Selected tags: Fisheries

The future of Galveston Bay: Implications of the oil spill

Fishing boat coming in from Galveston Bay. Photo Credit: Roy_Luck

Fishing boat coming in from Galveston Bay.
Photo Credit: Roy.Luck

Galveston Bay is a busy body of water. It carries the traffic of the Houston Ship Channel. It is a popular recreation destination for fishermen and others. It not only serves as a home to birds and large marine animals, but also as a nursery ground for many important seafood species. It is the nation’s seventh largest estuary and among them the second most important seafood producer, behind only the Chesapeake Bay.

The immediate effects of the oil spill on March 22, 2014, are visible in the oil sheens and tar balls floating in the water and the “oiled” birds and animals that crews are trying to help. But, we can’t see how this heavy marine fuel, containing toxic chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), is harming shrimp, crabs, oysters, red drum and other fish that call the waters of Galveston Bay home. This contamination can hang around for a long time. Studies from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill show that even in low concentrations PAHs can disrupt the development of fish and invertebrate larvae; and in high concentrations can be lethal. Recent reports of tunas susceptible to deformities from the 2010 spill attest to the potential risks long after the spill itself is gone.

The timing of this spill is bad for several key species especially important to the seafood industry and consumers. Brown shrimp have already spawned offshore, and March is the month when the young ride tides coming back inshore to settle in seagrass beds and marshes, habitats that are their nurseries – and where the water is now contaminated with oil pollution. The young are especially vulnerable from now until about May or June. Young blue crabs that settled during the winter in Galveston Bay are also in danger, as are baby fish; including Gulf menhaden, a large harvest in the region’s fishing industry and a fish that is a vital food for larger fish and other animals. Marine life in the way of the oil is dying; and those not killed are exposed to toxic chemicals that could impair their reproductive potential, and some fish that feed on worms in bottom sediments may acquire and carry toxics in their tissues. The seafood “crops” in the area could well be reduced.

Anyone who has been to Galveston Bay has seen the many dolphins are other large marine life that frequent the area and eat these other fish. As these contaminants enter Bay food chains our concern turns not only to how these animals are affected by the spill in the short term, but also to their longer-term health, and even to whether or not seafood species that live there could constitute a human health risk that must be guarded against into the future.

Long-term monitoring of the ultimate footprint of this spill will be necessary so that we can continue to understand how it impacts the ecosystem, and protect people who eat seafood from the bay.

As reports come out about the history of the ships involved in this spill and how the accident occurred it is important to remember that in areas where a large amount of pollution exists so close to such important habitat we must do everything we can to ensure the long-term safety of the species we rely on for ocean health and our own supply of food. Read More »

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Let’s not turn back the clock on U.S. fisheries

G.W. Bush signing MSA Re-authorization 2006

President George W. Bush signs the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006, joined by a bi-partisan group of lawmakers.
Photo Credit: AP, from talkingfish.org

Fisheries management can be a contentious business. So it’s all the more striking that the business of legislating on federal fisheries has historically been a relatively cordial affair. The gains of the last two decades have been possible because of strong cooperation across the aisle. In 1996 the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) prioritized conservation in federal fisheries management for the first time. Alaska’s Republican Congressman Don Young jokes that the Magnuson-Stevens Act could have been called the Young-Studds Act because of his close collaboration on the SFA with Gerry Studds, then a Democrat from Massachusetts. It passed both chambers by overwhelming margins and was signed into law by President Clinton. Ten years later, the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act strengthened conservation mandates in response to continued overfishing and the failure to rebuild overfished species. It was championed in the Senate by Republican Ted Stevens in close cooperation with his Democratic counterpart Daniel Inouye. It cleared the Senate by unanimous consent, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

With Congress once again considering reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), there’s a welcome bipartisan consensus that the law is working. Senior lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are talking about building on our recent successes and exploring minor tweaks to the law rather than pursuing any kind of far-reaching rewrite. Despite serious ongoing challenges in specific fisheries, the legal framework created by Congress is clearly succeeding. Science-based annual catch limits are ending overfishing; and statutory rebuilding timelines have driven the recovery of more than 30 previously depleted stocks. This is great news for the health of the ocean. It’s even better news for seafood lovers, saltwater anglers, and coastal small businesses—the most important long-term beneficiaries of fishery management success.

