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By Mikey Jane Moran

"There are no cod left in Cape Cod," said a New England chef with a shrug of his shoulders. And he really means no cod. The salty docks of Gloucester, Massachusetts—once the hub of American fishing culture, bustling with wind-blown fishermen hauling nets full of squirming fish—is nearly deserted.

Due to decades of overfishing, coupled with warming oceans, fish counts within New England's cod fisheries have dwindled to 3 to 4 percent of their historic levels, according to National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates. Populations are facing collapse.

Sacred Cod follows the stories of the people whose way of life is disappearing along with the fish. Fishermen are selling their boats, coast-side industry is drying up and coastal towns once rich with heritage lie abandoned. What was a $118 million fishing industry in the 1990s is now a $9 million industry.

"You may be shaking the hand of the last ice man in Gloucester," said one lonely businessman featured in Sacred Cod. Fewer fishermen, after all, translate to less demand for ice. "We sell more T-shirts than ice."

The documentary details how last-ditch government fishing bans have fomented a culture of mistrust between the scientific community and those fishermen who rely on full nets to support their families. Now, all are in a race to find a compromise before the Gulf of Maine becomes a ghost coast. The documentary portrays climate change not as a looming problem but as a reality shaping lives and communities in the here and now.

David Abel, environment reporter for the Boston Globe and one among a team of filmmakers behind Sacred Cod, has been documenting the cod population collapse since it was first on the horizon, tracing the nuanced problem it has become. We spoke with him about the documentary and about his hopes for the future of cod.

Mikey Jane Moran: You've poured years of research into this topic. Why cod?

David Abel: Cod itself is this iconic species. A wooden replica of the fish hangs from the rafters of the [Massachusetts] state house—it's a symbol of what brought Europeans to the states. It's what sustained the pilgrims when they first moved here and built New England into one of the wealthiest places on the planet. And [the industry's] collapse has caused tremendous hardship for many fishermen.

While Sacred Cod never loses its environmental message, its storytelling stems primarily from the perspective of the fishermen. Why this approach?

We wanted to make people understand there are tangible, human consequences to changes in our environment and to decisions made by government agencies like NOAA. Efforts to regulate things like fisheries in some cases have very meaningful impact on people. We have seen a dramatic collapse in this once incredibly abundant fishery and that collapse has led to hundreds of fishermen losing their jobs. We thought it was important to connect the environmental concerns with the human concerns.

This is an issue of the commons—it impacts everyone. Yet, the two sides are at odds. What is the hope for a compromise?

Everyone's hope, no matter where they stand, is that the fishery rebounds. If you ask scientists and bureaucrats, they hope that surveys are wrong and that the data somehow is flawed. But in repeated surveys, the data seems to be borne out that cod have declined substantially. Scientists and regulators are not trying to make fishermen miserable. There is an argument for trying to reduce the pressure on cod so hopefully, one day, they can rebound, as we are seeing in other places, like Newfoundland, Canada.

The hope is that fishermen and federal regulators recognize the benefits of protecting the fisheries and protecting the fishermen. Trying to find a way to create a sustainable fishery is vital to the health of the ecosystem and the health of the community.

The documentary ends on a somewhat happy note. Are you optimistic about the state of cod in New England?

I don't think it has a happy ending as much as an offer of hope and a recognition that things can change. If we really commit to creating sustainable fisheries—by creating rules that are sensible and that work—a fishery that has been decimated can rebound. Not all endings have to be apocalyptic.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

Federal fishery managers voted Monday to keep the U.S. West Coast Pacific sardine fishery closed for the upcoming commercial season. With an estimated 86,586 metric tons (mt) of sardine remaining and 150,000 mt necessary for fishing to occur, this will be the third year in a row there are not enough sardines to support a fishery.

"This modern day Pacific sardine crash, which was exacerbated by excessive fishing when the population was falling, underscores the need for new approaches to fishery management," said Geoff Shester, California campaign director for Oceana. "We hope managers learn from this and strengthen safeguards to protect sardines and the ocean wildlife dependent on sardines, while also supporting sustainable fishing communities."

