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2017 wasn't all bad. We got to know some fascinating fish, like this magma fairy wrasse. B. P. Shutman

7 Amazing New Fish Species Discovered in 2017

By Amy McDermott

If you think 2017 was a garbage fire, we can't stop you. But the world wasn't the only thing in flames. You know what else was on fire this year? Fish discovery.

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An important fishing port of the French Atlantic Island Ile d'Oleron is Port La Cotinière. Robert Schüller / Flickr

Fishing Limits Set Too High Again by Council of the EU

As their annual end-to-the-year meeting closed on Dec. 13, the 28 fisheries ministers who sit on the Council of the European Union again set some fishing limits for Atlantic Ocean and North Sea stocks higher than scientists had advised and higher than the European Commission had proposed. Council deliberations went through the night and officials have not yet made all the details available on how 2018 fishing limits were calculated.

As in previous years, participants in the Council meeting announced that good progress had been made towards achieving the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) deadline to end overfishing by 2020. We can only hope the figures bear out this optimism when a full analysis comparing the decisions to scientific advice is completed.

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Kem Soth casts his net in the Mekong River. Savann Oeurm / Oxfam

Planned Mega-Dam Threatens Fish Populations and Food Security in Cambodia

By Sabrina Gyorvary

Auntie Punleu has spent most of her life on Koh Dambang, an island set in the middle of the Mekong River in Cambodia. A small, grandmotherly woman, she paints an idyllic picture of life there.

"We catch fish as our main food every day. We eat fish nearly six days a week," she said. With her gentle strength and keen knowledge of community affairs, people on the island look to her as a natural leader. "My children and grandchildren have enough food to eat every day and they are healthy. We do not need to spend money to buy fish. We do not need to beg people for them. They come naturally from the river."

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Tyson Poultry Pleads Guilty to Clean Water Act Violations, Fish Deaths in Missouri

Tyson Foods, the nation's largest chicken producer, has taken "full responsibility" for accidentally releasing an acidic chemical used in chicken feed into the city of Monett, Missouri's wastewater treatment system that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 fish.

The poultry giant unit pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court in Springfield, Missouri on two criminal charges of violating the Clean Water Act that stemmed from discharges at its slaughter and processing facility in Monett, Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said.

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Animals
Anchovies are eating plastic because it smells like prey, study finds. Photo credit: David Abercrombie/Flickr

Another Reason to Ditch Plastic—It Smells Like Food to Fish

We know that the massive amount of plastic that's continually dumped into our oceans can end up in the stomachs of marine species (and ultimately on our plates), but why would they want to eat it?

Well, new research suggests that fish are not just accidentally gobbling up our plastic trash—they could be actively seeking it out because they like how the debris smells and are confusing it for their natural prey.

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Farmed Salmon Industry Causing Global Sea Lice Crisis

A tiny bug is behind a major problem in the global farmed salmon industry.

The sea louse, or salmon louse, is eating into farmed Atlantic salmon supplies in Scotland, Norway, Iceland and Canada, driving salmon prices higher and creating a "chemical arms race in the seas," the Guardian reports.

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Japan Ice Skating Rink Freezes 5,000 Fish

Space World—a theme park in Kitakyushu City, Japan—has apologized after drawing intense criticism for putting 5,000 fish into the floor of an ice skating rink.

According to the Tokyo Reporter, the spectacle was part a limited winter and spring exhibition called "Freezing Port" that opened Nov. 12.

The park said that the point of the attraction was to allow visitors to skate above fish, shellfish and other marine animals in different oceanic zones.

"We wanted customers to experience the feeling of skating on the sea, but after receiving criticism, we decided that we could not operate it any more," Space World general manager Toshimi Takeda told AFP.

Space World shut the attraction down on Sunday following the flood of criticism and is now melting the rink, a process that will take about a week. The park will also hold a memorial service for the fish.

The exhibition was touted as "not only a Japan-first, but undeniably a world-first." The theme park started posting preview photos of its fish-filled ice rink onto its social media pages last month.

