Bulletin of Marine Science | Year: 2010
Despite its importance to fisheries management, the spatial behavior of fishing fleets is poorly understood. Fishing captains continuously sample the environment and decide where to allocate fishing effort in a dynamic process influenced by a variety of ecological factors. I instituted a participatory, observational study of 15 teams fishing for the red spiny lobster, Panulirus interruptus (Randall, 1840), in Baja California Sur, Mexico, where trap locations, lobster catch, and trap movement were recorded daily. I analyzed 8407 trap-placement decisions to quantify attributes of fishing strategies, including search frequency and Cartesian behavior, by interpolating maps of resource abundance based on fishers' own catch and using them to evaluate trap placement. All fishers preferentially placed traps in areas with higher catch rates the previous day, and the extent to which fishers did so explained season-wide differences in catch success. Other explanatory factors included the distance fishers moved traps that caught no lobsters, the number of traps checked per day, and the proportion of traps they used to explore new areas. Different attributes of fishing strategy were more important in explaining catch success in the two fishing areas studied, presumably because of different spatial relations of benthic habitats and their effects on lobster movement patterns. My results help explain catch variation among fishers, provide new tools with which researchers can evaluate the skipper effect, and are the basis for a theory of dynamics among marine habitat arrangement, resource distribution, and fishing strategies. © 2010 Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science of the University of Miami.
"Six years on, scientists are continuing to tally the ecological harms caused by the deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The latest glimpse at the ongoing environmental effects of the disaster came in a new report by the conservation and advocacy group Oceana, which compiled the findings of a broad range of studies — primarily from the past two years — examining the aftermath of the spill. The report makes clear that the reach of the disaster, which ranks as one of the costliest environmental catastrophes ever, continues to grow."
News Article | March 16, 2016
U.S. President Barack Obama reverses plans and will now disallow oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The decision came after local communities and several environmentalist groups expressed strong rejection to what might have open drilling sites, more than 50 miles from Virginia, Georgia and North and South Carolina by the year 2021. The original plan was to allow drilling projects in the Atlantic. Such proposal was billed by the Interior department, which boasts the balanced approach of the plan such that it includes Alaskan land protection. With this, environmentalists seemed to have switched back and forth agreeing and disagreeing on the plan. Most government officials gave their nods of approval to the proposal, saying this will create new jobs and amp up state revenues. Even the oil and gas sector seemed to have agreed with the oil drilling plan due to the possible new frontier for the industry. Although the oil and gas deposits along the U.S. East Coast have not yet been verified, estimates say it would amount to about 3.3 billion barrels of oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Despite the seemingly promising benefits of the oil drilling project, coastal communities strongly protest against it. The people are particularly worried about potential oil spills, impacts on tourism and the overall economy. "The Interior Department received more than a million comments on the Draft Proposed Program, released in January 2015," the department statement reads. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says putting into consideration conflicts with national defense, tourism, fishing and local community uproar, it looks nonsensical to continue with any lease sales in the next five years. Advocacy group Oceana vice president for the U.S., Jacqueline Savitz is delighted with the move of the Obama administration. "President Obama has taken a giant step for our oceans, for coastal economies and for mitigating climate change," she says. For her, this is a courageous decision that initiates a new energy model that replaces fossil fuels with clean energy, and one that prevents the worst effects of carbon dioxide emissions. There is no doubt that advocacy groups are pleased with the decision, but for them, it is not yet time to put their guard down. Cindy Shogan from Alaska Wilderness League says concerns about the U.S. maintaining an open door for oil drilling in the Arctic still exist. Oceana supports this concern and continues to urge the Obama administration to stop new lease sales in the region.