The northern sardine subpopulation ranges along the Pacific coast from Baja California, Mexico to British Columbia, Canada. It is fished by Mexico, Canada and the U.S. without a common management agreement. In recent years, as the population was crashing (2007-2014), the fishery off California, Oregon and Washington landed on average 73,000 metric tons of sardines a year with an average dock value of $13.9 million per year. Most Pacific sardines are exported and sold as bait for foreign fisheries or feed for penned bluefin tuna or canned overseas for human consumption. Left in the water, Pacific sardines are an important food fish for many dependent predators from whales, sea lions and Chinook salmon, to brown pelicans, common murres and least terns.

"Over the last four years we've witnessed starved California sea lion pups washing up on beaches and brown pelicans failing to produce chicks because moms are unable to find enough forage fish," said Ben Enticknap, Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist with Oceana. "Meanwhile sardine fishing rates spiked right as the population was crashing. Clearly the current sardine management plan is not working as intended and steps must be taken to fix it."

Leaving more sardines in the water before fishing is allowed to occur will help ensure there is enough of this critical food fish for wildlife while allowing the sardine population to rebuild more quickly. When sardines are again at healthy levels, Oceana supports an ecologically sustainable fishery with a preference of providing sardines for direct human consumption, rather than secondary uses like bait or aquaculture feed. It is equally important that fishing rates are curtailed during a population decline to prevent exacerbating a fishery collapse in the future.

In 2013, the fishery removed 40 percent of the remaining sardines as the population was collapsing, exceeding the maximum sustainable yield fishing rate by more than two fold. Implementing a coordinated management approach with Mexico and Canada—nations that also fish the same sardine population—will help prevent coast-wide, international overfishing.

The decision by the Pacific Fishery Management Council now goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue regulations for the upcoming season spanning July 1 to June 30, 2018.

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By Zak Smith

There are only about 30 vaquita porpoises left in the world. The smallest and most endangered cetacean species on the planet faces extinction in three years if the people with the power to save it don't take immediate action. Instead of shrugging their shoulders and casting blame elsewhere, the Mexican government, Mexican shrimp fisheries and U.S. shrimp importers must be bold or Mexico will lose this national treasure. But they're not committed to taking the steps necessary to save the vaquita, so we have to motivate them. Boycotting Mexican shrimp is the answer.

The vaquita's steep decline is solely attributable to the use of gillnets in their habitat, a 2,000km² area in the northwest corner of the Upper Gulf of California—an area roughly equal in size to Orange County, California. Vaquita get tangled and drown in gillnets used to catch shrimp, totoaba and other fish. Between 1990 and 2010, shrimp fisheries' use of gillnets drove the population down by more than 70 percent from more than 700 to about 200. After 2010, the use of gillnets in an illegal fishery for a croaker fish called the totoaba (also endangered and also found in the Upper Gulf of California) increased the vaquita's rate of decline as fishermen flooded the area with gillnets to supply Asian demand for totoaba swim bladders.

The response from those with power to force change has fallen flat. The Mexican government promised stronger enforcement of a temporary and incomplete gillnet ban and a ban on fishing in a special vaquita refuge. It hasn't happened; fishermen's use of gillnets in the vaquita's habitat continues unabated. Mexican shrimp fisheries point fingers at the illegal totoaba trade, refusing to take responsibility for bringing the vaquita to the cliff's edge and focusing instead on the fishery that is giving the vaquita the final fatal push. And U.S. shrimp importers pledge fealty to "sustainability," but continue to profit without demanding the vaquita's recovery.

We have the power to force their attention. We have the power to save the vaquita. Boycott shrimp from Mexico and these actors will respond. They will finally ensure that the vaquita's waters are gillnet free. We all know how this works; you hit people where it hurts, their wallets. Join the campaign and save the vaquita.

Zak Smith is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.



