High Seas Fishing as Economically Unsustainable as It Is Ecologically
By Carly Nairn
Five countries are responsible for the majority of fishing in the high seas—international waters that are not under one country's jurisdiction. All five depend on enormous subsidies to keep high seas fishing economically sustainable, concludes a study released Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
Overfishing in the high seas is already ecologically unsustainable, said Enric Sala, executive director of the Pristine Seas project and the lead author of the study. But most fishing companies from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Spain would not turn a profit at all if their governments didn't financially back the operations by providing tax breaks and paying for fuel, boat repair, insurance and equipment, and by subsidizing infrastructure like facilities for processing and distribution.
The study monitored fishing vessels in the high seas for two years and calculated loads, labor costs, fuel usage, and types of catches for more than 3,600 boats. "It's a little bit like the wild west," said Chris Costello, an economist with the Sustainable Fisheries Group. "No one has really estimated the cost before." Worldwide catches are estimated around 4.4 million tons a year, and by combining revenue, subsidy information, and the new tracking data, researchers were able to piece together a larger picture of the actual costs versus benefits of high seas fishing.
"It's really mind blowing," said Sala. "The subsidies are more than twice as large as the profits." The most economically unsustainable kind of fishing, the study found, was squid fishing by Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean fleets off the coast of Japan and deep trawling near Chile and Argentina.
Collaborators on the project include the National Geographic Society; the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Global Fishing Watch; the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia; and the University of Western Australia.
And as it stands, Costello said, the industry is propping up and encouraging overfishing. While subsidy reform is important, so is regulating fish catch and monitoring vessels at the regional level. Reform is tough to achieve, however, Sala said, because of the political power of large agricultural lobbies, which don't want to see subsidies eliminated as it might set a precedent for other industries.
The subsidies are also hard to justify due to the idea that all countries are shared owners of the high seas. Currently, only 2 percent of the world's oceans are fully protected, which includes less than 1 percent in high seas areas.
In September, the United Nations will begin negotiations that could result in an agreement to protect the high seas from overfishing beginning in 2020; 141 of the 193 UN member states are in formal talks and would be signers of the treaty.
The ideal solution, Sala said, would be the creation of a giant reserve covering two-thirds of the world's oceans. That would guarantee population comebacks. A complete ban on fishing in the high seas is unlikely, Costello said. What's more likely will be an agreement to use multiple approaches to counter overfishing and hopefully keep the fishing industry from rendering itself obsolete.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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