WCGOP Observer Photo Credit: NOAA Report, supplied by Sean Sullivan
On September 24, NOAA Fisheries released their report on the second year (2012) of the West Coast Groundfish Catch Shares Program, a program that EDF has been instrumental in helping to develop, implement and improve. The report notes the spirit of partnership that helped bring a catch share management system to the Pacific Coast, and praises the program's conservation and economic performance. Mostly, however, NOAA credits fishermen for using the flexibility afforded under catch shares to improve their long-term economic prospects and avoid overfished species.
Here are some highlights:
Conservation: The report notes “a significant reduction in the amount of bycatch,” of overfished species, and concludes that the program “is actively rebuilding several groundfish stocks.”
Catch: Harvest of target stocks continues to improve—up 5% from 2011.
Business Flexibility: Transfers of quota between fishermen increased dramatically in comparison with 2011, and were relatively constant throughout the year. This increase indicates better understanding among fishermen of how to leverage their allotment for efficient business planning. Read More »
Good science should always guide policy. In the ocean, policy reflects decades of scientific work on single species and on single endpoints, like water quality. However, it is now clear that ocean ecosystems are more than the sum of their parts, and policy needs to catch up to this new scientific understanding.
Of course, we must continue to protect the aspects of ocean ecosystems that we value the most. Fisheries need catch limits to keep stocks at sustainable levels. Pollutants need caps to keep waters fishable and swimmable. Forestry and farming need best practices and standards to keep estuaries healthy. But it turns out that ocean ecosystems have tipping points – ecological thresholds beyond which they undergo dramatic changes.
Healthy and resilient ocean ecosystems function similar to the United States government’s system of checks and balances—different species do similar things but in slightly different ways, which help keep these systems both interconnected and even-keeled. However, when we reduce species populations so much they can no longer do their part, we alter the natural balance of the system, which can have grave effects.
Luxuriant kelp forests that support marine mammals and a myriad of other species provide us with various ecosystem services like seafood, agar (sugar made from kelp), recreation, and sheltering the coastline from waves. However, these habitats can turn to rocky barrens very rapidly when they reach their tipping points. We witnessed this in the 1800s when fur hunting became prevalent—decreasing the sea otter population. With fewer sea otter to consume urchins, urchins became overabundant, overgrazing the kelp and causing forests to disappear.
Fortunately, science is providing insights into the factors that make ocean ecosystems more capable of resisting these kinds of changes, and more able to bounce back when they are damaged; in other words, the attributes that make some systems more resilient than others. Having lots of species with different ecological jobs (biodiversity and niches) is very important, as is having several species doing the same job but in slightly different ways (functional redundancy). Lots of genetic diversity within species and populations is important as well. It's a little like rocket science: rockets are complex systems that are made more robust and resilient (i.e., less likely to blow up) by building in redundant subsystems. Nature has done that one better by building in even more diversity, allowing coral reefs for example to recover from hurricanes and even volcanic eruptions that devastate human communities.
In an ocean in which the temperature, pH, currents, weather, and human uses are changing, it makes much more sense to manage for resilient ecosystems than manage for maximum sustainable yield of one species or another. Who knows what the next big impact to the ocean will be? We need to increase resiliency so that no matter what, ocean ecosystems can persist and continue to provide the many valuable ecosystem services upon which we depend. Our new paper draws on the science of ecosystem resilience and lays out a policy framework for achieving this goal.
The ocean is enormous, supporting a vast array of life while providing food, fuel, recreation, and spiritual rejuvenation. But efforts to conserve the ocean, though valiant, are meager compared to the scale of the threats to the ocean. Ocean conservation advocates have achieved many notable successes, such as dramatic reductions in certain kinds of pollution, the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and major improvements in fishery management in some areas of the world. However, a recent analysis that EDF participated in suggests that 40% of the ocean is still strongly impacted by a range of threats, including shipping, the modification of rivers and estuaries, coastal development, pollution, and overfishing. How can we scale conservation efforts up to match the ocean's vastness and the severity of these threats?
To answer this question, we must first accurately diagnose the problem. Conventional markets, which drive so much of mass human behavior, only value a few of the many goods and services that the ocean provides, like fish and oil. The critically important ocean processes that produce fish, regulate the climate, assimilate wastes, and provide all of the other goods and services on which the diversity of ocean life and we humans depend are generally not valued by markets. Because markets see value only in parts of the ocean, and not in the whole, the valuable pieces are extracted and the rest is degraded.
Conservation has been pushing back against market forces, among the most powerful forces in the world, in the form of regulation. While regulations like water quality standards and MPAs can be very effective, they often depend on high levels of enforcement because they are working against market forces and the incentives to exploit valuable resources without stewarding the ecosystems that support them. Regulations in this context are often perceived as threats to livelihood and human welfare, resulting in opposition and conflict. It is not surprising that it typically takes many years and sometimes decades to get ocean conservation measures in place. Read More »
Can a Change in Management Solve the World’s Most Pressing Marine Conservation Challenge and Foster Vibrant Coastal Communities? A new study published in the journal Marine Policy finds that reforming how fisheries are managed can successfully restore and maintain healthy fish populations and benefit both fishermen and fishing-dependent communities. The study evaluated 15 fisheries in the U.S. and British Columbia before and after adopting "catch shares” — a type of fishery management increasingly common worldwide.