By Perry Wheeler

Following global pressure on pet food companies, industry giants Mars and Nestlé have announced that they will take steps to ensure their pet food supply chains are free of human rights abuses and illegally caught seafood. Their commitments to act on transshipping at sea increase the need for global seafood giant Thai Union, a supplier for both companies, to eliminate any outstanding risks of human rights abuses and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in its own supply chains.

Nestlé has committed to a full ban on transshipment at sea in its supply chains, while Mars has committed to suspend the use of transshipped products in its supply chains if its seafood suppliers cannot adequately address the human rights and illegal fishing issues associated with the practice in the coming weeks.

"Pet owners and activists have demanded that companies eliminate human rights abuses from their pet food supply chains. This move toward stopping out of control transshipment at sea means we're finally seeing results," said Greenpeace USA oceans campaigner Graham Forbes.

"These are the two largest pet food companies in the world and their commitments to address transshipping at sea will put significant pressure on suppliers like Thai Union to show the leadership needed to clean up their own seafood supply chains. We'll be closely monitoring Mars' and Nestlé's progress to ensure these policies lead to real changes on the water," added Forbes.

Greenpeace launched a campaign in 2016, Cats vs. Bad Tuna, to demand that Mars ensure its supply chains were free of any potential human rights abuses. A Greenpeace Southeast Asia report, Turn the Tide, demonstrated the unacceptably high risk of tainted seafood entering numerous supply chains throughout 2016, including Nestlé and Thai Union's. Nestlé immediately committed to address the concerns when they were raised in the report. Mars committed to tackle unchecked transshipment at sea in its pet food supply chains this month.

"Over the past several years, Nestlé and Greenpeace have worked together to strengthen Nestlé's policies governing the procurement and responsible sourcing of seafood," said Nestlé Purina PetCare head of sustainability Jack Scott. "In light of Greenpeace's research findings, Nestlé has committed to a ban on all transshipments at sea."

Transshipment is a process through which companies move fish from one vessel to another, enabling them to remain at sea for extended periods of time to plunder the oceans, dodge regulations and keep fishers as a captive workforce. In addition to its connections to human rights abuse, transshipment at sea provides an opportunity for illegal fishing vessels to unload their illegally caught loads into supply chains, away from port authorities. In 2015, an estimated 40 percent of these transfers happened on the high seas, outside of the jurisdiction of national authorities. Transshipment at sea has also been linked to other organized crime, including drug, weapon and wildlife trafficking.

Mars' and Nestlé's commitments send a strong message to Thai Union to address transshipment in its supply chains. Greenpeace is currently pressuring Thai Union to make sweeping changes for workers and our oceans across its seafood supply chains. Greenpeace has campaigned on Thai Union since 2015 and is asking the company to lead the seafood industry by ending transshipment at sea, addressing overfishing and destructive fishing and increasing traceability from sea to plate.

"Mars recognizes the risks of transshipment at sea. We want to see human rights respected and the environment protected in our seafood supply chains" said Isabelle Aelvoet, global sustainability director at Mars Petcare.

"The current problems associated with transshipment are serious and demand urgent attention. We are committed to working with our suppliers to remedy these problems, but if we cannot resolve these issues to our satisfaction quickly, we will seek to end the use of transshipped products in our supply chains until these serious problems are fixed."

Thursday's news follows a new report from Global Fishing Watch highlighting the problems with transshipment at sea. The report found that from 2012-2016, refrigerated cargo vessels participated in more than 5,000 likely transshipments. Concerns were raised about Mars and Nestlé supply chains in a 2015 New York Times investigation into human rights abuses at sea.

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Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

With the near-extinct vaquita porpoise now numbering less than 30, conservation was dealt a blow on March 12, when Sea Shepherd found a dead newborn vaquita on the beach just 33 km south of San Felipe, in the Northern area of the Gulf of California.

The non-profit marine conservation society's anti-poaching ships, the M/V Farley Mowat and M/Y Sam Simon, have been patrolling the upper Gulf since last fall as part of Operation Milagro III to save the vaquita and the endangered totoaba bass.

