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A gloved hand pulls a lobster from a tank. WoodysPhotos

Lobster Industry Ensnared in North Atlantic Right Whale Deaths

By Sam Schipani

Last year was not a good one for the North Atlantic right whale. Seventeen of them were discovered to have died, about 4 percent of a total population of 455. Numbers have been low for decades—the species was declared endangered in 1973—but if the current trend continues, the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, could go extinct by 2040.

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An Arctic tern entangled in fishing gear. Governor of Svalbard / Norwegian Polar Institute Facebook

'Plastic in All Sizes' Found Everywhere in Once Pristine European Arctic

A disturbing amount of plastic is building up in the once-pristine European Arctic.

According to a study from the Norwegian Polar Institute, "plastic in all sizes" can be found throughout the Norwegian Arctic and in the Svalbard islands, an archipelago between Norway's mainland and the North Pole that's also one of Earth's northernmost inhabited areas.

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Fishing With Insecticide-Laced Mosquito Nets Is a Global Phenomenon

By Benjamin Graham

Fishermen in the Dili district of Timor-Leste have found an extra perk of the insecticide added to their mosquito bed nets: the chemicals act as a Taser for shrimp. The bed nets are supposed to ward off malaria, but, with a few strong branches and some twine, it's easy to refashion them into fishing nets that immobilize small shrimp or fish with toxins and ensnare them in the mesh.

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Energy
Crawfisherman Jody Meche drives through Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin on his way to check his traps. Emily Kasik

Why a Crawfisherman Is Fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline

By Emilie Karrick Surrusco

Jody Meche and his family have harvested crawfish from Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin for generations. When he set his first trap in the 1980s, he hauled in an abundant catch. These days, his traps come back full of dead crawfish.

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Climate

Closing the High Seas to Fishing Could Save Coastal Fisheries

Researchers from the University of British Columbia say that closing the high seas to fishing could help coastal fisheries, increasing catches by 10 percent. But our waters are now more polluted than ever, threatening the entire food chain.

© Australian Fisheries Management Authority / WWF

Fish have responded to warming ocean waters by moving north and to deeper waters, and these movements are expected to accelerate. This has resulted in a redistribution of commercial fish stocks. Warm water species are now being found in higher latitudes and tropical water will see "substantial decreases in potential catches" according to the study published Tuesday in Fish and Fisheries. About half of 36 fish stocks in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean have shifted northward in the past 40 years, a 2009 report from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, said.

Warming of Northwest Atlantic WatersCredit: Janet Nye, NEFSC/NOAA

Similar issues have been seen in coastal fisheries. Maine has been enjoying a boom in lobster fishing as the catch in Southern New England declined from 22 million pounds in 1997 to 3.3 million in 2013. But all is not rosy in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming at the fastest rate of almost any sea. At the Portland Fish Exchange, where 90 percent of Maine's groundfish catch is sold and stored, annual landings are now averaging 5 to 6 million pounds of cod, flounder, haddock, hake and other species, down from 80 million pounds in the early 1980s.

Climate change is predicted to reduce global catches by 10 percent by 2050, a substantial risk to feed a growing world population. This risk is magnified among island and coastal communities in the tropics, where low income and indigenous communities rely on this key food source.

Uncontrolled and over-fishing has decimated many fish stocks. The Natural Resources Defense Council states that populations of large ocean fish such as tuna and swordfish have declined by 90 percent from pre-industrial levels. The World Wildlife Fund cites poor fisheries management and illegal fishing as key culprits. Just 1.6 percent of the world's oceans are protected areas, and beyond coastal zones, there are few if any restrictions on commercial fishing. Large, industrial-scale fishing began replacing small operations in the 20th century, rapidly depleting fish stocks. In 1996, at least 86 million metric tons of catch were taken, and perhaps as much as 130 million tons. The total catch has declined ever since. We've already past peak fish.

Groundfish catches in Maine are down more than 90 percent since the 1980s.Credit: Dan Zukowski

The University of British Columbia looked at 30 key fish stocks against three different modeling scenarios: cooperative international fisheries management, closing the ocean to fishing and maintaining the status quo. Under the status quo, global catches are forecast to decline 5.8 percent by 2050, with a deep-sea drop of 10.9 percent. The take in coastal fisheries, defined as exclusive economic zones (EEZ), declines by 5.5 percent. Under cooperative management, global catches increase by nearly 30 percent while the coastal catch increases 6.3 percent. The most dramatic benefit to coastal zones comes from a closure of deep sea fisheries, with a gain in the EEZs of 10.3 percent. Total global catch under this scenario declines by 3.4 percent.

