating the ‘race to fish’, maximizing economic value through product quality and market timing.

The 4 scenarios, all possible. Lowest: Business-as-usual. Next: some conservation. Next: Long-term maximum sustained yield. Top: Rights-based-fisheries-management (PNAS.org)

The 4 scenarios, all possible. Lowest: Business-as-usual. Next: some conservation. Next: Long-term maximum sustained yield. Top: Rights-based-fisheries-management (PNAS.org)

Of course this 4th approach is the one we should favor – who could disagree? The model predicts rapid recovery of most stocks (again, there are exceptions, like NW Atlantic cod) – 10 years on average should be sufficient. The total global annual catch should also increase by about 17% up from the current 98 million metric tons. Because of higher product value, this should add about $50 billion to the value of the total catch. Such management obviously involves a lot of regulation, cooperation and enforcement.

In this more perfect world, illegal fishing and Wasteful bycatch would be eliminated. Fishing fleets would be smaller. The report ends with this: “Commonsense reforms to fisheries management would dramatically improve overall fish abundance along with food security and profits.”

If only commonsense existed.

Even if we do somehow change our fishing practices, recovering fish stocks will still face the additional stresses of ocean warming and the related community disruption that is underway, and we have the immense challenge of feeding the additional 4-6 billion people we are likely to share the planet with by the end of the century.

For global fisheries to be sustainable, more abundant, and more valuable, we need to achieve the same global culture change that we have recognized is necessary to convert us to using abundant renewable energy, and to radically reduce both our consumption and class inequality.

What a dream!

But if we do not achieve this commonsense dream or something close to it, then we are left with the nightmare of business-as-usual that has brought us to the brink where we now stand.
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Traditional Chinese Medicine

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

Perhaps you know about the impact that Chinese Traditional Medicine – TCM – has had on seahorses.

In TCM, dried seahorses have been consumed pretty well forever, mainly as an aphrodisiac for men. A legal, unregulated market exploded in the 1990s, and seahorses were stripped from reefs, mangroves and grass beds around the world – perhaps as many as 150 million collected, dried, and eventually sold per year for about $600 per kg. And even if aphrodisiacs were a defensible argument for killing other species – and they certainly aren’t – there is no evidence that dried seahorses have any such effect. The same is true of course for all the other traditional marine aphrodisiacs – sea turtle eggs, oysters, abalone, seal penises, lobsters, shark fins, an almost endless list of marine species.

A pregnant male pot-bellied seahorse, one of the largest species, giving birth (livescience.com)

A pregnant male pot-bellied seahorse, one of the largest species, giving birth (livescience.com)

More than 50 seahorse species exist, diverse, alien and beautiful. We almost lost most of them, particularly the larger species, more valuable in TCM. Finally protected in 2004 by CITES in 2004, their import, sale and export is now regulated, even in China. Yet in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and in Chinese communities in cities around the world, dried or powdered seahorses remain easy to find in Chinese medicine stores: the black market never closes.

A seahorse called a seadragon, a poor swimmer like all seahorses, is difficult for predators to see when entangled  in algae (brooklyncyny.edu)ed in algae (

A seahorse called a seadragon, a poor swimmer like all seahorses, is difficult for predators to see when entangled in algae (brooklyncyny.edu)ed in algae (

True, extinction is now less likely – captive seahorse farming is improving, marine protected areas are often actually protected, ecotourists like to see seahorses alive in their natural habitats, and of course Viagra has helped. Unfortunately, even harmful traditions can be very slow to die.

If only we learned from such an example to avoid repeating it on others. Yet amazingly in the past few years, the gill rakers of manta and mobula rays have become extraordinarily popular as a new source of Chinese medicines. This time though it isn’t even traditional – instead it is a case of highly aggressive and successful industry marketing. People are trusting, probably ignorant of what exactly they are ingesting as medicine, but they are persuaded that the ground up gill rakers may cure just about everything: chicken pox, cancer, swine flu, throat and skin ailments, male kidney issues, fertility problems, immune system depletion, excess toxins, circulation challenges.

Manta rays are huge, feeding on plankton they sieve from the water as they swim (engineeringwellness.com)

Manta rays are huge, feeding on plankton they sieve from the water as they swim (engineeringwellness.com)

Looking into the open mouth of a plankton-feeding manta ray: you can see the rows of gill rakers where the plankton is raked from the water that is pushed out through the gills (wwvortex.com)

Looking into the open mouth of a plankton-feeding manta ray: you can see the rows of gill rakers where the plankton is raked from the water that is pushed out through the gills (wwvortex.com)

The truly discouraging aspect of this is that, just as with seahorse aphrodisiac properties, there is no evidence of any health benefits. None. Yet the rays are caught, the gill rakers cut out, the bodies discarded, and the populations are decimated.