News Article | March 10, 2016
Over the last century, ocean biodiversity has been obliterated by overfishing and industrialization, resulting in a looming mass extinction event in the seas. Though several enormous marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established, poachers are still slipping through the cracks, undermining crucial attempts to stop the ecological freefall occurring in marine environments. Fortunately, a team led by UC Santa Barbara ecologist Douglas McCauley has suggested an innovative solution to this problem that merges Big Data, citizen science, and conservation. In a paper published today in the journal Science, McCauley and his co-authors argue that using automatic identification systems (AIS), which are navigational aids that use satellite tracking to prevent ship collisions, could be the key to keeping fishing vessels honest. “Every 16-year-old in the US that wants to drive a car gets assigned a number,” McCauley told me via email. “It troubles me that we don't care to apply the same standards to an industry that will control the fate of ocean biodiversity, food security, public health, and billion dollar coastal economies.” Indeed, despite the widespread use of these AIS trackers, McCauley’s team points out that in 2014, only 3.5 percent of self-identified fishing vessels reported a valid identification code—called an International Maritime Organization (IMO) number—via AIS, demonstrating a shocking lack of accountability at sea. Fishing activity in the global oceans has reached such high densities that tracks of fishermen map out the world in reverse. This map displays fishing vessel data from 2015 alone. Image: Douglas McCauley The problem is not so much that fishing crews are nefarious opportunists angling to exploit marine preserves, but rather that there is simply no real incentive for them to broadcast their IMO numbers—or even to register them in the first place. “The IMO allows large fishing vessels to voluntarily sign up for an IMO number,” McCauley said. “Nobody I know voluntary signs up for an ID number.” “Vessels may be required by local law to carry AIS,” he added, “but nobody checks whether they register the system properly and fill out all the optional data fields. Who among us fills in those boxes in online forms unless they are required? We need to change policy that requires an IMO ID be attached to these AIS feeds.” In other words, the global maritime community has barely even begun to harness the broader potential of AIS as a powerful conservation tool, as well as a means to collect enormous amounts of data about ongoing activity in our oceans. What’s more, because AIS data is broadcast publicly, it can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. Projects like Global Fishing Watch, an interactive fishing tracking service spearheaded by Google, SkyTruth, and Oceana, aim to increase the role of the average citizen in ocean advocacy by providing them with the tools to monitor fishing vessels. “This democratization of ocean observation is key,” McCauley told me. “People often talk about ocean health being wrecked by the tragedy of the commons (i.e. if you don't catch that last fish, someone else will). I think if we can empower people to watch this tragedy unfold on their phones, we can break this cycle.” “I'm a fisherman,” he continued. “I believe in the importance of fishing. I think 99.9 percent of the fishermen out there are doing the right thing because they want to be able to turn their wheelhouses over to their kids. I think the small number of bad actors out there will behave more responsibly if they know NGOs, soccer dads, surfers, and politicians are watching their behavior.” Beyond illegal fishing, broader AIS compliance would also lend more accountability to the underwater industrial revolution, which includes disruptive activities like seabed mining. It also has the potential to reduce collisions between ships and whales, and to inform scientists about the optimal routes ships should take in order to avoid interfering with the ocean’s most vulnerable ecosystems. At this point, the main argument against the adoption of large scale AIS tracking is that it would infringe on the privacy of industries that harvest ocean resources. But for McCauley and his colleagues, commercial privacy concerns are dramatically outweighed by the alarming collapse of marine biodiversity, and all the ominous consequences that will have for the future of our own species. “In Moby Dick, Melville writes about ships leaving part and being swallowed up by the anonymity of the sea,” McCauley said. “That no longer seems very romantic when the price of protecting privacy at sea means that food and money is stolen via illegal fishing from poor countries, that the future of amazing animals like sharks and sea turtles is put at risk, and that we can't stop all kinds of social injustice that happens at sea.”
If you’re a pescatarian who enjoys a good southern fried catfish, bad news: Congress has decided that effectively, catfish are now ‘meat.’ No more corn meal. No more tartar sauce. You’ll have to stick to tilapia or salmon, which, according to our government, are still fish. Of course, this is silly. Tilapia, salmon, catfish--all these things are meat. But a recent change in the government’s definition of catfish raises issues of international trade, food safety, government spending, and, according to some, even the future of the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic fisheries that depend on it. The shift has its roots in the 2008 Farm Bill, which included an amendment designating catfish as a “species amenable to the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” which “requires appointment of inspectors to examine and inspect all meat food products prepared for commerce.” The 2014 farm bill made it official: Starting this month, all fish in the order Siluriformes, which includes catfish and Asian farmed species like pangasius and basa, now fall under the purview