In this context, a reauthorization discussion draft that has been circulated by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings is all the more befuddling. Chairman Hastings voted for the 2006 reauthorization and celebrates its success. At a committee hearing convened to consider the discussion draft earlier this month he was emphatic: “In the [previous] hearings we’ve held there was general agreement that the Act is working,” the Chairman said in his opening statement. “I have said all along that the Act is fundamentally sound.” Yet as EDF outlines in a comment letter submitted to the committee today, the substance of the Chairman’s discussion draft is deeply discordant with his affirming rhetoric. His overhaul of the law would do more than merely “shift the balance” of fishery management in modest and benign ways. On the contrary, if enacted in its current form we fear it would set us on a path back to the failed management practices of the past.

Take overfishing. This scourge devastated many coastal communities in previous decades, costing countless jobs and forfeiting untold billions in lost economic output. During this month’s hearing, Chairman Hastings was careful to assert that his draft does not eliminate requirements to prevent overfishing, and in a narrow sense that’s true. Yet those provisions failed to prevent widespread overfishing until legislators added requirements for enforceable science-based quotas, which the discussion draft would undercut. It doesn’t take a fisheries scientist to see that rolling back those specific mandates will wind back the clock. Indeed, the discussion draft explicitly allows overfishing to continue after a population is declared overfished. And it permits catch limits set at the overfishing limit, inviting management on the knife’s edge.

Or take rebuilding. NOAA estimates that renewing depleted fish stocks will ultimately result in $31 billion in additional sales impacts, supporting 500,000 jobs and increasing dockside revenues by more than 50 percent. During this month’s hearing Chairman Hastings was quick to argue that his discussion draft does not eliminate the requirement that fisheries be rebuilt. But that assertion obscures the real story. As the testimony of NOAA Fisheries Deputy Assistant Administrator Sam Rauch made clear, managers struggled to rebuild depleted fisheries until the MSA imposed a statutory timeline, which has been the impetus necessary to do the hard work of rebuilding our nation’s fisheries.  To do away with any meaningful rebuilding timeline, as the discussion draft proposes, would be a highly retrograde step.

At the same time, the draft threatens to stymie needed improvements. It could place obstacles in the way of wider use of electronic monitoring, which many see as the next step in reducing costs and improving data collection. It would limit the flexibility of many Councils to adopt new catch share programs—and it defines the term so broadly that it would include shifts in allocation. It would also expand state waters for the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico—but only for red snapper management, creating a confusing and unwieldy patchwork of regulations.

To be sure, challenges remain in federal fisheries. The scientific basis for establishing quotas and other management actions can and should be improved. Twenty-first century tools must be employed to assess species, and data from fishermen, academia, and other non-governmental sources must be integrated more effectively where possible.  Costs of modern management threaten small boat operators in some areas. Conserving the ecosystem on which fisheries depend, rather than focusing on each species in a vacuum, could make our marine resources more resilient.

But addressing these challenges does not require rewriting the central provisions of the MSA.  Improved implementation can address many of them, along with narrow revisions to the statute where the need has been shown to exist.  EDF joined a diverse group of fishermen, other industry leaders, and academics in submitting a letter to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calling for more and better cooperative management of fishery resources.  Congressman Wittman recently introduced H.R. 3063, which would make the stock assessment process more transparent and accessible to non-governmental participants without sacrificing conservation requirements.

