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By Robert Boenish

Global reported squid catches (Millions of metric tons, 1950-2015). While squid catches have increased in recent years, year to year changes have also increased. Data accessed from FAO database. Plot by R. Boenish

Besides being the star in calamari appetizers, squid play the crucial roles of both predator and prey in marine ecosystems. Globally, squid can be found in nearly every ocean habitat from seagrass beds, to coral reefs, to the open ocean. Squid fisheries provide livelihoods and high-quality protein to communities, large and small all over the world. And as it turns out, studying squid can teach us valuable lessons about how to build climate-resilient fisheries. A new paper in Fisheries Research will help fishery managers predict where jumbo squid (Dosidicus gigas) populations might migrate under different scenarios of climate change, and help researchers understand why some species are more resilient than others.

While overall squid catches (all species combined) have increased in recent years, it is unclear what the future will hold in the face of climate change and other pressures. Healthy ecosystems depend on resilience from all links of the food chain. This research, which I contributed to along with a number of leading marine research organizations including Shanghai Ocean University, The University of Washington and The University of Maine, suggests that squid may play a more important role in improving climate resilience in the world’s fisheries than previously thought.

We found clear evidence of different migration routes and diets between El Niño (warm) and normal years. Consistent with previous studies, our results suggest potential habitat area for jumbo squid will decrease with ocean warming. However, during El Niño years, jumbo squid were able to successfully switch their food source to organisms lower in the food chain. While the results suggest the migration and feeding habits of jumbo squid are substantially influenced by oceanic dynamics, encouragingly, the foraging flexibility of jumbo squid suggests they have a high capacity to adapt to environmental volatility.

With the reality that much of the world’s ocean is getting warmer and extreme events are becoming more commonplace, species that are highly mobile, fast growing and reproducing, and flexible with what they eat will be poised for more success than their less adaptive counterparts. And while most fisheries in the world have either stabilized or declined in recent decades, squid catches have more than doubled since the mid-1980’s. So, incorporating squid as part of a diverse fishing portfolio may increase economic and ecological resilience in the face of climate change.

The analysis combined oceanographic data and biological samples to track how both the location and diet of jumbo squid off the west coast of South America changes with abrupt climatic events. We sampled beaks from squid caught in the Chinese commercial fishery and analyzed their chemical composition. Beaks grow through continued deposit of new material onto the edges of beak’s lateral wall, so as squid grow, so do their beaks. Though the material is hard, it contains chemical traces of the water chemistry and diet from when it was deposited. With this information, and knowledge of where and under what conditions the squid was caught, scientists can look backwards to learn about where the squid has been, and where it exists in the food web.

We are often confronted with depressing news about the oceans in the face of climate change. What’s important to keep in mind is that while many species are fighting an uphill battle, others possess adaptive characteristics that might poise them for success, like squid. Lead author on the paper, Dr. Guanyu Hu, explains, “Understanding how changing climate regimes affect biology is crucial as we move forward in the face of ocean change. However, for this to happen, we need more investigation into their biology, and how it changes based on space, time and environment.” While some studies have begun to broadly examine the effects of changing environments in the oceans, there has been little attention given to squid and their capacity to adapt to changing oceans despite their global economic and ecological importance.

This research helps fill in some of these gaps. It builds on a large body of oceanographic and fisheries knowledge to better understand how jumbo squid, distributed from California to southern Chile, respond to rapid changes in ocean conditions. Insights into how changes in temperature and food availability affect migration patterns and population trends are crucial for improving scientists’ ability to understand how squid can adapt to their environment and how we can create a future of climate-resilient fisheries.

If squid are able to change their foraging habits in response to changing ocean conditions, it’s possible other species are as well. While we will still need to hold global emissions to no more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and make management changes anticipating shifts in distribution and abundance, these findings are encouraging because they mean some fisheries are inherently more resilient to climate change—making our task at hand a bit easier.

 

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By Laura Rodriguez

What if scientists, governments and citizens had access to a database that held everything we know about our oceans? This snapshot of the current state of science would be invaluable to understand the state of ocean health, would help build scientific solutions to climate-driven ocean problems and could spur new collaboration and amplify current conservation efforts.

Luckily for all of us passionate about the oceans in Mexico, this amazing database is not just a fantasy. It is now a reality in Mexico thanks to the collaborative efforts of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Mexican researchers from several institutes including the University of British Columbia and the Mexican National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO).

Geographic location of metadata according to sub-regions and research category

Together we developed Infoceanos, a metadatabase that provides the most comprehensive snapshot of the current state of marine data in Mexico. Infoceanos is a free, public website with interactive interfaces that allow data visualization by species and region.

It represents a unique effort in the country. “We have created the most complete metadatabase of marine research in Mexico, since it gathers more than 130 thousand records representing more than two million data points from 215 databases,” says Juliano Palacios, one of the researchers and collaborators of the project. “Thanks to the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) in Mexico, the final product is an open-source and dynamic tool that can be accessed by anyone, and is open to the addition of new records. We hope that this multi-institutional effort helps improve marine conservation and management in Mexico.”

Infoceanos was built from the collaborative work of 14 researchers who were recently published in a PLOS ONE article. Their research focuses on building a metadatabase as a way to understand data about data, and use that information to design strategies to face pressing problems such as climate change.

