Archive for June, 2011

Sinking Subsidies

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

In 17th Century Holland, 800 boats, employing some thousands of men, caught the same tonnage of fish that a single modern trawler, employing a handful of men, now catches.

That kind of progress has been a large part of the reason for the successful overfishing of so many of the world’s fisheries. Along with lack of quotas, or with quotas set far higher than advising scientists propose, that success has in turn been supported by the government incentives – by subsidies.

How does any fishing community compete with a subsidized super-trawler? (

Governments underwrite the costs of converting from small fishing boats to larger ones, from old equipment to new technologies. They compensate fishermen when they don’t catch fish. They buy back the boats when the fisheries finally crash. Tax relief includes exemption from sales tax, tax free fuel, accelerated depreciation, and deferred tax programs. And there’s more: import quotas, fees to fish in foreign waters, and price support if the market gets soft.

US subsidies for fuel costs are substantial (

Subsidies now add up to approximately the same amount as the market value of the fish. This has been going on now for decades, and there may have been good reasons for some of it in the beginning. But not now. Removing the subsidies would go long way toward developing truly sustainable fisheries.

Well subsidized large-scale fishing have destroyed both fishing communities and fisheries (

Now, perhaps, this will change. In Paris, in early June, the second annual European Fish Week was held, leading up to a proposal for revising the Common Fisheries Policy later in the summer. Representatives from the different countries did something unusual. They told each stories about the past richness of the fisheries, 50 to 100 years ago. Then they called for a restoration of such abundance. To assist the return to sustainable fishing, it looks like they will call for elimination of the the heavy subsidies.

They met in early June. They report in later July. (

Past abundance probably cannot be recovered, but sustainable fishing must be possible, so the potential changes in the Common Fish Policy are critical. The Common Fisheries Policy started up in 1983, so its track record is horrible as European fisheries continued to crash. Now that so much has been lost, some real action may occur: reasonable quotas enforced, major subsidies eliminated. Maybe even something more radical may emerge.

The EU fleet is the world’s third largest, and the EU is the largest importer of fish from other countries. There is an opportunity here not just to enhance the sustainability of European fisheries, but to be a model for the world. That would be truly radical.

How alone is the EU in even talking about the elimination of subsidies? The world Trade Organization effectively controls fisheries subsidies, and encouraged by Oceana, has developed a policy for reducing them – but it is still to be implemented. An EU initiative, one that is real rather than just more fantasy, will be very helpful.

The elimination of subsidies of course comes with costs. But consider the alternative: a few fishermen, in a relatively few large ships owned by a few companies who are subsidized by government aid and incentives catch all the fish and make all the money. Then everyone loses – communities and fisheries.

Update on Ocean Plastic Pollution

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

About the best we can do as environmentalists is to look for some good news in the huge mess of bad news.

So here is some: though the production of plastics has continued to increase over the past couple of decades, the amount polluting the ocean does not appear to be increasing. This is unexpected.

Ocean currents and winds concentrate plastic and other debris in the five great subtropical gyres – the most notorious being the North Pacific Gyre.

The five subtropical gyres, regions of convergence, products of the ocean currents and winds. The North Pacific Gyre is also rudely called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (

To understand whether plastic pollution in the gyres has been increasing, we need a long-term study covering a very large area, supported by a convincingly large set of data. Such a study is extremely rare, for funding agencies don’t really want to wait 20 years to see results.

Hence the beauty of the study published in Science last September. Sea Education Association offers university credits in oceanography on sailing research vessels. For 22 years, from 1986 to 2008, over 7000 lucky undergraduates and faculty scientists conducted 6100 surface plankton tows from sailing research vessels in and around the North Atlantic Gyre, known as well as the Sargasso Sea.

The North Atlantic Gyre, also called the Sargasso Sea, is largely a product of the impact of the immense Gulf Stream (

Plastics in the ocean gradually break up into smaller and smaller bits, called microplastics. Up to a few mm in diameter, these float just below the water surface, easily sampled by the plankton nets. More than 64,000 plastic pieces were picked out of the plankton samples, most from 30-38 degrees latitude, and most concentrated at the latitude of Atlanta. Abundance of microplastics should have increased over the 22 years.

Microplastics were particularly abundant in the eastern part of the North Atlantic Gyre (

Unexpectedly, they didn’t. Despite the four to five fold increase in global plastics production and in discarded plastics in US municipal waste over that time, the amount of plastics collected each year of the study stayed about the same.

Why, you ask? Most of the plastics come from the US eastern seaboard: have the beaches of the eastern US been cleaned more successfully? Are people really discarding less, recycling more? Much in the past has also come from ships, which are now prohibited from dumping plastics at sea. As well, efforts to prevent or recover spills of resin pellets, the raw material of plastic products, have increased. But these are still not sufficient explanations.