The discussion draft, on the other hand, would make sweeping, disruptive and problematic changes to the MSA.  The good news is that there’s still plenty of time for Congress to get reauthorization right. With the Senate moving closer to the release of its own discussion draft, there’s reason to hope that Chairman Mark Begich and Ranking Member Marco Rubio will forge a bipartisan approach that can emulate the traditions of their Senate predecessors. And with leaders in industry, government and academia all lining up to express concerns about the House discussion draft, there’s still the possibility that Chairman Hastings will consider wholesale changes to his reauthorization bill before it’s introduced. For the sake of fishermen, coastal communities and seafood lovers everywhere, we urge the Chairman to do just that.

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5 Reasons for Hope on World Fisheries Day

bundle of fish

photo credit: tarotastic via photopin cc

Today is World Fisheries Day— a healthy reminder of how important fisheries are, regardless of where we live.

Wild fisheries must be managed and harvested sustainably in order to successfully rebuild global fish stocks and reliably feed the billions of people around the world who rely on them.

Innovative solutions are needed to establish sustainable fishing practices as the norm and to give a boost to coastal communities that rely on healthy fish stocks.

But today, global fisheries are tremendous pressure—to feed the world’s growing population and from the effects of climate change and ocean acidification.  There is, however, cause for optimism.  Here are 5 reasons why:

  1. In the United States, improved management—in part due to the flexibility and alignment of environmental, social and economic incentives that catch shares provide—is paying off.  Fish stocks are rebuilding, fishermen are finding innovative solutions to be more selective about the stocks they target and the value of commercial seafood landed in 2012 was almost 20% higher than the average of the last decade. Fishermen are also seeing increased revenue per vessel. NMFS recently released an economic study of fisheries managed under quota allotments which found revenue increases of 27% in the first year and 68% after 10 years of the program.  Read More.
  2. Earlier this year EDF examined successes from the United States and several other countries, such as Japan, Chile and Mexico, to assemble a comprehensive toolkit for designing and implementing management systems that can build resilient, profitable fisheries. This toolkit represents years of research and can deliver value to fishery managers around the world. Read More.
  3. After years of deliberation, the European Union has finalized proposals to reform the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the EU’s framework for fisheries management.The new policy promises a better future for both fishermen and fish by providing a comprehensive management system designed to restore healthy marine environments while supporting profitable fisheries and thriving coastal communities. The new CFP, which will enter into force in January, calls for Member States to move to eliminate the wasteful practice of discarding fish at sea. It also requires fishing at sustainable, Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) levels, and supports a regionalized approach through decentralized decision-making. Read More.
  4. EDF is a proud founding member of an ambitious effort with the World Bank and more than 100 partners to bring 50% of the world’s wild fish under sustainable management in 10 years while increasing economic benefits by $20 billion annually.   This project represents impressive cooperation among countries, the private sector, NGOs and fishery stakeholders and can potentially transform the world’s fisheries and fishing communities. Read More.
  5. Many struggling or collapsed fisheries across the globe are already improving. The challenge is to replicate successful strategies and continue building partnerships with fishermen and other fishery stakeholders in the regions of the world where healthy fisheries are most essential. We are confident this can be achieved and will continue working to bring fishermen and managers together to find efficient, sustainable solutions that will work for both fish and fishermen. Read More.

We hope to have more progress to celebrate next year on World Fisheries Day.

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It’s Official: U.S. fisheries continued their upward trend in 2012

Photo Credit: NOAA

Each year, the National Marine Fisheries Service provides the public with a “statistical snapshot” of fish landings in the United States. This week, the numbers for 2012 were released via the agency’s Fisheries in the United States report. The national picture in terms of the quantity and value of fish landed was once again encouraging. And although we didn’t quite reach the historic level of 2011—which set a new record for landings value —the upward trend enabled by improved fisheries management is unmistakable.

