Sunday, November 27, 2016

OF OIL, COAL, BLUEFIN TUNA--AND YOU

Times of change can be times of worry, particularly after a presidential election brings change to the White House, in the form of a new governing party and a president-elect who, in philosophy, experience and style, is very different from his immediate predecessor.

Opponents of the winning candidate often bewail his victory in apocalyptic terms.  Whether the winner was Ronald Reagan or Barak Obama, there were those who predicted that the incoming administration signaled the end of America-as-we-know-it, and foretold the onset of a world that was dark, sinister and—most threatening of all—different from what went before.

The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump was certainly no exception to that rule.  Some who opposed his election claim that the new administration is a threat to Americans’ civil rights.  Others, who supported the losing candidate, feel that it will be bad for organized labor.  Still others express concerns about the new administration’s approach to foreign policy.

We can only wait and watch as things unwind, in order to learn whether such fears were justified, or merely the sort of sour-grapes musings typical of those who did not win the race.

Probably no one feared a Trump victory as much as the various people and organizations that support clean air, clean water and other basic environmental issues.  Now that he has won, they, too, are warning of a coming cataclysm.  

Their fears are clearly being stoked by the words of the president-elect himself.

Donald J. Trump’s staff has created a website, www.greatagain.gov , which offers a foreshadowing for what a Trump administration will look like.  The site’s “Energy Independence” page includes the statements that

“Rather than continuing the current patch to block and undermine America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump Administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters…We will end the war on coal, and rescind the coal mining lease moratorium, the excessive Interior Department stream rule, and conduct a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama administration…”
I’ll leave it to others to decide how such a plan will impact America’s wilderness areas, the last remaining Appalachian brook trout streams and the troubled marshes of the Louisiana coast, and concentrate on the sort of things that I’ve always addressed before, the fish that swim off America’s coast, and particularly those of our offshore waters, such as the bluefin tuna.

The new administration certainly sounds like bad news for them.

Although there has been some recent scientific dissent, most biologists agree that all bluefin tuna that spawn on the west side of the Atlantic basin do so in a relatively small area in the Gulf of Mexico, and view the waters that flow over the outer continental shelf in the northern Gulf as an important nursery ground.

Unfortunately, the sea floor beneath, and up-current from, that nursery area holds large deposits of petroleum, and the methods used to extract that petroleum are not immune to mechanical mishap and human error.

That became tragically clear in the spring of 2010, when the BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and created the largest accidental oil spill ever recorded.  Such spill coincided with the peak of the bluefin tuna’s spawning season, which led scientists from Stanford University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the impacts.


“the timing of the oil spill directly overlapped with the maximum extent of adult bluefin tuna foraging and spawning activity in the Gulf of Mexico.  At its peak in May 2010, the spill covered more than 5 percent of the spawning habitat of the Atlantic bluefin tuna in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.
“Exposure to oil has previously been shown to have physiological consequences to the heart, and can cause deformations and death in eggs and larval fish, making it crucial to understanding the effects in order to assess the impacts of oil spills.  The effect of oil on spawning adult fish is not well understood but the crude oil may add stressors to all life history stages in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“The bluefin tuna population in the Gulf of Mexico has been struggling to rebuild to healthy levels for over 30 years.  These fish are a genetically unique population, and thus stressors such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even if minor, may have population-level effects…”
Although we will hopefully never again see an oil spill as large as that created by BP and its Deepwater Horizon operation, an expansion of offshore drilling will inevitably lead to a host of smaller spills, both from the wellhead and as a result of transporting crude oil, which could have a significant cumulative impact on fish populations.

And don’t believe that only bluefins would be affected.  

Chemicals found in crude oil can affect a wide variety of fish and other animals.  As part of the study of the Deepwater Horizon spill, Barbara Block and her colleagues found that

“Crude oil is a complex mixture of chemicals, some of which are known to be toxic to marine animals.  Past research has focused in particular on “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” (PAHs), which can also be found in coal tar, creosote, air pollution and stormwater runoff from land.  In the aftermath of an oil spill, PAHs can persist for many years in marine habitats and cause a variety of adverse environmental effects…
“The researchers found that oil blocks the potassium channels distributed in heart cell membranes, increasing the time to restart the heart on every beat.  This prolongs the normal cardiac action potential, and ultimately slows the heartbeat.  The potassium ion channel impacted in the tuna is responsible for restarting the heart muscle cell contraction cycle after every beat, and is highly conserved throughout vertebrates, raising the possibility that animals as diverse as tuna, turtles and dolphins might be affected similarly by crude oil exposure.  Oil also resulted in arrhythmias in some ventricular cells.”
Thus, any increase in drilling on the outer continental shelf is likely to put not only bluefin tuna, but any other fish that is likely to have its eggs and larvae come in contact with crude oil (fish such as summer flounder, menhaden and bluefish, should drilling ultimately be allowed off the Atlantic coast) into greater jeopardy.

And it’s not hard to imagine that any compound that adversely impacts the hearts of animals as varied as tuna, turtles and dolphins is likely to be bad for people, too.

