Commonwealth Loses Lawsuit on Lower Catch Limits

Last May on the Boston Fish Pier, Massachusetts’ Attorney General Martha Coakley held a press conference to announce her lawsuit against NOAA over the reduction in catch limits for New England groundfish. Her rhetoric that day was strong:“NOAA’s new regulations are essentially a death penalty on the fishing industry in Massachusetts as we know it.”

With a court decision released on April 8 which denied the Commonwealth’s claims,Coakley’s lawsuit has run its predicted course. Judge Richard Stearns decided that, in setting catch limits for the 2013 fishing year, NOAA had fulfilled its obligations to mitigate economic impacts and consider the best available scientific information. The sharp cuts in catch limits for many groundfish stocks were a response to the severely depleted status of these species. However, instead of recognizing the poor state of fish populations hard figures of groundfish catch records, Coakley doubled down on her anti-NOAA rhetoric in her post-loss statement.

More than a year and a half after a fishery disaster was declared by the Department of Commerce and almost two months after New England received its $33 million allocation in federal fishery disaster funds, it is time for all of Massachusetts’ elected leaders to recognize the environmental fact that decades of overfishing have created a depleted ocean ecosystem and the economic fact that New England fishermen are not landing groundfish because the fish simply are not there. The problems and the challenges will become more difficult before they get any easier—the impacts of climate change are an increasingly significant factor in the change in our ocean ecosystems and our regional fisheries.

It’s time to recognize that we need real solutions such as stopping overfishing, protecting habitat, reducing bycatch and improving ocean management. Recovering our ocean’s health and restoring grossly depleted fish populations is a serious matter in need of honest assessment and discussion. Fisheries management by political interference is affecting thousands of New England families and the health of our ocean.

Image via NOAA

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

New England Fisheries Managers: Get Your Facts Straight about Habitat

Thousands of acres of New England’s protected ocean wildlife habitat in such places as Cashes Ledge, Stellwagen Bank, Jeffrey’s Ledge and Georges Bank is again at risk as the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) heads into next week’s meeting.

The NEFMC is scheduled to identify its preferences for which ocean habitat areas will be protected from the impacts of bottom trawling and other harmful fishing gear. This work is part of the NEFMC’s ongoing development of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment (OHA). While a final OHA decision is not expected until June, the selection of preferred alternatives will set the stage for final scientific analysis and public involvement to decide the fate of the best remaining habitat in all of New England’s ocean.

Some of the ocean habitat areas have been protected for twenty years and served in the recovery of Georges Bank haddock stocks and the now famous scallop fishery that has made the City of New Bedford the top fishing revenue port in the U.S. for the past 13 years. Two important places at risk are the magical Cashes Ledge, with its dense, kelp-forested mountains and healthy surrounding ecosystem, and the Western Gulf of Maine protected area, a refuge for highly productive female cod that is a particular favorite of the recreational fishery.

With New England’s groundfish populations at historic lows and the prognosis for recovery not getting any better wouldn’t you think that any decision affecting these places—even preliminary ones—would be made with a full review of the best and most complete scientific research and data? And yet it appears the NEFMC has plans to do precisely the opposite.

Over the lengthy ten year OHA development process, the NEFMC’s technical team has attempted to compile the most critical information needed to select among about forty different alternatives for habitat protection and research areas into a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The DEIS is a legally required, multi-volume document that will include detailed characterizations and maps of the habitat found in New England’s ocean waters. More than just a paper exercise, the DEIS holds descriptions of the specific habitats that fish use at each life stage and measures the impacts that each type of fishing gear has on the ocean environment. The DEIS also holds an estimate of the economic effect of fishing a proposed habitat area versus the value of protecting it.

This important document will guide the Council’s initial decisions and inform the public about the different alternatives for protecting habitat. In order to ensure that the Council’s choices are based on the facts, it is essential that the analysis be completed before the Council selects its preferred habitat protection alternatives.

Unfortunately, and in spite of the best efforts of the technical staff, the current DEIS is lacking analysis of the environmental impacts of 14 separate habitat alternatives and an economic impacts analysis of 20 habitat and research alternatives. How can the NEFMC ensure that its decisions are appropriate and defensible when almost half of the alternatives are lacking fundamental environmental and economic impact information? How too can the public meaningfully comment on these alternatives when they are presented with only some of the facts?

Environmental impact studies are designed to help make good decisions before the use of the American public’s natural resources, not to justify decisions after they are made. The solution here is simple. The NEFMC meets again in January and this process of selecting preferred alternatives can be dealt with then. The fate of New England’s best ocean habitat deserves a thorough approach and should avoid the risk of premature, ill-informed decisions.