The raw numbers in the report are another reminder of the critical role fishing plays as an economic driver in the United States. U.S. commercial fishermen landed 9.6 billion pounds of seafood in 2012, valued at $5.1 billion. The ex-vessel value of seafood landed in Alaska alone was $1.7 billion; $618.2 million in Massachusetts; $448.5 million in Maine. Those figures don’t include economic benefits derived throughout the value chain, with jobs created and supported at the docks, in processing, transportation and sales.

Recreational fisheries are also experiencing robust activity.   More than nine million anglers took 70 million trips last year, catching nearly 380 million fish. The estimated total catch weight was more than 200 million pounds, the most popular species being spotted seatrout, Atlantic croaker, black sea bass, summer flounder and red drum. Numerous other reports and studies have documented the economic benefits that recreational fishing stimulates, supporting jobs in industries ranging from marine manufacturing to tourism.

Without healthy, sustainable fisheries, none of these benefits would accrue. It’s true that we have more work to do to ensure that all our nation’s fisheries are being managed for long-term health, and that fishermen in some regions still face daunting economic challenges. But taken as a whole, this week’s report provides further evidence that the reforms of recent years are paying dividends. The value of commercial seafood landed in 2012 was almost 20% higher than the average of the last decade.

Ultimately that means more money in the pockets of fishermen—who in many parts of the country are seeing a return on their investment in new rights-based management approaches that incentivize conservation and ensure compliance with science-based catch limits.

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Sharing the catch means more for everyone

It may seem counter-intuitive that sharing the catch yields more fish and economic benefits for fishermen and coastal communities, but that is exactly what catch shares are proven to do.

NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) recently released its first national report assessing the economic performance of catch share programs in the United States. This report further validates the findings outlined in a 2011 Marine Policy Paper,  “Assessing Catch Shares’ effects evidence from Federal United States and associated British Columbian Fisheries (Grimm et. al),  which examined 15 catch share programs in the U.S and British Columbia before and after catch share implementation.

While these two studies differ slightly in selected fisheries, variables and time frame, they both conclude that catch shares consistently outperform conventional management systems across the board. Graduating to catch shares yields a robust return on investment: longer seasons, fewer risks, higher revenues, less waste and more full time jobs. An overview of the findings from Grimm et al. is presented in the table below.

[Chart summarizing catch share benefits. Data adapted from Grimm et.al ]

NMFS’ research surveyed 14 US catch share fisheries, finding economic and management improvements resulting in increased compliance with regulations, greater fishing revenues, and safer fishing conditions. According to the executive summary, “Overall, these programs were successful in having fishermen observe quota limits, improving overall economic benefits and efficiency, and ending the race to fish, thereby reducing pressure on fishermen to fish during unsafe conditions.”

 

Catch shares lead to increased compliance with catch limits:

Catch limits are target harvest levels designed to maintain or rebuild the size of fish stocks to productive levels. A primary challenge of any fishery management approach is in ensuring catch limits are not exceeded each year. The NMFS study found that catch shares nearly eliminated overages when compared to more conventional approaches like season lengths or trip limits.  Limits were exceeded only twice in the study period under catch shares. Furthermore, for those fisheries in which landings had previously exceeded quota, such as in North Pacific Halibut, the adoption of catch shares reversed this trend. This confirms findings from Grimm et. al, which showed that catch limits were rarely exceeded and by small amounts, compared to frequent and large overages under traditional management.  Increased compliance with regulation maintains fish stock or rebuilds them to sustainable levels that will continue to support profitable U.S. fishing businesses.

 

Fishermen earn more in catch share fisheries:

The NMFS study also evaluated revenue per vessel, which increased under catch shares for all fisheries in the long run. While a few fisheries had initial decreases in revenues per vessel due to temporary catch reductions, they soon recovered and revenues increased relative to baseline. These increased revenues are most likely due to increased fish prices; under traditional management, the race to fish results in more frozen fish than fresh sold at the market (hence, lower fish prices and revenue). Furthermore, catch shares increase the flexibility fishermen have to time their harvest to meet market demand, rather than producing a glut of fish caught in a short period of time. This ensures a consistent supply of seafood, and generates more revenue for fishermen. NMFS’ findings support the Grimm et al. paper which found revenue increases of 27% in the first year and 68% after 10 years of the program.

