Oil Exploration Threatens New England Waters and Economy

This is the second in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the first blog, introducing the problem with Nova Scotia’s new exploration leases and the threats they pose to endangered whales here. The final blog will cover the approval of major increases in oil tanker traffic through the Bay of Fundy and along the coast of the Atlantic.    

Oil exploration. Pipelines. Tar sands. Oil tankers. Spills. These should be words of our past, not our future.

 

Yet at a time when climate change is one of the most – if not the most – pressing issue facing modern society, some recent developments involving these terms have me scratching my head. First, our Canadian neighbors just approved new oil exploration leases to the south of Nova Scotia that come disturbingly close to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, areas known to be sensitive to environmental shocks.

And now, TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal, submitted last week, would more than double the number of oil tankers carrying tar sands oil – from 115 to more than 280 each year – through the Bay of Fundy and down New England’s coast.

Double the tankers means double the risk for a catastrophic accident or oil spill. Just one major spill could devastate our most precious underwater wild places, while destroying the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities that depend on a healthy ocean to survive.

Climate change compels us to move away from fossil fuels, yet oil companies press on searching every nook and cranny of the planet to find it, not minding the disturbances and threats they’re posing to vulnerable ecosystems, endangered species, and local economies.

Drilling Deja-vu

This isn’t the first time oil or gas exploration has threatened the Gulf of Maine. Since the 1970s, energy companies have clamored for approval to drill for oil and gas deposits along the Atlantic coastline, including the U.S.-controlled portion of Georges Bank and along the coast of Canada.

In 1978, Conservation Law Foundation partnered with fishermen and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to block oil exploration on Georges Bank – winning the first successful injunction against offshore drilling in the United States. CLF argued that oil leasing was inconsistent with the then two-year-old federal fisheries law (now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act) because the risks were potentially catastrophic to the marine wildlife the region’s fishermen depend on to make a living.

Ultimately, in the early 1980s, an exploratory dig was approved but turned up no oil in Georges Bank. Led by New England’s Congressional delegation, CLF persuaded Congress to pass a funding moratorium on all future Georges Bank drilling. Canadian fishermen and activists soon followed suit, citing the U.S.’s example to fight off similar drilling efforts on their side of Georges Bank. A Canadian drilling moratorium on Georges Bank was established in 1988, and now extends to 2022.

In 2008, the U.S. moratorium was lifted and exploration off our shores is now only blocked by soft, interim no-drill agreements. Meanwhile, with our northern neighbor more aggressively pursuing offshore oil and gas, Canadian leases in the North Atlantic Ocean have been steadily marching south, getting closer and closer to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

Too Close for Comfort

To make matters worse, Canada has permitted the oil companies drilling nearby – such as the one at Shelburne Basin, just 75 miles east of Georges Bank – to forego keeping emergency equipment close at hand. This allows them almost two weeks to cap an oil well blowout should an accident occur, effectively sanctioning the catastrophic damage a blowout would cause. In comparison, in U.S. waters surrounding Alaska, oil companies have a maximum of 24 hours to put emergency caps on drilling blow-outs.

The risk to New England from the explorations in Shelburne Basin and other areas east of Georges Bank? Toxins could get caught up in the pronounced southwest-flowing Maine Coastal Current that’s instrumental in lobster larvae distribution throughout coastal Maine – dealing a potentially devastating blow to Maine’s most important fishery.

And the dispersants used in the cleanup of a spill can be even more harmful to sea life than the oil itself. Toxic pollutants from the Canadian sites east of Georges Bank could easily get picked up by the upwelling currents that account for the legendary productivity of the Georges Bank system – transforming those upwelling currents from being life-giving to life-taking.