World Premiere of Ocean Frontiers II – A New England Story for Sustaining the Sea

How do we meet our ever-expanding demands on the ocean and also work together to protect it? The answer is explored in a new film from Green Fire Productions, Ocean Frontiers II: A New England Story for Sustaining the Sea. The second in the award-winning film series, Ocean Frontiers II is an inspiring story of citizens working together for the sake of the sea. Please join us for the premieres of this timely and important film in Providence on October 28th and in Boston on October 29th.

Ocean Frontiers II brings you face to face with those now embarking on the nation’s first regional ocean plan, promoting healthier economies and healthier seas across New England. A spotlight on Rhode Island reveals how the Ocean State turned potential conflict into collaboration, inviting all on a path of ocean stewardship. Watch the film trailer here http://ocean-frontiers.org/trailer.

The world premiere of Ocean Frontiers II is in Rhode Island on October 28th, at 7pm at the Providence Public Library. The Massachusetts premiere is the following night, October 29th, at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX theater in Boston, also at 7pm. Both events are free and open to the public, but space is limited so please make your reservation:

 

Providence, October 28th http://bit.ly/OceanFrontiers2RI

Boston, October 29th http://bit.ly/OceanFrontiers2Boston

 

Following the screening of each film we will have a short panel discussion that explores New England’s leadership to foster sustainable growth of our ocean economy and the protection and restoration of our ocean ecosystems.

You may have seen the original Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship, at one of our previous screeningsOcean Frontiers is a compelling voyage to seaports and watersheds across the country to meet industrial shippers and whale biologists, pig farmers and wetland ecologists, commercial and sport fishermen and reef snorkelers—all of them embarking on a new course of cooperation to sustain the sea and our coastal and ocean economies.

Following on the heels of the award-winning Ocean Frontiers I, Green Fire Productions brings you face to face with those now embarking on the nation’s first multi-state attempt at ocean planning. Navy scientists, wind-energy executives, fishermen, Native American tribal leaders, planners and environmental advocates – all are working as one to promote healthier economies and a healthier ocean across the breadth of New England.

According to Karen Meyer, Executive Director of Green Fire Productions, “One of our goals was to make sure that people know that ocean planning is underway and that all of our voices are really critical at this stage. It’s our role as concerned citizens who are interested in coastal economies and a thriving marine ecosystem to be involved and make our voices heard.”

Please join us at one of these premieres and learn how to make your voice heard in ocean planning. In the meantime, learn more about why ocean planning matters in New England. We hope to see you at the movies!

The Fish are Talking, but Can We Listen?

The scientists who study cod populations have tried a lot of different ways to figure out where cod aggregate and to observe their behavior, like trawl surveys, sonar, and even underwater video cameras. But recently, a team of federal and state fisheries scientists have developed a new way to observe groups of cod. Rather than watching them, they’re listening to them—and they’re hearing some pretty interesting stories that could help us protect this depleted species.

This story starts with a state fisheries employee out fishing on his day off. Three miles off the coast of Gloucester, he stumbled on a large group of spawning cod on an otherwise nondescript gravel sandbar. Recognizing the opportunity to study this unusual group of fish, researchers later returned to install passive acoustic monitoring equipment.

This underwater laboratory works in two ways—first, it records the sounds cod in the area make (cod vocalize by inflating and contracting their swim bladders, making faint grunting noises that can be difficult to hear on a recording). Second, it picks up information on the location of individual cod that the researchers catch and tag with acoustic signals. This monitoring has allowed the scientists to track where male and female cod are over time, at what depth they’re swimming, and when they’re making noise.

The researchers have already discovered some pretty interesting things about spawning cod. First, they noticed that female cod and male cod make sounds during the day, but only male cod make noise at night. This pattern reflects what the researchers saw on video—at night, male cod move from the school into smaller groups where they compete for the attention of females. That means that cod actually spawn at night, not during the day as was previously thought.

The scientists also discovered that cod tend to spawn near the surface—potentially to avoid fishing gear dragged along the bottom.

While this information about spawning behavior is interesting on its own, it could also have even bigger implications for the way we protect our cod populations. Now that scientists know what a group of spawning cod sounds like, researchers can scan the ocean—potentially with self-propelled robots equipped with microphones—to locate previously undiscovered spawning sites. As scientist Sofie Van Parijs told the Cape Cod Times, “Killing them where they spawn is a great way to drive a species to extinction.” Finding groups of spawning cod could help fisheries managers create temporary or permanent areas off-limits to fishing to protect these fish when they’re at their most vulnerable.

Scientists have already used this type of monitoring to improve the management of another iconic New England species—the endangered North Atlantic right whale. An array of underwater microphones currently listens for right whales’ distinctive, upward-swooping calls. When the whales are detected in a shipping lane, nearby vessels are alerted and diverted to help avoid a collision.