The photos, especially ones of larger creatures such as whale sharks and rays, sparked online fervor. One particularly incendiary image showed half-frozen fish with a caption that read, "I'm d..d..drowning…It h…h..hurts…"

Commenters condemned the attraction, with one saying that Space World should not "make life into a toy."

However, a park official said that live fish were not used and that the photos of the larger sea creatures were not real.

“The real fish we used were provided wholesale from public fish markets, and these fish sellers are all aware of the purpose of this project," the official told Tokyo Reporter. “Many of these fish don't meet standards for selling to customers. And the big fish like whale sharks, sharks, and rays aren't real, they're simply photos that were blown up and embedded in the ice."

As for the "drowning" caption, the official said that a park employee wrote it "hoping people would find it funny," but added, "I do feel that not enough caution was taken. I apologize."

"We received critical voices saying it is not good to use creatures as a toy, and that it is bad to let food go to waste," Space World spokesman Koji Shibata told AFP.

Let's also note that global fish stocks are currently being depleted at unsustainable rates and we are on the brink of running out of fish. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization revealed this summer that due to vast overfishing, nearly 90 percent of global fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished.

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Bizarre Two-Headed Sharks Showing Up in Many Parts of the World

A slew of rare two-headed sharks have been found from California to the Caribbean and from Mexico to the Mediterranean, leading scientists to ponder why.

Reminiscent of the classic "Simpsons" three-eyed fish, Blinky, the mutated sharks are raising eyebrows.

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A two-headed embryo of an Atlantic sawtail cat shark was found recently in the Mediterranean Sea. It was the first oviparous, or egg-laying, shark ever documented with two heads. Each head contained a mouth, two eyes and a brain, and were joined behind the gills, according to a paper published Oct. 9 in the Journal of Fish Biology. The species is considered near threatened.

Two-headed blue shark fetus discovered in the Indian Ocean off Australia.Christopher Johnston

In 2008, Christopher Johnston, a fisherman in the Indian Ocean, pulled up a pregnant blue shark. When he cut it open, a two-headed fetus popped out. Johnston tried to save it by putting it in a tank and feeding it, but it died.

Similarly, a fisherman working in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida Keys found a fetus with two heads in a bull shark he caught. Upon examination by a scientist at Michigan State University, it was determined to be the "first recorded incidence of dicephalia in a bull shark."

Researchers from Mexico found conjoined twins in blue sharks in the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California. Blue shark females carry many live embryos at one time, leading to these abnormalities, said the scientists.

Because these finds are so rare, it's tough to pin down a cause. Genetic or metabolic disorders, viruses, pollution or overfishing are amount the possible culprits.

Each year, 100 million sharks are slaughtered, often for their fins. Shark fin soup is a popular delicacy in Chinese and other Asian cultures. The number represents between 6.4 percent and 7.9 percent of the global shark population.

Bycatch is another factor affecting sharks in some areas. Blue sharks are among those most vulnerable. Listed as near threatened, some 20 million blue sharks are lost each year to accidental catch by longline and driftnet fisheries.

Overfishing not only puts sharks at risk of extinction, but also shrinks the gene pool, potentially causing these observed mutations.

Nicolas Ehemann, a marine scientist who found two cases of two-headed shark embryos in the Caribbean, told National Geographic that "if the two-headed fetuses are more prevalent in nature, then overfishing is a strong culprit as it may cause the gene pool to shrink."

Rare cyclops shark found off Mexico.Enrique Lucero Leon

A rare, 22-inch long one-eyed shark was found in the Gulf of California near Mexico in 2011.

And that fictional three-eyed fish from Springfield? A real three-eyed catfish was found last year swimming in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. This 100-foot wide, 1.8-mile long canal was an industrial sewer from the mid-1800s and is now a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

Bye Bye Bycatch? Smart Nets That Save Fish

Six years ago, the Norwegian coast guard filmed a Scottish fishing vessel riding gray swells, dumping 5 metric tons of dead fish back into the North Sea. Over the European Union catch quota, and so unable to keep all the fish they’d caught, the fishermen had to ditch some. To the Norwegians, who aren’t part of the EU and hold a strict discards ban, the waste was shocking.