Mobula rays, closely related to manta rays, leap from the water - perhaps to disturb ectoparasites, perhaps for mating purposes, perhaps by chance - we really have no idea (worldsbestdives.com)

Mobula rays, closely related to manta rays, leap from the water – perhaps to disturb ectoparasites, perhaps for mating purposes, perhaps by chance – we really have no idea (worldsbestdives.com)

Of course we all want want to be healthy humans. But is it too much to ask that there be good evidence the health products we select are actually beneficial? Should we not know or care that we are driving other species to extinction, disrupting ecological communities? And why, after all the experience we have had with marketing and advertizing, do we believe any of it?

Naturopathy and Traditional Chinese (Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese) Medicine are thriving. The nutraceutical industry is booming. Where it’s herbal and sustainable, perhaps the lack of supporting evidence doesn’t matter so much. But to wantonly kill animals – and the list is very long – for their non-existent health benefits is madness.

Tradition is not the problem: it’s our greed and ignorance, and we know better.

And in this case, taking action is incredibly easy: we just stop.

The pygmy seahorse, very small, very well camouflaged (lovethesepics.com)

The pygmy seahorse, very small, very well camouflaged (lovethesepics.com)

Enforcement

Monday, January 18th, 2016
The Republic of Kiribati lies about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand (searchforone.org)

The Republic of Kiribati lies about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand (searchforone.org)

On Tuesday, June 23, 2015, the Marshalls 203 – a tuna-fishing purse-seiner from the Marshall Islands – crossed into the southwest corner of Kiribati’s recently created Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), and fished there from 4:14 am to 8:16 am.

On June 25, after arranging funds for fuel, Kiribati’s only patrol boat, the RKS Teanoai, set off from the port of Betio to chase it down. On June 29 it was intercepted and escorted back to port, where the captain and crew were imprisoned awaiting prosecution. After a week’s pause for Kiribati’s independence celebrations, its fishing fleet accepted a fine of $1 million US and also agreed to donate a further $1 million US to the Kiribati government as an expression of goodwill. GreenPeace still black listed it.

The poacher: a tuna-fishing purse seiner out of the Marshall Islands, 65 meters long with a crew of 30 (greenpeace.org).

The poacher: a tuna-fishing purse seiner out of the Marshall Islands, 65 meters long with a crew of 30 (greenpeace.org).

Kiribati is an independent, economically challenged Pacific island country with about 100,000 human inhabitants living on some of the 33 small islands strung out in several clusters over the equator. Its EEZ includes 3.5 million sq km of ocean. In January 2015 it created PIPA within that EEZ, a huge area of 408,000 sq km where it banned all commercial fishing.

Kiritimati (once known as Christmas Island) is the largest mountain top island in Kiribati. The port of Betio in on the famous Tarawa Atoll, 3,300 km to the west. (worldatlas.com)

Kiritimati (once known as Christmas Island) is the largest mountain top island in Kiribati. The port of Betio in on the famous Tarawa Atoll, 3,300 km to the west. (worldatlas.com)

Another map of Kiribati and its EEZ depicted as pale blue discs. PIPA is the darker blue square in the middle of the discs. (wikipedia.com)

Another map of Kiribati and its EEZ depicted as pale blue discs. PIPA is the darker blue square in the middle of the discs. (wikipedia.com)

PIPA, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, includes 8 small, mostly unihahbited islands, one atoll, and as many as 30 underwater seamounts, all in 4000-6000 meters of water, a prime region for tuna migrations (phoenixislands.org)

PIPA, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, includes 8 small, mostly unihahbited islands, one atoll, and as many as 30 underwater seamounts, all in 4000-6000 meters of water, a prime region for tuna migrations (phoenixislands.org)

And right there is the challenge: How can Kiribati, with virtually no resources of its own besides a single patrol boat, enforce responsible, sustainable fishing in a large piece of the Pacific Ocean? A poacher’s paradise, you would think, and yet clearly it isn’t.

Why not?

Not surprisingly perhaps, chasing down the tuna-poaching purse-seiner depended on considerable international funds as well as the extraordinary tracking technology that now exists.

The funding for enforcement has come mainly from the WIATT Foundation (which supports programs on ocean health) and from Oceans 5 (dedicated to protecting the 5 oceans by stopping overfishing and establishing marine reserves) – altogether $i million US per year for 5 yrs.