The body of a second, adult vaquita was reported to the crew not far from where the neonate was found, but after several days of searching by the crew, it has yet to be located. However, the locals who spotted it took pictures and gave them to Sea Shepherd in hopes that its body would still be found.

Sea Shepherd handed over the baby vaquita corpse to the Mexican authorities and a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. The most common cause in the Gulf of California for the vaquita is getting caught in one of the numerous illegal gillnets hidden underwater, set up to trap the totoaba bass. Both the vaquita and the totoaba are similar in size and once the vaquita becomes entangled in the net, it is unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing it to drown.

A dead newborn vaquita.Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"Under the stress of fighting for its life, a mother could have discharged the calf," hypothesized Operation Milagro campaign leader Captain Oona Layolle.

A female vaquita gives birth to a calf approximately once every two years. It is not known if the adult vaquita body spotted by locals was the newborn's mother or not.

Unprecedented Number of Dead Totoaba in One Net

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The marine life devastation in the Gulf of California continued March 14, when the M/V Farley Mowat found and retrieved a net containing 66 dead totoaba. A 67 one was found alive and set free.

Illegal fisherman and the Mexican criminal cartels target the totoaba just to export its swim bladder for sale on the black market in China and Hong Kong for unsubstantiated medicinal properties. There it can fetch more than $20,000 per kilo. Due to this high street value, the totoaba bladder is frequently referred to as "aquatic cocaine" and is the only reason these animals are being killed.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"We never found as many dead totoaba in one net," said Captain Layolle, who was on hand to witness their destruction by the Federal Agency of the Environmental Protection after the carcasses were handed over to the Mexican government organization. "It was heartbreaking and disgusting to see so many animals die to feed the Chinese demand for swim bladders. The trafficking of their swim bladder is destroying the entire ecosystem of the Gulf of California."

"The illegal fishing activity has never been so dramatic here in the Gulf of California," Captain Layolle continued. "We have been witnessing poacher's activity day and night. High season for totoaba poaching is now hitting hard. It is having a huge impact on the biodiversity of this place; this is our last chance to save the species from extinction. But it seems that human ignorance and greed won't stop."

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson added: "We are on the threshold of the doorways to extermination of many marine species. If we lose the vaquita, what next? Sea Shepherd needs all the help we can get to prevent the extinction of the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise."

Fish—which is loaded with protein, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids—is among the healthiest foods on the planet, and that's not to mention that dining on fish has a smaller carbon footprint than red meat, pork and chicken.

But here's the catch: the world's increasing appetite for finned food has led to a devastating problem with nearly 90 percent of global fish stocks either fully fished or overfished, according a 2016 analysis from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts a 17 percent rise in fish production by 2025.

In addition to depleting fish stocks, the long term sustainability of the ocean's resources is also threatened by acidification, warming waters, hypoxia, sea level rise, pollution and the overuse of marine resources.

That's why Oscar-winning actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio has gotten behind Boulder, Colorado-based seafood brand LoveTheWild that sells frozen seafood kits made with 100 percent farm-raised fish.

"Estimates show the earth's population approaching nine billion by 2050, putting tremendous pressure on our natural food resources," DiCaprio said in a statement. "Seafood is a primary source of protein for nearly a billion people—but climate change, acidification and over fishing are putting increased pressure on our oceans' natural stability."

"LoveTheWild's approach to sustainable, responsible aquaculture is promoting the development of a secure and environmentally-conscious solution to feeding our planet's growing population," he added.

The Before the Flood filmmaker has made an investment in the brand and will also serve as an advisor. According to BizWest, DiCaprio and sustainable aquaculture investment fund Aqua-Spark round out a $3 million Series A funding announced in February, in which Aqua-Spark invested $2.5 million.

"The exploitation of our oceans has left many marine ecosystems on the brink of total collapse, which is hurting our ability to harvest our seas as a reliable food source as we have for thousands of years," DiCaprio continued. "LoveTheWild is empowering people to take action on this crisis in a very meaningful way."