However, to see a more direct connection between the incoming administration’s proclamations on “Energy Independence,” fish and human health impacts, we need to take a look at the dirtiest energy source of all—coal.

The incoming administration clearly supports expanding coal mining, and that only makes sense if more coal is to be burned, as well.  Most opponents of coal object to such expansion because of the dangers posed by increased soot levels, acid rain and coal’s contribution to accelerated global warming, but there is another hazard that often flies under their radar.  That is the fact that coal often contains traces of mercury, and that burning such coal releases such mercury, a very toxic element, into the environment.

Mercury moves through the food web, and tends to concentrate in large predatory fish.  A table provided by the United States Food and Drug Administration lists the mercury content in a number of popular food fish, and discloses that the highest levels are found in Gulf of Mexico tilefish (average concentration1.45 parts per million), swordfish (0.995 ppm), shark (0.979 ppm), king mackerel (0.73 ppm) and fresh or frozen bigeye tuna (0.689 ppm).

A CNN article from March 2016 discusses the importance of the issue, noting that

“The [Environmental Working Group] tested 254 hair samples from women of childbearing age from 40 states who reported eating as much or slightly more fish than the government recommendations over a period of two months.  The study found that 29% of the women had more mercury in their bodies than the [Environmental Protection Agency] considers safe, 1 part per million…
“The study found that mercury levels in women who frequently eat fish are 11 times higher than in women who rarely eat seafood…
“Mercury exposure during pregnancy can significantly alter the developing brain and nervous system of the unborn baby and cause lifelong deficits in learning, memory and reaction times, according to the study.  There are also issues for women who are not pregnant and men:  Mercury can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, according to the World Health Organization…”

Researchers at Stony Brook University’s (New York) School of Marine and Atmospheric Science analyzed tissue samples from more than 1,000 Atlantic bluefin tuna caught between 2004 and 2012, seeking to determine whether the level of mercury contained in the fish had changed over that time.

It turns out that the average level of mercury had, in fact, fallen, by an average of 19%.

That reduction tracks a 2.8% decline in the burning of coal in North American that occurred between 1990 and 2007, which was paralleled by a 4.3% drop in the amount of mercury found in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  The study also noted that the amount of mercury in the air over the North Atlantic Ocean dropped by 20% between 2001 and 2009.

No direct relationship has yet been established between the reduced mercury levels in bluefin tuna, the reduced use of coal in North America and the reduced levels of mercury in the air and ocean.  However, the correlation is difficult to ignore.

And if mercury levels are dropping in bluefin because of the reduced use of coal, there’s also a decent chance that they could be dropping in bigeye, swordfish and other popular food fish as well.

That would bode well for the health of future generations.

However, it is a change that could be easily undone if the incoming administration carries through with its “Energy Independence” plan.

For increased offshore drilling and increased use of coal wouldn’t just be bad for bluefin tuna.


It would be bad for me, you, and for descendants who you haven’t yet met, for they have not yet been born.  

We've made our share of mistakes, and probably deserve the life we now have.  But those unborn kids, at least, deserve a fair shake at the start.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A GOOD DEATH

A couple of weeks ago, there was a big fish kill out around Shinnecock, here on Long Island.

It seems that there was a big—a very big—school of menhaden moving through Shinnecock Bay.  A bunch of bluefish found them, and chased the menhaden into the narrow confines of the Shinnecock Canal, where they became trapped after a falling tide caused the canal’s locks to close.

The tide continued to drop as October’s “super moon” pulled the water down to some of its lowest levels of the year.  It didn’t take long for the trapped menhaden to pull most of the oxygen out of the confined waters, and once that happened, it didn’t take very much longer for untold thousands of menhaden to suffocate and die.

What followed was an epic fish kill.

It could have been worse.  Local officials, alerted to what was going on, began to periodically open and close the locks, allowing fresh, oxygenated water to flow into the channel and allowing rafts of dead fish to float out into the bay.   Thanks to such quick action, a lot of the menhaden managed to survive, and escape into open water.

Still, a lot of them died.

A handful of local baymen arrived at the canal, hoping to gather up some of the dead fish for bait.  They reported that, as they ran through the waterway, the depthfinders on their boats showed a completely flat bottom.  In truth, its contours hadn’t changed.  Instead, so many dead fish had fallen to the bottom of the canal that the holes were filled in, and what once was a fairly rough bottom now appeared as an even plain of soon-to-decay bodies.

Out on the Internet, observers were quick to warn of disaster, and speculated as to what sort of chemical spill, algae bloom or other insult to the canal’s water quality lead to the deaths.  In their minds, such a mass dying could only be due to human intervention.

Folks who’d spent a lot of their time on the water knew better.  Menhaden are a forage fish that, when stocks are healthy, appear to be ubiquitous, with every bay, creek and tidal basin holding big schools of the fish from early spring into November.  When winters are warm, as last winter was, some will stick around all year.