The increased risks in the U.S. from Canadian exploratory drilling may seem remote but they are, nonetheless, real and potentially catastrophic. Industry claims of safety are belied by real, recent disasters like the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

These encroaching Canadian leases also create a troubling precedent. Once oil or gas drilling begins in this area of the North Atlantic – even if it is technically across the border – the arguments to maintain “no-drill” agreements in the U.S. are weakened. And although there is little industry interest in Georges Bank for oil, the industrial appetite for developing natural gas wells so close to the U.S. northeast is likely growing – and who knows what that future might hold.

The Big Picture for New England

The threat from offshore oil development isn’t just to marine wildlife, but also to our New England way of life: fishing, surfing, whale watching, beach combing (and the millions of tourist dollars that go along with them) – so much of our economy depends on a healthy ocean, clean beaches, and abundant marine wildlife.

From start to finish – preliminary seismic testing, drilling, oil spills, chemicals used in cleanup, and transport – the marine oil and gas exploration and drilling process is risky, harmful, and unnecessary. Further environmental review will be required in Canada before production drilling could start. The U.S. State Department needs to protest any further activities as forcefully as possible.

New England is already at risk from climate change, above and below the water. Sea level rise threatens coastal communities. Rapidly warming waters cause species to move away in search of colder temperatures, potentially eliminating fisheries that have sustained regional economies for generations. Increasing ocean acidity jeopardizes the two most significant fisheries in New England: lobsters and sea scallops.

The last thing we need are more man-made threats to our ocean and all that it represents for us as New Englanders.

 

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
Cod today.
2036?
2036?

Imagine it’s 20 years from now, and your grandchild is about to head to bed – but first, she wants to hear a favorite bedtime story, “the one about the fish.” You pull it off the shelf – Mark Kurlansky’s The Cod’s Tale – and begin reading. Unbidden, her eyes widen at the vivid illustrations of the fish with a single chin whisker, at how it has millions of babies, and at how it gave birth to this country.

Every time you read her the story, she asks the same question: “Can we go catch a cod tomorrow?” Every time, you have to tell her there aren’t any more cod in New England. And, every time she asks: “Why?” But you never really have a good answer for her.

Farfetched? Maybe. But unfortunately, local extinction of New England’s Atlantic cod population is no longer out of the realm of possibility.

No Happy Ending in Sight for Cod
The crisis in New England’s cod fishery was once again on the agenda at the New England Fishery Management Council’s December meeting in Portland, Maine. And once again, managers failed to take the basic actions needed for a concerted effort to restore this iconic fish.

In addition to the collapse of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine, New England is facing even greater declines of cod on Georges Bank, the historically important fishing area east of Cape Cod.

The outlook for cod keeps getting worse, and the “actions” taken by the Council are so unlikely to make a difference that we must continue our call to save cod.

The Worst of the Worst
Some recent analyses have concluded that the cod population on Georges Bank is the lowest ever recorded – roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. Other estimates put the population at only about 3 to 5 percent of the healthy target. The cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is hovering for the second year in a row at roughly 3 percent of the targeted healthy population.

At its meeting last week, the Council did set new, lower catch limits for the severely depleted Georges Bank cod, but, true to form, those limits don’t go far enough. The Council is clearly in denial about the state of this fishery. If there is even a chance the number is 1 percent, this should be cause for major distress among Council members and fishermen alike.

The Council’s actions (or, really, lack of action) leave me wondering, again, whether anyscience would ever be “enough” to compel them to halt the fishing of cod entirely.

Habitat Loss Adds Fuel to the Fire
Astoundingly, the Council also decided earlier this year to strip protection for important cod habitat on Georges Bank – amounting to a loss of some 81 percent of the formerly protected cod habitat.

To recover, depleted fish populations need large areas protected from fishing and fishing gears; they need protected habitat where they can find food and shelter and reproduce; and they need large areas where female cod can grow old and reproduce prolifically. However, our fisheries managers – who are entrusted with safeguarding these precious resources for future generations as well as for current fishermen – ignore this science and continue to stubbornly deny the potential scope of this problem.

This is an especially irresponsible stance in light of climate change. Not only are New England’s cod struggling to recover from decades of overfishing and habitat degradation, now the rapid rise in the region’s sea temperatures is further stressing their productivity. Protected habitats help marine species survive ecological stresses like warming waters.