Scientists believe this technology could be similarly helpful for cod, but there are some challenges standing in the way of putting it to use. First, there is limited funding for more research. Second, there is currently no set way to include this information in fisheries management process, so scientists will have to work closely with managers to see if it can be considered when setting up new areas closed to fishing. Lastly, the oceans are noisy. Between all the sounds made by other marine animals and the deep rumbles of commercial boats, it can be difficult for microphones and scientists to hear the noises cod make.

If these problems can be resolved, the quiet grunts of cod could mean a big step forward for the conservation of this depleted species.

Please Stand With Us, For the Sake of Cod

A few weeks ago my colleague Peter Shelley stood in front of fishermen and policymakers and spoke about the startling decline of New England’s cod fishery. Did you know that, since 1982, it’s estimated we have lost more than 80% of the cod in New England’s ocean? That surely should be a wake up call to us all.

That day, Peter’s argument was simple, and backed by sound science. We must act quickly, he argued, to prevent the Atlantic cod – New England’s most iconic fish — from complete and utter collapse.

The response? Hisses and boos. Hisses and boos.

Peter is no fool – he knew what was coming. A fisheries expert who filed the first lawsuit that led to the cleanup of Boston Harbor, Peter has heard this same response too often. But still, this response is as startling as it is unhelpful.

The science is clear. Atlantic cod populations are at an all-time historic low. The cod fishery, which for generations has supported a way of life in New England’s coastal communities, may be in complete collapse. Don’t believe me? Watch this video of Peter explaining the science behind this critical issue.

 

 

Over the coming 14 days, NOAA – the agency in charge of setting limits on how much cod commercial fisherman can catch – is deciding how much to allow commercial fisherman to catch this year. We at CLF believe that the managers of this public resource have a responsibility to revive and rebuild cod stocks.

Instead, they are continuing a decades-long pattern of risky decision-making that has run this fishery and its communities into the ground.

We have an opportunity to urge NOAA to save the Atlantic cod from complete collapse. But we have to act now. The longer we wait, the more we risk losing this iconic fishery.

We at CLF are working to urge NOAA to do three things:

  1. Shut down the commercial cod fishery, so as to save it for future generations
  2. Protect cod populations, especially the adult females that produce as many as 8 million eggs a year
  3. And, protect the ocean refuges that will allow cod to recover, not bow to industry pressure by opening them to more commercial fishing.

If you believe, as we at CLF believe, that the cod fishery is worth saving, please stand with thousands of New Englanders and take action today.

Now is not the time to push the limits of the law and set dangerously high catch levels. Now is not the time to bow to industry pressure. Now is not the time to risk this species for short-term gain.

Now is the time to show strength, and real leadership. Now is the time to try to save New England’s cod fishery for future generations to enjoy.

Please stand with us, and thousands of others, in calling on NOAA to protect this species before it’s too late.

Originally posted on CLF Scoop, April 3, 2013

Booming New England Seal Population Creates a Management Challenge

Note: This originally ran on Talking Fish on September 18th. Photograph by Rich MacDowell as entered in the New England Ocean Odyssey photo contest

Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, forty years ago. Intended to slow the precipitous decline of marine mammal populations due to human activities, the act prohibited the killing, harassment, or excessive disturbance of marine mammals in United States waters.

For seals in New England—mainly harbor seals and gray seals—the MMPA’s protections effected a massive boom in population. Previously, the animals were considered a nuisance to fishermen and tourists. Coastal states frequently offered bounties for the killing of seals. One study estimates that between 1888 and 1962, over 100,000 seals were killed in the bounty hunt in Maine and Massachusetts alone. This mass killing was enough to trigger significant regional declines in numbers. In 1973, a survey of Maine waters counted just 5,800 harbor seals; this was likely almost the entire population at that time.

The MMPA effectively stopped the bounty hunt in its tracks, and seal numbers have risen rapidly as a result. Each female harbor seal pups once a year and survival rates in New England without predators are high. In 2001, the estimated population of harbor seals in New England had recovered to 99,340 individuals; the observed number rose by 28.7% just between 1997 and 2001. Gray seals have seen a similar increase in numbers. On Muskeget Island, just 19 adult gray seals were observed in 1994; in 2011, a census estimated between 3500 and 3800 seals. The overall observed population of gray seals in Massachusetts has increased from 5,611 to 15,756 between 1999 and 2011.

This booming, unrestricted seal population has costs.  Seals eat commercially valuable fish like cod and herring, often taking the catch right out of fishermen’s nets. They can also cause costly damage to fishing gear. In 2011, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans determined that gray seals were hindering cod stock recovery, and the minister of fisheries proposed a cull of 140,000 seals.  It’s possible they may be having a similar effect in the Gulf of Maine.

To some degree, nature is responding to this abundant, high value food source. Rising seal numbers have been linked to the apparent increase in great white sharks around Cape Cod, particularly near the large seal colonies on Muskeget and Monomoy. Sightings of great whites have increased notably in the past decade, and this summer, a swimmer off Cape Cod was attacked by one for the first time since 1936. Killer whales and other high level predators also once controlled seals in this region and may return in the future in greater numbers.