When you have that many fish hanging around in shallow water, eventually, some are going to die.  In the case of menhaden, they tend to die in a very showy and spectacular (and often malodorous) fashion.

I grew up on Long Island Sound, in the town of Greenwich, Connecticut.  Back in the late 1960s and 1970s (and, from what I understand, through the 1980s and 1990s, too, though I left town in ’83 and so lack the personal knowledge), big schools of menhaden clogged the local harbors every summer.  

Every year, it was only a matter of time until schools of bluefish pushed a bunch of menhaden into thin water near the top of the tide where, just like the menhaden in the Shinnecock Canal, they suffocated and died once the tide fell.

That was fine when Greenwich harbor was still an industrial waterfront, with fuel tanks, gravel heaps and small factories lining its eastern shore, and the sewer plant at Grass Island never reliably perfumed the entire harbor whenever the west wind blew.  But by the mid-‘70s, pricey condos (generally sold at times of high tides and southerly breezes) and corporate offices had replaced the harbor’s traditional businesses.

The aroma of rotting menhaden wasn’t acceptable to new residents, whose olfactory systems never had to endure such insults when they lived on Manhattan’s West Side.  

Thus, members of the Greenwich Police Department’s Marine Division were given dip nets and pails, directed to cease their usual duties, and told to scoop dead fish out of the harbor, until the condo dwellers could again step out onto their buildings’ balconies and not smell a summer sea breeze that smelled like—well, what a real summer sea breeze is supposed to smell like, when the ecosystem is functioning as it should.

Because menhaden are supposed to die by the thousands, and do so again and again.

Like any vegetarian, their role in the ecosystem is to consume the nutrients contained in plankton and push them further along the food web, either when live or freshly dead menhaden are eaten by other fish, gulls, mink and the like, or when rotting menhaden are consumend by myriad invertebrates, from snails and grass shrimp to lobsters and crabs, which feast on the remains of the dead.

Chris Paparo is a naturalist who lives fairly close to the Shinnecock Canal.  Along with being an outdoor writer and very talented underwater (and above-water) photographer, he holds a degree in marine biology, and thus is uniquely qualified to comment on the menhaden kill.  He notes

“It was an unfortunate event for the fish that perished on that day, but through their death will come life.  Fish kills such as this are a natural event.  Yes, it took place in a man-made canal, but they occur around the world in naturally-occurring “dead ends” (creeks, marshes, etc.).  And although it seems wasteful, it is a windfall for many organisms.  Mortality can be very high for young of the year animals such as gulls, osprey, eagles, raccoons, foxes, etc.  Mom and Dad are no longer there to supply them with nourishment, and as winter approaches food becomes difficult to find.  Additionally, the caloric intake needed to stay warm increases as the temperature drops.  Meaning they need to find more food in the coming months than they needed to find during the summer months.
“As devastating of an event this fish kill was, within twenty-four hours it was back to business as normal for the marine life of the Shinnecock Canal and many organisms now have a huge advantage going into the first winter of their life.”
It has been so for a very long time.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were wandering around the Wyoming back country, near the town of Kemmerer.  One morning we stopped by a fossil quarry, and spent half the day splitting limestone slabs, seeking to reveal the remains of creatures that had lived in and along the shores of a vast inland lake, that had stood in that spot 50 million years before.

What we found were the remains of fish, primarily two species belonging to the genus Knightia, extinct members of the herring family.


Knightia were small fish, while ranging in size from small minnows to a rare 10 inches, are generally found four to five inches long.  These herring-like fish probably fed on algae, diatoms, small crustaceans and insects.  Knightia themselves played an important part in the food chain as a food source for the larger fish in Fossil Lake.”

“From time to time, dozens of fish died simultaneously.  These mass mortalities may have been due to contamination of the upper water by hydrogen sulfide released by earthquakes or by seasonal turnover of lake waters; extremes of temperature or salinity; or stagnation caused by drought…”
The parallels to menhaden and menhaden kills are very clear.

We can be pretty sure that when Knightia died, other fish, and probably reptiles, birds and other creatures, fed on them, too. 

Fish kills have, for millions of years, been just another aspect of life.  So long as they are natural, they are nothing to lament.  Nor are they evidence that there are “too many” menhaden, and that there is no need to continue to conserve and manage the species, an argument that is too often heard.

Instead, menhaden kills, and the benefits that they bring, are nothing more than evidence that the system is operating as it should, and that managers should continue to manage the menhaden resource in a way that best assures that the species will continue to play its unique role in the food web throughout the foreseeable future.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

HEALING WATERS

A week or two ago, a friend of mine had a striped bass stolen by a seal.

Even down here on Long Island, that’s not too unusual, for harbor seals have become pretty numerous during the winter, and seem to be sticking around a little later each spring, while showing up a bit sooner each fall.

A lot of fishermen, particularly surfcasters, aren’t very happy to see the seals arrive, and get upset when one of them steals a bass.  That’s particularly true up on Cape Cod, where the numbers of gray seals—animals far larger than the harbor seals that we see on Long Island—have become extremely abundant, and make it difficult to land a hooked fish.