If a Cod Fish Dies But No One Records It, Did It Ever Really Exist?
As if matters couldn’t get worse, the Council also voted to cut back significantly on the numbers of observers that groundfishing boats would have to have on-board to record what fish are actually coming up in their nets. This is little more than the Council’s blessing of unreported discards of cod and flounder and other depleted fish.

We should be protecting more of these areas, not fewer; we should be doing more for these iconic fish, not less. So why is the Council making it so much harder for cod to recover? Perhaps it is simply contrary to human nature to expect the Council’s fishermen members to impose harsh measures on themselves when the benefits may only be seen by future generations. Perhaps federal fishery councils comprising active fishermen only work well with healthy fisheries.

Federal officials at NOAA Fisheries will have the final say on these Council decisions to strip habitat protections, cutback on monitoring, and continue fishing on cod. We can only hope those officials will start taking the tough but necessary actions, giving New Englanders at least a semblance of hope that our grandchildren will be able to catch a codfish, not just read about one in a book.

A Call for Protections

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineThe following was originally published in National Fisherman.

The Gulf of Maine is warming fast — faster than almost any other ocean area in the world. To say this is alarming is an understatement, and action is needed today to permanently protect large areas of the ocean, which scientists say is one of the best buffers against the disastrous effects of climate change.

To that end, a diverse group of ma­rine-oriented businesses, hundreds of marine scientists, aquaria, conservation organizations and members of the public are calling on the Obama administration to designate the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as the first Marine National Monuments in the Atlantic.

Conservation Law Foundation has worked for years to permanently protect the remarkable Cashes Ledge area. This biodiversity hotspot provides refuge for a stunning array of ocean wildlife — from cod to endangered right whales, bluefin tuna to Atlantic wolffish — and a rare lush kelp forest. The New England canyons and seamounts similarly shelter an incredible breadth of sea life, including spectacular ancient coral formations. Public support is widespread and growing. In September, more than 600 people attended a sold-out event hosted by the New England Aquarium and National Geographic Society where scientists discussed why these places are unique natural treasures. More than 160,000 people have electronically petitioned the president for monument protection.

America has a long tradition of protecting our remarkable natural heritage and biological bounty. In contrast to our public lands and the Pacific Ocean, there are no areas in the Atlantic that are fully protected as national monuments. But why monument protection?

Unlike fishery management closed areas or national marine sanctuaries, national monument designation protects against all types of commercial extraction that are harmful and can damage critical habitat: fishing, oil and gas exploration, sand and gravel mining, and more.

Scientists say large-scale marine habitat protection is necessary to increase ocean resiliency in the face of climate change. Undisturbed underwater “laboratories” in places with relatively pristine habitats, like the Cashes Ledge area and the canyons and seamounts area, will be key in studying how — and how well — we are managing these already changing ocean ecosystems. These irreplaceable habitats can only play that role when protected in their entirety.

 

Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF
Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

Current protections by the New England Fishery Management Council are critical but not sufficient, as they are temporary, only limited to commercial fish species, and any coral protections are only discretionary. A monument designation protects all sea life and makes that protection permanent. It would be managed by scientists and others with ecological expertise (including but not limited to fisheries expertise). Fishery management councils were not designed and are not in the business of protecting scientifically unique and ecologically critical areas in the ocean.

Permanent closure will also benefit collapsed fish populations like Atlantic cod, which would be able to rebuild and sustain themselves at healthy levels. Research is beginning to show that refuges could help struggling species like cod produce larger, older and significantly more productive females that could help recovery when their offspring eventually spill out to restock fishing in surrounding waters. The fishing industry is poised to benefit in the long term when commercially important fish are able to rebound.

Protecting the few unique marine places we have left is good for the fishermen and communities that rely on a healthy and abundant ocean for their livelihoods and is our obligation to future generations.