But remote tracking made the detection and arrest of the poaching tuna-fishing vessel possible. The newest technology is Automatic Identification System (AIS) that involves a shipboard VHF transmitter, along with a GPS receiver, allowing tracking by satellites and shore stations. Though AIS was developed so that ships wouldn’t collide in crowded coastal waters, it has been expanded through Global Fishing Watch, a collaboration of SkyTruth, Oceana and Google for monitoring the activity of the globe’s fishing vessels.

It does look impressive – Global Fishing Watch’s website is worth looking at. The prototype has been running for a couple of years, using billions of data points as it tracks hundreds of thousands of vessels, and it can convincingly distinguish between a vessel that is fishing and one that isn’t. The poaching tuna-fishing vessel Marshalls 203 was identified and tracked through AIS, and you can check for yourself what that or any AIS equipped vessel is up to.

Global Fishing Watch is intended to be available for everyone to use, not just look at, and should be public sometime this year. It is likely to be used more and more – for instance Indonesia is adopting it to detect unwanted foreign vessels fishing in its waters.

Is it fool-proof? Hardly.

We are a sneaky species, and among our greatest talents is our ability to cheat. There are lots of ways to manipulate AIS, some obvious (just turn it off) others not. Another internet service, Windward, is helping to detect some of the cheating, but of course cheating just gets more sophisticated.

Probably the great strength of AIS is that a vessel can use it to prove that it has been fishing legally. The next step is for ports to accept fish only from vessels that can show such proof – and that is a likely development in many places.

So AIS remains an exciting technology that will will reduce illegal fishing, especially where countries have few other resources to monitor and protect their EEZs.

This helps.

Yellowfin Tuna, hunted by long-liner and purse seiner across the Pacific, now protected within PIPA, still is overfished and threatened (worldwildlife.org)

Yellowfin Tuna, hunted by long-liner and purse seiner across the Pacific, now protected within PIPA, still is overfished and threatened (worldwildlife.org)

MPAs in the New Canada

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

A welcome light has come on in Canada.

We have a new government that accepts evidence-based arguments concerning issues ranging from social justice for First Nations Peoples to human-induced climate change. The Ministry of the Environment is now the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and Canada played a positive role at the recent Paris Conference on Climate Change. After the past 10 years of embarrassment on the international stage, this is taking some getting used to.

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard  in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Led by Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, environmental and conservation questions are once again part of the national agenda.

For instance, a few days ago Canada’s national newspaper reported in detail on Canada’s existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), plans for their immediate expansion, and longer term plans to actually try to meet UN proposed targets: specifically 5% of ocean waters protected by 2017 and 5% more by 2020.

Until now, Canada has been very slow to protect its coastal waters. Currently only 1.3% are under some sort of protection, but only 0.11% is actually ‘no take’, with no commercial fishing or drilling.

In contrast, both the UK and the US now have about 10% of their oceans protected as no-take areas, with lesser protection over much more. This might seem an unfair comparison, since much of thees protected areas lie around remote Pacific islands. On the other hand, Canada has the world’s longest coastline, bordering three oceans, and a lot of it truly remote as well. There’s potential here for some major action!

The key questions of course, here as everywhere else, are how do we decide what to protect and how do we to protect it?

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

At present Canada protects 8 hotspots, important certainly, but very limited in size. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society proposes 14 further sites, including a few that are somewhat larger – like the Bay of Fundy, the St.Lawrence Estuary, and Lancaster Sound. That’s a start, but now is the time to plan on a much larger scale.

Politics will certainly intrude, particularly since this is an opportunity to protect Canada’s Arctic coastal ecosystems ahead of the coming thaw and development of the Arctic. Even in the New Canada, politics will still trump science. It always does.

And anyway, what do we mean by ‘protection’? Despite the accumulating evidence of the social, economic and environmental benefits of fully protected areas, full protection is hard to achieve. Globally, only 1.6% of the oceans are fully protected. Canada’s new 10% target needs to be of fully protected, no-take coastal waters.

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total  area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

Politics aside, a lot of excellent data-based advice now exists on how to do this right, and all of it is possible:

– Size matters: the bigger the protected area the better
– Full protection is essential, prohibiting commercial fishing, mining and drilling
– Corridors between reserves, forming networks of protected areas, allow fishing between reserves
– Adjacent coastal communities need to be involved in all aspects of establishing MPAs
– Enforcement is essential for success, and the new technologies are effective
– Comprehensive ecosystem-based management is worth developing
– Other issues, like illegal fishing, wasteful bycatch, overfishing, and the effects of climate change all need to be included
– Adaptive management is essential: the one thing we know is that ecosystem change will be on-going

The point of the 10% target by 2020 (set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) is to allow ecosystems to recover from current stress and to increase their resilience.