My friend runs a charter boat, and so it’s important that his customers can bring fish to the boat.  Even so, when the seal stole his striper, he wasn’t upset, and noted that “I thought it was kinda cool…”


And when you stop to think about things a bit, it was.

For many years, seals were scarce in Long Island waters.  When I was a boy, growing up on western Long Island Sound (admittedly, on the Connecticut side, not on Long Island proper, although the waters were effectively the same), seals were seldom seen.  Every couple of years, an angler trying to catch winter flounder early in the spring would spot one, and when that happened, the story was front-page news in the local paper. 

Today, seals are regular seasonal visitors to Long Island’s waters, and appear in the sound on a regular basis.  And they are only one of a number of animals that have become more common in recent years.

Bottlenose dolphin, absent from western Long Island Sound for at least half a century, have returned to those waters.  

And for the past couple of seasons, humpback whales have also appeared, something that had never happened before at any point during my lifetime.

On the South Shore of Long Island, humpback whales, along with some fin whales and minkes, have been present right off the beaches for most of the summer.  As I write this, one humpback has entered the shallows of Moriches Bay, where it remains at a substantial risk for stranding in the bay’s skinny water.


And it’s not just marine mammals.

Osprey, which were seldom seem four or five decades ago, have become common.  The fish-eating birds seem to be nesting everywhere, from their traditional locations in waterside trees to dedicated nest platforms, utility poles, channel markers and even the signs on abandoned fuel docks.  And more and more often, anglers and other coastal habitu├ęs have seen bald eagles return to the shoreline, to feed on an abundance of baitfish that can now be found in Long Island’s bays and other protected waters.

Sharks have also become ever more abundant in Long Island’s coastal sea.  In recent years, fishermen have caught thresher sharks, some in the 500 pound range, within sight of Long Island’s beaches.  This fall, I’ve heard stories of thresher sharks slashing though schools of bait and churning up the surface inside Great South Bay.

In addition, scientists have confirmed that eastern Long Island waters are a nursery area for white sharks, perhaps the first such nursery ever discovered.

That sort of abundance doesn’t occur in a vacuum.  Long Island’s waters are seeing an increase in marine predators because they host so many of the forage fish that such predators need to survive.

Such forage can take many forms, ranging from vast shoals of sand eels that attract fish, whales and various sea birds well out in the ocean to schools of menhaden that provide food for striped bass, bluefish, birds and marine mammals within sight of Long Island’s shores, including in Long Island Sound.

To construct a building that lasts, builders must first build a solid foundation.  An enduring ocean food web also rests on a solid foundation, one made up of all of the various forage fish needed to support larger predators.

The good news is that fishery managers are taking steps to assure that a good forage base exists.

Earlier this year, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted an omnibus amendment that would prevent the creation of new fisheries for forage species, or allow the expansion of existing fisheries, until such time as managers could determine with reasonable certainty that such new fisheries would not harm predator species that depend on such forage.


The seals that steal fish from anglers lines, the juvenile white sharks that feed within sight of exclusive Hamptons beaches and the humpback whales that rise up out of the sea, water and menhaden streaming from their not-quite-closed jaws, are all coming back to Long Island because, for the first time in a great many years, there are enough forage fish in local waters to support them.

Our waters are being made whole again.

As someone wrote in response to my friend’s report that he lost a bass to a seal, “The neighborhood is totally changing.”

There’s no doubt that is true.


And that is a very good thing.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

WHEN POLITICIANS ENGAGE IN FISHERIES MANAGEMENT

Over the past half-dozen years, the summer flounder stock has been having some problems, although most anglers probably didn’t notice until the last season or two.
Annual trawl surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) revealed that summer flounder spawning success had been below average in every year between 2010 and 2015, the last spawning year included in the survey data. As a result, the population has declined and NMFS has had to take remedial action to prevent overfishing.

In the summer of 2015, biologists originally suggested that the 2016 annual catch limit for summer flounder would have to be reducedby 43%. That engendered strong opposition from the recreational and commercial summer flounder fisheries, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) Science and Statistics Committee (SSC) decided that they had a high degree of certainty with respect to the summer flounder data, and so could safely phase in the reduction and impose a smaller, 29% catch limit cut in 2015.

As it turned out, recreational summer flounder harvest was so low that it fell not only below that year’s annual catch limit, but below the reduced catch limit for 2016 as well. Thus, managers decided that no change in regulations would be required to further constrain anglers’ landings.
Unfortunately, summer flounder spawning remains below par, so the SSC decided that the annual catch limit for 2017 will have to be reduced by an additional 30%.
This time, there is no doubt that recreational regulations will have to be changed, and that doesn’t make representatives of the fishing industry happy. In New Jersey, the industry has apparently gotten a number of congressmen involved, and convinced them to interfere with the decisions of the SSC.