Download a PDF of the article here.

Baked Cod: The Path Forward in an Era of Climate Change

In recent weeks, we learned more sobering news for New England’s cod population. A paper published in Science detailed how rapidly increasing ocean temperatures are reducing cod’s productivity and impacting – negatively – the long-term rebuilding potential of New England’s iconic groundfish. The paper confirmed both the theoretical predictions associated with climate change and the recent scientific federal, state, and Canadian trawl surveys that reported a record-low number of cod caught in recent months.

To be clear, the Science authors do not conclude that ocean temperature changes associated with climate change have caused the collapse of cod. We have management-approved overfishing of cod to thank for that.

What rising ocean temperatures do seem to be doing, according to the Science paper, is dramatically changing the productivity of the remaining cod stocks. This makes it more difficult for cod to recover from overfishing today than at any other time in history, and perhaps reduces the ultimate recovery potential even if all fishing were halted. Stock assessments conducted without taking these productivity reductions into full account will dramatically overestimate cod populations and, in turn, fishing quotas.

The Science paper is potentially very important, with major implications for fishing limits on cod for decades to come, But stock assessment scientists have warned for years that their recent models were likely overestimating the amount of cod actually in the water – and the corresponding fishing pressure the stock could withstand. Unfortunately, those warnings have fallen on deaf ears at the New England Fishery Management Council.

In fact, the managers at the Council, dominated by fishermen and state fisheries directors with short-term economic agendas, could hardly have done more than they already have to jeopardize Atlantic cod’s future—climate change or not.

Overfishing, a Weakened Gene Pool, and the Loss of Productive Female Fish

As a result of chronic overfishing, New England’s cod population is likely facing what geneticists call a “population bottleneck,” meaning that the diversity of the remaining cod gene pool is now so greatly reduced that the fish that are left are less resilient to environmental stresses like increasing sea temperatures.

Overfishing has also caused the collapse of the age structure of the cod populations by removing almost all of the larger, more reproductive females (also known as the Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Females, or BOFFFS). Scientists have previously warned that losing these old spawners is a problem for cod productivity, but this new research suggests that the potential damage from their elimination may be significantly greater than imagined as a result of poor, climate change–related ecological conditions.

The Science paper hypothesizes that an underlying factor in the productivity decline of cod this past decade was the correlation between extremely warm spikes in ocean temperatures and the drop in zooplankton species that are critical to the survival of larval cod. With fewer zooplankton, fewer cod larvae make it to their first birthday.

The impacts of this zooplankton decline on cod productivity, however, could be exacerbated by the loss of the BOFFFs. Here’s why:

Cod start to spawn at three to four years old, but young females produce significantly fewer and weaker eggs and cod larvae than their older counterparts. Those elder female fish, on the other hand, produce larger, more viable eggs – sometimes exponentially more healthy eggs – over longer periods of time. If the older female cod population had still been plentiful, they might have produced larvae more capable of surviving variations in zooplankton abundance.

Perhaps the continued presence of larger, older, spawning females to the south of New England (where there is no commercial cod fishery) is one of the reasons that the cod fishery in the nearby warm waters off New Jersey is healthier now than it has been in recent history.

The Cod Aren’t Completely Cooked Yet: Four Potential Solutions

Cod have been in trouble since the 1990s, and now climate change is magnifying these troubles. This new reality, however, is not cause for us to throw in the towel. There are actions that our fishery managers can take now that will make a difference.

First, large cod habitat areas have to be closed to fishingpermanently. This is the only way to protect the large females and increase their number. Designating cod refuges such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area as a marine national monument will remove the temptation for fishery councils – always under pressure to provide access to fish – to reopen them in the future.

Such monuments would also sustain a critical marine laboratory where more of these complex interactions between cod and our changing ocean environment can be studied and understood.

Second, managers need to gain a better understanding of the cod populations south of Cape Cod. While it is well and good to land “monster” female cod on recreational boat trips, those fish may be the key to re-populating Georges Bank. Caution, rather than a free-for-all, is the best course of action until the patterns of movement of those cod populations, as related to ocean temperature increases, are better understood.