We also know that the target should be much higher, more in the range of 20-50%. But with the short time-line, 10% is a decent start, and it is achievable.

What has been changing globally over the past few years and now finally includes Canada is the emergence of political will to make it happen.

This is so unexpected and is really quite amazing.

Precaution in the Arctic

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

Ringed seals live in the Arctic Ocean. With less ice and more penetrating sunlight, ocean productivity there has been rising – more phytoplankton, more zooplankton, more fish, and so more abundant food for ringed seals. On the other hand, ringed seals depend on the shrinking and thinning ice for mating, molting and pupping.

Called the Ringed Seal because of the patterns on its back (natur.gl)

Called the Ringed Seal because of the patterns on its back (natur.gl)

The Ringed Seal is the smallest of seals (under 5 ft, 1.4m, at most) and because of its close association with ice in the Arctic, has been a common prey of polar bears. But the ice is shrinking, and much is changing (fineartsamerica.org)

The Ringed Seal is the smallest of seals (under 5 ft, 1.4m, at most) and because of its close association with ice in the Arctic, has been a common prey of polar bears. But the ice is shrinking, and much is changing (fineartsamerica.org)

Short-term, their prospects are good. Long-term they are poor, unless they somehow adapt to the new conditions.

Adapt or perish, the slogan for the Arctic.

We can make predictions about what changes will occur in the Arctic marine ecosystem, but really just about everything is uncertain. What species will invade successfully from the north Pacific and north Atlantic? How will the planktonic food chains change? The species interacting in this new ecosystem all have their own complex life histories, feeding preferences, growth rates, stress tolerances. Which existing predator species will adapt, and which diminish toward extinction? Will the new ecosystem ever become stable as climate change lurches along?

Sitting in the middle of the Arctic Ocean lie the Arctic High Seas, claimed by Russia, Canada, and even Denmark based upon underwater ridges extending out from their EEZs. No commercial fish stocks currently occur under the ice, but that will change soon enough. Change to what? Nobody knows.

The EEZs of five nations - Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark (via Greenland) and Norway surround the Arctic High Seas (pewtrusts.org)

The EEZs of five nations – Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark (via Greenland) and Norway surround the Arctic High Seas (pewtrusts.org)

How then do we manage whatever commercial fishing that will become possible in the newly opening Arctic High Seas?

In response to this so critical question, a minor miracle has occurred. The five Arctic coastal nations – Canada, Russia, the US, Norway and Denmark (for Greenland) have very recently agreed to an Interim Ban on commercial fishing in Arctic international waters – until more research has been done to assess what is possible, what is sustainable. The Declaration of July 15, 2015 – is brief, just two pages – but it is enlightened.

This is a rare application of the precautionary approach, and is worth some celebration.

A new Arctic Ocean is starting to emerge - walruses crowd shorlines rather than ice, polar bears hunt on land, and north temperate species invade (scinece.org0

A new Arctic Ocean is starting to emerge – walruses crowd onto shorelines rather than ice, polar bears hunt on land, bowhead whales (and for now, ringed seals) flourish, while north temperate species invade ever further. Darker blue, the extent of sea in Sept 2014; lighter blue, Sept 1979; and of course the remaining ice has thinned enormously (science.org)

Interim may be a disappointing word to those who hoped for something stronger, but interim in this case should last quite a while. An Interim Ban is good news.

That doesn’t mean unfortunate events may not still occur in the national waters of the Arctic coastal nations – while the US and Canada do not permit commercial fishing in their Arctic EEZs, Russia may overfish Arctic Cod, and the US is allowing oil drilling to commence. As well, other fishing nations – China, Vietnam, South Korea, members of the EU – have also got to agree to keep their commercial fishing fleets out of the Arctic High Seas.

Still, we now have a limited multi-national agreement not to fish commercially in a limited piece of the High Seas. This includes a couple of nations who are for other reasons barely talking to each other. If we can do it there, perhaps we can do it elsewhere.

This Interim Ban could be a start toward something bigger. There is growing interest in the idea of banning commercial fishing in all of the global High Seas, backed by new evidence indicating that larger coastal fish stocks would occur and no loss of global fishing revenue would result.

This would be extraordinary to say the least.

Meanwhile, for now five fishing nations have agreed to try to protect the High Seas of the Arctic from the usual over-exploitation that we have seen so often over the past century.

At a time when most news, whether environmental or political, is simply awful, how can this not be at least a little reassuring?

Hope for the High Seas?