Climate change is one of the main threats for our oceans, not only because of the impacts it will have on food security and conservation, but also because of the uncertainty of its extent. To face climate change and other critical challenges like poor management and pollution, we need to rely on robust data to inform effective environmental policies and protect our oceans.

Number of records per research field

In the case of Mexico – one of the main fishing countries in the world where over two million people rely on fishing for their livelihoods – the analysis derived from Infoceanos shows that most of the research done around the oceans focuses on ecology, biology and fisheries, while social and human dimensions are areas ripe for more research. At the same time, we found regional differences in terms of information availability. The Gulf of California, Campeche Bank and the Caribbean have the most data, while central and south Pacific and the western Gulf of Mexico have less data.

“Information about the state of our oceans is essential for the future of thousands of species, and millions of people who depend on seafood as their main source of food and employment,” says Andres Cisneros, a collaborator on Infoceanos and researcher at the Institute for Oceans and Fisheries of the University of British Columbia. “The information contained in this metadatabase has the potential to strengthen the knowledge and actions we need to secure the oceans and their resources in Mexico.”

Locations where metadata workshops were held and contributing institutions

Likewise, metadatabases can be a useful tool for other countries or regions in our effort to expand our knowledge about oceans and generate a worldwide scientific movement around marine conservation. In the case of Infoceanos, this effort started in Canada and was then adapted in Mexico, which exemplifies how this tool can help many countries around the world.

At EDF, we believe that information should lead to action. We hope that this multi-institutional effort helps improve marine conservation and management. Decision-makers can rely on this data to generate the necessary policies and reforms needed to overcome challenges like climate change so that we can still have more fish in the oceans, more food on the plate and more prosperous communities.

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By Doug Rader

Even though the world ocean is beset from every angle by serious threats – from overfishing to pollution, and from habitat loss to climate-driven warming and acidification – our ocean remains an essential life support system for planet Earth. Not only do more than three billion people depend upon the sea as an essential source of protein for their diet, but nearly 1.4 billion of them risk serious health consequences should they lose existing access to fish and other marine products. Recent science has made plain that if current threats continue, the chance for a more stable future becomes increasingly difficult for people and nature together.

Now, two of the world’s leading ocean experts, Dr. Jane Lubchenco and Dr. Steve Gaines have issued a clear call for change in the new edition of Science. For all who care about the future of the sea – and therefore humanity – Drs. Lubchenco and Gaines call on us to band together to ensure that the world ocean retains its vibrancy and potential, despite this uncertain future.

These two visionaries ask us all to reject the past myth of ocean invulnerability – to admit and understand the risks – but also to refuse to accept the increasingly prevalent “doom-and-gloom” narrative that could also doom the ocean and the planet. Lubchenco and Gaines’ new paradigm for the sea requires us all to embrace the opportunities that new solutions present, and to rally together to insist upon their implementation.

The truly good news is that solutions are at hand for most of the major problems facing the ocean, including overfishing – which is among the biggest threats today. We know from examples around the world that well-designed, rights-based fisheries management can turn fisheries around, and that doing the same across the globe could reverse the collapse of fisheries. We also know that these approaches – developed in partnership with fishers and fishing communities – can overcome most of the negative impacts of climate warming and chart a new course for global fisheries.

Effective management can be accelerated by properly designed networks of marine protected areas (MPAs), properly combined with well-managed fisheries, as is already underway now throughout the national waters of Belize. Additionally, new technological approaches – coupled with effective fisheries management and governance – can drastically curtail illegal fishing.

In the longer term, these new tools will have to be upgraded and customized to adequately address the impacts of climate change and ensure that people all over the planet can continue to find the fish they need to stay healthy.

But for now, there is every reason for each and every one of us to warmly embrace the new manifesto that Drs. Lubchenco and Gaines have presented and enlist in a new legion of “oceaneers” committed to making their vision a reality, for people and nature together. We can afford to do no less.

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By Melissa Mahoney

Only 15 minutes had passed since the doors opened for the 14th annual Portland Seafood and Wine festival, and already a crowd was forming around the Rock+Sole booth. Attracted by the bright design of the mock kitchen and the sight of delectable seafood samples being prepared, visitor’s faces lit up with curiosity and excitement as they approached. “Step up and try some 100% sustainable, healthy and delicious rockfish and sole!” shouted Jana Hennig, Executive Director of Positively Groundfish, a non-profit trade association whose mission is to promote fish species coming from the West Coast Groundfish trawl fishery.

As people tasted the samples of Rockfish Crudo and a Dover sole Brandade created by Chef Chris Bailey, I asked them, “Have you ever tried rockfish/sole before?” Many said, “Yes, of course, but not like this!” Over half of the approximately 3,000 visitors to the booth had never heard of rockfish or Dover sole. “Did you know these fish come from a certified sustainable fishery and are caught right off our coast?” The answer was often a surprised “No, but now that I know I will look for it.” Or, “Where do I find them? Where is your restaurant located?”

But you see, Rock+Sole isn’t a restaurant, it’s a movement to get U.S. consumers hooked on West Coast rockfish and sole.