Unquestionably, there's a trade-off. The researchers see it this way: "Although the scenario with sustainable high seas fisheries performs best amongst those that we explored, it is important to question the likelihood of achieving effective management of sustainable fisheries in the high seas."

Gaining full cooperation and enforcement is unlikely. Tropical countries are going to lose out most. High seas closure would help mitigate inequality in fish stock redistribution and enhance resilience of fish species.

Health

Fish on Prozac: Anxious, Anti-Social and Aggressive

Environmental Health News

By Brian Bienkowski

When fish swim in waters tainted with antidepressant drugs, they become anxious, anti-social and sometimes even homicidal.

New research has found that the pharmaceuticals, which are frequently showing up in U.S. streams, can alter genes responsible for building fish brains and controlling their behavior.

Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed medications in the U.S.; about 250 million prescriptions are filled every year. And they also are the highest-documented drugs contaminating waterways, which has experts worried about fish. Traces of the drugs typically get into streams when people excrete them, then sewage treatment plants discharge the effluent.

Exposure to fluoxetine, known by the trade name Prozac, had a bizarre effect on male fathead minnows, according to new, unpublished research by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Fathead minnows exposed to low doses of antidepressant drugs became anxious, anti-social and aggressive. Photo credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Male minnows exposed to a small dose of the drug in laboratories ignored females. They spent more time under a tile, so their reproduction decreased and they took more time capturing prey, according to Rebecca Klaper, a professor of freshwater sciences who spoke about her findings at a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference last fall. Klaper said the doses of Prozac added to the fishes’ water were “very low concentrations,” one part per billion, which is found in some wastewater discharged into streams.

When the dose was increased, but still at levels found in some wastewater, females produced fewer eggs and males became aggressive, killing females in some cases, Klaper said at the conference.

The drugs seem to cause these behavioral problems by scrambling how genes in the fish brains are expressed, or turned on and off. The minnows were exposed when they were a couple of months old and still developing.

There appeared to be architectural changes to the young minnows’ brains, Klaper said at the toxicology conference. Growth of the axons, which are long nerve fibers that transmit information to the body, was disrupted.

The new findings build on Klaper’s previous research, which tested minnows with the gene changes to see how well they avoided predators. They swam longer distances and made more directional changes, which suggests that the drugs induced anxiety.

The drugs used in the study were among the most common in sewage: Prozac, Effexor and Tegretol. The researchers tested each drug alone and in combination.

“At high doses we expect brain changes,” Klaper said. “But we saw the gene expression changes and then behavioral changes at doses that we consider environmentally relevant.”

However, there is too little evidence to know whether pharmaceuticals are having any impacts on fish populations in the wild, said Bryan Brooks, an environmental science professor at Baylor University who has extensively studied pharmaceuticals in streams and fish.

Any changes in reproduction, eating and avoiding prey can have devastating impacts for fish populations, Klaper said.

The most vulnerable fish populations are those downstream of sewage treatment plants, where prescription drugs consistently show up in higher levels than in other waterways. It’s only within the past decade that technology has allowed plants to test for the chemicals in their wastewater and in waters downstream, though most still don’t, said Steve Carr, supervisor of the chemistry research group at the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.

Fish downstream of wastewater treatment plants are more at risk of pharmaceutical exposure, experts say. Photo credit: Humboldt State University.

One of the antidepressants tested in the fish—Tegretol—comes into the treatment plants and goes out at near constant levels, said Eric Nelson, a senior chemist with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.

That means the county’s treatment technology does not seem to have any effect on the drug. It comes in and leaves in a very tight range, about 150 to 400 parts per trillion, Nelson said.

Nelson said the two other drugs tested on the fish—Prozac and Effexor—are discharged in effluent at even lower levels: between about 20 and 30 parts per trillion. In comparison, the levels that altered behavior of the lab fish were 50 times higher.