Friday, August 7th, 2015

We get a clear view of our dark side in IUU fishing – fishing that is illegal, unreported, and unregulated. It occurs everywhere people can get away with it, but much of it occurs on the High Seas, beyond the 200 mile limits of national EEZs.

journal.pbio.1001826.g001

The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth's oceans - where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

The High Seas (pale blue), beyond the 200 mile EEZ limits of coastal countries (darker blue) make up 64% of surface area the Earth’s oceans – where few laws exist and those that do are very hard to enforce (pewtrusts.org).

With IUU fishing, quota limits and bycatch restrictions are ignored, 40 mile long drift nets are set despite international agreements banning them, and ocean ecosystems are damaged. IUU fishing accounts for somewhere around 20% of the global fisheries catch, worth somewhere between 10 and 23 billion dollars annually. And this doesn’t include the waste and ecological impact of the bycatch. Conservation is non-existent.

The human costs can also be dreadful, some of them documented over the past few weeks in the remarkable series of articles by Ian Urbina in the New York Times on the lawlessness of high seas IUU fishing: slavery, appalling working conditions, even unpunished and unreported murder. They make for very grim reading. Altogether, us at our worst.

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

A famous photograph of Chineses IUU vessels trying to escape detention by the South Korean coast guard. They failed.(worldoceanreview.org)

Yet the situation very slowly improves, with help from a variety of initiatives.

For instance: Vessels involved in IUU fishing try to escape notice by changing their names and flags of convenience of a few countries that have particularly lax and unenforced regulations – Panama, Liberia, Mongolia (Mongolia!) and Belize come to mind. Still, the vessels become known, and major regional international fisheries organizations identify them and share the information. The result is a published list of IUU vessels – about 220 at present. Identified vessels cannot land their fish except in ports where regulations are ignored or don’t exist.

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

A graph of the global fisheries catch from fifteen years ago, but still reasonably accurate, estimating the very significant IUU portion (nature.com)

The US is a major market for the world’s fisheries, for 90% of what is sold in the US is imported. Countries identified as supporting IUU fishing vessels usually attempt to eliminate the violations, for otherwise they risk a US ban on imports of all their fisheries products. Turns out to be a powerful incentive.

And now the UN has formally agreed to take action as well. For the past few years an “Ad Hoc Open-Ended Informal Working Group” has met “to study issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction” with participants from 110 countries, observers from intergovernmental organizations (like the EU and the Pacific Islands Forum) and international conservation organizations. Even the Holy See has sent observers.

The UN does not move quickly, but it does move. The report of the Ad Hoc Working Group presented its recommendations in January 2015. In June 2015 the General Assembly agreed to the next step, the creation of a Preparatory Committee, under the Convention of the Law of the Sea. About 4 years from now we should see a new UN sponsored proposed law on the conservation of high seas fishing ready for ratification. Slow, but critical.

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Pacific Bonito (greenpeace.org).

Enforcement is obviously the biggest issue, for vessels can turn off their transponders, and no one has the resources to patrol the High Seas.

Port control of IUU fishing is an increasingly effective alternative. Even now it is almost impossible for an IUU vessel to land its catch in North America, Australia, the EU and a lot of other places. Naming, shaming and threatening import bans on countries where ports exist that permit entry to IUU vessels, or have laws that are not enforced, gradually reduces the options for IUU vessels.

Dealing with the human rights abuses is a separate problem, but progress there occurs as well. Indonesia and Thailand have agreed to cooperate to reduce IUU fishing and associated human trafficking – though they plea for time and understanding since the process will be slow. The negative publicity from the NYT articles and others like them also cannot be underestimated.

And then there is the Pope’s recent Encyclical letter, ‘Laudato Si’, written to all of humanity, where he calls for radical solutions to reduce environmental stress and human poverty, including on the high seas, enforced again through global international agreements. The parallels with the other emerging efforts are striking.

The Pope's encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

The Pope’s encyclical letter, published June 18, 2015, easy to find online (esa.org)

Slow though these processes are, they all recognize that the violations and abuses on the High Seas can only be contained by the rule of law, through international agreements and enforcement. It is the route, the only route, through these catastrophic times.

Swordfish revival

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Is there a better taste than a perfectly grilled swordfish steak, lightly seasoned, practically melting in your mouth? Hard to imagine any.

swordfish steaks, lightly grilled, lightly seasoned, a taste and texture to die for (flikr.com)

swordfish steaks, lightly grilled, lightly seasoned, a taste and texture to die for (flikr.com)

Swordfish, like other billfish and tuna, are apex predators. They are pandemic – pretty well everywhere – but they prefer water that is 18-22 degrees C. During the night they rise to shallower, warmer water; during the day they forage at greater depths. They migrate great distance seasonally, following both prey and preferred water temps.