Pacific rockfish (aka Pacific snapper) and soles, flatfish such as Dover and Petrale, were once some of the most commonly available seafoods on the west coast. They are caught as part of a multi-species trawl fishery targeting groundfish – fish living on or near the bottom of the sea. “The trawl fishery was active in every port from Morro Bay, CA to Neah Bay, WA, it’s what kept the lights on for the processors,” says Brad Pettinger, a long time commercial fisherman out of Brookings, Oregon and current Board member.

So, what happened?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s many stocks became overfished, and the fishery collapsed. Over the last 15 years, better management, habitat protections and reduced fleet capacity has resulted in the near full recovery of stocks and higher catch rates. In today’s trawl fishery, individual quotas coupled with full observer coverage ensure fishermen are 100% accountable for everything they catch, even fish that are discarded at sea. In 2014, the fishery was certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and several key species listed as Best and Good Choices on the Seafood Watch Guide produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a clear sign to the market that species from this fishery should be regarded in a whole new light. Given the demand for more sustainable seafood choices, you’d think this would have been a slam dunk for the industry, right?

But the market waits for no fish.

It only took a couple of years for west coast groundfish to lose its place in the highly competitive globalized seafood market. During the early 2000s when landings plummeted due to the fishery disaster, farmed tilapia, pollock and other cheap and available white fish took their place. Now these ‘whitefish’ products, many of them imported, have become commonplace in the market. Despite the hard-won recovery and sustainability of west coast rockfish and sole, it hasn’t yet caught on in the American psyche, and certainly hasn’t made its way back onto their dinner plates. “In order for the conservation gains to stick, and for other fisheries to adopt this type of management, the supply and markets side needs to perform well and we just haven’t seen that at scale,” says Shems Jud, Pacific region director for EDF. Add that to a lack of consumer awareness, a sluggish supply chain, and port infrastructure problems and it’s no wonder the groundfish industry has struggled to recover their market.

Positively Groundfish—on a mission to bring sustainable, local rockfish and sole back to consumers

Enter Positively Groundfish, whose mission is to tell the story of this fishery’s comeback in a way that inspires a new generation of consumers (chefs, retailers and the public) to appreciate sustainable, local, healthy seafood like rockfish and sole, and ask for it by name.

Positively Groundfish was borne out of concern for the economic viability of the industry. “Brad (Pettinger, then the head of the Oregon Trawl Commission), Shems Jud (EDF), and I realized our rockfish quota was increasing significantly, and quickly,” said Mike Okoniewski of Pacific Seafood, one of the founding members. “We had been ‘off the market’ for 15 years, so it was obvious we had to take action and build a collaborative base. We had a great product, and a great success story to tell, but how to do it?  This was the genesis for Positively Groundfish.”

The co-founders – a group of processors (Pacific Seafood, Bornstein Seafood, California Shellfish Company), harvesters (represented by the Oregon Trawl Commission), EDF and MSC – each donated seed funding to hire Jana Hennig, a Stanford MBA/Ocean policy grad with 10+ years of business and marketing expertise. Together they have set out to create an organization that can ‘lift all boats with a rising tide,’ to help the whole industry get back on its feet through better marketing and branding. Current members are mostly based out of Oregon, but the group is working to encourage new members throughout the West Coast by offering marketing data and assistance

What’s next?

Now in its second year as a non-profit trade association, and with funding from NOAA’s Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program to conduct research and marketing campaigns like Rock+Sole, Positively Groundfish is on its way to having a tangible impact. If the response from the Portland festival is any indication, seafood lovers on the West Coast are ready to welcome back rockfish and sole to their dinner plates. By far the most common response to the tasting was, “That was really, really good.” “I’m definitely going to add this to my shopping list,” said one participant.

With all the dire news about our oceans today, the comeback of an iconic West Coast fishery is a bright spot. Positively Groundfish has a host of events planned throughout the west coast and nationally over the next year, which we hope will start a buzz around pacific rockfish and sole such that it opens a floodgate of new market opportunities and expands market share for fishermen, buyers and processors in all three west coast states where the fishery operates.

So next time you are shopping or dining out and you see West Coast rockfish or sole, try it! If you are part of the fishing/seafood industry, consider joining our mission to spark a rockfish and sole revolution.

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By Alexis Rife

Photo Credit: Alexis Rife

The hustle and bustle of a local fish market – usually seen in the pre-dawn dark, with bare-bulb lights illuminating what’s for sale and the shouts from sellers (usually in a language I don’t understand but with meaning clear enough to get out of the way of carts brimming with ice and fish) – is my favorite place to learn about small-scale fisheries. This is where it all comes together, with fishermen landing their catch, buyers (usually women) negotiating prices and customers buying products for that day’s meal or business. Here is where I am a learner and observer – hearing details about challenges these individuals face in maintaining their livelihoods, seeing the pride people have in their work and chatting about what we all can do to sustain the jobs, food, communities and ecosystems that are part of this system.

Supporting small-scale fishing communities is the most rewarding part of my job. After all, three billion people depend on fishing for their livelihoods and rely on fish for protein and essential micronutrients—with over 90% of them operating in small-scale fisheries, many of whom live in developing countries. Including the voices of these fishermen, women and communities is instrumental to their efforts to build sustainable, science-based fishing approaches that protect their access to seafood and livelihoods.