There is a further possibility. Microbiologists have found that bacteria – of the Vibrios group of bacteria – appear to be eating away the surfaces of the microplastics. This could be very good news, provided they are actually digesting the polymer molecules and breaking down associated toxins. If they only accumulate the polymers and toxins, and in turn pass them on to whatever grazes on them, then the news is interesting, but not so good.

Electron micrograph of bacteria grazing on a microplastic fragment pulled from the Sargasso Sea (

Plastics producers are also taking some limited action: in March, at a conference on marine debris, 47 companies signed a pledge. They agreed to try to reduce marine debris, help look for solutions to the debris problem, promote enforcement of existing laws, promote knowledge of eco-efficient waste management, enhance recovery of plastic for recycling, and prevent further loss of resin pellets. Certainly good intentions.

It all helps. Sea birds, marine mammals, sea turtles and large fish will still be entangled, strangled and suffocated by plastic garbage and fishing gear, and microplastics are hardly nourishing food for any except the bacteria.

But it isn’t getting worse.

And Ban Deepwater Bottom Trawling Too

Monday, June 6th, 2011

This was one of the most embarrassing failures in the sad history of failures in fisheries management.

In 2006, a UN Committee considered a proposal for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. The US and the EU supported it. But when a proposal is still in UN committee, one committee member can refuse to agree, and so sabotage an initiative supported by all the others. Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Canada and Iceland, all of them enthused trawling nations, were represented.

Trawler under the Belize flag, working south of Tasmania, followed by patient albatrosses. (

The one hold-out was Iceland – afraid of any initiative that might curtail its access to high seas fishing. So the moratorium proposal never left the committee, killed by one self-centered, arrogant little country. Who made such absurd rules?

It could have been worse – Canada and Spain also resisted the proposal until the very last minute. Why Canada abruptly changed its mind is not clear, but we probably shouldn’t underestimate the power of ridicule.

With the new gear and ships available, deep-water bottom trawlers can now reach into very deep water – even to depths of 2000 meters. There they can scrape up communities that may take decades, even centuries to recover.

A net full of orange roughy, trawled up from a sea mount off New Zealand. The fish take 30 years to reach maturity, and live for a hundred years or more. (

On hard deep-water substrates, like on the tops of submerged sea mounts, an extraordinary cold-water coral community exists, along with huge schools of very slow growing cold-water fish, like the orange roughy. Deep water trawlers have wrecked these communities wherever they have found them – the before and after photographs are as discouraging as any ever taken of the effects of our harvesting actions. One pass by a trawler will destroy 50% of the reef in its path. On sea mounts around South Australia, as much as 90% has been destroyed.

Cold, deep water coral communities are complex, fragile and slow growing, easily destroyed by deep-water bottom trawls (

Everyone knows this this is short-sighted and indefensible, but stopping it is another matter.

It has been left to individual countries to take what initiatives they want to in their own EEZs, and to regional clusters of countries to develop treaties related to high seas, international waters. There is some hope now that it won’t get too much worse.

The US responded by banning bottom trawling over a large part of the Gulf of Alaska, near the Aleutians, in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, and along most of the Pacific coast – really a very significant action. Through the efforts of FAO, bottom-trawling at depths greater than 1000m has been banned in the Mediterranean. New Zealand has also banned deep water trawling in 1/3 of its EEZ, which sounds positive, except that some of it had already been trawled and wrecked, and many other parts are too deep to be reached by trawls.

Sea mounts in the Mediterranean, and in the EEZs of Norway, Scotland, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand waters have been protected as well. Kiribati also banned all commercial fishing, including deep-water bottom trawling, in a huge new marine reserve, but has only a single patrol boat to enforce anything. These are small successes.

Kiribati, in 2008, formed the world's largest marine protected area, named the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Kiribati's long term existence is threatened by rising sea levels. (

Now, in both the South and North Pacific, treaties have emerged that regulate fishing in international waters. Until 2010, really no rules really existed. Now, in both areas, covering millions of square miles, no expansion of fishing is possible, and fishing on sensitive areas is banned unless it can be shown that no damage will be done. The fishing nations agree to apply the principles of the precautionary approach and sustainable fishing. Bottom-trawlers get special attention, with 100% of them carrying observers whose job is too keep them honest. Oceana and FAO have again been involved, and they sound pleased. It isn’t a moratorium, but then this isn’t a perfect world either.

International waters in the North Pacific (light blue) and the South Pacific (dark blue) are now protected from any increase in deep-water bottom trawling. EEZs of coastal nations are medium blue. (

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done. But it is truly possible that, perhaps sometime soon, bottom trawling will be banned globally.

Imagine that.