Welcome to Our First Fish Friday! This Week: Atlantic Sturgeon

The New England Ocean Odyssey team would like to welcome you to our new weekly series all about New England’s special ocean species! While we will primarily feature the region’s exceptional fish, we can’t guarantee that we won’t throw in the occasional marine mammal, reptile, or invertebrate. We couldn’t possibly resist discussing Atlantic harbor seals, Kemp’s ridley turtles, and American lobsters. So join us every Friday to learn about the ecologically essential, economically critical, and craziest-looking sea creatures in New England!

Let’s dive into this week’s feature: the threatened, yet resilient Atlantic sturgeon

This fish species looks like a creature from prehistoric times, and for good reason. Sturgeons (family Acipenseridae) are a group of primitive fishes that emerged about 70 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous epoch. In fact, some of the best-preserved fossils were discovered in dinosaur stomachs! While sturgeons today have cartilaginous skeletons (as opposed to their bony ancestors), they have retained many primitive features. These include bony plates (called scutes) instead of scales, long “whiskers” (called barbels) covered in taste buds that dangle from the underside of their snouts, and the ability to shoot out their tubular mouths to inhale prey1.

Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) can be distinguished from other sturgeon species by their large size, small mouth, and distinct snout shape. They range from dark blue and black to olive green on their backs and have lighter bellies. Adults can measure up to 800 pounds and may reach 14 feet long!

They have been aged up to 60 years old and generally reach sexual maturity between 10 and 35 years old, although southern populations may mature faster. Males typically spawn every 1 to 5 years, while females will spawn every 2 to 5 years.

Human Threats

Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in fresh water, spend a majority of their adult lives in the ocean, and return to fresh water to spawn. In the spring (May and June in northern waters), Atlantic sturgeon migrate from their oceanic ranges into rivers along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Labrador, Canada, where they spawn at the border of fresh and salt water. This dependence on estuarine habitat, in combination with late spawning age, makes Atlantic sturgeon particularly vulnerable to human threats such as dams, water pollution, and overfishing.

In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the federal government implemented a coast-wide moratorium on commercial harvest that remains in place today. While this prevents intentional harvest of Atlantic sturgeon, many factors continue to threaten stocks up and down the coast: dams prevent migration to spawning grounds, dredging ruins spawning areas altogether, water pollution (often due to coastal development) hinders juvenile development, and other commercial fisheries accidentally harvest Atlantic sturgeon as bycatch.

To address these additional threats, NOAA listed five populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2012. The Gulf of Maine population was listed as threatened, while the Chesapeake Bay, New York Bight, Carolina, and South Atlantic populations were listed as endangered.

With money made available by the ESA listing, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service was able to invest in research to determine human threats to Atlantic sturgeon populations and devise mitigation strategies, such as nets that will allow sturgeon to escape while still capturing smaller fish.

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In the Gulf of Maine, multiple dams have been or will be removed, allowing Atlantic sturgeon to return to their historical spawning grounds. There have recently been reports of potentially higher catch-per-unit-effort than in the past – a sign that the population may be recovering.

There are still a lot of cards stacked against the Atlantic sturgeon; we have much left to learn about their distribution, and, at the moment, NOAA has little control over when and where dredging occurs. But, as conservation writer and editor Ted Williams says, “Maybe the greatest value of the Endangered Species Act — greater even than information it generates about how and where animals live and the threats they face — is the knowledge that it’s not too late to save them…Atlantic sturgeon didn’t make it for 70 million years without being resilient.”

Sammi Dowdell is the Ocean Conservation Program Summer Intern for Conservation Law Foundation.

Georges Bank on the Habitat Chopping Block

The New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Committee continues to show complete disregard for habitat protection. Up for consideration at the Committee’s Monday meeting was an industry-introduced proposal to open critical areas of Georges Bank as part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. The proposal was originally designed to allow access to the Northern edge of Georges Bank for scalloping.

The discussion that played out reinforced the notion that the management body tasked with protecting essential fish habitat in New England is driven instead by short-term industry interests and willing to sacrifice important ecological areas in order to accommodate fishing interests.

The Habitat Committee ultimately voted to the full Council as its preferred alternative for the Georges Bank area a revised and further weakened version of the industry’s proposal, which establishes two habitat closures along the southern edge (a western and eastern area) closed to mobile-bottom tending gear and a “mortality closure” over the scallop and vulnerable habitat rich northern edge. A mortality closure can be opened at the discretion of the Council and NMFS when the population of fish that it was intended to protect no longer need such catch protections

When a commenter pointed out to the Committee that the “mortality closure” comprised 80% gravel and cobble bottom habitat – some of the most vulnerable, high quality essential fish habitat according to NEFMC’s own data – the Committee moved quickly to conjure up a new name for the area. Sadly, no wordsmithing could disguise the meaning of intent of the Committee to ensure that damaging scallop dredges would gain access to this most vulnerable of habitats. In a move that again directly contradicted the Council’s own science, the Committee leapt to relocate the western habitat protected area from a region comprised mostly of cobble and gravel bottom to one dominated by sand. The Council has repeatedly taken the position in this years-long process that their science indicates that sandy bottom on Georges Bank has among the lowest values as essential fish habitat.

With this as preferred alternative going into the June full Council meeting, Georges Bank faces a drastic reduction in overall protected habitat area, rolling back decades of habitat recovery in some of the areas now proposed to be wide open to all fishing gears. Disregarding its own science accumulated over the innumerable years this amendment has been underway, the Council seems positioned to cash in its habitat protected areas in favor of short term economic gain, while risking long term viability of New England’s fishing future.

The Council meets in the third week of June to finalize its votes on the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. After the June vote, the Council will submit its proposed amendment to NOAA for final approval or disapproval. At this point, the public will have the opportunity to weigh in with the agency about how the Omnibus Habitat Amendment moves ocean habitat protections backwards and endangers the future of our fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

Image: A sea scallop and tunicate colonies encrusting pebble gravel habitat on Northern Georges Bank. Photo by USGS.

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