Photo Credit: Alexis Rife

My colleagues and I are driven personally and professionally to help spur local action. We’ve found that the key to sustainable, lasting solutions is to deeply engage with the people who understand their fisheries best, empower them with tools to design local solutions and facilitate discussions and collaboration at scale, including throughout the supply chain, and thus elevate their collective voices. Over the past several years we have formed relationships with small-scale fishers around the globe—including in Belize, the Philippines, Myanmar, Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Portugal and Chile.

That’s why I was thrilled to attend the World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress, convened by Too Big to Ignore in Thailand. This important event is a convening of fishers, fishers’ organizations, researchers, policymakers and environmental groups to share information about the global landscape of, and challenges facing, small-scale fisheries. The Congress emphasized the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Small-Scale Fisheries (SSF Guidelines) and the role of small-scale fisheries in meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals. The SSF Guidelines are the first international instrument to recognize the importance of small-scale fisheries and lay out principles to address poverty, eradicate hunger and promote sustainable development in small-scale fishing communities.

Here are five observations from this past year’s Congress:

  1. Action Oriented: This year’s theme – “Transdisciplinarity and Transformation for the Future of Small-Scale Fisheries”—focused on convening people to take action. Small-scale fishing groups and organizations are working closely with the FAO to develop strategic global platforms for SSF Guideline implementation. They have formed advisory groups and bodies, and advocate for knowledge sharing platforms and capacity building which will support local governments and ensure implementation.
  2. Local engagement: Understanding what successful community-level implementation looks like was a core theme addressed by participants. Fishing communities are the closest to changes on the water and know their needs intimately. It’s clear that in order for the SSF Guidelines to become a reality, fishers and local communities have a core role to play in helping their governments implement them. The Congress had representation from fishers from around the world and a strong emphasis on cultivating fisher to fisher conversations.
  3. Role of women: The role of women in global fisheries, often unseen in work like processing harvest for market and prepping or repairing gear, is dramatically underestimated. Women play a crucial role throughout fishery supply chains—not only as direct harvesters, processors, buyers or supporters—but also as leaders in the community. The SSF Guidelines recognize these varied and important roles and the need for their voices and interests to be represented in management decisions. Many Congress participants shared research on women’s roles, bringing needed perspectives to the table.
  4. NGO collaboration: Many NGOs at the Congress shared information on how they support small-scale fisheries, with a noticeable move towards working together to support local governments and communities. This is encouraging because together our efforts can be more impactful for fishing communities. Collaboration across NGOs increases our ability to provide comprehensive and user-friendly tools and resources. It can also raise the profile of disparate efforts into a global movement by sharing experiences from small-scale fishing communities from all corners of the world.
  5. Climate impacts: A number of participants discussed climate change and how its impacts are already being felt by fishing communities. This focus on climate was accentuated by the recent IPCC report confirming that governments will need to curb emissions dramatically to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Ensuring that fishing communities have adaptive strategies in place, are empowered to work together to plan for managing shifting stocks and have the resources to carry them out is crucial to their success.

Since the last convening, clear progress has been made in advancing sustainable small-scale fisheries around the globe, even if many challenges remain.

At EDF, we’re seeing our active work to advance SDG 14 (Life Under Water) targets pay off around the world as communities make progress to improve access of small-scale fishers to marine resources, manage and protect ecosystems and design and implement science-based management plans.

Attending this convening dedicated to finding collaborative solutions was empowering and encouraging. Small-scale fishing communities are already taking hold of their own futures, and it’s clear that a wide community of stakeholders is committed to paving the way for their continued success.

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By Jake Kritzer

No nation on Earth is more central to the global seafood system than China. China’s influence on the production, processing, distribution and overall demand for seafood is unparalleled. Indeed, China alone is expected to account for around half of the growth in global seafood consumption over the coming decades.

This growing demand for seafood will require new solutions not only for managing how much fish is caught, but how to adapt as climate change begins to impact China’s ocean ecosystem.  EDF recently convened an international workshop with the China Academy of Fisheries Sciences (CAFS) with the goal of aligning global efforts to identify pressing challenges and solutions to climate change.

As China confronts these impacts, it’s clear that global climate change is a critical stressor that threatens to undermine its hard work on fisheries reforms. China’s government and scientific community recognize this threat, and are beginning to address it. The challenge is not trivial, given that China’s coastline spans 18,000 km, stretching across diverse ecosystems from warm tropical to cool temperate seas.

EDF is working in China not only because of its global importance, but also because we believe the country is in a unique moment for transformative change. China has made ambitious commitments under the 13th Five-Year Plan to improve fisheries management. These include improving the scientific foundation for fisheries management, monitoring fishing activity and catch, enhancing the responsibilities and incentives of fishing fleets and communities and strengthening protection of marine ecosystems.

To achieve these objectives, China is working to both learn from international experience and share its own experience by building international collaborations. These efforts are critical because China’s marine resources have suffered from a variety of impacts, including overfishing, pollution, coastal development and unchecked growth of aquaculture.

Climate change is affecting marine fisheries the world over, and presents a major threat to EDF’s vision of reviving ecological, economic and cultural prosperity in global fisheries and fishing communities. Accordingly, developing and implementing the tools needed to make fisheries climate-ready is a core component of our work.

