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.

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.

Setting the Record Straight: Marine Monuments Have a Long, Proud Legacy

A cunner swims through healthy kelp forest at Cashes LedgeFormer Conservation Law Foundation Staff Attorney Roger Fleming, who is now a part of the Oceans litigation team at EarthJustice, details how the National Monument establishment process through the Antiquities Act serves the public’s interest. 

By Roger Fleming

One hundred-nine years ago this week President Teddy Roosevelt created the first national monument, protecting the magnificent Devil’s Tower formation in Wyoming. Since then, sixteen presidents – eight from each party — have used the power granted by Congress in the Antiquities Act to create more than 115 monuments protecting the nation’s natural and historic heritage on land and at sea, from the Statue of Liberty to the Marianas Trench.

Now we have a chance to see that proud tradition in action again to protect a national treasure right here in our backyard with a Marine National Monument off New England’s coast. On September 15, 2015, NOAA hosted a town hall meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, in order to discuss the possible establishment of a monument that could include deep sea Coral Canyons and Seamounts and Cashes Ledge. Scientists have identified these areas as deserving of special protection due to unique undersea terrain and nutrient upwelling that supports cold water coral gardens, our largest cold water kelp forest, fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and more.

A broad coalition of scientists, small business owners, fishermen, faith groups, civic leaders, and conservationists have sent a clear message that we need to save these ecologically important places before irreparable damage is done, so that future generations can enjoy their unimaginable beauty and a healthier marine environment. That is exactly what the Antiquities Act is intended to do.

Unfortunately, opponents in the fishing industry have attempted to muddy the waters with unfounded concerns about the “process” being used to provide protection for these areas.

Opponents who spoke at NOAA’s town hall event argued that the monument designation process is undemocratic, and that decisions about how to manage these areas should be left to the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing in the region’s federal waters.

Many who gave comment also complained about a lack of opportunity for public comment on the monument designation. Let that sink in for a moment: complaints about a lack of public comment were made while giving public comment.

Let’s set the record straight on a few things.

First, the monuments process is democratic.

President Obama has the authority to establish permanent protection of these areas through designation of a monument under the Antiquities Act. This Act is another tool provided to the democratically-elected president by our democratically-elected Congress to preserve areas identified as historic landmarks and areas of scientific interest before it is too late – before the opportunity to save a valuable resource is lost. This president’s predecessor, George W. Bush, created four monuments in the Pacific Ocean covering a total of 860,000 square kilometers. None exist in the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, there has been—and continues to be—public input into the process.

Already in this nascent proposal for a new marine monument there has been a town hall meeting where anyone wishing to do so was given the opportunity to speak and an ongoing public comment period through which over 160,000 people have already written in support of saving these important places. Arguably, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to provide opportunities to be heard on a proposal, in circumstances where it is not at all required to by law.

Leading up to the monument proposal, there were years of study of these areas and numerous opportunities for the public and other stakeholders to provide relevant scientific, economic, and other information, and to otherwise make their views known as possible protections were discussed in different venues, including the fishery management process.  Because the President’s decision must be based on science, this will all be considered.

Third, the New England Fishery Management Council has a checkered history regarding public and scientific involvement, and an even worse record as a steward of the public’s ocean resources.

The fishery management process remains dominated by the fishing industry and fails to adequately consider broader public interests. One need only look to the status of New England’s iconic fish species, the Atlantic cod, for evidence of this. Cod stocks have collapsed and the region’s groundfishing sector was declared a disaster, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The record clearly shows that New England’s Council ignored repeated warnings from science about the deteriorating condition of cod stocks until it was far too late. Just last year more than a hundred-forty scientists and more than 150,000 members of public implored the council to protect more habitat for these and other depleted fish. But the Council instead voted to slash the amount of essential fish habitat protected by more than 60 percent.

The Council did succeed in identifying the ecological, economic, and social importance of the Cashes Ledge Closed area, and has closed the area to most bottom fishing. However, this action came only after an earlier vote to strip existing protections from that area. Further, the limited protections in place leave nearly all of the area open to other fishing, including the East Coast’s largest fishing vessels – industrial midwater trawlers – which are capable of stripping the area of essential forage fish, catching non-targeted fish, mammals and other marine animals as bycatch, and are known to contact the bottom when fishing. The protections in place are not permanent and could be removed at any time through the fishery management process.

Similarly, the New England canyons and seamounts have been identified by the Council as important ecological areas but they have received very few protections which are not worthy of their unique ecological importance.

Finally, this is not just about fishing.

New England’s “Fishery Management” Council has no authority to address other potential threats that could surface for the area, such as marine mining, drilling, or other industrial activity. Unlike the tenuous, partial protections now in place for Cashes Ledge and New England’s Canyons and Seamounts, a national monument provides permanent protection against all types of harmful extraction.

Such protection would benefit critically endangered right whales, which are known to depend on Cashes Ledge, fantastic deep-sea corals in the Canyons and Seamounts, and the important sea birds that feed on the surface of these rich waters.  Many coastal businesses, including many fishermen, support the proposal because they recognize there will also be broad economic benefits that will result from protecting these unique treasures and a healthier marine environment.

These areas belong to the U.S. public, and overwhelming evidence shows that the monument process is fair and that a marine monument would best serve the public’s interests now and into the future.

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.

The Boston Globe Visits Cashes Ledge

If you picked up The Boston Globe on Sunday, you may have noticed this striking photograph of a scuba diver swimming through a lush, colorful kelp forest. The photo might have been familiar to you – it was taken by our friend Brian Skerry on Cashes Ledge, one of the most remarkable places in the Gulf of Maine.

The Globe’s front page article lays out some of the reasons why Cashes Ledge is so important – it says “the frigid waters and glacier-sculpted peaks are home to a billowy kelp forest and an abundant array of life, from multicolored anemones to cod the size of refrigerators,” notes that the ledge has been protected from trawling for over a decade, creating a sanctuary of biodiversity, and acknowledges the importance of Cashes Ledge as a breeding ground for depleted cod.

But the article also points out that Cashes Ledge is at immediate risk. This fall, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering reopening Cashes Ledge to bottom trawling. Its current favored proposal would eliminate protection for three quarters of the current closure and threaten this thriving ecosystem. The Globe asked Brian Skerry what he thought of this proposal, and he couldn’t have been more clear: “Protection must happen now if there is any hope of holding on to what remains.”

We think Cashes Ledge deserves protection. Check out the Globe’s article, and if you agree, please sign our petition asking fisheries managers to maintain full protection for Cashes Ledge and the surrounding areas.

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

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.