“In a bipartisan letter submitted Sept. 29 to assistant administrator for fisheries Eileen Sobeck, members of the United States House of Representatives stressed the importance of scheduling a benchmark assessment for summer flounder in 2017. Citing the socioeconomic value of the commercial and recreational summer flounder fishery and the incoming quota reductions proposed for 2017 and 2018 due in part to a lack of data, Rep. Tom MacArthur and four other representatives indicate that any delay in the assessment of summer flounder ‘would be a major mistake and threaten the health of the summer flounder population as well as the economy of the communities the fishery supports.’ ”
While it’s understandable that the congressmen want to appear responsive to their constituents, their involvement exemplifies an ongoing problem in fisheries management, which recurs each time politicians attempt to substitute their judgment for that of professional fisheries managers.
Summer flounder are assessed on a regular basis. The most recent benchmark assessments were released in 2005, 2008 and 2013, and the 2013 assessment has been updated in every succeeding year. The harvest reductions scheduled for 2017 and 2018 are being driven by six years of below-average spawning, and not by any lack of data.

The congressmen’s statement, although flawed, is probably based on arguments made by the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF), a New Jersey-based group which seeks “to safeguard and improve fishing access to summer flounder, for those who enjoy it and to ensure the survival of those who depend on it, through scientific and legislative means.”

Put in plain language, SSFFF has a broad policy of opposing harvest reductions and supporting harvest increases, and is willing to use political influence to do so.
SSFFF has hired scientists to demonstrate that male summer flounder grow more slowly and have shorter lifespans than females and has argued that, because of such disparity, NMFS should permit higher fishing mortality rates and set a lower biomass target and threshold than those currently included in the fishery management plan.
Sex-differentiated data was incorporated into the 2008 stock assessment, and when the 2013 assessment was being prepared, scientists at the stock assessment workshop were explicitly instructed to “Review recent information on sex-specific growth and on sex rations at age. If possible, determine if fish sex, size and age should be used in the assessment.”

The stock assessment review panel, composed of three internationally-recognized fisheries biologists, found that the 2013 benchmark assessment successfully addressed that task.

Conducting a benchmark assessment in 2017 would disrupt the existing assessment schedule, and require the assessment of other species to be delayed. It would thus seem unwise to do so, as such an assessment would have no impact on 2017 regulations, and there is no guarantee that even the 2018 annual catch limit would be materially changed as a result.
Thus, the timing of the next benchmark assessment is a matter better determined by scientists, based on their needs, than by politicians who are merely responding to someone’s complaints.
On the other hand, at least the congressmen seeking a new summer flounder assessment had a scientific justification for their request, and were merely asking the Northeast Fisheries Science Center to consider additional data. They weren’t trying to make basic scientific decisions themselves.

That wasn’t the case in 2015, when members of the United States Senate’s Appropriations Committee (Committee) issued a reportthat, although non-binding, gave specific directions to biologists trying to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

The report read, in part
“The Committee is disappointed that NOAA has failed to implement procedures to adequately measure red snapper stocks in the northern Gulf—particularly in areas with physical structures such as offshore oil rigs and artificial reefs. NOAA is directed to begin incorporating fishery data collected on artificial reefs, offshore oil platforms, and any other offshore fixed energy exploration infrastructure directly into the agency’s stock assessments for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico…
“NOAA shall take into consideration any imbalance in the ecosystem that may be occurring between larger red snapper and other fish species before accepting amendments to existing regulations or implementing new regulations that directly affect red snapper quotas in the Gulf of Mexico.”
If anyone on the Committee had taken the time to read the most recent benchmark stock assessment for Gulf of Mexico red snapper, they would have quickly learned that research relating to red snapper abundance on artificial structures was included in the assessment process.

The Committee’s instruction to put greater emphasis on fishery data collected on such artificial structure could, if followed, distort the resulting data by emphasizing areas known to concentrate fish, and thus make red snapper appear more abundant than they actually were. While that might have been some Committee members’ intent, it certainly would not have been good science.
The Committee’s language referring to a supposed “imbalance in the ecosystem” created by “larger” red snapper also lacks scientific merit, and is all too familiar to anyone who has spent any time at fisheries meetings. There is always someone who complains that, because of restrictive regulations, “there are so many [pick your preferred species of fish] out there that they’re eating everything else in the ocean.”
It’s the kind of statement that must make folks wonder how any fish ever survived before people came along to protect them from their predators. And it’s the kind of statement that the Committee should never have made when it was writing up its report.

The fact that it did is just further evidence as to why politicians should not try to tell scientists how to do their job.
There’s an old proverb that says, “Let the cobbler stick to his last.”

That’s good advice for politicians who want to get involved in fisheries matters.
Let legislators stick to drafting laws, so that they can give us good bills such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).

And let scientists stick to doing science and managing fisheries in the way that the authors of Magnuson-Stevens had always intended.
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This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/


Sunday, November 13, 2016

MENHADEN AT A CROSSROADS

Fishermen are a conservative sort, and fisheries management reflects that.

For many years, management tended to follow a single model, in which each species was assessed and managed in a vacuum, without thought to its relationship to any other species in the sea.  Yes, predation was considered, but only as it impacted current mortality of the fish in question; there was no thought of what predation could be, or perhaps more importantly, should be, if a given species was abundant enough to fulfill its role in the food web.