CAFS President Cui Lifeng addresses speakers and participants at the workshop, highlighting the vital role that fisheries and aquaculture play in China’s economy and culture, the urgency of understanding and responding to climate impacts and the importance of new partnerships like the one between CAFS and EDF in rising to these challenges.

Our recent workshop with CAFS brought together experts from China and around the world to deliver research reports to more than 100 Chinese fisheries scientists and officials. These reports outlined many ways climate change is already impacting marine ecosystems and seafood production in diverse global fishing communities. For example:

  • The composition of coastal shellfish populations along China’s coast is shifting due to complex interactions between behavioral and physiological responses to climate change;
  • Shifts in the expansive Humboldt Current ecosystem off the west coast of South America are driving a range expansion of jumbo flying squid, which may be affecting the traditional hake fishery due to increased predation of hake by squid;
  • In the Northwest Atlantic, cumulative effects of climate change across freshwater, estuarine and ocean ecosystems threaten the oldest commercial fisheries in North America, including the iconic Atlantic cod;
  • At the confluence of several major ocean current systems, Japan’s ocean environment experiences particularly strong effects of global regime shifts, with especially pronounced impacts on larger species of fish such as Pacific cod.

The workshop not only addressed the expected impacts of climate change, but also considered promising solutions. In particular, several reports reinforced a critical message: One of the most important responses to the adverse effects of climate change on fisheries is to improve our fishery management systems using approaches that should be adopted even if climate change was not unfolding. These include setting and enforcing sound science-based limits, creating incentive structures that align environmental and economic outcomes, and other elements of China’s fisheries reform agenda. Many fisheries have been underperforming for a long time, even before significant climate effects have taken hold. Recovering lost productivity through sustainable management will offset some of the losses expected due to climate change, with some fisheries potentially performing even better in the future.

In addition to wild fisheries, the workshop also considered climate effects on aquaculture, where China’s dominance is even more pronounced. The Yellow Sea Fisheries Research Institute (YSFRI), one of CAFS’s flagship science centers, is a leader in developing innovative approaches for aquaculture production in a changing ocean. In particular, YSFRI is pioneering the concept of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA), whereby different species are raised together in ways that promote more efficient nutrient cycling and waste processing. Those efficiencies can help counterbalance the strains introduced by climate change, along with selecting the most climate-resilient species to raise.

Across the reports delivered at the workshop, it was clear that climate change will compel us to not only implement existing scientific and management approaches more effectively, but also to develop new approaches in response to the complex ecological dynamics that are evolving. A critical component in building the scientific, management, marketing and communication systems needed for resilient and productive fisheries and aquaculture will be harnessing the power of emerging technologies.

Technology expert Garren Givens surveys the many ways that technology is revolutionizing environmental stewardship in the Fourth Wave, promising applications in fisheries science and management and China’s important role as a world leader.

Indeed, the revolutionary power of technology has come to define the Fourth Wave of Environmentalism currently underway, with networks, sensors and machine learning coming together to transform agriculture, water management, greenhouse gas emissions and more. Those committed to ocean stewardship are also embracing Fourth Wave innovation, and the workshop considered how satellites, micro-sensors, ecosystem models and other tools are helping to navigate our response to climate change.

The challenges outlined in the workshop certainly seem daunting. However, it was also clear that our scientific understanding has advanced considerably, and that there is a diverse and energetic community of science and management practitioners in China and across the globe working to meet those challenges.

Our partnership with CAFS can help to focus that community toward the most pressing problems and the most promising solutions, and ultimately to map a clear path forward. The future of healthy, vibrant fisheries and the communities that depend on them, necessitates that we address the challenges of a changing climate in China and across the world.

I, for one, am optimistic that we will do just that.

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By EDF Oceans

By Shems Jud and Matt Tinning

Win-win outcomes, delivering results for the economy and the environment, can feel few and far between these days. But you don’t have to look further than the West Coast’s biggest fishery to see a remarkable example of mutually-beneficial progress. An announcement this week that a strong recovery in the fishery would now permit dramatic increases in harvest levels was celebrated by fishermen and conservationists alike, and provided further proof that a healthy ecosystem can go hand-in-hand with a profitable fishing industry and thriving coastal communities.

The Pacific groundfish fishery harvests petrale sole, lingcod, a number of rockfish varieties and a whole host of other species. It has seen some bleak times over the years, pushed to the brink of collapse and declared a federal disaster in 2000 as a result of profound management failures. Dramatic increases in harvest limits announced for the fishery this week are another key milestone in a hard-won turnaround. The most significant changes to harvest specifications are for rebuilt stocks like bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific ocean perch as well as for stocks with improved assessments such as lingcod, California scorpionfish, and yelloweye rockfish. NOAA estimates that harvest level increases will create 900 new jobs and $60 million in additional income for West Coast communities in 2019 alone.  

The groundfish fishery includes over 90 species of rockfish, flatfish, and other species like lingcod and sablefish, and has long been a vital component of the fishing industry in California, Oregon, and Washington. Groundfish are targeted by recreational fishermen in small boats (and even kayaks), as well as by 100-plus foot commercial trawlers and every type of vessel in between.