When monitoring an Iowa and a Colorado stream, the U.S. Geological Survey found most drugs at levels similar to Los Angeles County’s. However, these low levels could still find their way into fish brains, according to their 2010 study.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists found traces of antidepressants in Iowa's Fourmile Creek. Photo credit: USGS

Researchers found elevated levels of pharmaceuticals in the stream water two to six miles from the sewage treatment plants. But the chemicals at the highest levels in the water were not the ones most prevalent in the fish brains.

“The fish downstream of the wastewater treatment had elevated concentrations of two antidepressants … Zoloft and Prozac,” said Edward Furlong, a research chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey based in Boulder, CO. “And these were relatively low in water compared to others.”

Even if the levels released into streams seem low, they are constant, which is problematic, Brooks said.

“The drugs may not be classically persistent like PCBs [Polychlorinated biphenyl],” Brooks said. “But they’re pseudo-persistent. The [continuous] exposure of organisms in a stream is equivalent to a chemical that is persistent.”

Some drugs bioaccumulate, or build up, in rainbow trout, according to Brooks’ research. Also, rainbow trout exposed to sewage effluent have pharmaceuticals in their blood at levels as high as those that affect the brains of people, according to research in Sweden.

Brooks said the likelihood of bioaccumulation for pharmaceuticals is high. “People have to take these drugs for weeks before they start having effects. They slowly bioaccumulate in your system,” which suggests bioaccumulation potential in fish, too, said Brooks.

Changes to the brain can affect all kinds of things in fish, Klaper said. And since humans have a similar brain gene structure, the findings raise questions about whether traces of these drugs in drinking water might harm human health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers pharmaceuticals an “emerging concern,” and has concluded that the chemicals may pose risks to wildlife and humans. There are currently no federal regulations of the compounds in waste or drinking water. However, 12 pharmaceuticals are currently on the EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List, which are chemicals that may require regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Studies have consistently found prescription drugs in drinking water at parts-per-trillion levels. U.S. Geological Survey scientists sampled 74 waterways used for drinking water in 25 states in 2008 and found 53 had one or more of the three dozen pharmaceuticals they were testing for in their water. Forty percent of the pharmaceuticals were found at one or more of the sites.

Fifty-four active pharmaceutical ingredients and 10 metabolites have been detected in treated U.S. drinking water, according to a 2010 EPA review.

Studies of children exposed in the womb to antidepressants taken by their mothers show effects on their motor development and a higher risk of some birth defects.

But health officials say the levels found in some drinking water are too low to cause harm.

According to a 2012 World Health Organization report, the “trace quantities of pharmaceuticals in drinking water are very unlikely to pose risks to human health.” The report said that the amount found in drinking water is usually 1,000 times lower than doses expected to have an effect on a person.

But Klaper said that in light of the gene changes in fish brains, officials may need to rethink what is considered safe.

“Fish do not metabolize drugs like we do,” Klaper said. “Even if environmental doses aren’t thought to be much for a human, fish could still have significant accumulation, and, it appears, changes in their brain’s gene expression.”

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

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Why Fishermen Keep Fishing Despite Dwindling Catches

Wildlife Conservation Society

Half of fishermen will not give up their livelihood in the face of drastically declining catches according to research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

A new report, published Feb. 6 by PLoS ONE, challenges previously held notions about poverty and adaptation by investigating why fishermen in developing countries stick with their trade.

 “We found that half of fishermen questioned would not be tempted to seek out a new livelihood—even if their catch declined by 50 percent," said Dr. Tim Daw, lead author  from UEA’s School of International Development. "But the reasons they cling on to their jobs are influenced by much more than simple profitability.”

Fisheries are challenged by the combined effects of overfishing, climate change, deteriorating ecosystems and conservation policies. Understanding how fishermen respond to these changes is critical to managing fisheries.

The research project is the largest of its kind and was undertaken as a joint project with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the School of Marine Science and Technology at Newcastle University, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia.

Researchers surveyed almost 600 fishers across Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar about how they would respond to hypothetical catch declines.

They then investigated how social and economic conditions, such as local culture and socioeconomic development, influenced whether fishermen were willing to give up their trade.

“Surprisingly, fishermen in the more vibrant and developed economies were less likely to give up their trade—despite having more economically fruitful opportunities open to them,” said co-author Dr. Joshua Cinner from the ARC Centre of Excellence for coral reef Studies in Australia.

