At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Community Weighs In and Fleet Diversity Moves Forward

 By Brett Tolley, NAMA's Community Organizer. 

At last week's Groundfish Committee* meeting we got a BIG VOTE to move the Fleet Diversity policy forward! For any football fans out there, we advanced the ball 10 years closer to the end zone. First down!

The vote approved the Fleet Diversity scoping document despite a few members of the Council and public who stood actively opposed. Council members tried excuses like - there is no current problem. Folks in the audience called Fleet Diversity a waste of time.

Click here to listen to the audio recording from the meeting.

But speaking in support of fleet diversity and accumulation limit measures were a majority of committee members, nearly 200 pledge signers, and a growing public support who believe that Fleet Diversity is NOT a waste of time.

We also had fishermen text messaging into the committee meeting, some from their boats. As part of our Organizing strategy we sent live up-date text messages from the Committee meeting out to 10 fishermen around New England. They texted back and we read their reactions into the mic. TEXTIMONY!

"Fleet diversity should have been addressed before the Amendment 16 was approved. The time is right to now approve the scoping document and move the fleet diversity discussion forward."
- Steve Welch, Commercial Fisherman, South Shore MA

"As we speak aggressive consolidation is occurring. Move the scoping prcoess forward and address fleet diversity."
- Chuck Etzel, Commercial Fisherman, Montauk NY

To view NAMA's comments to the committee click here.

The scoping process will allow the public and fishing communtities to guide our managers on these issues moving forward. Click here to read more about the scoping process and Amendment 18 to the Groundfish plan.

Huge thanks to everyone who signed the pledge, wrote letters to the editors, passed the word, and gave us the push we needed. We're going to be asking for your support again come September, so please be ready. Our next step is to advance the scoping document at the full Council meeting in September and begin the formal scoping process.

Who fishes matters!

*The Groundfish Committee is part of the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC). The Council is one of eight regional Councils established by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (since renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Act) The NEFMC manages fishery resources within the federal 200-mile limit off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.  Click here to read more. 

Emerging science workshop challenges fish paradigms

by Sean Sullivan NAMA Marketing, Development and Outreach Associate

Everyone knows that salmon are born in rivers, spend their adult lives in the ocean and return to the very same rivers in which they were born to spawn. Until recently most people thought that anadromous Salmon were exceptional among fishes in their loyalty to spawning grounds. It is commonly thought that most marine fish were broadcast spawners and did not exhibit natal homing (returning to spawn where they were born). It was assumed that spawning areas attracted aggregations of a genetically diverse group of fish from regional stocks that found the areas suitable.

It turns out that many if not most fish that live their whole life in the sea are more like salmon than we ever thought. In fact, we are just learning that many fish return to the location where they were born (or nearby that location) to spawn. Cod, for example, return to spawn year after year in the exact same piece of desirable real estate where they were born. It may be a notable bank or simply a small pebbly plateau that is somehow just the ‘right spot.’  This is just one of bits the emerging scientific knowledge that was reported recently at a workshop on Reconciling Spatial Scales and Stock Structures for Fisheries Science and Management.

The implications of this emerging scientific consensus are fairly drastic if you are a fisherman, fisheries manager, fisheries scientist, or, as in the case of us at NAMA, advocates for community based fishermen.  Not surprisingly, fishermen whose scale of operation best matches the scales of fish distributions in the ecosystems where they choose to fish are more likely to be successful stewards of their ecosystems and their fisheries more diverse and sustainable over the long haul. The conference produced a slew of other earth shaking ideas and notions, but before we get to those, lets walk down the path of understanding the example above --our beloved codfish.

One of the great mysteries scientists, fishermen and others have been struggling to understand is how in some areas such as in the Western Gulf of Maine, overfished cod have rebounded, while in the Eastern Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, they are still struggling or absent. It turns out part of the problem is that it has always been thought that breeding fish would over time re-stock the ocean just through the magic of winds and currents moving those very young cod around and mixed populations converging on suitable spawning sites. So if we weren’t managing with cod’s homing tendencies in mind we were missing the boat – pun sort of intended.

But if cod are like salmon, and humans put up a barrier - in the case of salmon say a dam, in the case of cod say a net - that prevents them from returning to their natal spawning grounds, an entire genetic population of fish may disappear. A river or other spawning habitat may be repaired and regenerate, but it is thought that the timeframes for nature to re-stock a river may be in the hundreds if not thousands of years. If a cod breeding ground, say in the Eastern Gulf of Maine, is wiped out by overfishing or habitat changes, there are no more fish that have that specific genetic code linked to them returning to that specific location. A distinct fish population suffering such a fate is GONE for good.