Swordfish fish in during the day, at depths of 2-300 meters, using their bills to slash and incapacitate their prey (arkive,com)

Swordfish fish in during the day, at depths of 2-300 meters, using their bills to slash and incapacitate their prey (arkive.com)

In the 1990s swordfish, heavily fished around the world, seemed to be declining toward extinction. Now, with the exception of the Mediterranean stock, they aren’t: IUCN has recognized the Atlantic and Pacific stocks now as ‘adequately managed’ rather than ‘overfished’ as they used to be.

This is good news. How did it happen?

Starting in 1999, a lot changed, driven not surprisingly by the US market. It started with hundreds of chefs across the US, along with and the encouragement of SeaWeb, agreeing not to serve swordfish. They called their initiative ‘Give Swordfish a Break’, mobilized consumer support, sustained it for two and a half years, and stimulated a formal 10 year recovery plan that actually seems to have worked.

Global landings of swordfish rose rapidly until the late 90s (wikipedia.com)

Global landings of swordfish rose rapidly until the late 90s (wikipedia.com)

The decline of global stocks (again, the Mediterranean is the exception) has stabilized, and generally risen to levels that fisheries scientists think can be fished sustainably. The bycatch of endangered sea turtles, which used to be horrendous, has declined by about 90%.

So the new regulations are effective.

Quotas were reduced, and are reconsidered every year. Limited access to licenses now controls the size of the fishing fleets.
Minimum size limits of individuals caught should allow them to breed at least once before their final capture. Observers must be carried whenever requested, vessels are monitored by satellite tracking, and there are time and area closures, protecting breeding and juvenile fish. An impressive array of regulations.

Bycatch of sea turtles, the other great concern, has also been taken very seriously. Long-lines with their hundreds of hooks, the dominant method of fishing, must be set only at night, at appropriate depths. Length of long-lines cannot be greater than 20 nautical miles (!). Fishing ships must move away when endangered sea turtles are seen. Larger circle hooks, much less damaging to sea turtles are mandatory.

Altogether, swordfish appears to be a fine example of an environmentally responsible pelagic fishery.

Or is it? IUCN still designates the overall population as ‘declining’. The Mediterranean stock, like so much in that sad almost enclosed sea, remains overfished. Some of the global catch is also certainly unreported. And the average length that is caught commercially is 1.2 to 1.9 meters, which seems quite large – but 50 years ago far larger swordfish were still common.

A swordfish captured in 1953, weighing in at 1182 pounds. (pinterestcom)

A swordfish captured in 1953, weighing in at 1182 ponds (pinterest.com)

So what should we do, knowing that we should thoroughly protect such marine apex predators rather than eat them? Faced with that grilled steak of a freshly caught swordfish, we’ll probably first swallow our misgivings, and then enjoy the extraordinary taste.

But swordfish are not really recovering – they just aren’t declining to oblivion any longer.

A fearsome and  famous skeleton at eh Nation Museum of Natural History in Washington  (enwikipedia.org)

A fearsome and famous skeleton at eh Nation Museum of Natural History in Washington (enwikipedia.org)

The Partial Recovery of Coral Reefs.

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

The damage to coral reefs varies of course. It’s greatest in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific – Indonesia, PNG, the Philippines, Guam. It’s least where humans can’t easily get to them – near isolated islands like Pitcairn and Easter, and around atolls scattered in the Pacific, hundreds of km from human communities.

A coral reef in the Philippines, reduced to rubble, similar to many in the Caribbean (wwf.org)

A coral reef in the Philippines, reduced to rubble, similar to many in the Caribbean (wwf.org)

Pristine reefs, with angel fish, healthy corals, even top predators, are now very rare, existing isolated far from human communities (kidsdiscover.com)

Pristine reefs, with angel fish, healthy corals, even top predators, are now very rare, exist isolated far from human communities (kidsdiscover.com)

And that variation is intriguing. If we reduced the stresses we can actually control – pollution, destruction and overfishing – will that make the reefs more resilient to the challenges of climate change? We can find out only by reducing those stresses.

Meanwhile, what happens to a reef, not wrecked by pollution and other destructive events, if overfishing is reduced? Will it recover any? some? all? of its lost ecological complexity? Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that are large, old and isolated are recognized to be the ideal solution, but in much of the tropics where humans live in any abundance they are impractical, even impossible: completely restricting fishing is not an option.

Coral reefs of the world. Far too many people live far too close to far too many of them, for instance in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific (oceanservice.noaa.com)

Coral reefs of the world. Far too many people live far too close to far too many of them, for instance in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific (oceanservice.noaa.com)

Now a new and remarkable study indicates that some limited management can go a long way. We don’t have detailed long-term data on coral reefs to guide us, but we do now have current and recent data on a lot of reefs. A team of coral reef biologists has assessed what is known about the current status and recent history of 832 coral reefs, ranging from the most damaged to the most pristine (only 20 of the 832 are considered to be pristine).