“This is the reverse of the common belief that poor communities are less likely to adapt than wealthy ones. We suspect that this may be in part due to the perverse impacts of subsidies in more developed countries encouraging people to stay in the fishery even when it is not profitable.”

“But reduced profitability was certainly not the only deciding factor," said Dr. Daw. "Fishers often have an occupational attachment, job satisfaction, family tradition, culture, and a sense of identity, which makes them reluctant to stop fishing—even when it would be an economically rational decision.”

The research demonstrates the complexity of decision making and how willingness to adapt is influenced by a range of factors.

“We have found that willingness to adapt to change is influenced by cultural, as well as economic, factors—with differing scales of importance,” said Dr. Daw. “Undertaking such a large-scale analysis has helped to untangle the complexity of the situation."

“Previous studies have been too small to offer insights into larger scale factors," Dr. Daw continued. "This is the first large-scale study to evaluate the willingness of fishers to exchange their livelihoods for a new trade—and how this decision is influenced by factors operating at different scales,” he added.

“This is very important research which helps us understand why and when fishers will leave a fishery," said Tim McClanahan from the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Some of the findings are unexpected and contrary to many arguments about the impacts of management and climate change on poor people. They will be a surprise to many people working in this field and the policies associated with resource and disaster management.

“A surprising finding was that fishermen in a poor country like Madagascar would leave the fishery sooner than those in wealthy countries such as the Seychelles. This indicates that the poor do have alternatives to fishing and lower investments that allow them flexibility in the face of environmental and management changes.

“So, the poor can adapt to climate change and temporary losses in fishing grounds as long as the alternatives are productive, which helps when trying planning for improvements in fisheries management in poor countries," added McClanahan.

The findings add to a growing raft of literature which identifies multiple interlocking and dynamic factors which affect people’s capacity to deal with environmental change. It is hoped they will help identify points of intervention for conservation policies that aim to reduce fishing effort. They could also help communities become more adaptive to change.

It also highlights the importance of understanding resource-based livelihoods, such as fishing and farming, in the context of the wider economy and society.

For more information, click here.

New Science-Based Catch Limits Announced to Stop Overfishing

Ocean Conservancy

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries announced the approval of Gulf of Mexico fishery management plans Jan. 30 which, for the first time, include science-based catch limits and accountability measures to ensure that catch is kept within those limits for all federally managed fish species. In response, Ocean Conservancy issues the following statement from Chris Dorsett, director of fish conservation and Gulf restoration:

“This bodes well for a long future of good fishing and healthy fish populations in the region. Today’s action is an essential step in securing healthy and abundant fish populations that will in turn ensure fishing opportunities for generations of fishermen to come.

“This is the culmination of years of work by NOAA fisheries, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and fishing stakeholders and fulfills key requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act which were added in 2007 with bipartisan support and the approval of a broad array of stakeholders.

“This approach is proven to work. Across the nation there are numerous examples of how science-based management coupled with accountability has ended overfishing of important commercial and recreational fish populations and allowed them to successfully begin recovery. In the Gulf of Mexico, this approach has dramatically improved the health of red snapper, supporting increasing catch levels over the last five years. The catch is poised to increase yet again in 2012.

“While the historic measures go into effect in the Gulf of Mexico today, by May they are expected to be in place nation-wide to prevent overfishing for all federally managed fisheries. This milestone follows on the heels of last week’s NOAA announcement of improved methods for estimating the amount of fish caught by marine recreational anglers. Taken together, the U.S. is well positioned to continue making significant strides in achieving healthy fisheries.

"Despite this progress, there are currently efforts in Congress to weaken key protections that prevent overfishing. The Gulf of Mexico is currently on the right track for a long future of good fishing and healthy fish populations because the law is working. Now isn’t the time for exemptions—these proven techniques must be allowed to keep working. Fully rebuilding our nation’s fisheries is expected to add $31 billion to the U.S. economy and an additional 500,000 jobs.”

For more information, click here.

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Ocean Conservancy is the world's foremost advocate for the oceans. Through science-based advocacy, research, and public education, we inform, inspire and empower people to speak and act for the oceans. Ocean Conservancy is headquartered in Washington, DC, and has offices in Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific, with support from more than half a million members and volunteers.

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