Third, as observed in the Science paper, stock assessment models as well as guidance from the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee must start incorporating more ecosystem variables and reflecting a more appropriate level of scientific precaution in the face of the reality of climate change shifts. Enough talk about scientific uncertainty and ecosystem-based fisheries management; action is needed, and science should have the lead in guiding that action.

Finally, the importance of funding data collection and fishery science is evident from this important Science paper, which was supported by private, philanthropic dollars. NOAA should be undertaking this sort of work – but it is not in a position to even provide adequate and timely stock assessments, because limited funding forces the agency to use the existing outdated models.

NOAA’s funding limitations are constraining both collection of the essential field data needed to understand our changing world as well as the analysis of that data into meaningful and appropriate management advice. If Congress can find $33 million to give fishermen for the most recent “groundfish disaster,” it ought to be able to find money to prevent such avoidable disasters in the future.

Ultimately, the Science paper shines some much needed light on our climate change–related fishery issues in New England, but we can’t let it overshadow decades of mismanagement or justify a fatalistic attitude toward cod rebuilding. Steps can and must be taken, and fishery managers are still on the hook for the success or failure of our current and future cod stocks.

Fishery Council Vote: Major Losses Overshadow Small Victories

Council votes to slash protected habitats in New England’s ocean by 60 percent

The votes are in, and any hopes of the New England Fishery Management Council redeeming itself are lost.

 

Yesterday, the Council, which is charged with protecting New England’s fishing habitats and economies, finalized its votes on the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment 2. After 12 years of work and the availability of the most sophisticated science modeling and analysis ever used by the region’s fisheries managers, the Council hammered the final nail into the coffin of what could have been a landmark victory for ocean habitat protection in New England.

The Council was tasked to vote on habitat management areas for five key fishing regions in New England. Simply put, a vote in favor of habitat protection would have established year-round, long-term fishing closures for the most critical essential fish habitats. A vote against would expose those same fragile ocean habitats to destructive fishing practices – threatening the health of our ocean, fisheries, and coastal economies.

Ultimately, though the Council voted to keep some protections intact, such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area, it entirely caved to industry pressures as to the rest of the region. The Council’s final votes cut overall protected ocean habitat by an astonishing 60 percent – that’s more than 5,400 square miles of current protected areas. Here’s how it all breaks down:

Georges Bank:

No decision shows the Council’s willingness to grant the industry’s every wish like the Georges Bank vote. At the June Habitat Committee Meeting, it permitted the industry to propose an entirely new alternative prior to any scientific analysis or chance for public comment. The industry-proposed alternative, ultimately voted in by the Council, was clearly a play for increasing access for scallopers to areas of Georges Bank where industry is quick to claim “scallops are dying of old age!” The Council’s own science, however, shows that these areas are comprised of 80 percent gravel and cobble bottom, the most vulnerable of habitats. Allowing scallop dredges into this area is inexcusable when other profitable areas—such as the re-opened Nantucket Lightship area—have been made available under the Council’s decisions for the fishery that already has the highest landings value in the country. Though the Council slightly amended the Committee’s alternative to add a prohibition on fishing in the lobster nursery area on Georges Bank, the protection is only seasonal even though the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission highlighted the importance of the habitat itself for the future of the lobster stocks. Overall with yesterday’s vote, approximately 80 percent of current protected areas on Georges Bank will be lost.

Central Gulf of Maine:

The Council voted to maintain most existing closures in the Central Gulf of Maine, such as the Cashes Ledge Closure Area – however, these measures are simply not enough. The good news is that the Cashes Ledge Closure Area remains closed to mobile-tending bottom gear; the bad news is that much of the area has been identified only as a “mortality closure,” meaning that the area is not recognized for its habitat value and is more susceptible to being opened to fishing in the future, despite the Council’s own analysis that the highest benefits would be achieved by keeping the entire area closed.