 

Catch shares eliminate the race to fish, which can improve fishing safety:

Fishing is the second deadliest occupation in the U.S. It is inherently dangerous, but management measures can be taken to reduce some of those risks. Longer fishing seasons also improve safety by eliminating the race to fish and allowing fishermen to choose which days to fish during the year, thus avoiding stormy weather and dangerous conditions. The NMFS study found that season length increased in all fisheries under catch shares relative to traditional management; similarly, Grimm et al. concluded that average season length increased from 63 to 245 days per year.

 

Looking forward:

Measuring the outcomes of fishery management practices is vital given the urgent need to identify proven strategies that sustain fish stocks and the livelihoods of fishermen and industries dependent upon them. NMFS findings are a positive step towards understanding the impacts of different regulations in order to bring about data-driven management reform of US fisheries. In future assessments, it will be important for NMFS to assess all approaches—not just catch shares—to build understanding about how to best manage fisheries in an economically beneficial way.

The NMFS study provides strong evidence that catch shares are working. Moving forward, more evaluation and research is needed to guide and inform policymakers of the many benefits of catch shares and how improved design can better meet the needs of a given fishery and fishing community. Many challenges exist in fisheries management, but this report is cause for optimism.

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European Maritime Fisheries Fund: Why Investing in Allocation Matters

EU parliament

The EU Parliament will vote in plenary this fall on the EMFF. Photo Credit: Europa.eu

Given scarce resources in the  EU and UK, it’s especially important that fishing privileges are allocated in a way that best serves national sustainability interests—and now is the time to invest. This month, the European Council approved proposals to reform the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the EU’s framework for fisheries management. The new policy calls for Member States to end discarding and restore fisheries to sustainable levels.  It mandates implementation of systems for allocation of fishing opportunities that are transparent and objective, and that take into consideration environmental and social criteria, as well as historical catch rates.

Regrettably, the fisheries policy reforms to the CFP lack the funds necessary to achieve its objectives. Shortly after the policy puzzle pieces fell into place, Parliament’s Fisheries Committee took up the accompanying funding legislation – the European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF) –and shot itself in the foot. Unlike the Council of Ministers, the Parliament’s Committee voted not to provide member states, and potentially other stakeholders such as Producer Organizations, with financial support for designing, monitoring and engaging stakeholders in the process of developing fair and transparent allocation schemes.  Instead, the Committee voted to re-institute boat-buying and engine-modernizing subsidies, which undermines sustainability by prodding fishermen to increase their fishing capacity.

Despite this setback, there is cause for optimism concerning member states ability to engage in sustainable investment in the industry.  That is precisely what the UK did, well ahead of the new EU mandate, by recognizing the importance of fair allocation through the reallocation of unused quota from larger to smaller vessels. In advance of any decision to reallocate the unused quota, the UK government carried out a thorough assessment of quota usage and fishing patterns, delivered a detailed economic analysis and conducted comprehensive stakeholder engagement.  The outcome of the court case affirmed the government’s authority to make management decisions about quota allocation and illuminates future possibilities for member states to operate in innovative ways to deliver mutually beneficial solutions for both fishermen and the environment.

While the judgment is celebrated by the UK small scale fleet, this is just the beginning of work to strengthen a policy to maximize return on investment and support sustainable fishing communities and a healthy marine environment. This case illustrates exactly the type of sustainable investment the EMFF should support in covering costs associated with fixing broken systems, helping fisheries in transition, and supporting sustainable communities. It is therefore critical that the EU invests in initiatives that deliver smart, sustainable allocation systems, not in foolish fleet-building. Fortunately, the full Parliament will have a chance to correct these flawed decisions when it takes up the legislation in the fall.