Image by Dan Watson, SafetyNet

When this news reached Dan Watson, a young British designer, it became the inspiration for SafetyNet, an ocean fishing net that allows certain fish to escape via lighted rings, offering more catch selectivity. The Scottish fishermen’s predicament, he believed, was driven by their lack of control. “There can be no villains, there can be no victims, there are just problems,” Watson says. “I started this project because I wanted to go some way towards solving that problem.”

Watson joins a growing number of innovators designing more selective fishing gear to reduce bycatch—the unwanted fish, dolphins, whales and birds that get scooped up by longlines, gillnets and trawlers each year and then discarded. Globally, the amount of marine life that is wasted or unmanaged—which makes it potentially unsustainable—forms about 40 percent of the catch. “The way we catch now is to catch everything, decide what we want to keep, and discard the rest,” says Martin Hall, head of the bycatch program at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which regulates tuna fishing in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Bycatch can result in overfishing, reduces the population of species that might already be endangered and, on the largest scale, interrupts food chains and damages whole ecosystems. It also amounts to an enormous waste of valuable fish protein.

New fishing net designs aim to reduce bycatch—the unintented capture of small fish, turtles, dolphins, whales, birds and other ocean-going life. Photo by Michel Gunther/WWF-Canon

To designers building better nets and lines, bycatch isn’t viewed as an inevitability, but as something we can phase out, piece by piece. It’s also seen as a battle that needs to be fought alongside fishermen, not against them.

Rethink the Game

Speaking from his trawler, the 45-foot Proud Mary, off the coast of Massachusetts, one such fisherman, Christopher Brown, says that over the years, fishermen have had to “rethink the game.” Brown operates a fishery that’s almost completely free of discards; is the board president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, an organization representing stewardship-minded fishermen; and has designed a squid net that reduces bycatch. The net contains an escape route at its base that exploits the bottom-dwelling behavior of unwanted flounder, encouraging them to flee the net through this gap. “We need to look at things entirely differently than we have in the last 30 years,” Brown says—and new gear is part of that equation. “It’s a matter of enlightened self-interest.”

Brown may seem unconventional, but more and more, fishermen are the ones both driving change and being consulted like clients about new gear. “The main focus has to be the fisherman,” says Watson. “You have to build something the fisherman is going to use.”

For designers, the next challenge is gaining capital. Although Watson has been working on his SafetyNet design for five years, and even though it won the prestigious James Dyson design award in 2012, it’s still staggeringly expensive, and Watson has had difficulty hiring a boat that will try out his net on open water.

Designed to free both young and endangered fish, the SafetyNet works by using fitted LED rings, which flash like exit signs to alert smaller fish. The fish can then escape by squeezing through the rings. There’s also a panel in the net that separates tighter mesh at the top from larger mesh below, allowing nontarget, bottom-dwelling species such as cod to escape through the bigger holes. With lights and panel working in tandem, “You can start almost herding the fish under the water,” Watson says.

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There is no silver-bullet solution for a problem as broad as bycatch; instead, each new piece of gear responds uniquely to a species’ size, shape and behavior. “The more we know about the ways we can stop different things being caught, the more we can make bespoke nets,” Watson says. As Hall puts it, “Slowly, you attack the different angles of the problem, and you solve it.”

Of course, there’s the inevitable economic caveat. Just as Watson has fought for funding, money is an obstacle for the industry too, slowing the scale-up of new gear across fisheries. Fishermen support innovation, but they can’t be expected to lose money over it, says Barrie Deas, chief executive for the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which represents fishermen in the UK. “Technical innovation is one thing. It’s the economic consequences of doing that [that matters],” he says. “People will seek economic ways to fish.”

It’s easy to argue back that changes in gear should just be legislated—but that rarely works, says Deas, if fishermen aren’t already onboard. “It’s not so much the designed gear that’s the problem,” he says. “But if the attempt is made to introduce it in a top-down bureaucratic way with top-down prescriptive legislation, the last 20 years has told us that doesn’t work.”