The team compared fish biomass on the reefs – finding 1000 kg or more per hectare on a pristine reef, less than half that amount on overfished reefs, and as low as 10% of that amount on the most overfished reefs.

These illustrations are from the Nature article assessing 832 coral reefs. You will need to go to the article to see the details. a and b: The fish biomass on fished reefs is a small fraction of what exists on unfished reefs (red, extremely overfished; green, unfished). c: The less the fish biomass, the longer the time to full recovery when fishing is completely restricted  - 50-60 years for the most damaged. d: With limited regulations in place, ecological complexity (functional return) gradually increases (nature.com),

These illustrations are from the Nature article assessing 832 coral reefs. You will need to go to the article to see the details. a and b: The fish biomass of fished reefs is a small fraction of what exists on unfished reefs (red, extremely overfished; green, unfished). c: The less the fish biomass, the longer the time to full recovery if fishing is completely restricted – 50-60 years for the most damaged. d: With limited regulations in place, ecological complexity (functional return) gradually increases (nature.com),

Unexpectedly, limited regulations can still have considerable impact. For instance, protecting herbivorous grazers, scrapers and browsers (Parrot Fish come to mind) reduces algal cover, promotes coral dominance once again, and raises fish biomass. Eliminating the most damaging fishing gear, like beach seines, also helps fish recovery. Restricting access to the reef to those with negotiated rights to fish there while excluding external fishers helps even more. Sustainable fishing becomes possible.

Parrotfish (this is the Bicolor Parrotfish) are critical herbivores on a coral reef, sraping back algae (ecology.com)

Parrotfish (this is the Bicolor Parrotfish) are critical herbivores on a coral reef, sraping back algae (ecology.com)

Currently most reefs anywhere near human communities are hardly managed at all. Now we know that with limited regulations, a reef can recover to about half of its pristine fish biomass, and when it does, it is much less likely to collapse.

So sustainable fishing on somewhat recovered coral reefs is a target we can realistically aim for, an outcome so very clearly worthwhile in itself. These are grounds for a little optimism.

Will such changes then also make the reefs more resilient to the stresses of rising ocean temperatures and acidification associated with climate change? Coral reef biologists predict that they will, but though the theory is sound, it is untested.

Let’s find out. It’s the least we can do.

The Shift North in the Gulf of Maine

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

The Big Shift North continues unabated in the Gulf of Maine.

In November 2014, cod fishing in the Gulf was banned. Some cod are still there but they are concentrating in colder, deeper water. Fishermen think this is just another conspiracy among scientists and regulators to keep their jobs, and think there are plenty of fish out there. There aren’t. Whatever cod are left from hundreds of years of overfishing and mismanagement, most have left, moving north.

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

That wonderfully sweet Northern Shrimp, Pandalus borealis, has also again failed to show up in the Gulf this winter in any numbers, cancelling the winter fishing season for them. They too have shifted north to colder waters.

Then there are the lobsters, living in unprecedented numbers in the Gulf of Maine – partly because their predators like cod have mostly vanished, partly because of the warmer coastal waters. Their region of greatest abundance on the Maine coast has also shifted north from the central coast to close to the Canadian border.

And Green Crabs, still considered invasive and inedible, have exploded in numbers on the shores of the Gulf which just a few decades ago was its northernmost range. They eat soft-shelled clams, decimate eel grass beds, and really need now to be harvested for something.

Meanwhile species from the warmer waters south of Cape Cod are extending north at least seasonally into the Gulf.

Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles drifted north of Cape Cod in the autumn in far larger numbers than ever before – where they then still got stunned by the cooler waters of the Gulf, making the rescue effort by beach walking volunteers a far greater challenge.

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

More dramatic is the seasonal arrival of Black Sea Bass that live along the coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Cod, separated into northern and southern stocks by Cape Hatteras. The fish forage along rock piles and ledges, pilings and jetties, quite easily caught by pots and by hook and line. They mature first as females, and then as they grow larger some shift to become males – they are protogynous hermaphrodites. They supported thriving commercial and recreational fisheries until they were almost fished out. Then amazingly serious regulations limiting quota, season, and sizes were enforced and the stock, especially north of Hatteras, has recovered reasonably well.

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Now Black Sea Bass have become common enough in summer in the Gulf of Maine as far as mid-coast Maine for fishing to be regulated there as well. They eat anything they can from the seafloor, including small juvenile lobsters, but enthused recreational fishing will probably prevent them from becoming a major lobster predator.