Cod population crashes are well documented in many North Atlantic fisheries, as in the North Sea and of course here in Northwest Atlantic region, including Canadian waters, Georges and Grand Banks, and of course in the Gulf of Maine. A recent sentinel fishery (a fishery designed specifically to gauge fish populations) in the Eastern Gulf of Maine conducted in conjunction with our friends at the Penobscot East Resource Center, has shown that there are more halibut in the Eastern Gulf of Maine than there are cod, and even the numbers of halibut are extremely low. And with little to no fishing pressure these formerly abundant fish are still not returning.

Why they are not returning could in fact be the result of fishing pressure and/or environmental changes resulting in the disappearance of a sub-stock (or distinct population).  In addition to overfishing the population in question and/or overfishing their food fish, toxic pollution, climate change, excess fertilization and a variety of changes in the food web can lead to collapses in fish populations.  So somehow the breeding cod for that area were wiped out and couldn’t replenish themselves; and because of that, there are no adult cod in those areas. Quite literally, the Eastern Gulf of Maine used to be one of the most productive fishing areas, equal to Stellwagen Bank, Georges Bank and other well known historical fisheries. Today there is no commercial fishery for cod there at all.

Complicated interdependencies between species may also result in dramatic changes in fisheries.  Again in this case we will use cod as an example, and that species dependence on specific prey. For example, cod in parts of Canada fed primarily on capelin, a small fish related to herring. The capelin provided the nutritional basis for cod to spawn successfully. If there are no capelin, cod will feed on shrimp. However, if they are feeding on shrimp, they are less successful and in some cases will not spawn at all.  A similar disappearance of river herring from cod spawning grounds in Eastern Gulf of Maine may similarly be linked to the disappearance or non-recovery of sub-populations of cod there.  And we should not forget that fishermen are also interwoven into these interdependencies.  We cannot forget the human element in the marine ecosystem.

I am not a scientist, and I am sure there are nuances I may not be getting right. But, the example of cod and other species returning to their natal spawning grounds is a "spatial" issue as well a biological one. The behavior argues that the animals are related more closely to a particular spot in the ocean than was previously thought. Fisheries managers largely manage fish as though they are a single uniform stock that doesn’t have strong preferences for where they live, breed or eat as long as fundamental needs are met. We now know that is not true. Management will have to change to acknowledge and accommodate this "spatial" relationship.

These emerging scientific ideas are forcing a new understanding that requires fisheries managers to expand their age old practice of looking at the ocean only temporally (fluctuations over time) to include spatial needs in a much more detailed way if they want to be successful at managing the ocean. While it was acknowledged at this workshop that spatial considerations would be key in the transition from single species management to ecosystem based fisheries management the path to get there was not laid out and is clearly the next step that must be taken.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Fish Pages - Weekly Wrap Up

by Sean Sullivan Marketing, Outreach and Development Associate

Back in the day fishmongers used newspaper to wrap up fish for customers. Newspaper was used because not only is it plentiful, but it is relatively free of bacteria and absorbs oils and smells. In the tradition of Friday fish and fish being wrapped in newspaper, I am going to begin a weekly wrap up of the world according to NAMA. Hopefully you'll find what's inside tasty and deliciously healthy.

The first news item comes from yesterday's New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) meeting of the Groundfish Comittee. Some good news comes out of the meeting as the council voted to approve the scoping document about fleet diversity for Amendment 18 to the Magnusen-Stevens Fisheries Act....I am sure that paragraph just put at least a few of you to sleep. So let's repeat that in plain english....

The people who make the fish rules agreed to begin the process of making formal rules to protect a diverse fleet. Its a really important first step in having our Who Fishes Matters campaign achieve it's objectives.

We are constantly seeking ways to make sure fishermen's voices get heard at the council. At the latest meeting Brett Tolley used text messages to provide fishermen out on the water with live updates on the debate on Amendment 18. When he got up to testify he was able to convey their feedback in essentially real time. If they cannot come to the meeting we'll bring the meeting to them!

We also had a thrilling Seafood Throwdown at the Cape Ann Farmer's Market featuring celebrity judge Christian Collins from TV's Master Chef program (click on this link to see Christian on local TV as he gives NAMA a big shout-out) . The secret seafood was skate! Skate is a wonderful fish. It is considered a healthy stock, and is one of those "underutilized*" species. You can read all about the Throwdown here.