Press coverage of this week’s announcement underscored its significance, but didn’t fully capture the scope of the efforts that have enabled the turnaround. Only through years of committed efforts by fishermen, conservationists, and other stakeholders has a deeply broken management system been overhauled and replaced with a new approach that aligns conservation incentives with business outcomes.

It’s a story worth taking the time to understand, since it has produced one our generation’s most remarkable conservation success stories – and also because it contains some powerful lessons for how we can address the global overfishing crisis.

Groundfish were harvested for millennia by coastal tribes in the Northwest, but commercial harvest began to increase significantly in the late 1940s. After the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, which sought to boost domestic commercial fishing, harvest increased further, reaching its peak in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was clear that a number of rockfish species had been severely depleted. Catch declined precipitously as the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the three Pacific states – initially in response to lawsuits – began to impose ever more stringent regulations to help stocks rebuild. Recreational fishermen were constrained by massive depth-based closures that effectively shut off a huge portion of the fishing grounds. They were also constrained by reduced bag limits, seasonal closures, and other limitations. Commercial fishermen were likewise constrained by area closures, gear restrictions, and decreased trip limits among other measures. The constant was scientifically based catch limits and strict rebuilding plans.

The Council later employed more creative approaches, some developed through “exempted fishing permits”, in an effort to enable fishermen to more effectively target healthy species while avoiding sensitive stocks. One example of this is from 2011, where after years of painstaking negotiations, the Council introduced a new quota-based management system called catch shares to the trawl fishery, which accounts for more than 90% of groundfish catch. Primary objectives included reducing wasted “bycatch”, reducing overcapacity, and reducing catch rates for overfished species. In this new system, fishermen are individually accountable for their catch of quota species, and must stop fishing if they hit their limit for any one of the species unless they acquire quota from another fisherman. One hundred percent monitoring (in the form of human observers or electronic monitoring) guarantees compliance with quotas.

This program – individual quota plus full accountability – has driven previously-unimaginable changes in the way fishermen operate. By incentivizing conservation, it has reduced bycatch by roughly 80% and ensured that trawl catch of overfished species remained well under the relevant catch limits. It has also spurred a variety of gear and behavior innovations that minimize catch of small and unmarketable species, avoid sensitive stocks, and reduce the costs of fishing. Some fishermen developed “risk pools” to reduce the likelihood of an individual being shut down by very low quotas for some rebuilding stocks. They agreed to pool their quota, and in exchange for access to the pool, developed a number of self-imposed rules for how, where, and when participants could fish. Others developed net modifications, employed test tows, and avoided certain areas to minimize catch of rebuilding stocks.

Similarly, the recreational fishery pioneered a number of innovations to ensure compliance with catch limits while creating an opportunity to harvest healthy target stocks. One good example is the recently approved “Holloway gear”, which is designed to keep shrimp flies higher in the water column and out of the rocks to avoid sensitive stocks like yelloweye.

Thanks in large part to these innovations– pioneered by fishermen in response to management incentives– and to strong science-based management generally by the Pacific Council, a number of formerly overfished rockfish species have been rebuilt, many of them years ahead of schedule. And as the fishery has recovered, fishermen have been able to sustainably harvest more groundfish, with landings in the bottom trawl sector increasing by a whopping 50% last year.

Indeed, 2018 is likely to see the highest landings in the bottom trawl sector since the federal disaster declaration in 2000. This trend is now set to accelerate in 2019, with this week’s announced increases in harvest levels set to facilitate additional commercial landings and recreational trips in 2019 and beyond.

This is precisely how good fishery management is supposed to work. Disciplined management, cooperation with industry, improved scientific understanding, collaboration among stakeholders, and a little help from Mother Nature have led to a dramatic rebound in populations. As a result, seafood consumers, the fishing industry, recreational fishermen, and our ocean ecosystem all benefit. Given the sensitivity of some of these stocks to overfishing, we need to keep a careful watch on this fishery. But, with the last two depleted Pacific rockfish species doing well – cowcod is poised to be rebuilt in 2019, and a revised rebuilding plan for yelloweye rockfish that suggests it will rebuild decades before initially predicted – the future for the fishery looks bright.

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By Sarah O'Brien

Whether you enjoy eating tuna in your lunchbox sandwich, have a stake in the long-term sustainability and livelihoods of Pacific tuna fishing nations, or simply care about the future of healthy oceans and fish populations—it’s worth taking note of an important convening this week that could decide the future of sustainable tuna.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), an international treaty organization of 35 member nations and territories charged with negotiating the management for tuna, sharks and rays, is meeting this week in Honolulu. These species are classified as highly migratory, meaning they swim through internationally managed waters, making collective management a necessity.

Tuna in particular, are highly valuable and face several thorny challenges that have resulted in less than optimal socioeconomic and biological performance, including weaknesses in current management that has allowed illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, interactions with sharks, as well as human rights abuses. That’s why decisions made at this forum are so important.

The ultimate goal is to manage for healthy tuna populations that can support both the livelihoods and food security for Pacific Islands fishing communities and a thriving global industry. To achieve both of these outcomes, nations must put politics aside and focus on putting science-based management in place to rebuild tuna populations to a level that can support sustainable harvesting by all users now and for the future.