Instead, species have been managed in a manner that considers sustainability in only its most basic form, in which two basic concepts determine annual catch limits:  1) How many fish may be removed from the population each year without causing a decline in abundance, and 2) Is the stock large enough to provide the highest sustainable level of landings each year?

That’s fine if the only consideration is keeping a species available and abundant enough to maximize future exploitation.  It’s probably a perfectly good measure for managing high trophic level species such as sharks, billfish and tuna which, once fully grown, are only occasionally preyed upon by other species, and even works pretty well for somewhat smaller fish such as striped bass, bluefish, cod and king mackerel which, in the overall order of things, are much more often predator than prey.

But when you start getting into smaller fish, such as Atlantic mackerel and Atlantic herring, the utility of that sort of management starts to break down, because those species are small enough, and abundant enough, that they serve as typical forage for a host of larger fish.  

When managing fish that are important forage for other species, mere sustainability isn’t enough; such fish must be managed for abundance, to assure that the predators that they support have an adequate forage base.

If that is true for mackerel and herring, it is particularly true of Atlantic menhaden, arguably the most important forage species on the entire Atlantic coast.

The debate over menhaden management has been very long and hard.  I first got involved with the species in the late 1990s, and I know staff and volunteers at the Coastal Conservation Association who had been working on it for a few years before then.

Back in the ‘90s, menhaden were managed as an industrial commodity.  

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission normally manages each fish stock by means of a species-specific management board that included representatives of each state interested in the species in question, and supports such management board with a species-specific technical committee made up of state scientists and advisory panel that represented every interested state.


Members of the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee, which served the same role as technical committees established for other species, were appointed by the management board, and also included representatives from the states, the industry, NMFS and the National Fish Meal and Oil Association.

The fox had free run of the henhouse.

Thanks to the hard work of a number of angling and conservation organizations, that system was finally overthrown in 2001, when Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden established a management board and support structure that was consistent with those used for other species.

Since then, ASMFC’s menhaden managers have been spending their time trying to get a better understanding of the health of the stock and the factors that can drive down menhaden abundance.  The most recent benchmark stock assessment passed peer review nearly two years ago, and found that menhaden were neither overfished for subject to overfishing.

However, those findings were based on a traditional, single-species approach to management.  Now, ASMFC is seriously thinking about breaking new ground, and managing menhaden in a way that recognizes their role as a keystone species in the coastal ecosystem.


That document addresses a number of issues important to the future of menhaden management.  However, it’s easy to argue that the question of managing menhaden as an important forage species, rather than managing it merely for sustainable harvest, is the most important issue of all.

As noted in the Public Information Document,

“Given the crucial ecological role that menhaden play as forage fish, the [Management] Board has expressed interest in developing ecological reference points (ERPs) to manage the menhaden stock.  Menhaden serve an important role in the marine ecosystem as they convert phytoplankton into protein and in turn provide a food source to a variety of species including larger fish (e.g., weakfish, striped bass, bluefish, cod),  birds (e.g., bald eagles, osprey), and marine mammals (e.g., humpback whales, bottlenose dolphin).  As a result, changes in the abundance of menhaden may have implications for the marine ecosystem.  ERPs provide a method to assess the status of menhaden not only with regard to their own sustainability, but also with regard to their interactions with predators and the status of other prey species…”
The Management Board asked ASMFC’s Biological and Ecological Reference Point Workgroup to develop ecological reference points for menhaden.  Four different models have been identified which might be used to develop such reference points.  However, because the models are very complex, such ecological reference points will not be developed and sent out to peer review until 2019.

Such reference points would be specific to menhaden.  However, there are also other reference points that have been developed for more generalized use across forage fish species. 

Such alternative approaches to forage fish management were described in a report entitled Little Fish, Big Impact, which was released by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force.  

One suggestion is to restrict harvest enough to maintain forage fish abundance at a level no less than 75% of the abundance of an unfished stock.  Another, somewhat less conservative approach would tie fishing mortality to natural mortality, and set the fishing mortality target at one-half of the natural mortality rate (Ftarget=0.29).  Under such scenario, fishing would be halted at any time that abundance dropped below 40% of the abundance of an unfished stock.

Some biologists, including ASMFC’s Biological and Ecological Reference Point Workgroup, has questioned whether such guidelines are appropriate for menhaden.  The Lenfest task force has argued that they are. 

However, the big decision that ASMFC will have to make with respect to Amendment 3 is whether any kind of ecological reference points, including those eventually developed by the ASMFC Workgroup, should ever be used to manage menhaden, or whether traditional, single-species management should continue to be employed.

Reason dictates that traditional management measures, which emphasize sustainable harvest rather than a species’ role in the food web, are inappropriate for a forage fish as important as menhaden.  As ASMFC noted in the Public Information Document, “changes in the abundance of menhaden may have implications for the marine ecosystem.”  

Thus, menhaden must be managed with more than mere harvest in mind. 