Catch shares, the study found, delivers “clear gains in environmental performance (and) major economic improvements” as well as dramatic improvements in safety for fishermen. The improvements were found across a range of fisheries in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and extended to fishermen from both small and large vessels, using a diversity of gears and targeting a variety of fish. In contrast, the study found that these same fisheries performed poorly under traditional fishery management in virtually all areas.
Overall, the study is a dose of good news at a time when most news we hear about oceans is bad. The results also come at a time when some in Congress are pushing to eliminate fishermen’s ability to pursue catch shares for their fisheries. The findings point to a clear choice about which strategy the nation should pursue to achieve abundant oceans that also allow fishermen and fishing-dependent communities to prosper. Read More »
The Gulf of Mexico red snapper individual fishing quota (IFQ) program – one type of catch share – is again earning high marks for its conservation and economic benefits.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has published three annual updates of the program, with the latest concluding that the red snapper IFQ is meeting its main objectives. A recent stock assessment also concluded that long-standing “overfishing” of red snapper is finally ending.
Tangible Conservation, Economic Progress
Commercial overfishing is reversed and catch limits are climbing. After recent deep cuts in catch, commercial fishermen were rewarded this year with a more than 30 percent increase in catch in response to the positive stock assessment results and effective management.
Far fewer dead fish are thrown overboard. Scientific analyses conclude that 70 percent fewer fish are being thrown overboard under IFQs across the Gulf. The latest report highlights that in Texas and Louisiana, which accounted for over half of the ’09 landings, fishermen discarded just one fish for every 15 they kept. This is a huge improvement over pre-IFQ management when, gulf-wide, fishermen threw back about one fish for every one kept.
Fishermen are leaving more fish in the water to reproduce. Not only are fewer fish thrown overboard, fishermen have left about three percent of their quota in the water for the past three years.
Businesses have an opportunity to turn a profit. With year-round fishing and stability, fishermen bring high quality fish to the dock when consumer demand is high. Fishermen now have flexibility to tailor the catch to market needs and organize fishing trips to minimize costs. Fishermen say their costs have dropped by 50 percent or more and data show they are earning 25 percent more for their fish at the dock.
The value of the fishery is rising. The rising value of the privilege to catch red snapper represents growing benefits to Gulf communities and reflects optimism for a healthy fishery, stable management, and a commitment to conservation.
Opportunities for Improvement in the 5-year Review
With 2011 around the corner, a milestone for IFQ program is approaching: The start of a 5-year mandatory performance evaluation.
All federal catch share programs are reviewed at the 5-year point to evaluate progress toward goals and identify needed improvements. This is also an opportunity highlight the region’s most significant management successes – and national model – and to fine-tune the plan and ensure on-going benefits to the fishery, industry and communities.
One thing is clear going into the review: the IFQ program is working and should be continued. Additionally, there are two key areas in which the program can be improved:
Continue to improve enforcement and monitoring
Ensure standardized, accurate reporting of ex-vessel prices by fish dealers. This is important in part for collection of cost recovery fees.
Improve the online IFQ reporting system so that it reconciles with other landing records data.
Ensure compliance with the six percent cap on holding IFQ shares.
Reduce red snapper discarding even more
Eliminate the minimum size limit to reduce size-related discards.
Better integrate eastern Gulf fishermen into the IFQ program (This region received little initial allocation of shares because red snapper had been fished out of the area until recently).
Create a full-retention fishery where all fish caught are counted toward each fisherman’s quota, and tracked by camera, to eliminate all waste that lessen the value and recovery of the fishery.
A Successful Model for Struggling Fisheries
The red snapper IFQ has already served as a model for Gulf commercial fishermen who voted to add 20 grouper and tilefish species into the IFQ program in 2010. Conservation and economic benefits will further improve if all commercial reef fish are incorporated into the program.
Cuba lies just 90 miles from the tip of Florida. The two areas share a large expanse of ocean – and the huge array of biodiversity contained within it. That’s why EDF staffers are in Cuba this week to discuss ways to eliminate overfishing, protect coral reefs, conserve coastal areas, and tap potential ocean energy in our shared backyard.
Already, in September, EDF hosted a Cuban delegationin a move towards creating greater scientific exchange between the two countries. “The U.S. and Cuba share many ecological resources, but have different ways of managing them," says EDF’s Dan Whittle. "Fishing, coastal development, and offshore oil and gas exploration in Cuba can have impacts in the U.S., and vice-versa. The sooner we work together to manage shared resources and find solutions to common problems, the sooner we'll see benefits for the people, the environment and the economy in both countries."
We'll have a follow up post to report on the trip when our scientists return.