Farmed seafood, or aquaculture, currently provides roughly half of all fish consumed globally. Experts tout it as a way to supply protein, nutrition and food security to a rapidly growing global population.

However, aquaculture operators in some countries, such as Chile's salmon industry, have been criticized for crowding fish into tight enclosures that breed disease and raising them on unnatural diets and antibiotics.

But as Tim Fitzgerald, a scientist and sustainable seafood expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the New York Times, farming practices are improving and some merchants set high standards for the fish they sell.

LoveTheWild, founded by Jacqueline Claudia and Christy Brouker in 2014, sells sustainable fish that's good for you and the oceans at the same time. The company said it selects its seafood from the "most well-managed farms in the world."

The line includes striped bass with roasted pepper almond sauce, barramundi with mango Sriracha chutney, catfish with Cajun creme and red trout with salsa verde. The kits are in retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Wegmans, Sprouts and Mom's.

"Our vision for LoveTheWild was inspired by our dedication to aquaculture, and we're very humbled that the quality of our products and integrity of our vision has attracted such a powerful group of supporters and investors," said Claudia, LoveTheWild CEO, in a statement.

"We are excited that Mr. DiCaprio, someone so dedicated to environmental activism, has partnered with LoveTheWild to help make it easy for consumers make an impact on the environment through something as simple as choosing the right thing for dinner. We have no doubt that the involvement of all of our investors will further bring to life our mission of making high-quality seafood exciting, easy, and accessible, while also helping to bring awareness to the potential for responsible aquaculture to play an important role in our food future."

DiCaprio, and his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, has long put his philanthropic dollars towards environmental organizations and businesses that protect oceans, land and wildlife, as well as operations that work to fight against climate change.

Last year, the foundation awarded a total of $15.6 million in grants, including $7,631,508 for wildlife and habitat conservation; $2,525,000 for ocean conservation; $2,100,000 to protect indigenous rights; $2,085,000 to support innovative solutions to the world's problems; and $1,300,000 to combat climate change. With these grants, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has provided more than $59 million in support of many projects since 1998.

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By Raffaella Tolicetti

With reproductive instincts pushing them towards the Colorado River Delta, thousands of corvina fish are currently swimming with the tide along the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean. Making their way to the estuaries, where fresh water mixes with the saline components of the seas, these corvina are unaware that many of them will not even get the chance to lay their eggs in the very particular habitat they depend on to reproduce.

Classified as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, corvina have been victims from overfishing since the 90's. Law enforcement agencies struggle to monitor their catch, despite a regulation that limits the amount of fish that can be removed from the sea.

Covina are a marvel of nature. Their spawning rhythm is synchronized with the moon and tide cycles, transforming the calm seas of the Gulf of California into a rollicking theater as they emit their distinctive croaking sounds to communicate spawning readiness and begin to organize their formations.

Unfortunately, this spectacle also signals the fishermen, who lay nets by the thousands, waiting for this exact moment to begin catching corvina by the tons.

These fish are surrounded by an army of small boats (745 of which are legal, but the government agencies estimates that at least 1,000 pangas go out fishing) and have no chance against the nets that will catch any moving animal in the area.

How can fishing during spawning season be justified? Studies show a constant decrease of the average fish size, with more and more juveniles caught, as the adults don't have time to reproduce.

The results of this large scale fisheries is not only the devastation of a fish population, but other animals who are also at risk and targeted by this frenetic activity, including the shy and elusive vaquita marina. This small porpoise only lives on the coast of San Felipe, in the Gulf of California, and is considered the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Its habitat has been fragmented by gill nets, to the point of bringing the numbers of vaquita down to only 30 individuals. This species is now on the verge of extinction.

Gill nets, which have been forbidden in the upper part of the Gulf since 2015, are mainly used to fish another endangered, endemic animal of the Gulf: the totoaba bass, sought for its bladder, and not for its meat. This bladder is sold at high value on the black market in China and Hong Kong, and the rest of this predator is thrown back, bleeding, in to the sea.