Specific outcomes we’d like to see:

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and our fishing partners in the region have identified three important decisions the Commission can make this week to set the course for thriving tuna populations.

1. Improve management and monitoring of longline fishing activities. Monitoring of longline fishing activities in the Western and Central Pacific is extremely limited, currently less than 5% of fishing trips carry human observers. The lack of monitoring prevents transparency in the fishery, creating opportunities for illegal and unreported fishing activities, poor treatment of crew and illegal shark finning. EDF, along with other environmental organizations working in the region, are advocating for the Commission to move towards 100% monitoring of longline fishing activities and a review and eventual strengthening of the measure that manages the movement of fish between fishing vessels, known as transshipment.

2. Advance work plan to achieve sustainable tuna stocks. A work plan to develop harvest strategies for these species was adopted in 2015, but is facing delays in implementation. Our goal is for the Commission to reinvigorate their efforts to translate this plan into practice to ensure sustainability of these key stocks. The harvest strategies approach would allow for more nimble responses to changes in the health of important species and ensure management decisions are driven by shared and agreed upon goals.

3. Support the establishment of specific management goals, known as reference points, for the Southern Albacore tuna fishery. Specifically we hope to see the Commission adopt a “target reference point” (TRP), which is the level of albacore abundance at which fishing countries will work together to maintain over the long-term. This will ensure catch and effort in the fishery are sustainable and take into account the socioeconomic needs and rights of the Pacific Islands.

The Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association (PITIA), which works directly with Pacific Islands fishers sees the adoption of a TRP by the Commission as a key component for the vitality of its industry members.  “We all have a shared goal of ensuring sustainable fisheries,” said John Maefiti, Executive Officer of PITIA. “At present the stock isn’t large enough to support the Pacific Island communities and industry that depend on this fishery. Adopting a TRP for the Southern Pacific Albacore fishery can help rebuild it to economically viable levels again for the tuna industry. These management measures will not only make the Pacific Island fleets more profitable, but the fleets from distant water nations more profitable as well.”

We will be actively engaged at the meeting this week, watching for the Commission members to make the right decisions for tuna management and looking forward to continued engagement with stakeholders in the region. There’s too much at stake for us to not act now.

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By EDF Oceans

You may not have it on your calendar – but today is World Fisheries Day – a moment to celebrate the incredible bounty that we receive from the sea. It’s also an opportunity to take stock and reflect on where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. As we look back over the past year, the EDF Oceans team has been struck by how much the global oceans community has accomplished. And we’re increasingly optimistic and energized about the future health and resilience of our oceans. Here are five reasons for hope on World Fisheries Day.

1) We can rebuild global fisheries despite warming oceans. New research conducted by EDF and our partners shows that climate change will adversely impact fisheries, including shifts in stocks due to warming waters. This research demonstrates that urgent action taken now  to sustainably manage fisheries, along with action to mitigate climate change, can significantly reduce the adverse impacts and enable fisheries to be healthy and productive. With this research completed, EDF is uniquely positioned to move from awareness to action by developing on-the-water solutions to create climate resiliency in fisheries. See more here.

2) Indonesian province commits to sustainable fisheries. A major reform effort to make one of Indonesia’s most valuable fisheries more sustainable received a significant boost when officials from the Province of Lampung adopted a transformational management plan for its blue swimming crab (BSC) fishery. EDF worked with local officials to create this plan, which is the first in Indonesia to empower local stakeholders like fishers, processors and supply chain workers in the decision-making process. The plan will help protect a major source of one of the nation’s most lucrative export fisheries. Blue swimming crab in Indonesia generates more than $300 million in economic activity a year and is a source of income for thousands of Indonesians. In addition to protecting 230 square miles of juvenile crab habitat and limits on the use of damaging fishing gear, the plan requires small-scale fishers to register and commit to sustainability measures. Local leaders hope that this progress will serve as an example and help other fisheries leaders in the country and region adopt sustainable practices in their own waters. Learn more about this announcement here.

3) Increasing the abundance of fish can help coral reefs be more resilient to plastic and other pollution. New research published in Science provided the first quantitative assessment of damage caused by plastic pollution to coral reef health. This study estimated that there are more than 11 billion plastic items on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region, and that number is expected to grow. So what is the good news? According to EDF’s Chief Oceans Scientist, and co-author of the paper, Doug Rader, we can help mitigate threats to corals by addressing problems like overfishing. “If we increase the abundance of fish, we can improve the health of coral ecosystems. While fighting overfishing does not directly undo disease risks caused by plastic… [it could] help offset damage done to individual corals.” The conclusions of this study are a call to action for policies reducing plastic pollution, limiting emissions and ending overfishing. Find out more here.

4) New investment guidelines for sustainable wild-caught fisheries. EDF, Meloy Fund, and Encourage Capital launched the Principles for Investment in Sustainable Fisheries at this year’s World Ocean Summit. These Principles are meant to guide fisheries investment, driving capital into scaling sustainable fisheries. Although billions of public and private dollars are invested in fisheries every year, often sustainability is neither the driver nor the intended outcome of these investments. With these Principles, we have a better opportunity to solve global overfishing and food security problems. At the time of their launch in March, the Principles had 16 entities signed on as supporters. Since then, the list has increased to 24 and is still growing. Learn more about these Principles here.