Western Gulf of Maine:

The decision surrounding the Western Gulf of Maine was another loss. The Council voted to reduce the size of the existing protected area by 25%. It also voted to allow damaging shrimp trawls to invade an area that has been closed to commercial fishing for more than 20 years.

Eastern Gulf of Maine (Downeast Maine):

A fishing closure did not previously exist in the Eastern Gulf of Maine, so a vote to establish one should be seen as a small victory. However, the Council seemed to forget the intended purpose of the Amendment and voted to significantly reduce the size and scope of the newly protected area in the Downeast Maine area.

Great South Channel/Southern New England:

The Council’s scientific modeling revealed the existence of vulnerable habitat in the Great South Channel off of Cape Cod. Existing protected areas in southern New England waters were deemed less susceptible to fishing impacts, and their protections were removed. The Council established a new Great South Channel Habitat Management Area, but did not hesitate to permit clam dredges – the most damaging of fishing gear – into the majority of the newly created “protected area.”

A missed opportunity

The second Omnibus Habitat Amendment had an auspicious beginning when the Council set a goal of increasing ocean habitat protection and minimizing the negative effects of fishing gear on ocean habitats. However, 12 years later, the result is just the opposite: the Council ignored its own science, dismissed the will of the people as expressed in tens of thousands of public comments, and thumbed its nose at the recommendations of its parent federal agency, NOAA. All we have to show for it is a the shell of a “habitat amendment” that has resulted in a massive diminishment of habitat and fish population protection – and which will, in the long run, do more harm than good for New England’s fishing communities.

 Conservation Law Foundation followed this process since the beginning and remains at the forefront of protecting essential ocean habitats from the most destructive commercial fishing practices. New England fisheries lag far behind those around the nation — but this does not mean that all hope is lost for our fisheries. Of the nearly 160,000 people who weighed in on this issue, an overwhelming 96 percent of them wanted an increase in protected areas, not a decrease.

Thank you to all of those who weighed in during this public comment period. The fight is not over. CLF remains dedicated to making the public’s voice heard and will continue to work hard to ensure the proper management of our fisheries and ocean resources.  And, once the Council submits its final vote to NOAA, you will once again have a chance to make your own voice heard in favor of protections for New England’s ocean. Stay tuned to CLF’s blog and Enews for opportunities to comment on the Council’s lopsided amendment in the weeks ahead.

Want to help? Get involved or make a donation today.

Business as usual meets the new normal: climate change and fisheries management

What if a hurricane with the lowest low pressure readings ever seen in human history was barreling toward the East Coast and all we did was debate if it was a category 4 or 5? John Bullard, regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in New England, used that metaphor recently to describe how we are coping with the enormous transformations that are happening in our ocean right now from climate change.

He used this attention-getter at the overdue multi-agency session in Washington, DC last week, the purpose of which was to consider the implications of climate change for fisheries management along the US Atlantic coast. This meeting was overdue in that climate change impacts are already being observed by fishermen and scientists alike, and adjusting to our new “normal” will not be easy and will take time.

For New England, the challenge is stark. The Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly heating bodies of water on the Atlantic Coast, if not in the US. These temperature changes are sending the sea life off to seek their comfort zone – according to NMFS, 24 of 36 stocks evaluated seem to be moving north or away from coastal waters. To make matters worse, our ocean is also acidifying at increasingly alarming rates. This can cause major problems for shell-forming animals, and much of our fishing economy is dependent on shell-forming animals – scallops and lobsters. Unfortunately, there has been little economic analysis about the implications of this issue yet.

Former fish czar Eric Schwaab also spoke at the climate change workshop, noting that the climate is likely changing faster than the fisheries governance structure. Sadly, New England’s fisheries managers have not particularly distinguished themselves in the first 30 years of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, even with a relatively stable ecosystem. Yes, I know there is no such thing as a “stable ecosystem” but it will likely seem like one compared to future manifestations. Now the natural variability will be happening within an ecosystem that is rapidly changing itself.