 

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Climate Change is Changing Fisheries

Recently, the impacts of climate change on fisheries have been in the news.  The emphasis has been on the inability of scientists to explain how climate change is affecting fisheries or to fix the problems it seems to be causing.  These include shifting distribution and abundance patterns of commercially valuable fish stocks – shifts that may leave fishermen stranded with very restrictive catch limits, even when they have been doing everything possible to protect and restore their stocks.  These problems are being felt acutely in New England, where catch of some valuable stocks has been highly restricted to rebuild stocks depleted by overfishing – but they face even more restrictions as scientists find less fish in the water, possibly due to migrations induced by climate change.

A better scientific understanding of how climate change influences the distribution and abundance of fish is certainly needed, but that may be less important than the need for more flexible human institutions that can rapidly adjust to those changes.

The fact that we’ve allowed greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere means that the ocean has warmed too.  The ocean is even more resistant to remediation efforts than the atmosphere due to its enormous thermal inertia.  The ocean will hang on to that heat for decades, resulting in changing temperatures at sea.  Because fish favor certain ranges of temperatures over others, this should cause fish stocks to migrate in pursuit of their favorite temperatures. A new study shows that catch composition has been changing over the last several decades in ways that support this hypothesis: warmer water species are being caught in areas where catch used to be dominated by cold water species.  This state of affairs demands institutions that are flexible and can adjust rapidly to changing conditions.

Most fishery institutions, on the other hand, seem inflexible and incapable of rapid adjustment to a changing world. For example, the Pacific Salmon Treaty of 1985 allocated harvest of shared stocks of salmon to the United States and Canada based on average distributions.  But then, changes in the distribution and abundance of salmon (which are prone to such changes, being migratory) resulted in a fish war between these two strong allies.  In many other fisheries, too, declines in fish stocks have led to declines in  allowable catch limits, leaving  fisherman who invested in boats and gear during boom times saddled with debt.

Catch share programs, in which shares of allowable catch are allocated to individuals or groups, are much more suitable to a world in which the climate is changing. Shareholders can buy or sell shares, allowing the fishery to contract or expand depending on how many fish are around.  For example, fishing capacity had built up to high levels in the Pacific groundfish fishery, resulting in a federal buyout of about half of the capacity.  However, the fishery was still constrained by very low catch limits for species depleted by decades of overfishing.  Catch shares have allowed the fleet to adjust to these new catch limits by incentivizing fishermen to extract more value from their catch and engage in creative strategies to avoid catching the overfished species. Read More »

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Fisheries Catch Data: A Tale of Two Approaches

photo credit: wanderlasss via photopin cc

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to entertain two opposed ideas at the same time and still function.

Two views on the importance of catch data for estimating the abundance of fish populations are portrayed as opposing ideas in recent articles, but both of the “antagonists” display first rate intelligence by coming to the same conclusion: catch data send an important signal about the status of a fish population, but other kinds of information must be applied to avoid being confounded by all the other things that affect catch and come to a reasonably accurate estimate of fish abundance.

This argument over methodology may seem arcane, but the stakes are high: estimates of the status of global fisheries based on catch data, which are available for most fisheries, suggest they are in pretty poor shape, because catches have declined sharply in many of them.  But when one looks at stocks that have been assessed by scientists who take into account fishery-independent measures of abundance, the situation looks far less dire, because decreases in catch can result not only from decreased abundance, but also from changes in markets, environmental conditions, regulations, and even in what fish are called – Hilborn and Branch point out that in the 50’s, all sharks were put into only 7 categories, but now there are 36 groups for which catch data are collected, so that reduced catch in some of the earlier categories may merely be the result of re-classification.

So catch data provide a satellite-eye view of the whole world that is out of focus, while stock assessments provide really sharp images of your town.  Which is the more accurate depiction of reality?  Neither, of course.  These two perspectives must be intelligently synthesized to find reality. Read More »

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