of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service which requires inspectors to be present at facilities in which catfish are processed and labeled. All other fish and seafood however, will remain under the authority of the FDA Seafood Inspection Program, which engages in fewer inspections. So why catfish? Are they especially unsafe that they deserve more government oversight than any other seafood? American catfish farmers seem to think so. During two 2011 public comment sessions that requested feedback on the proposed catfish inspection rule, representatives from the catfish farming industry applauded additional oversight and regulation of their businesses. They were all very concerned with consumer health and safety. A catfish industry representative said in his comment: “For the sake of consumer health, first and foremost, and also for the health of an important job-creating domestic and import industry, it is critical that FSIS begin regulating catfish.” Other industry representatives weighed in similarly. To anyone familiar with the food industry’s usual attitude towards more government regulation—for any reason—these comments are extraordinary. Also surprisingly in favor of more regulation was Republican Senator Thad Cochran from Mississippi (the state responsible for the majority of U.S. farmed catfish production), who introduced the catfish inspection rule in the 2008 Farm Bill. “The Government Accountability Office recently released a report on the current FDA seafood inspection policy, which characterized its effectiveness as limited and in dire need of strengthening. Only two percent of imported catfish is currently inspected in the United States,” Senator Cochran commented. It’s interesting that the Senator referenced the GAO report panning the FDA inspections as ineffective, because another GAO report, released in 2012 and updated this month, found that the USDA catfish program “would be an inefficient use of taxpayer funds and a duplication of activities because facilities that process both catfish and other seafood would be inspected by both USDA and FDA.” The report is titled “Responsibility for Inspecting Catfish Should Not Be Assigned to USDA.” There are other issues. The GAO found that FSIS’s decision to focus on Salmonella in its inspection program was based on “outdated and limited information in its risk assessment . . . For example, FSIS identified a single outbreak of Salmonella-caused illnesses, but this outbreak was not clearly linked to catfish.” Since that outbreak, GAO reported, the FDA in 1997 updated its seafood regulations, and “no similar outbreaks have occurred since.” The development of the FSIS catfish inspection program is expected to cost $14 or $15.4 million, depending whom you ask (with taxpayers on the hook for most of that), with annual costs of $2.5 million, though this may change as the program moves forward, according to a source at USDA. Contrast this with the estimated $700,000 the FDA currently spends inspecting catfish facilities. The new program will use hazard analysis methods that, according to the GAO, are basically no different from those that were employed by the FDA. Just to reiterate: that’s an up-front cost of $14 million and an ongoing additional cost of $1.8 million to be spent on inspections aimed at preventing Salmonella infections from catfish based on an outbreak that may or may not have been caused by catfish nearly 20 years ago. I contacted the USDA to ask about the reasoning behind the program, and the response was essentially ‘we serve at the pleasure of the U.S. Congress.’ In other words, we don’t make the laws, we just carry ‘em out. The GAO makes a strong case against the FSIS catfish inspection program. But it never addressed a question that nagged me ever since I heard about this whole thing: What about all the other seafood in the U.S.? Senator Cochran and other supporters of the FSIS catfish inspection program repeatedly refer to the FDA’s two percent inspection rate for all seafood. Catfish have not been identified as any more or less dangerous to consumers than other seafood. So then, for the sake of consumer safety, if the FDA is so inadequate, shouldn’t all seafood be subject to USDA inspection? I called Senator Cochran’s office and posed this question to one of his staffers. “He’s not stated that,” the spokesperson said. Is he looking into anything like that? I asked. “No, he hasn’t addressed that, no,” he replied. By now you’ve probably figured out that consumer safety is not in fact the likely inspiration for this rule. “It’s all meant to try to deter Chinese, Vietnam, and Thailand farm-raised catfish from getting into this country,” said Tim Sughrue, a former fisherman, research biologist, and now vice president of Congressional Seafoods, a wholesaler and processor based out of Jessup, Maryland. Sughru and others have pointed out that one of the biggest threats to the domestic farm-raised catfish industry is the import of farmed fish from Asia, like basa and pangasius. The FSIS program requires all Siluriform imports to meet the same inspection criteria required by the USDA—a standard that for now, few, if any, of the Asian importers can meet. Congressman Thompson of Mississippi, commenting on the proposed rule, admitted “the rule will have tremendous impact on jobs in my home state of Mississippi . . . Unfortunately, our acreage and production numbers are down.” John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability at ProFish, another Maryland wholesaler, told me that it makes sense that domestic catfish farmers want to stop Asian imports. His sales of domestic farmed catfish are 10 percent of what they were in the last two or three years. But that’s also partly due to a new newcomer to the food scene in the Chesapeake region—a fish that John is actually quite happy to be selling more of: the blue catfish. Blue catfish were introduced as sport fish to the Chesapeake in the 1970s. “Once they were introduced, they spread pretty rapidly,” said