Bridging the Gap

Going some way to bridge this financial gap and to bring collaborative, bottom-up thinking to gear design, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) runs a regular competition called the International Smart Gear Competition that gives academics, conservationists and fishermen the chance to share their ideas.

“What we have learned is that you need an incentive to get started,” says Hall, who doubles as a competition judge. And that incentive is cash. For each competition cycle, sponsors partner with WWF to generate the prize money. This year, $65,000 will be awarded—the grand prize will be $30,000, with runners-up receiving the rest. “The extent of the support depends on the amount of money we can raise, so in some years, it’s been better than others,” says Michael Osmond, Smart Gear’s senior project officer.

The prize money goes to notable designers to help them build, try out and, they hope, introduce their gear into fisheries. “I think that attitudes have changed a lot over the last decade,” Osmond says. “With our competition, a lot of the winning ideas have come from fishermen themselves.”

This collaborative environment has delivered some serious successes. In 2011, designers hacked LED fishing lights ordinarily used to attract fish and repurposed them to drive turtles away instead. Globally, dense pockets of gillnets unintentionally snare and drown thousands of turtles each year because they’re almost invisible underwater, says John Wang, project leader and a researcher with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research who works as a fisheries research ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But if LED lights are fixed onto nets and tuned to a wavelength turtles can see, turtles recognize the nets as barriers and cruise by. As Wang puts it, “We have a selective communication channel to the turtles.” With this tool, they’ve reduced bycatch by up to 60 percent during trials in Mexico, Peru and Indonesia, and are now working with U.S. fisheries too.

It’s not just about turtles, though: “What we’re beginning to see is that the wavelength has some interesting properties. Different wavelengths affect fish in different ways,” Wang says. Now, he’s working on illuminating nets with ultraviolet light to steer hammerhead sharks away.

Judged by global impact, Smart Gear’s biggest success story is arguably the Eliminator Trawl, a 2007 winner built to address cod shortages by allowing cod to escape nets in New England haddock fisheries.

Fishermen switch nets to use a haddock rope trawl, or eliminator trawl, during testing on the F/V Iron Horse. Photo by Laura Skrobe, URI/Rhode Island Sea Grant.

The brainchild of fishermen, designers and academics—“a real collaborative effort,” says Laura Skrobe, Eliminator team member and fisheries scientist at Rhode Island University—the net frees down-swimming cod through the large mesh at the base, reducing bycatch by 80 percent. A tighter mesh at the top herds in haddock, which tend to swim upward. The net also significantly cuts dogfish, plaice and lobster catch—all without hurting the haddock fishery.

During trials, the team had to sell the catch from the first three trawls just to afford the fourth. But despite hurdles, “the fishermen were really the ones who pushed it,” says Skrobe. “Our fishermen will be conservationists themselves whether or not their managers tell them to. We’re just providing tools for the toolbox.” The net’s straightforward design has made it useful in both the U.S. and the U.K., where it’s now formally part of fishing regulations.

Out of the Box

In the quest to scale up smart fishing gear across global fisheries, Hall echoes what designers such as Skrobe feel: large-scale, regulatory change can happen, but only if it’s negotiated with fishermen first, or they’ll resent it. Increased investment is the obvious next step, to spur innovation and to make gear changes easier to phase into fisheries so fishermen don’t carry the costs.

As a longtime WWF Smart Gear judge, Hall adds something else: He craves even greater innovation, ideas that challenge the age-old fishing tradition. “Even though wonderful things are happening, we aren’t innovating in a dramatic way,” Hall says. “I’d really like to see an initiative that goes out of the box, to just shake the concept that because we’ve been doing this for 2,000 years, it’s OK.”

In August, Dan Watson will try his SafetyNet on the open ocean for the first time. After weathering a few challenges, he’s found a trawler that will take him off the southwestern coast of the U.K. and into the Atlantic, pulling his lighted net, to ride the swells just as those Scottish fishermen did six years ago.

For those fighting bycatch, there’s a long road ahead—much of it determined by funding and policy. But for now, innovators need to keep innovating, Watson believes. “You can look at the political world of fish, but that’s going to take 20 years to sort out. We need to create interventions in the meantime.”

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