5) A win-win outcome for fishermen on the U.S. West Coast. Thanks to the hard work and collaboration of fishermen, managers and conservationists including EDF, the Pacific Fishery Management Council permanently protected roughly 136,000 square miles of ocean habitat while opening 2,739 square miles of previously closed fishing grounds that have now been found suitable for fishing. This win-win outcome was made possible after the fishery adopted a catch share program in 2011, resulting in an 80% reduction in wasteful discarding and stocks being rebuilt, some years ahead of schedule. The new system, which includes 100% accountability, strongly incentivized fishermen to avoid overfished species which allowed formerly established closures designed to protect overfished species to be reopened. Find out more about this collaborative effort here.

These five examples make it clear that we have a lot to celebrate this World Fisheries Day. But there is still a lot of work to do. We need urgent action when it comes to fisheries management, climate change, pollution prevention and more. EDF Oceans will continue to advocate for smart and effective solutions with our fishermen, scientists and other partners. We look forward to another year of ocean opportunities, and will work hard to have even more to celebrate next World Fisheries Day.

Photo Credits:
1) John Mimikakis
2) Thata Kurniawan
3) Alamy Richard Whitcombe
4) Carlos Aguilera
5) John Rae

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By Kendra Karr

Coral reefs play many important roles for marine ecosystems and communities, including for biodiversity, fishing, recreation and tourism. They are a source of livelihoods to communities all over the world. Their beauty and ecological importance inspire citizen scientists globally to get involved in reef health monitoring and projects that help ocean ecosystems.

However, coral reefs worldwide face an uncertain future, with many reefs reportedly transitioning from being dominated by corals, to being dominated by macroalgae. This transition threatens all of those who depend on healthy coral ecosystems around the world. This new research, which I contributed to, reveals that we may have more opportunities to save corals than previously thought.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports and developed by a number of leading research organizations, including the University of California Santa Barbara, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and EDF, builds on what is already known about coral reefs, and how they work, based on decades of existing research. Insights from past studies such as how reductions in fish population can affect the basic processes that keep coral reefs healthy, and how managing fisheries is crucial for maintaining healthy coral reef communities, helped inform this new study, and further scientists’ collective understanding of coral reefs.

Previous approaches to managing coral health were limited to identifying coral reefs as either being healthy, bleached or dead. Imagine doctors being as limited in their ability to diagnose our illnesses. This study provides a complete picture of all the phases that coral reefs could exist in.

The researchers identified five unique phases for coral reefs across the Hawaiian Islands where the study took place. These phases ranged from having high coral cover and high fish biomass to having low coral cover and low fish biomass, with scenarios varying in between. These newly identified phases give scientists a better understanding of the health of coral reefs, and can help determine more effective management to aid the recovery of these essential ecosystems.

The analysis presented in the study is based on scuba surveys carried out over a large spatial and temporal scale. Divers observed the makeup of the coral reef and the fish present for a total of 3,345 unique sites across the main Hawaiian Islands. By combining fish and coral reef habitat into communities, these five reef phases capture complex dynamics; offering new opportunities to monitor reef change and guiding ecosystem-based management of coral.

What’s exciting about this report is that these five phases have the potential to be used by fishery managers and citizen scientists around the world as a tool to understand the coral reefs that support local fisheries. With some simple information, people who care about reefs can understand how to be part of the solution. For example, many citizen scientists groups offer resources to help citizens get involved. This can be in the form of training for species and data collection, or even showing citizens how to use and interpret summary tools like the phases in this study.

Collecting data is a powerful way for citizen scientists to get involved, even if they are not the ones analyzing the data they collect. In many cases citizen scientists can give their data to other institutions for analysis. In Hawaii, the data collected by citizen scientists can help classify coral reefs along one of the 5 phases identified in this study. Being involved in the scientific process gives these citizen scientists more information about their coral reef ecosystems, and allows them to be better advocates for their health.

We are often confronted with dire news about the state of coral reefs. What’s important to remember is that while an overall pattern of significant losses is clear, not all reefs are declining, and many are in recovery. These tools and phases may be able to help assess the health of the ecosystem and how management can improve recovery, even when data is limited.

We know that even small shifts in environmental conditions can bring about large, sometimes abrupt changes, or tipping points, in an ecosystem. With the right guidance, we can identify and avoid abrupt changes to ocean ecosystems that threaten coral reefs.

What’s more, even reefs identified as being negatively impacted by issues like bleaching, overfishing and storm impacts can recover. However, for this to happen we need more management, and more participation from informed coral advocates around the globe.

Citizen scientists can use studies like this to improve their understanding of the current state of the coral reefs they care about. With these new insights, combined with their own knowledge, they can more effectively advocate for coral management and resiliency.

It is our hope that citizen scientists and coral enthusiasts around the world use this study to participate in monitoring coral reef phases anywhere – whether it’s monitoring coral reef communities in their own backyard, or in new areas they are passionate about.

Want to get involved? Check out the study and the Ocean Tipping Points project, and get in touch with questions or ideas. Global coral reefs need your help and personal knowledge now more than ever!

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