Joseph Love, the tidal mass program manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The blue catfish is voracious. It is an apex predator, and has no natural predators, is considered an invasive fish, and described by NOAA as a threat to the balance of the Chesapeake ecosystem. “Part of the reason for the panic is that over the last few years the population is becoming more abundant,” said Love. “Many are aware of situation in the James River [where varying sources put the biomass between 70 and 90 percent blue catfish], and they’re concerned that the majority of the biomass is locked up in a single species. That’s scary to a lot of people who don’t want to see that happen. They care about the biodiversity of the Potomac . . . It’s also becoming obvious to anglers and commercial watermen. I think people are pretty concerned.” Sughru from Congressional Seafoods is one of those people. He’s worried not only for the future of iconic Chesapeake products like blue crab, but also for the populations of anadromous fish, like herring, rock fish, and shad—that are born and spawn in the Chesapeake and its tributaries, then swim back out to the Atlantic. Sughru said blue catfish eat these fish, their eggs, and their hatchlings as they travel up and down the Chesapeake, and this could affect commercial and recreational fisheries all along the Atlantic coast. “There is just no way you’re going to exterminate this fish,” he said. Sughru painted a dire picture: “They live for 20 years or more, grow to 100 pounds, and they’re the top predator in the Chesapeake Bay. They eat everything and nothing eats them.” Except for us. John Rorapaugh, like Sughru, has been selling more and more of the insatiable invader. “You feel like you’re doing the right thing,” he said. “You know, you’re bringing a protein to the public that’s healthy, and you’re helping the ecosystem. Even The Source [Wolfgang Puck’s DC restaurant] sells them now, as a fish sandwich and fish and chips, so you know if high-end restaurants are carrying them then it’s clearly a good protein.” Blue catfish are in the order Siluriformes and as such are subject to the new FSIS inspections. “It’ll put [the blue catfish fishery] out of business,” Sughru told me. Rorapaugh was not quite as alarmed, but he shared some of Sughru’s concern. “It’s still going to be a successful fishery, but I just hope [the FSIS inspections] don’t really increase the cost of doing business,” he said. Because of the abundance, mild flavor, and white flakey meat characteristic of blue catfish, Rorapaugh suggested that the fishery will continue to grow, and more and more people will get on board with eating this invasive fish. But will that be enough? And will the new catfish inspection program be an impediment to controlling the exploding blue catfish population? Joseph Love, of the Maryland DNR, wasn’t happy about any potential barrier: “Our job here has been to try and grease the wheels of harvest for this animal in a way that helps minimize its impact to our ecosystem . . . We want people to be able to buy this catfish at the lowest price possible to ensure that this animal gets harvested. The commercial harvest becomes a way of managing its biomass responsibly. Since we don’t have enough gear or people or time to go out there and harvest like [the commercial fishers can], we really need it to be incentivized as much as possible. So I wouldn’t call it a roadblock but it’s certainly a complication.” There aren’t a lot of winners here. A statement on Senator Cochran’s website hailed the new FSIS catfish inspections as a win for consumers, but there’s little to no evidence that the rule will do anything to meaningfully address seafood safety, even though the problems are real: The science-based ocean conservation organization Oceana (full disclosure: my employer) has investigated shortcomings in government seafood traceability, and labeling, that leave the door open for fraud and the import of illegal and unregulated fish, including possibly unsafe products. GAO reports similarly conclude that seafood regulation is inadequate. Why congress is spending money to shift regulatory responsibility from the FDA for one single category of fish, rather than just strengthening current FDA practices, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even the domestic catfish industry will likely enjoy only temporary relief, according to some public commenters on the proposed rule, as well as several people I spoke with who are familiar with international and domestic seafood markets. These sources predicted that within a few years some Asian importers will adapt, the market will adjust, and again, we’ll have cheap Asian imports flooding the market. But by then, hopefully, the Obama Administration will have enacted rules that require traceability information to follow all seafood from the boat to the dinner plate. If that happens, consumers will be able to more easily decide. Ideally, when you go to the grocery store, you won’t just see ‘catfish’ at the seafood counter. You’ll know exactly what kind of fish you’re getting, how it was caught or farmed, and where it comes from. And in this writer’s mind, it’s a pretty clear decision: This is a rare instance in which a food choice has a direct, positive impact on the environment, rather than the other way around. I do love me some striped bass, blue crabs, and even herring. But I’m going to try to eat as much blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay as I can, hopefully before there’s nothing else left to eat in this important ecosystem. And luckily I’m not a pescatarian, so catfish are still on my menu. Update: 3/22/16, 2:27 pm: An earlier version of this post cited the GAO report which stated that the annual cost of the program will be $14 million. A USDA spokesperson emailed me saying that that is inaccurate, that the $14 million reflects the cost to develop the program, and that the ongoing annual cost during the transitional phase will be $2.5 million.