Next up we'll be hosting a Seafood Throwdown on Martha's Vineyard at the West Tisbury Farmers Market tomorrow morning. Stop by if you are on island. Things kick off at 9:30AM!

Among the interesting items that swept across my desk this week like a summer thundershower are the news that there will be a new CSF on Nantucket. Details to come on that one. And there is growing momentum in Southern Maine to develop a CSF. Get in touch with us for details or if you would like to be involved.

In Rhode Island there are some really cool things going on using technology to direct market seafood. The farm to market connection has shown that people care about where there food comes from. I think we'll see pretty soon that some fishermen will be able to challenge the current seafood paradigm by using technology to escape the "at the hands of the processors" situation they are currently in. The more the market diversifies, the more fishermen will be rewarded for fishing sustainably, and the easier it will be for consumers to put their food dollars where their values lie.

In other notes, the Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF is now taking orders for Fall shares with deliveries to 20 Boston Metro area stops including new stops in Somerville and Needham.

*The term "underutilized" and "trash fish" are sometimes synonymous with "by-catch" but almost always refer to a species that has low or no commercial value. The reason for this can be because there is no market for the fish or the value of the fish is very low. I have a philosophical problem with the idea that anything that swims in the ocean is trash. In fact historically, bluefin tuna and lobsters were considered trash fish. And "underutilized" is a similarly human centric term that implies that species exist for our purposes only. However the term(s) seem to be gaining traction as a way to highlight that there are more things in the ocean than cod and haddock, which is something we like to promote. If you read Audubon magazine there will be an article in the September issue about "trash fish" that will also talk about CSF's.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fleet Diversity Amendment Looks to Advance - We Need Your Support

By Brett Tolley, NAMA's community organizer

They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistake over and over again and expecting different results. So imagine our frustration when fisheries policies aim to consolidate the fishing fleet into one that consists only of large or industrial scale operations. Did we not learn anything from agriculture or the banking and financial institutions? Or housing? Do we have to repeat the same mistake on the water? (Read fishermen's testimony on consolidation)

Aside from repeating past mistakes, this approach fails to recognize the ocean is made of many different ecosystems that if we are to fish them, we need to make sure we are fishing them at the right scale so not to compromise their unique characteristics. (View a position paper signed onto by scientists from throughout New England)
That’s in part why we have taken the issue of fleet diversity so seriously. In New England not only are the small and mid-scale fishermen the cornerstones of the fishing industry they are critical to ensuring the scale of fishing operations here are diverse enough to not undermine the health of the marine ecosystem.  It’s worth noting, that it just happens that the small and medium scale fishing operations also happen to provide more jobs, have less impact to the ecosystem, and ensure a more local and secure source of seafood. 

Right now small and mid-scale fishermen face a dramatic consolidation squeeze and for many family fishermen (including crew!), access to fishing rights is now unaffordable and these fishermen are facing the same decision family farmers did a few decades ago: do you scale up or sell out? Selling out is slowly becoming the option of choice with small and medium scale operations as it is becoming more attractive to lease their quota out than actually fish. And according to a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) report the groundfish fleet lost 458 crew positions in the last year.

Hear Fisherman BG Brown discuss his personal experience 
Recognizing some of these issues, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) voted in June to proceed with an Amendment to address fleet diversity and excessive consolidation in the Groundfish fleet.
NAMA weighed in, urging NEFMC to take action, with a PETITION signed widely by fishermen, food activists, restaurant owners, fish market owners, environmental advocates and community members. Folks agree that fleet consolidation is squeezing out family fishermen only to be replaced by larger industrial-scale fisheries. They also agree this flies in the face of managers’ own goals and objectives, which include protecting fleet diversity and preventing excessive consolidation.
In order to lesson the squeeze and level the playing field we are calling on managers to prioritize THREE things: 1) foster a fishery that is affordable to independent fishermen, 2) enable a fishery where active fishing is more attractive than leasing and 3) incentivize a fishery that is more diverse.

