Archive for June, 2014

Illegal fishing: still low risk, high return

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

In early April the US Congress did something quite amazing: it overwhelmingly agreed to ratify an FAO sponsored international agreement, the Port State Measures Agreement. By this agreement, the US will deny port entry to fishing vessels suspected of carrying illegally caught fish, and will warn other ports about the fishing vessel.

Many species are caught illegally, but both Albacore and Bluefin Tuna are particularly vulnerable because they are large and very valuable (environment1.org)

Many species are caught illegally, but both Albacore and Bluefin Tuna are particularly vulnerable because they are large and very valuable (environment1.org)

A lot of countries signed on to this agreement in 2010 but 25 have got to ratify it before it becomes international law. So far 13 countries have done so – besides the US, Norway, New Zealand, Chile and the EU have ratified it, along with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Uruguay, Oman, Gabon and the Seychelles. Not surprisingly, no sign of Canada as yet. Though not yet international law, it is well on its way, and it will happen.

It’s an important step. Up to about 20% of the fish caught globally (and 32% of the fish marketed in the US) are caught illegally. Illegal fishing is big business, renowned for its high return on relatively low risk.

A US Coast Guard cutter escorts a stateless IUU fishing vessel that had been fishing for albacore with drift nets (oceanfad.org)

A US Coast Guard cutter escorts a stateless IUU fishing vessel that had been fishing for albacore with drift nets (oceanfad.org)

Illegal fishing occurs in lots of ways – using banned floating gill nets, fishing in protected areas, fishing without licenses, fishing protected species, fishing over quota, falsifying documents, the options are many. Often fishing under flags of convenience, ownership of illegally fishing vessels can be very difficult to determine.

In the fisheries business, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are known as IUU, and that spreads the problem further, for coastal nations must regulate their fisheries and establish clear reporting methods before illegal fishing can be identified. This occurs most places, but not all – some nations lack the government or the political will to regulate, and some EEZs are just too huge to enforce any regulations that do exist. The high seas, beyond the 200 mile limits of the EEZs, of course are especially vulnerable.

Illegal fishing may be relatively low risk, and therefore irresistible, but the potential damage is huge. Stocks are depleted, marine habitats are damaged, management estimates of stock sizes and health are inaccurate, fishermen fishing legally are hurt economically, and coastal fishing communities suffer.

Italian fishing vessels set illegal drift nets for Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean (pewenvironmentalgroup)

Italian fishing vessels set illegal drift nets for Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean (pewenvironmentalgroup)

And there is more. Since the fishing activity itself is illegal, other miserable and also illegal activities occur as well – a ship’s crew may be underpaid or may even be bonded slaves, and the ships may be used for both human and drug trafficking.

So illegal fishing is pretty horrible from all points of view, including conservation and issues of social justice. The new FAO agreement helps – it lacks enforcement beyond port denial, but it still helps. It’s a start.

of course we need to do a lot more. The International Maritime Organization has onboard transponder tracking systems on the global merchant fleet, on all vessels over 24 m long, and it works – but fishing vessels are not included. Every fishing vessel of that size should not be tracked as well (the technology exists in a variety of forms) Information on vessels fishing illegally should be widely shared. We need stronger regulations to protect declining stocks.

None of this is impossible. Of course, strong enforcement needs to exist: illegal fishing is criminal, and the crimes need to be recognized.

And we as consumers can help. Markets need to care where their fish come from – we need to keep IUU fish off the shelves.

So ask where the fish you buy come from. Ask for evidence that it was caught legally. Force our markets to care.

They will if we do.

Signal from Sea Butterflies

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Sea butterflies are in the news, stressed by ocean acidification.

What do we now know about the decline in pH of ocean waters?

Well, we know that the pH has dropped from 8.2, where it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, to its current level of about 8.1, and that the rate of change has increased in the past several decades. This may not sound like much, but in fact it indicates a 30% increase in the concentration of H+ ions in sea water. That is plenty to stress species that depend on carbonate ions in the water to build the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons that they depend on.

pH of ocean water in 1850 was about 8.2, with lower levels occurring in a few areas of coastal upwelling (igbp.net)

pH of ocean water in 1850 was about 8.2, with lower levels occurring in a few areas of coastal upwelling (igbp.net)

At current rates of global atmospheric CO2 emissions, ocean pH will drop further to 7.8 by the end of the century.

By 2100 ocean pH will have dropped to about 7.8, with extensive coastal areas particularly affected (igbp.net)

By 2100 ocean pH will have dropped to about 7.8, with extensive coastal areas particularly affected (igbp.net)

Ocean acidification has occurred before on the planet, but this event is different: it is happening 100 times more rapidly than any previous events we know of. Geochemists are looking 300 million years into the past, and there is nothing like it.

As CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen, about 30% has dissolved in ocean water, where pH has dropped (igbp.net)

As CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen, about 30% has dissolved in ocean water, where pH has dropped (igbp.net)

And it matters. Anything with an exposed calcium carbonate shell or skeleton will be affected – think mollusks, corals, and shellfish like crabs, shrimp and lobsters. With more CO2 dissolved in the water, there are more more bicarbonate ions along with the greater levels of H+ ions, and as a result less carbonate is available to make calcium carbonate. The shells are vulnerable to dissolution unless the surrounding water is saturated with carbonate ions, for they then lose calcium back into the water. As the shells erode and weaken, the animals become stressed, misshapen and potentially dead.

We’ve known about the increasing threat of ocean acidification for some years, but perhaps it has seemed a more distant threat than others associated with our increased CO2 emissions. But we know there already has been an impact on shell growth of oysters and mussels, and we know that coral reefs are particularly vulnerable as pH continues to decline. We have certainly been warned.

Sea butterflies are planktonic snails abundant over the world's continental shelves (realmonstrosities.com)

Sea butterflies are planktonic snails abundant over the world’s continental shelves (realmonstrosities.com)

Now we are warned once again, this time by sea butterflies. Also known as pteropods, these actually are pea-sized snails that live in the plankton where they are predators of other plankton and the common prey of fish. They are very beautiful to us – translucent, graceful, with the snail foot modified into what look like flapping wings. The shell is much reduced, though still very present, and the shells of species living in the California Current along the west coast of the US are showing signs of unusual erosion from exposure to the lower pH.

Electron micrographs of the shell of a healthy sea butterfly on the left, and the eroded shell of one stressed by lower pH on the right (arstecnhica.com)

Electron micrographs of the shell of a healthy sea butterfly on the left, and the eroded shell of one stressed by lower pH on the right (arstecnhica.com)

There are several key issues here. The rate of ocean acidification is unprecedented, and we don’t really know what lies ahead. We also know that vulnerable organisms will have insufficent time to adapt even if adaptation were possible. Eliminating vulnerable species like pteropods – or brittle stars, corals, mollusks or crustacesns – from ecosystems where they play a critical role as prey or predator will change the communities in ways that may also effect the top predators we want to catch. We are not short of discouraging examples of such community restructuring.

Do poster species help? Though the looming loss of coral reefs has not galvanized us to action, effective conservation campaigns have been built on the images of a variety of mammals, from whales and polar bears to koalas and pandas.

But sea butterflies as poster species? Because of their beauty, perhaps that isn’t impossible. It can’t hurt.