Bullard drove this home by saying that the current climate-changing 400 parts-per-million levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been experienced by mankind, let alone New England fishermen. He then made the obvious point that nothing in our oceans will ever be “normal” again, even though, right now, everyone is acting as if it will be. As if that huge hurricane heading our way will just be going out to sea.

Current examples of the effects of climate abound and were noted by various speakers: black sea bass in NH lobster traps, green crabs taking over the Maine coast, more summer flounder summering more in New England than ever before, no northern shrimp fishery to be found, and the looming end of the southern New England lobster fishery.

I’ve seen it myself, with the glut of longfin squid hanging out on the Massachusetts north shore the last two summers. While we can hope that these changes will be gradual and that an incremental approach will suffice, many ecologists suggest that the “state changes” could be rapid, extensive, and irreversible. Moreover, some New England fishermen who imagine that they will soon being fishing on Mid-Atlantic fish stocks may have forgotten that most of those fish are already in limited access fisheries and have been allocated to others.

Bullard put his finger on what is needed at such a critical pivotal moment: leadership. In his words (loosely transcribed), leadership requires responding to a threat with actions commensurate to the size of the threat even if everyone around you is acting like the threat doesn’t exist.

Amen. While it is hard to put aside my cynicism about the likelihood that this Rube Goldberg fisheries management system—Dr. Mike Orbach’s metaphor here at the meeting—is up to the task, the challenge is clear and the stakes could not be higher for fishermen and fishing communities up and down the Atlantic coast.

In the end, Bullard’s message seemed to me to fall largely on deaf ears at the workshop, with much of the to-do discussion focused on managing at the margin and improved coordination between the New England and mid-Atlantic councils. In other words, business as usual. The leadership to respond to the dramatic shifts in our marine ecosystems due to climate change was not yet evident at the workshop.

But there is hope for the future. While many of these forces of nature are likely beyond our control even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether, we can prepare for changes and increase resiliency by rebuilding as many fish populations as we can and protecting habitat. Dynamic, integrated management will help our fisheries, ecosystems, and communities respond to the realities of a new normal.

Image via NASA Earth Observatory

Restore New England’s Coastal Fisheries

Once, large predatory cod and other fish were found close to shore in every embayment in New England, chowing down on the plentiful runs of river herring and shad that ran in and out of New England’s rivers. Now, famous coastal fisheries in places like Penobscot Bay have been gone for 50 years or more, despite virtually no commercial finfish fishing during that time. Rebuilding these inshore fisheries will be a long process, but we can start by restoring critical habitat for their prey species.

As former New England Fishery Management Council member David Goethel has often said, fish are pretty much focused on three things: food, sex, and comfortable surroundings (ocean temperatures, habitats and the like). Without prey like river herring, the most persistent preoccupation of the larger predatory fish—food—has been largely missing from inshore waters. And river herring won’t come back until the dams blocking coastal rivers and estuaries are removed, the damaged spawning sites upriver are restored, and the pollution in the region’s rivers is reduced.

Groups throughout New England, from NOAA to the states and municipalities, from large multi-national NGOs like The Nature Conservancy to regional groups like CLF and local watershed associations, have been working for decades to restore those migratory fish runs by tackling all those issues. The New England congressional delegation has historically been very supportive of these efforts through appropriations for restoration and pollution control.

coastal-fisheries

The picture here, taken recently in Plymouth, Massachusetts, shows the removal of the Off Billington Street dam, which was built in the late 1700s and has recently been considered both an ecological problem and a public safety risk. The removal of this dam is part of the larger Town Brook Restoration Project, which will open up hundreds of acres of herring spawning area above these vestigial dams and mill buildings.

The results of that work are only starting to show now. Herring runs are starting to come back, but current returns are still only a shadow of the ecological potential and need. As a crucial step towards rebuilding our inshore fisheries, these efforts can use all the support they can get—both from the environmental community and the fishing community.