It is important that conservation advocates, along with fishermen who just want to be sure that there are enough menhaden around to assure an abundance of striped bass and other popular recreational species, tell ASMFC that they want to see ecological reference points adopted.

It would also be worthwhile to instruct ASMFC to adopt one of the generic forage fish guidance recommendations in the interim, until menhaden-specific ecological reference points can be developed.  (To put one of those generic recommendations in context, in 2013, the last year considered by the benchmark stock assessment, fishing mortality was 0.22, already below the recommended Ftarget=0.29 of the guidelines, while abundance, measured in terms of fecundity, or the number of eggs produced, was a little over 50% of that of an unfished stock, above the recommended cutoff level of 40%.  Thus, adopting such interim guideline would not unduly disrupt the current fishery before menhaden-specific reference points can be developed.)

The earlier people get involved in the fishery management process, the easier it is to put good management measures in place.  

A number of angling and conservation groups have worked hard to get menhaden management to the point where it is today.  Now, with the Public Information Document just released, is the perfect time for a broader group of people to get involved with the process.

ASMFC will be holding hearings on the Public Information Document in most coastal states at some time between late November and the middle of December.  A schedule of such hearings can be found at http://www.asmfc.org/uploads/file//58237047pr38MenhadenPIDHearings_rev.pdf.  

Anyone who wishes to read the Public Information Document in its entirety can find it at http://www.asmfc.org/uploads/file//5818f1a1AtlMenhadenAmend3PID_PublicComment.pdf.

Given how important menhaden are to our coastal fish stocks, people should make a special effort to turn out for one of the scheduled hearings and support the use of ecological reference points  in menhaden management.  Anyone who can’t make a hearing should send in written comments, to the address provided in the Public Information Document.

The adoption of ecological reference points would be a watershed not just for menhaden management, but for fisheries management as a whole.  It would be sad to see the opportunity slip by just because folks didn't make the effort to provide needed comments.



Thursday, November 10, 2016

ASSESSING THE ELECTION

Just last Sunday, I posted a piece speculating on this year’s election, and how it might affect fisheries conservation efforts.  Now, with the big day behind us, the future is clearer, and it looks very bad.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being much worse.

This nation has chosen an aging, tower-dwelling Manhattanite with a strange, orange-hued tan that comes from inside a bottle, and not from the rays of the sun.  Unlike so many presidents of the past century, from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush, Donald Trump is neither an angler nor any other kind of outdoorsman, and seems to feel no kinship with either the earth or the sea. 

He is, however, the President-elect of the United States.

CNN has reported that Mr. Trump’s transition teams were

“set to parachute into government agencies, get the lay of the land, begin the transition process and get Trump’s 100-day plan rolling.
“The transition plan was delivered to Trump Tower Tuesday. In particular, aides have focused on what Trump can do unilaterally, such as rolling back regulations.”
Anyone who has followed Mr. Trump’s campaign will know that he holds regulations intended to protect America’s air, water and natural resources in particular contempt, a fact demonstrated by his choice of Myron Ebell, one of the most infamous “climate change skeptics,” to head the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

There is no reason to believe that regulations affecting the health of marine fisheries will receive any more sympathetic treatment.

Mr. Trump’s anti-conservation, pro-exploitation message echoes the 2016 Republican platform, which includes a plank stating

“We are the party of America’s growers, producers, farmers, ranchers, foresters, miners, commercial fishermen, and all those who bring from the earth the crops, minerals, energy and the bounties of our seas that are the lifeblood of our economy.  Their labor and ingenuity, their determination in bad times and love of the land at all times, powers our economy, creates millions of jobs, and feeds billions of people around the world.  Only a few years ago, a bipartisan consensus in government valued the role of extractive industries and rewarded their enterprise by minimizing its interference with their work.  That has radically changed.  We look in vain within the Democratic Party for leaders who will speak for the people of agriculture, energy and mineral production. [emphasis added]“
It will also play well with the slash-and-burn majority on the House Natural Resources Committee, which approved H.R. 1335, the so-called “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” which is intended to gut key stock rebuilding and conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.

H.R. 1335 was ultimately passed by the House, and there is little doubt that the next Congress, where such majority members continue to hold sway, will quickly consider and pass a similar piece of legislation next year.  There is also little doubt that, should such bill make it through the Senate, it will be quickly and cheerfully signed by Mr. Trump, an event that would set American marine fish stocks back twenty years, to the days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was signed into law.

It’s not hard to imagine the upcoming Congress cutting the National Marine Fisheries Service’s funding, although that is merely speculation at this time.

Efforts to emasculate Magnuson-Stevens, if successful, would strike a dire enough blow to America’s fisheries, but in the upcoming few years, we’ll doubtless see worse.

Fish obviously live in the water, and many important recreational species, including striped bass, steelhead and the various salmon, ascend rivers to spawn and spend the earliest part of their lives.  In the case of salmon and steelhead, critical spawning areas often extend to the uppermost headwaters of rivers.  Under the new administration, clean water regulations will most assuredly be repealed, leaving already stressed runs of fish vulnerable to further depletion and, in the case of a number of salmon and steelhead runs, even extinction.