And of course the list goes on – starfish, Blue Crabs, algae, puffins – species shift north within and out of the Gulf, following the colder water, and they shift north into the Gulf, following the warmer water. A major reorganization of the entire ecosystem is well underway.

Where is all this heading? The community may not stabilize until sometime after ocean temperatures stabilize, if that ever happens.

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster, now at about 2 degrees per decade, than almost anyplace else besides the polar regions, so the rate of change in the community is unusually rapid. But it does let us think about the kinds of global changes we will expect to face everywhere else.

At the least we can recognize that complex, unpredictable community shifts are occurring and will continue to occur, and that we need now to plan for the changes. We will have to adapt our regulatory practices for managing species of both commercial and recreational interest, finding ways to respond rapidly.

For what the Gulf of Maine is telling us is that we must expect everything to change. Soon.

The MPA Solution

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

More and more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are being created around the world, but do they make a difference? Do they actually help depressed fisheries and their communities recover?

Sometimes yes, often no: it depends on a suite of features. So the question becomes not just how much coastline should we protect, but also how do we do it right.

Early in 2014 an extraordinary study published in Nature compared 87 MPAs from the shallow water coasts of 40 nations and showed us just how hard it is to create an effective MPA.

MPAs fail to be effective for a few reasons. The greatest problem of course is illegal harvesting, but inadequate regulations that allow harvesting also occur in far too many MPAs. And if the MPA is too small or it isn’t isolated, mobile species simply emigrate to quick capture elsewhere.

Five different features critical to the success of an MPA emerged from the study. Their acronym is NEOLI.

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful MPAs that are pictured below. (nature.com)

Coastal shallow-water MPAs included in the study. On the upper map, the 4 black spots are the sites of the most successful successful MPAs that are pictured below (nature.com)

– The MPA must be No-Take: no harvesting at all can occur. (N)
– Protection must be well-enforced. Otherwise illegal harvesting wrecks everything. (E)
– It must be at least 10 years old. Obviously that isn’t actually old, but this is a young business, and things take time. (O)
– It must be large, at least 100 km2. (L)
– And it must be isolated – surrounded by sand or deep water. (I)

No-Take, Enforced, Old, Large and Isolated: NEOLI.

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

MPas with 4-5 of the NEOLI features have dramatically greater fish biomass (nature.com)

The kicker is that an MPA must have 4 or 5 of these features, or it is ineffective, no different than adjacent unprotected fished areas. Of the 87 MPAs assessed, only 4 had all 5 features, and only 5 others had 4. So 90% had three or less.

These 9 sites, though, point the way. They had considerably more fish, larger fish, larger fish biomass, and included top predators like sharks, groupers and jacks.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Cocos Island, Costa Rica, uninhabited, tropical (underseahunter.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Malpeco Island, 500 km west of Columbia uninhabited except for military site (seaseek.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Kermadec Island, 1000 km north of North Island, NZ. Uninhabited, subtropical (teara.govt.nz.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

Middleton Reef, Tasman Sea, 550 km east of NSW, Australia. Uninhabited, southern most oceanic platform coral reef. (hellomagazine.com)

The good news here is that recovery is possible, that restoring fish communities to levels of biodiversity and biomass perhaps not that different from past historical levels is not just another impossible dream.

Less encouraging is just how difficult reaching the NEOLI standard can be. The four MPAs with full NEOLI status are pictured above. All four are extremely isolated and almost completely uninhabited. They hardly represent our real and over-crowded world.

Still, knowing what is needed we may be able to rehabilitate many currently ineffective MPAs. Perhaps small ones can be made larger and more isolated. Certainly they can be made No-Take, enforcement can be ensured, and they will of course get older.

Other studies point out more that should be obvious. For instance, coastal fishing communities need to be included in the decisions to create No-Take MPAs, for they know where the MPAs should be placed, and enforcement is more successful if it comes from the community. Comanagement is critical to MPA success along inhabited coasts, and it works a lot better than any alternative.

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

School of hammerhead sharks, Isla del Coco, CR. Top predators modify their food webs. (superslice.com)

Also, rehabilitation of existing failing MPAs is only part of the solution. Currently there are about 6500 MPAs around the world, which sounds like a lot, but in fact they barely cover 2% of the world’s oceans, far from the 20-30% that is probably necessary.

Of course creating new protected No-Take space is difficult, humans will still fish illegally, bottom trawlers still unfortunately exist, and enforcement is always a challenge. But knowing how successful a well designed and truly protected MPA can be makes a huge difference.

We can do this.