These banned gill nets are the cause of death of many animals that get trapped in them, including the vaquita. Last year the only sightings of this marine mammal were three dead individuals whose cause of death was determined by scientists as being due to entanglement in gill nets, which traps them and prevents them to come up to the surface for air. They literally suffocate to death.

Efforts are being made in order to keep the refuge a safe place from the nets. It is therefore imperative that adequate law enforcement measures are put in to place, including, reporting illegal activity in the area and apprehending those engaged in it. Sea Shepherd is committed to keep patrolling and monitoring the refuge, and to remove every illegal net encountered.

The Gulf of California is a stunning place where the desert is bathed by a beautiful sea, often described as the aquarium of the planet. If our relationship to it doesn't change immediately, it will soon be turned into an open-air cemetery, reminiscent of a world that once was, and is no more.

Raffaella Tolicetti is the ship manager on the M/V Sam Simon. The M/V Sam Simon and the M/V Farley Mowat are in the Gulf of California for Operation Milaro III.

By Neela Eyunni

The Earth's oceans are under siege. Human activity is wiping out coral reefs and marine life at a faster rate than ever before. As conservationists try to restore the health of our seas, one place may be key to turning the tide.

The Verde Island Passage has the highest concentration of marine species in the world. Spanning 4,400 square miles, it sits between the province of Batangas and the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. Just more than a decade ago, Prof. Kent Carpenter of the Biological Sciences Department at Old Dominion University labeled the Verde Island Passage "the center of the center" of marine biodiversity.

Hard corals in Anilao, part of the Verde Island Passage. Boogs Rosales

Today, Carpenter sees the passage as a litmus test for global conservation. He said it holds valuable insight into what needs to be done in order to protect the planet's aquatic life.

"Being able to study the Verde Island Passage gives us the opportunity to understand how to preserve global biodiversity," said Carpenter.

In 2005, he and marine scientist Victor Springer recorded 1,736 overlapping marine species in a mere 10-square kilometer area of the passage. Everything from giant clams and hawksbill turtles to unique sea slugs and rare corals call the Verde Island Passage home.

But like many hotspots of marine biodiversity, it too is being threatened by unsustainable fishing and pollution. While dynamite fishing plagued the area in the 1980s and 1990s, the major threat today is overfishing. Carpenter points to the reduction of herbivores in the corridor as a major cause for concern. Herbivorous fish play a key role in ensuring the survival of coal reefs by keeping algae growth in check.

Garbage from coastal communities and ships floating off Tingloy municipality in the province of Batangas, Philippines. Boogs Rosales

Adding to the environmental pressure is the fact that the Verde Island Passage is a major shipping lane, transporting goods and passengers between the Philippine capital of Manila and the rest of the country. Carpenter said that ships traveling through the passage often dump their garbage in the ocean to avoid paying the offloading fee when they arrive in Manila.

With the challenges, however, has come hope, thanks to the Verde Island Passage's resilience and conservationists who are dedicated to protecting it. Robert Suntay is president of the SEA-VIP Institute, a nonprofit organization which promotes conservation in the Verde Island Passage through science, education and advocacy.

The Verde Island Passage is home to a high concentration of shrimp species, including this Coleman Shrimp. Boogs Rosales

"In the more than two decades that I have been diving in the Verde Island Passage, I have seen her suffer from terrible bouts with coral bleaching and algal blooms, and from indiscriminate cyanide and dynamite fishing," Suntay said. "It has also been my privilege to see her recover, seemingly miraculously, with amazing resilience and in record time."

One hypothesis is that the corridor's resilience is because of its extreme biodiversity. Greater diversity means a different species can fill the ecological role of another in case of decline. While it requires further research, the Verde Island Passage's ability to bounce back from destructive human activities makes it an even more valuable tool in the fight to save the planet's seas. Suntay said the passage should be studied by scientists in other parts of the world that are suffering from environmental degradation.

But while the potential is high, so are the stakes.

"This is a winning model that we have shown could work," Carpenter said. "To have it fail would be devastating in terms of what we want to do in conservation."

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