In the mean time, seals are becoming a growing political problem. A local fisherman recently pointed out the seal problem to John Bullard, the new Regional Administrator for NOAA, at an open meeting in Scituate. Tensions are also rising between the seals and local residents. Last summer, five gray seals were found shot on Cape Cod beaches.

Coming to agreement about the appropriate management response to this situation is challenging. On one hand, the rising numbers can be viewed as a remarkable success of the MMPA and a return to natural conditions. One conservation response is to argue that the seal population will start to limit itself as numbers approach carrying capacity or as recovering shark numbers or other marine predators catch up with the new abundance of prey. On the other hand, some stakeholders have called for new, direct methods to limit seal numbers, including culling. The Seal Abatement Coalition has circulated a petition calling for “an amendment or exception to the Marine Mammal Protection Act which would permit the humane dispersion of [gray] seals.”

The original text of the MMPA allows the secretary of commerce to make some exceptions to the no-take rules, taking into account “the conservation, development, and utilization of fishery resources,” provided that “the taking of such marine mammal is in accord with sound principles of resource protection and conservation.” These have included the issuance of permits for marine mammals caught incidentally by commercial fishing operations. NOAA has also previously allowed the dispersion of sea lions in California that damage fishing gear and has permitted the killing of sea lions that were eating endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that culling of New England’s seals will be allowed.  Beachgoers like spotting these charismatic animals and seal watching tours have become popular in some coastal communities. Harbor and gray seals are not widely regarded by the public as a nuisance, unlike California sea lions. In this context, it would take an “act of god” (as one state administrator put it)—or at the very least an act of Congress—to begin culling seals in New EnglandAs a Chatham fisherman told NPR last month, “There’s not a congressman in his right mind that’s going to be the first one out that says, ‘Let’s go harvest seals.’” Even with fisheries, the case for seal culling is modest. A recent study suggests that even if marine mammals were completely removed from the environment, potential catch from fisheries may not be dramatically improved.

There may be technologies that act or could act to reduce seal-fishing gear interactions non-lethally. “Pingers” like those used to deter porpoises from gill nets could be used to scare seals away from fishing gear. Still, this technology could be expensive to implement and may be ineffective on seals, which are highly intelligent animals and might even become attracted to the noise over time as they learn to associate it with readily available fish.

The solutions to New England’s exploding seal populations are not obvious, but the pressure for responses is growing and will continue to build. Seals are no longer just the stuff of children’s books and aquaria exhibits; they are back in force and growing rapidly. Natural seal mortality rates will undoubtedly increase over time, but as long as people and seals are both chasing after the same scarce fish resources, soon may not be soon enough for some.

Healthy Sharks – Healthy Oceans

I love diving with makos, but they have a very different behavior than other sharks. They come in appearing to be more agitated. They’re much more hyper and jacked up.” – Brian Skerry

Mako sharks are built to move. They are very acrobatic – sometimes leaping high into the air – and are also extremely fast. Some scientists think they are the fastest fish, possibly going over 50 mph at times. (Fun fact – makos are one of the only “warm-blooded” fish, which helps explain why they can move so fast, even in colder water.) Makos need wide open spaces and healthy places to eat and reproduce. The health of our oceans depends on healthy top predator populations, and healthy top predators depend on healthy oceans.

Our nation has taken a major step forward in protecting the health of our oceans with the National Ocean Policy – which calls better management through agency coordination, science-based decisions and robust public and stakeholder involvement.  One important priority of the National Ocean Policy is to protect ocean habitat and wildlife while supporting sustainable new and traditional uses of our ocean.

Regional ocean planning and ecosystem-based management are two other key components of the National Ocean Policy that can go a long way in protecting our top predators. Regional ocean planning is a process that brings together all our ocean stakeholders – from fishermen to whale watchers, from beachgoers to renewable energy developers – to help us figure out how to share the ocean sustainably. This process helps all New Englanders use and enjoy our ocean and coasts while making sure we protect ocean wildlife and habitats and maintain the benefits these resources provide for us all.

For an example of how regional ocean planning can protect marine wildlife, check out this blog about endangered North Atlantic right whales and shipping lanes.

Collecting and sharing good data, and using it to help make ocean management decisions, are some of the keys to succesful regional ocean planning. If you are wondering how this might apply to mako sharks, check out this app from NOAA that allows fishermen to share information about caught and released makos – to literally put that shark on the map. NOAA says “Overfishing is occurring on the North Atlantic shortfin mako shark population. By releasing shortfin mako sharks that are unintentionally caught or caught for sport, fishermen can lead the way for conserving this shark species.” Now that sounds like some good planning.