To again quote the Republican platform,

“The [Environmental Protection Agency’s] Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule…is a travesty.  It extends the government’s jurisdiction over navigable waters into the micro-management of puddles and ditches on farms, ranches, and other privately-held property.  Ditches, dry creek beds, stock ponds, prairie potholes, and non-navigable wet areas are already regulated by the states…We must never allow federal agencies to seize control of state waters, watersheds, or groundwater.  State waters, watersheds, and groundwater must be the purview of the sovereign states.”
Such language bodes ill for anadromous fish dependent on tributary brooks for their spawning and ultimate survival (and, although this is not a hunting blog, for ducks who depend on the prairie potholes of the Midwestern “duck factory” for most of their nesting).  It suggests that other rules, such as that which set the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load of nitrates, phosphates and other pollutants that threaten striped bass spawning and nursery grounds, could be repealed.

And yet, again, that is not all of the damage that we could see done over the next few years, as the platform goes on to say

“The government at every level must always pay just compensation whenever it takes private property to achieve a compelling public use, with the money coming from the budget of the agency performing the taking.  This includes the taking of water rights and the taking of property by environmental regulations that destroy or diminish the property’s value.”
Since its unlikely that Congress is going to give lavish funding to either the Environmental Protection Agency or the Fish & Wildlife Service, if the platform’s goals are enacted, a plethora of environmental and conservation regulations would become effectively unenforceable.  That would hit steelhead and salmon particularly hard, because in the west, they compete with ranchers and farmers for water that has grown ever more scarce due to climate change.

Consider the case of the San Joaquin/Sacramento River drainage, where one run of Chinook salmon is endangered, and one run of Chinook and one run of steelhead trout (along with a distinct population of green sturgeon) are deemed to be threatened .

At the request of the Department of the Interior, the National Marine Fisheries Service reviewed the operations of two huge water projects that pump enough water out of the rivers to serve 25 million customers, to determine how such pumping effects the runs of threatened and endangered fish.  NMFS found that such pumping jeopardized such species, and ordered that the projects adjust their operations in order to protect the salmon and steelhead.

In response, ten water districts and similar entities sued, leading to a federal appellate court decision that upheld NMFS action and included the memorable words

“People need water, but so do fish.”
Thus, some critically depleted runs of salmon and steelhead were given a chance to survive.

But if the Republican platform is fully implemented, the fish would only become more endangered, for NMFS would never be able to afford to pay “just compensation” for leaving water in the streambeds where it flowed for millennia, and supported lush salmon runs, before the projects were built.

And that platform would extend little hope to such endangered salmon runs, for it provides that

“the Endangered Species Act (ESA) not include species…if these species exist elsewhere in healthy numbers in another state or country.”
Which means that a good run of Chinook or steelhead up in Alaska, or maybe in Canada, would justify allowing the fish to disappear completely from the waters of Washington, Oregon and California.  On the east coast, the last Atlantic salmon could be extirpated from Maine because fish still ran up rivers in Norway and Iceland.

Even in cases where the Act clearly applied, according to the platform

“The ESA should assure that the listing of endangered species and the designation of critical habitats…balance the protection of endangered species with the costs of compliance and the rights of property owners.  Instead, over the last few decades, the ESA has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, [and] burdened landowners…”
It’s pretty clear where steelhead or salmon would stand in the order of things, when dollars are on the line…

And if folks on most of the east coast figure they’d be largely safe since, other than Maine, they don’t host any salmon, they ought to start thinking about the effects of drilling for gas and oil right off their shores.

Last spring, President Obama banned drilling off the Atlantic coast, but the Republican majority’s platform provides that

“Planning for our energy future requires us to first determine what resources we have in reserve…That is why we support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production.”
Should those plans be realized, East Coast anglers can look forward to seismic testing taking place on the tilefish grounds of the northeast canyons, and in the deep waters where swordfish hunt in the daytime, before they rise to the glow of our lightsticks at night.  

No matter how “responsible” production efforts may be, accidents happen, and experience tells us that surfcasters at places like Hatteras, Long Beach Island and Montauk may one day find beaches fouled, as wells fail and gush oil into the sea.

It’s impossible to say how much of the majority party’s platform will be enacted.  Although the House has demonstrated its eagerness to exploit natural resources regardless of the ultimate cost, the Senate has been more moderate.  That has certainly been the case with fisheries issues, where the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), steered a responsible course in the current session and, unlike the House, did not seek to weaken Magnuson-Stevens.

The Senate also offers the possibility of filibustering particularly heinous efforts to weaken federal conservation laws.  Under current rules, 60 votes are necessary to assure passage of any Senate legislation, and with the number of Democratic seats increasing to at least 48, there is hope that a filibuster will prevent the worst bills from being signed into law.


Perhaps William Butler Yeats put it best, in The Second Coming.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are filled with a passionate intensity.
“…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward [Washington] to be born?”