Originally posted on CLF.org on 11/12/13

Feature photo credit: Zachary Whalen

Man, Eating Shark

I tried to eat a shark last week and couldn’t find one. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 100 million sharks are killed by man each year whereas fewer than 20 people are killed by sharks. That means that I had about a 5,000,000:1 chance of being the eater, not the eaten, but I still struck out.

My plan was to kick off Shark Week by feasting on Squalus acanthias, aka Spiny Dogfish, and reporting my impressions. A local chef achieved minor celebrity status last year by feeding one of the omnivorous TV cooking show hosts the “best dogfish” he’d ever eaten. While this particular diner’s habits must be approached with caution– he pretends to like beetles and calf brains, for example–I thought this would be a fish I could try in good conscience.

Spiny dogfish are one of the few fish populations in good biological condition that New England fishermen can still catch, having recovered from a crash back in the early 1990’s. Once a fish despised because of the havoc it caused with fishing gear and its voracious predation on more valuable commercial fish, many fishermen who can no longer find cod or other prime species are turning to dogfish out of financial desperation. Eating shark for one meal seemed the least I could do to stimulate market demand.

Spiny dogfish has cycled through fish markets several times in the past. Stuck with a name that reminds many consumers uncomfortably of their cherished canine at home, dogfish mechandisers have resorted to various aliases over time, from “rock salmon” to “mud shark” to “Japanese halibut” (seriously!). The most recent New England marketing label is “Cape shark,” a reference to the swarming abundance of these sharks off Cape Cod.

While most sharks are decidedly more valuable left in the oceans, I was willing to make an exception for dogfish, at least in the short run. They, together with their cousins, the skates, have moved into the vacuum created by overfishing of cod and a number of types of flounder. More than “moved in” to that niche, they seem to have almost overrun it. Without some focused removals of dogfish and skates, some scientists think it might be difficult, if not impossible, for a number of groundfish species to recover.

In any event, dogfish are abundant, the dogfish fishery in New England has been blessed by an eco-labeler as sustainably caught, and all that is missing are markets. Most dogfish are destined to the whims of the European fish markets to become the “fish” of “fish n’ chips”, but that market is unreliable and prices to the fishermen barely cover costs.

In fact, fishermen in New England recently asked to have the U.S.D.A. purchase dogfish for the nation’s school, prison, and institutional menus: a surefire way to build demand and markets. But I was interested in eating it in a restaurant, not a school cafeteria. Rather than low grade the markets for this fish, if it was indeed tasty, why shouldn’t it occupy a place of honor for New England diners?

Alas, there was no finding a single place that served dogfish. I dropped in on my local chef and he was serving a fabulous skate wing recipe but no dogfish. He couldn’t get any for me, but whenever he did get it, he said, it always sold out each night and early. I called one of the New England Fishery Management Council members, who works for the redoubtable Foley’s Fish in New Bedford and she told me, “No, we don’t buy it or sell it.” The Cape Cod fishermen told me that they were told not to land any dogfish.

So despite the 5,000,000:1 odds of me being the one who ate shark, there was no shark on the table for me for Shark Week.

Maybe it is just as well. There are all sorts of challenges to having a truly sustainable dogfish fishery, including the fact that New England fishermen are not known for producing sustainable fisheries. Moreover, dogfish reproduce very slowly, and the targeted animals for fishermen in the past have been the females, which are larger. (Not a very good long-term strategy, catching just the females.) In addition to management challenges, the fish have to be handled well from the moment they are caught or they taste bad – like uric acid (urine to the lay people). One bad plate served to the public would sour people on dogfish for a long time to come.

So dogfish is safe from me, at least for the moment. I have a standing order from the street for the chef to call me as soon as he gets a supply and I am looking forward to it. If there is any left on my plate, which is unlikely, I can’t wait to ask for my “doggie bag.”

Photo by Executioner via Wikimedia Commons.