The Council’s motion to advance fleet diversity protections is a critical step forward but we need more support. We anticipate strong resistance from those who stand to benefit from a highly consolidated fleet where family fishermen are left in the wake. Recently a lawsuit led by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, calling attention to the consolidation issue and challenging the legality of the new management system, failed after a judge’s ruling in early July. (Read more here)

We’re calling on folks who believe that Who Fishes Matters to join us, heed the advice of New England’s family fishermen, and hold our fishery decision makers accountable to their own standards, goals and objectives. Advancing the fleet diversity amendment gives us the opportunity to level the playing field, prevent a homogenous fleet that isn’t sensitive to the scales of the marine environment and secure a future for small and mid-scale family fishermen.


Sign our pledge.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Counting on Living Fish

by Boyce Thorne-Miller NAMA's Science and Policy Coordinator

Fish swim, unseen.
The fisherman senses
they are present.

We are entering a moment of transition as Ecosystem Based Management has become part of our nation’s Ocean Policy and Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management (EBFM)*, following the lead of  the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, is becoming the key component of a regional vision for the future of New England fisheries management.

Times of transition offer opportunities for creativity, and that is just what we should expect from our fisheries managers and our fishermen.

Ecosystem Based Management is a sterile term that can be defined many ways.  I prefer to think that we are about to move from dead fish management to living fish management.  I welcome that change! I am convinced it will be far more successful in recovering and maintaining diverse fish populations and in nurturing the ecosystems that support them.  And I believe many of our New England community fishermen are capable of playing a key role in providing essential scientific information that will be required to make this management work.

Biologists and ecologists in the past were natural scientists who spent much of their lives in the field, and through experience and knowledge the best of them learned to enter a wilderness environment and integrate a vast amount of information perceived through their six senses. Living ecosystems and wildlife provide far more complex and important information than a collection of dead animals can give us.  But you have to know how to read living systems. 

The old time biologists were able to interpret a great deal of the character and biological interactions of the living ecosystem simply through keen observation and knowing how to integrate and interpret that information.  Now those same kinds of scientists spend much of their time reading instruments and interpreting data through computer models.  But where does their data come from – all too often from dead fish.  Models enable a new ability to predict a variety of outcomes under different possible conditions, but often the full complexity of an ecosystem is sacrificed in order to make the models manageable. 

A cadre of fishermen, with on-board instruments, keen senses and understanding of the environment in which they work each day, have taken over the role of field naturalists in the marine realm.  They possess real-time information about the living ecosystem. Science makes a grave mistake if it chooses to rely exclusively or primarily on the information provided by dead fish and ignore what is known about the living fish that remain.  The numerical data about catches that must be reported to fisheries managers is important, but so is information about how living populations of fisheries and their support species are behaving and moving. 

Nevertheless, it is important that such information be reported in consistent format that makes it useful in ecological models and stock assessments.  Fishermen should work with scientists to design a useful system.  And scientists need to find a way of using that information effectively in their models – even non-numerical data, such as fish behavior and food-web observations. As the new management models tackle the difficulties of incorporating social science information to incorporate humans as part of the ecosystem, they are also obliged to better incorporate information about living species networks. It’s time to move beyond counting dead fish one species at a time.

The ability of the best naturalists, be they PhD biologists or fishermen-scientists, to integrate information and understand the whole that is more than the sum of the observed parts is unique to the human brain.  So far computers cannot accomplish that without detailed instructions and the right kind of data.  Intuition is a valuable tool that is only available to human observers.  Fishermen who can do this well are themselves scientists, and their information is critical to the success of new living fish management.

Data can and should be collected and used at different scales, from smaller local scales that detect critical habitat areas and spawning populations to larger regional scales that integrate regional stocks and larger ecological processes affecting them. A variety of tools can be employed – from satellites and models run on computers, to sampling tools on large research boats, to diverse fishing gear and daily observations from fishermen on small vessels, to catch reports and observers reports required under fisheries management.  Data and observations from government scientists, academic scientists, social scientists, and fishermen-scientists alike will be needed to make this new management work.  And that means the toxic mistrust among these groups of professionals must end and a mutual willingness to improve techniques and coordinate information must begin.

A new era of close cooperation and mutual respect between government, academia, and fishermen is the creative catalyst that is needed for the new management to work.  Just such a spirit of cooperation and the sharing of power that comes from the sharing of information was described at length in a discussion of the California spiny lobster fishery as their research program, CALoster got underway a couple of years ago.

The integration of different types of knowledge and different scales of key biological information will enable holistic pictures of fisheries ecosystems essential to successful fisheries management. How to make this happen and what new management structures should look like are topics for future blogs as we travel with fishermen and fisheries managers down the road of EBFM – or living fish management.

*For details and emerging plans, check out some of these links: