Tag Archives: fishing

LED-equipped fishing nets help protect wildlife from unintentional captures

Green light-emitting diode (LED) lights can help protect wildlife from fishing nets, new research reports.

Image credits Paul Lee.

Affixing green LED lights to fishing nets can significantly reduce the catch of nontargeted animals such as sharks, squids, or turtles, according to a team led by researchers from the Arizona State University. The addition of these lights doesn’t impact the quantity or quality of desired catch species (i.e. commercially-available fish), which helps raise confidence that fisheries will adopt the measure. That being said, the installation of these lights comes with a significant upfront cost per net, which many fisheries may not be able to afford.

Beyond practical concerns, however, the findings showcase that it is possible to maintain our current fishing efficiency while insulating species that aren’t desired from capture.

Lights in the deep

Coastal fisheries routinely use gillnets, devices that resemble chain-link fences, to capture fish. These nets are deployed for up to several days at a time and capture virtually every kind of marine wildlife that cannot fit through their holes. Undesired captures (“bycatch”) are tossed overboard once the nets are recovered. These animals experience very high rates of death following this, adding up to significant pressure on marine species such as dolphins and sea turtles. It also impacts the fisheries’ bottom line, as personnel waste time removing these animals from the nets.

In other words, both business and nature lose out from the use of gillnets.

John Wang, a marine ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and his colleagues previously designed illuminated nets in order to protect turtles from becoming bycatch, back in 2016. Turtles seem to be particularly good at noticing green light, and these nets cut down on turtle bycatch by 64%. The current study builds on those findings, examining whether other marine animals could benefit from the same idea.

It turns out, they would. The authors worked with small-scale grouper and halibut fisheries in Baja California, Mexico, as the area is known for its large populations of turtles and other large marine species. They deployed 28 pairs of nets, one of each being equipped with groups of green LED lights every 10 meters. The team gauged their efficiency by identifying and weighing the animals each net captured overnight.

Nets outfitted with lights captured 63% less bycatch overall. Per species, they reduced bycatch by 51% for turtles, 81% for squid, and 95% for elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) — the last one being the most “gratifying” result for the authors, as shark bycatch in the Gulf of California is “a huge issue”.

Fish capture was not affected by the lights. However, the LEDs cut down on time wasted by fishermen on hauling and unloading bycatch, and on untangling the nets, by half. The only drawback so far, according to Senko, is the upfront installation costs of the lights: around $140 per net. Some fisheries, especially those in poorer areas such as Indonesia and the Caribbean, simply can’t afford this price per net, they add. The team is toying with using fewer lights and having them be solar-powered rather than battery-powered to reduce some of these costs. Meeting the needs of fisheries is essential for the success of this project, as they are the ones who will decide on using the LED nets or not.

Exactly why some animals seem to avoid lights, and why they do so more than others, is still up for debate. While it is possible that some species’ better eyesight helps them perceive the lights more clearly, it’s very unlikely that this is the cause — any species with sight can see these lights, after all.

The paper “Net illumination reduces fisheries bycatch, maintains catch value, and increases operational efficiency” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers create bizarre floating gadget that could save millions of seabirds

Imagine you’re a long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis). You see a small, delicious fish in the water and you dive towards it, looking for a tasty meal. But just as you catch it in your beak, you hit a wall of near-invisible netting, meeting the same fate as the fish you’re trying to eat.

Far from being a hypothetical scenario, this is a danger that many seabirds face every day — because of something gillnets.

Image credit: BirdLife International

Gillnets are vertical sheets of netting held up by floating buoys that trap passing fish by the gills. They’re made of monofilament nylon that is practically invisible underwater. This material is widespread in fisheries around the world, and particularly popular among small-scale fishers because of its low cost.

Unfortunately, these nets pose a high risk of entanglement to many marine animals, including diving seabirds foraging nearby. To date, a universally effective solution has not been identified to mitigate bycatch in gillnet fisheries, despite an estimated 400,000 seabirds being by-caught in gillnet fisheries each year (and that’s a conservative estimate).

Studies suggest that technical measures, such as LED lights, can reduce seabird bycatch in gillnet fisheries. However, these studies only focused on a few species in specific geographical areas. The universal best practice to minimize bycatch is to spatially or temporally exclude gillnet fishing from specific areas or at specific times, but fishermen don’t really like that as they feel it could limit their yield.

It’s time for a new approach, then.

Researchers went back to the drawing board, asking simple questions: What do dive seabirds see? How do they forage? What do they avoid? With the help of animal behavioral ecologists and tracking data, they realized the answer could lie in preventing birds from coming near the gillnets at all.

An unexpected solution

A team of bird conservation researchers in the United Kingdom developed a floating buoy that displays large, obvious looming eyes and that can be seen from a long way off. As the buoy bobs in the water, the tall pole sways conspicuously, and the eyes rotate in the wind. They called it the Looming-eyes buoy (LEB), or simply “The Bobby.”

The looming eyes have been shown to trigger “collision neurons” in bird brains that prevent them from running into objects or each other, the researchers explained. They adapted the size and contrast of the cartoon eyes to be detectable by Canada geese (Branta canadensis), which have some of the worst eyesight of all seabirds.

Since last year, researchers have been working to test the effect of this new device on birds out at sea. They did trials in the Küdema Bay protected area, off the Estonian island of Saaremaa. The bay attracts large concentrations of wintering seabirds, including the Long-tailed Duck and Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri).

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

The researchers counted birds for four hours a day, before and after placing the LEBs during the 62-day study period. The number of long-tailed ducks dropped by up to 25% within a 50-meter radius of each LEB. And the effect was long-lasting. Only after two or three weeks, the birds began to swim closer to the buoys.

“There have been many, many attempts to try to find a solution. Nothing seemed to work across different fisheries and species, so we wanted to try something different, and explore something that will work above the water, instead of underwater,” Yann Rouxel at the BirdLife International Marine Programme in the UK, told The Guardian.

It’s a simple and cheap solution that could realistically be deployed to reduce bird bycatch and save scores of them every year.

The findings of the LEB tests were published in a paper in the journal Royal Society of Open Science.

Pirate attacks are more frequent in areas with harmful fishing practices

A new study finds that pirate attacks occur more frequently in areas where destructive or illegal fishing practices happen, and enforcing sustainable fishing practices could eliminate the incentive for piracy.

A Japanese patrol boat and an illegal Chinese fishing boat. Image credits: 人事院.

In the broadest sense, piracy is any violent or predatory act committed by the crew or the passengers of a ship on the high seas. It’s a problem many may not even be aware of, is still a bane in some parts of the world, and it’s not just a local problem — it has international consequences as well.

“Negative global impacts consist of increasing the costs of (and therefore deterring) international maritime trade through loss of cargo, higher protection or insurance costs, re-routings, ransoms, etc. Locally, piracy can exacerbate corruption, lawlessness, and overall criminal activity including drug smuggling, human trafficking, etc.,” says lead author Raj Desai in an email to ZME Science.

Piracy is strongly associated with weak governance. When regulation is either missing or ineffective, it favors the creation of pirate groups. Enforcing laws on the high seas is never an easy task, but for developing countries with limited resources, it’s an even tougher challenge.

In the new study, Desai and George Shambaugh of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. found that piracy is linked to something else: illegal or harmful fishing practices.

“Weak governance and state fragility definitely create a favorable environment for piracy, particularly if that weakness leads to poorly enforcement within territorial waters. However, we find that harmful and illegal fishing practices–in particular, practices that lead to high bycatch or that are habitat-destroying–exert a first-order, independent effect on the likelihood of piracy.”

The researchers suspected some potential connection between small-scale fishers and piracy. It makes sense: for them, harmful and illegal fishing (often conducted by foreign industrial fishing fleets) can be a direct threat to their livelihoods leading them down the road of piracy, says Desai.

“Indeed, the species that artisanal fisheries rely upon are often species that are part of the “bycatch” from industrial fishing. Moreover, small-scale fisheries are a major source of employment and income to coastal (and sometimes even inland) communities already facing vulnerabilities due to, e.g., climate change. “

“In addition, fishermen have skills valued by pirate gangs. Consequently, fishers may themselves turn to piracy both to smooth income losses and to deter foreign fleets.”

Maritime piracy, 2005-2014. Piracy incidents from the consolidated ASAM-GISIS database, overlaid with a 1° × 1° gridded-cell layer. A: 2005-2009. B: 2010-2014. Image credits: Desai et al, PLOS ONE 2021

Sea Mafia

To put their hypothesis to the test, the researchers divided the world’s oceans into 1 degree-by-1 degree cells, looking at links between illegal fishing practices and piracy incidents between 2005 and 2014. Their analysis also accounted for the increased likelihood of piracy in some locations due to proximity to areas already experiencing piracy.

While establishing a causal relationship is difficult, there does seem to be a link between illegal or harmful fishing practices and piracy. Greater incidence of piracy was associated unreported and unregulated fishing, but not with coastal drought or population density.

It is reasonable that, threatened by illegal industrial fishing, small-scale fishers take to piracy to defend their livelihoods. This bears some similarities to other, land-based practices, where illegal practices spur other reactive illegal practices (such as the Mafia). Whether or not this is actually lucrative for fishers is not clear at this point.

“As with all illegal activities, piracy can also increase the wealth in areas that benefit from pirates fencing their goods or distributing rents. Opinion is divided with respect to how much pirates engage in “Robin Hood”-like behavior and, at present, we do not have much information on the microeconomics of maritime piracy. However there is some evidence that Somali piracy may have boosted economies in certain coastal areas. Moreover, piracy may also function–similar to the Mafia–as a substitute for state enforcement of fishing rights, where actual state enforcement is weak or missing.”

Breaking the pattern

The problem, just like with the Mafia, is that the appeal of the practice is clear — if your livelihood is threatened by illegal vessels and no one comes in to help, the appeal of a local pirate force can become appealing. If fishermen are turning to piracy to deter foreign fleets then if we truly want to reduce piracy, addressing illegal fishing seems like a good way to go about things. Regulating illegal fishing is a good first step, but hardly enough.

“Most bilateral and multilateral efforts have focused principally on anti-piracy enforcement measures, namely interdiction. For example, the Southern African Development Community’s maritime security strategy is heavily focused on increasing naval presence, joint patrols, military exercises, and surveillance. This is certainly vital, but much more should be done. Additionally, more livelihoods-focused efforts in vulnerable coastal communities is required.”

“What is often missing from these efforts is some integrated approach to limiting the appeal of piracy—by policing illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing, as well as destructive practices that can deplete fish stocks.”

Desai recalls that something similar happened in Somalia. Somali piracy has essentially accomplished its purpose: driving away foreign fishing fleets. Similar trends were observed in other parts of Africa. But after piracy dropped and fish stocks recovered, foreign fleets returned, which led to an uptick in piracy.

“This suggests that piracy will likely be a cyclical phenomenon unless the pattern can be broken,” Desai concludes.

Journal Reference:  Desai RM, Shambaugh GE (2021) Measuring the global impact of destructive and illegal fishing on maritime piracy: A spatial analysis. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0246835.

Endangered fish species are legally being sold as seafood

We might unwittingly be eating endangered fish species as part of our diet, according to a new study which found that almost 100 endangered species that are being sold as seafood across the globe — legally. The researchers warn that the problem could be even greater than we believe, and called to keep endangered species off the menu.

Credit Flickr Llee_Wu

A team from the University of Queensland looked at records between 2006 and 2014 and found 92 endangered and 11 critically endangered species of seafood where caught and sold, 13 of them internationally. When sold, they aren’t required to be labeled according to species, so consumers don’t know what they are eating.

While the numbers are worrying, they are only a snapshot of the real problem, the researchers warned. In the study, they only looked at reported catch and imports and didn’t look into illegal and unreported fishing. They also excluded groups of fish such as rays or sharks, a popular meal in Australia, Europe, and Asia.

“Species that aren’t cute like whales or sea turtles often don’t end up getting the protection they deserve,” first author Leslie Roberson told ScienceAlert. “Despite national and international commitments to protect threatened species, we actively fish for many of these threatened species.”

The expansion of seafood

Seafood is an important source of protein for billions of people globally, with over 80 million tons of marine animals taken from the ocean annually for consumption. Fishing is the primary driver of declines in marine biodiversity. One-third of fished stocks are exploited at biologically unsustainable levels.

Some populations of threatened fish and invertebrates are closely monitored using fisheries stock assessments. Nevertheless, they are treated differently than other wild animals and are allowed to be caught in industrial fisheries, regardless of the species’ global conservation status.

“While we have yet to fish a widely abundant marine fish or invertebrate species to extinction, we have fished populations or stocks to local or functional extinctions, such as totoaba in Mexico, sturgeons in Europe, and white abalone in California. Many stock collapses have been small, short-lived species, proving that slow-growing and long-lived animals are not the only ones at risk,” the researchers wrote.

The study found European countries play a central role in driving the exploitation of threatened fish and invertebrates. Nevertheless, developed countries with greater monitoring and management capacity tend to have higher resolution catch and import records, which likely leads to more records of threatened species.

Solutions ahead

There are some ways to untangle the mess we’re creating in the world’s oceans, the researchers argued. Consumers should be able to purchase seafood from a well-managed stock that is secure on a global scale. But this would require changing the structure of the seafood supply chain, as its currently very difficult to make informed purchases.

At the same time, the traceability of species across the seafood supply should be improved. The researchers argued it’s possible and cost-effective to identify an animal and trace it to the consumer using emerging technologies such as electronic monitoring, DNA testing, code tags, blockchain, data mining, and artificial intelligence.

“Efforts to preserve marine biodiversity and maintain viable ecosystems will fail if we focus only on charismatic species or individual stocks. We need to treat fish and invertebrates as wild marine animals as well as seafood commodities, better align conservation assessments and fisheries management frameworks, and reduce fishing pressure that is pushing species towards extinction,” the study concluded.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Chinese fishing fleet threatens Galapagos wildlife

Hundreds of Chinese vessels have been fishing for weeks in the exclusive economic zone of the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago off the Pacific coast of Ecuador. This has authorities, scientists, and conservationists alarmed over the effects they would have on some of the local wildlife.

Credit Flickr Pedro Szekely (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Galapagos Islands, a World Heritage site whose wildlife helped Charles Darwin come up with the theory of evolution, are known for their abundance of indigenous species such as Darwin’s finches, a group of passerine birds, and the massive Galapagos tortoise.

The Chinese ships, which are also accompanied by ships from other countries such as Liberia or Panama, are in a corridor of international waters that separates the two areas of Ecuadorian jurisdiction: 200 miles that surround the Galapagos Islands and another 200 miles stretching from the mainland.

The surface area monitored and controlled by Ecuador totals a million kilometers but it is split in half and it is right in that corridor of the high seas where the fishing fleet that threatens marine species has settled. This situation is repeated every year. Last year, Ecuador detected the presence of 245 Chinese fishing vessels.

One of the most emblematic cases of illegal fishing in the world still remains in the memory of many Ecuadorians. That’s the case of the Chinese ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 that was intercepted by the Ecuadorian navy in 2017 within the Galapagos Marine Reserve and that hid 300 tons of sharks inside.

The presence of the Chinese fleet was detected in mid-July but in the last few weeks, the matter has escalated to the diplomatic plane. Ecuador sent warnings to China through local embassies and also started talks with neighboring countries such as Chile and Colombia, also recently affected by the fishing fleet.

“This is not something that will change overnight,” said Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Luis Gallegos in a television interview on Sunday. “It is necessary to … generate bilateral agreements with other countries with regards to illegal fishing, to monitor every ship that’s in the South Pacific.”

The United States also recently weighed into the dispute, siding with Ecuador. “It is time for China to stop its unsustainable fishing practices, rule-breaking, and willful environmental degradation of the oceans,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said on Twitter.

The main objective of the Chinese fleet is to catch giant squid (Dosidicus gigas). While this is not illegal as it takes place in international waters, environmental activists in Ecuador say it allows fleets to take advantage of the abundant marine species that spillover from the islands and cross into the unprotected waters.

There are more than 30 species of sharks living in Galapagos, some of which are threatened with extinction, such as the Endangered whale shark (Rhincodon typus) or the Critically Endangered hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). Many of them constantly move between the islands and the mainland.

The high seas, also called international waters, cover 41% of the planet and 60% of all the oceans on Earth. However, there is almost no law that sets rules about how much, how, what and when to fish here. That’s why environmentalists are asking for a global treaty that sets a framework for conserving biodiversity in the high seas.

A fine kettle of fish: how COVID-19 is impacting fishing enthusiasts, industry

All areas of life are affected by the pandemic, even some most of us don’t really give that much thought to on a regular basis — like fishing.

Image credits: Greysen Johnson.

I’m not personally invested in fishing. I only tried it once and all I caught was a fierce sunburn.

But I do find it interesting that while we discuss measures taken or to be taken in social life, commercial areas, and industry on a daily basis, we tend to miss on a lot happening behind the curtain in niche areas. Fishing is one such arena.

Quarantines in mysterious places

First off, let’s start with fishing for sport.

According to The Guardian, “anglers, game shooting enthusiasts and bowls clubs are increasing the pressure for the lockdown to be eased for their sports,” arguing that the time is right for restrictions on their favorite pastimes to be lifted.

According to Onthewater, most states in the US (with some exceptions — check your local laws and guidelines) “are encouraging fishermen to spend time on the water, as long as they are being safe and following local regulations and guidelines”. While the law in most places doesn’t explicitly forbid you from going fishing, common-sense decisions such as staying home if you’re feeling sick, maintaining social distancing on the road and on the water, wearing a mask, and not touching your face, still apply.

While each state has its own flavor of guidelines (Onthewater has a useful rundown you can check), a few stand out as particularly helpful in the wider context of the epidemic. The state of Vermont, for example, advises people not to engage in activities further than 10 miles away from their home — meant to prevent spreading the virus around. Rhode Island offers similar advice, while also adding that people should try to boat only with people in their immediate household. Massachusetts uses a heavier hand, telling people not to share a boat unless everyone can keep at least 6 feet apart. Maryland, while allowing fishing as a recreational activity, says no more than 10 people are allowed on a boat at the same time, and they should all be residing in the same property.

Vermont cautions that people coming into the state even for recreational activities such as fishing will need to stay in quarantine for 14 days, and other states might have similar measures set in place. In Maryland, fishing competitions are still prohibited, as to not gather crowds.

In the UK, where fishing is considered a non-essential sport, the idea is more frowned-upon. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on May 10th that “individual sports such as golf and fishing” will “now be allowed”, according to CityAM. Australia has also re-allowed fishing since May 1st.

As a word of warning, aerosols from polluted waters may be able to infect you with the coronavirus, so wear a mask and follow all other guidelines against the virus even when you’re on the high seas (or a modest pond). Especially if there are lots of people around.

Quarantines on the high seas

While angling enthusiasts might not be particularly thrilled that they’ve been barred from their hobby up to now, commercial fishers are still struggling.

Restaurants and the foodservice business have been some of the hardest-hit sectors as people eat at home and tourism dried up completely. Fisheries that relied on them for a large part of their income are struggling to stay afloat. Oyster and shellfish farms are also finding it hard to make ends meet.

Ian Gilbert, a UK commercial skipper, told the BBC that the only options most producers now have to sell their goods are “fishmongers and the general public”. This mismatch between demand and supply has caused prices to “plummet”, he adds, further compounding the issue. One oyster farmer cited by the BBC has had to completely stop production, going from five tons a week to zero as there is no demand.

“Workers in Dorset’s sea fishing industry say it is struggling to survive the coronavirus lockdown,” wrote BBC two weeks ago.

Image credits: Johannes Plenio.

It’s not just restaurants closing that led to a drop in demand for fish. They may be the main buyers of seafood, but many people in many different sectors of the economy have lost their jobs, which further reduced demand.

Transportation is also more difficult, both due to restrictions imposed by authorities and by companies reducing activity or going out of business entirely. The International Transport Forum reports that “mobility restrictions to contain Covid-19 could reduce global freight transport by up to 36% by the end of 2020”. As such companies go under, they drive up costs, proving that chance does have a sense of humor, but a rather dark one.

There are, as in any other workplace, steps that need to be taken aboard fishing ships and the installations which support them to ensure safe working conditions. The Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center has a repository of useful materials to help captains and industry implement such steps here.

The EU has also approved emergency funds for the fishing industry to help it survive during the pandemic.

Overall, fishing as a hobby is slowly getting back to its feet and fishing as an industry is still struggling — it will likely be a while before you can take your fishing or hunting fanny pack and resume normal activity.

Only the fish are doing better

If there is one silver lining to the economic fallout and the personal struggles people in affected sectors are going through, is that at least natural ecosystems have had a chance to partially recover.

The Japan Times notes that the drop in demand is “likely to create an effect similar to the halt of commercial fishing during both world wars, when the idling of fleets led to the rebound of fish stocks”.

It’s deeply tragic that bad weather for us humans is the only thing that’s allowing marine environments to recover. However, hopefully the experience of this pandemic will help us find new ways to enjoy seafood without having to fish the oceans barren and that provide more job security.

Alternatives like aquaculture may prove to be more cost-effective and resilient in the face of natural disasters or disease.

Where is fishing headed?

Fishing is extremely sensitive to changes in international trade patterns, political relations, and environmental factors. In this regard, aquaculture brings unique benefits to the table, such as more stable supply chains and more easily-controlled (and safer) working conditions. However, it is not without its flaws.

“As a result of the drop in demand, and resulting price drops, capture fishery production in some countries has been brought to a halt or significantly reduced, which may positively influence wild fish stocks in the short term,” reports the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation.

“In aquaculture, there is growing evidence that unsold produce will result in an increase of live fish stocks, and therefore higher costs for feeding as well as greater risk of fish mortalities.

The report further notes that “small-scale aquaculture and fish farming operators in areas where fish imports are important may benefit from reduced competition, especially if they can secure retail markets” in the context of this epidemic. So there is a chance we will see a long-term shift towards fish farming and aquaculture at the expense of wild capture, especially as the industry struggles to bear the economic toll of the virus.

How the foodservice and transport industries recover after the pandemic will have a significant impact on the way the fishing industry fares.

The way heavy industry, in particular steel production and shipwrights, adapt to the post-epidemic world will also influence whether we see a shift away from wild capture and towards fish farming. The manufacturing of ships and maritime equipment has been particularly hard-hit by the epidemic, as these industries directly depend on global economic trends, trade volumes, and market sentiments — all of which have taken a significant hit. The European shipbuilding sector has already called for aid, so the cards are still pretty much in the air.

Fishing as a hobby isn’t likely to change significantly in the future — it’s always been a more solitary pursuit, enjoyed in the great outdoors, and politicians are unlikely to want to upset their voting bases when there are much larger fish to fry with the pandemic.

The most significant changes here are likely to come from shifts in patterns of personal mobility, as people might focus on local fishing grounds to avoid quarantines or spreading disease. Do wear a mask and wash your hands while doing it, however — it never hurts to err on the side of caution.

Deep-water fishery makes a comeback in a rare conservation success story

Successful environmental stories are something rare to find, especially during the current climate crisis. But there is one happening on the west coast of the United States that is worth telling.

Two decades after authorities banned their work in large parts of the Pacific Ocean due to species’ depletion, bottom trawler fishermen – those who fish deep-dwelling fish such as bocaccio using nets – are returning by reinventing themselves in a sustainable way.

On January 1st, authorities will reopen a fishing area three times the size of Rhode Island near Oregon and California. Groundfish bottom trawling will again be authorized to work, even with the approval of environmental groups that used to question the activity.

The success story comes after a long collaboration between fishermen and environmental groups. They developed a long-term plan that will allow the groundfish industry to make a comeback, while also protecting large areas of reefs and coral beds that benefit the overfished species.

“It’s really a conservation home run,” said Shems Jud, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s ocean program. “The recovery is decades ahead of schedule. It’s the biggest environmental story that no one knows about.”

The initiative was also celebrated by conservationists focused on the deep-water habitats, an area now not explored by bottom trawlers. According to the agreement between fishermen and environmentalists, there will be an area of the ocean 3.4km deep that will be off-limits to bottom trawling.

“Not all fishermen are rapers of the environment. When you hear the word ‘trawler’, very often that’s associated with the destruction of the sea and pillaging,” said Kevin Dunn, whose trawler Iron Lady was featured in a Whole Foods television commercial about sustainable fishing.

Groundfish refers to dozens of species that live on or near the bottom of the Pacific. Vessels use weighted nets to get as many fish as possible, but by doing so they can harm underwater habitat. Since the 1990s, scientists have been warning over the reduction of fish stocks, with nine of the more than 90 groundfish species in trouble.

Regulators soon took action, assigning quotes to trawlers on the amount of each species they could catch. Fishermen learn which areas to avoid and started innovating to net fewer banned fish. Surveys showed a rebound in groundfish and an 80% decline in accidental trawling of overfished species.

The success of the quota system led to revived conversations between environmentalists and trawlers, as regulators were due to revisit the trawling rules. The two groups met more than 30 times and started working on a proposal, sharing information and knowledge.

This led to a plan being approved last year by regulators to reopen the Rockfish Conservation area near Oregon and California and ban future trawling in extreme-depth waters, also making off-limits certain habitats that are considered essential for fish reproduction.

“A fair number of fishermen thought it was a good deal and if it was going to happen, it was better for them to participate than not,” said Tom Libby, a fish processor who played a big role in the agreement. “It’s right up there with the best and most rewarding things in my career – and I’ve been at it 50 years.“

The fishermen will now have to work to increase consumer demand for a fish that hasn’t been available in grocery stores and restaurant menus for a generation. They will be able to harvest as much as 54 million kilograms per year, according to the new scheme.

Oceans are filled up with abandoned fishing gear, report warns

Deadly to marine life, fishing gear either lost or abandoned by crews represent the majority of the plastic pollution in the oceans, according to a new report by Greenpeace, which draws on the most up-to-date research on “ghost gear” polluting the oceans.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The NGO said more than 640,000 tonnes of nets, lines, pots, and traps used in commercial fishing are dumped and discarded in the sea every year, the same weight as 55,000 double-decker buses.

The new data should be a push to international action to stop plastic pollution deadly to wildlife, Greenpeace said. One of the most recent examples is the death of 300 sea turtles last year due to the entanglement in ghost gear off the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Louisa Casson, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian: “Ghost gear is a major source of ocean plastic pollution and it affects marine life in the UK as much as anywhere else. The world’s governments must take action to protect our global oceans.”

Nets and lines can pose a threat to wildlife for years or decades, ensnaring everything from small fish and crustaceans to endangered turtles, seabirds and even whales, according to the report. Lost and discarded fishing gear is now drifting to Arctic coastlines, washing up on remote Pacific islands.

Up to 10% of ocean plastic pollution is made up by ghost gear, which forms the majority of large plastic littering the waters. One study found that as much as 70% (by weight) of microplastics (in excess of 20cm) found floating on the surface of the ocean was fishing related.

At the same time, a recent study of the “great Pacific garbage patch, an area of plastic accumulation in the north Pacific, estimated that it contained 42,000 tonnes of megaplastics, of which 86% was fishing nets.

Greenpeace said ghost gear was particularly prevalent from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, but overcrowded fisheries also contributed to the problem. “Poor regulation and slow political progress in creating ocean sanctuaries that are off-limits to industrial fishing allow this problem to exist and persist,” the report said.

As a solution to the current problematic, Greenpeace is calling for the UN treaty to provide a comprehensive framework for marine protection, paving the way for a global network of ocean sanctuaries covering 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

Whales blow bubbly nets to help them fish — and we have it on camera

New research at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is shedding light on whales’ bubble-net fishing.

Cetaceans, the group that whales and dolphins are part of, are pretty smart creatures. We’ve known that they can use ‘nets’ to catch food — the animals dive deep and swim in a circle around their prey, blowing out bubbles as they do. The rising body of air traps fish in the middle. Other whales then simply have to swim up with their mouths open and cash in on the food with virtually zero effort.

Now, new research is showing what this process looks like from the perspective of the whales.

Like shooting fish in a barrel

“We have two angles. The drone’s perspective is showing us these bubble nets and how the bubbles are starting to come to the surface and how the animals come up through the bubble net as they surface, while the cameras on the whales are showing us the animal’s perspective,” said marine biologist Lars Bejder of the university’s Marine Mammal Research Program.

The study included members from the Alaska Whale Foundation, members of Stanford University’s Goldbogen Lab, and from the Bio-telemetry and Behavioral Ecology Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Together with Bejder and colleagues at UH Mānoa, they stuck cameras and accelerometers on whales using suction cups. The material was supplemented by drone footage of the behavior from above to create an “exciting” set of data, Bejder explains.

Migratory humpback whales spend their summer along Alaska’s coast before heading down to Hawaii for winter — where they’ll raise a new generation of whales. However, all that romance leaves little time for feeding (the humpbacks eat very little during their breeding period), so fat reserves need to be plumped up before the journey.

That’s where the bubble nets come into play. Whales could just swim around and filter krill the old fashioned way, but time is of the essence during winter. The bubble-fishing technique allows groups of whales to invest as little time and energy as possible while maximizing their caloric intake. It’s a win-win approach.

The team notes that the behavior is learned — the whales don’t instinctively engage in bubble fishing. Not all humpbacks hunt this way, they add, and there is a pretty wide range of variations in technique among those who do. However, it’s always a cooperative process, requiring groups of whales to work together to ensure that everyone has a chance at the buffet.

The team reports that the behavior has also been observed Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni) and bottlenose dolphins (genus Tursiops) off the coast of Florida. Instead of using bubbles, however, these groups of cetaceans engage in mud-ring feeding: this involves stirring up a ring of sediment in shallow waters to trap schools of fish.

This study was done in an effort to understand just what is going on with humpback whales. A ban on commercial whaling in 1985 saved the species from almost assured extinction and, while they have recovered somewhat, there has been a substantial decline in humpback whale sightings over the last five years, the researchers report. Some of the factors they are considering include changes to food populations, anthropogenic impacts on their habitat, and climate breakdown.

But, while the researchers ply their trade, we’re left with some awesome shots of whales doing whale things — of course no one’s complaining.

“The footage is rather groundbreaking,” Bejder said. “We’re observing how these animals are manipulating their prey and preparing the prey for capture. It is allowing us to gain new insights that we really haven’t been able to do before.”

Credit: Pixabay.

Number of fishing vessels doubles while fish stocks crumble

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

In the past 65 years, the number of fishing vessels casting their nets in the world’s oceans has more than doubled, from 1.7 million to 3.7 million. The problem is that this dramatic rise in fishing vessels hasn’t been followed by a boom in fish stocks — on the contrary. According to a new study, despite considerable advances in technology, there are now more vessels chasing fewer fish, highlighting the precarious state of the world’s fisheries.

Drops in a bucket

Yannick Rousseau, a graduate student studying fisheries ecology at the University of Tasmania, studied data from national registries, studies, and local reports in order to assess fishing in more than 100 countries. The researchers counted industrial fishing boats that can haul tons of fish at a time, motorized small-scale boats, as well as non-motorized small boats. At the end of the tally, the researchers found that the number of fishing vessels around the world has more than doubled. However, these ships need to use more resources to catch fish. According to the study, the “catch per unit of effort (CPUE)” — the amount of energy and resources required to catch fish — is abysmal. Compared to 1950, fishing boats today only catch 20% of the fish for the same amount of effort, the authors reported in the journal PNAS.

“What we have seen over the last 65 years is more and more fishing vessels chasing fewer fish,” Rousseau said.

“Since 1950 a dramatic increase in the size of the fishing fleet in Asia has more than off-setting small declines in North America and Western Europe.

“Most of the increase in vessel numbers has been in motorized fishing boats, a change from the unpowered ‘artisanal’ fishing vessels that once characterized Asian and African fishing fleets.

“But, despite its advanced technology and increased numbers, the modern motorized fleet is having to work much harder to catch fewer fish,” he said.

The sharpest drop in CPUE was registered in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Southern Mediterranea, indicating their fisheries expanded at a much faster rate than fish stocks could support. Meanwhile, the most effective fishery management practices are in Australia, where CPUE has stabilized over the last decade.

But despite this worrisome trend, researchers expect that even more fishing boats will sail in the future. These boats will be equipped with larger motors, allowing them to fish on the high seas where the remaining fish stocks are less affected.

“However, on current worldwide trends we can expect to see a further one-million vessels on the water by mid-century and the average engine power of the global fleet continues to increase,” Rousseau said.

“These changes will further challenge the sustainable use of fisheries resources in coming years.

Although overfishing has been extensively studied, authorities have been slow to react — and this could cause an irreversible collapse of the world’s fisheries. Previously, scientists found that fishing ships cast their nets on over 55% of the world’s oceans. Most modern fisheries partially rely on trawling – dragging huge nets across the seafloor in order to capture species of fish and crustaceans — which, as a side effect, is leveling the seafloor. Meanwhile, fish stocks are being threatened by climate change. One study estimates that increased temperatures shrank the number of fish hauled from the ocean by 4.1% between 1930 and 2010.

As many as 56 million people living in coastal and island countries depend on fish to support their livelihoods. Worldwide, fish make up 17% of our protein intake, according to the United Nations.

“This is a particular concern for populations in regions such as Southeast Asia, where a high proportion of people rely on  for sustenance.

“Our findings suggest that additional management measures are urgently warranted to ensure the future sustainability of global marine resources,” Rousseau said.

Shark numbers plummet by 92% in Australian waters

Often portrayed as a dangerous predator, the shark is suffering an unprecedented crisis.

Image credits: Terry Goss.

Sharks have been around for 425 million years — some 200 million years before dinosaurs emerged, and just before trees developed as a plant group. But their long tenure as apex predators might be coming to an end, at the hand of a regular culprit: humans.

It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed by people every year, due to commercial and recreational fishing, and the demand for shark meat continues to rise, which puts even more pressure on their populations. A new study used information from a shark control program set in Australia in 1960. They found that the overall size of sharks has decreased — but more worryingly, the number of sharks has also dropped dramatically, in some cases by over 90%.

“What we found is that large apex sharks such as hammerheads, tigers and white sharks, have declined by 74 to 92 per cent,” said Dr. George Roff from the University of Queensland, who led the study. “And the chance of zero catch – catching no sharks at any given beach per year – has increased by as much as sevenfold.”

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Finning” footer=””]Sharks are often killed for shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. Fishermen capture live sharks, remove their fins with a hot metal blade, and then dump them back in the water. These immobilised sharks soon succumb to suffocation or predators.[/panel]

Hammerhead sharks, like the one depicted here, are endangered. Image credits: suneko.

Scientists also acknowledge the irony that their data was provided by a shark control program, which is preventing the recovery of vulnerable species.

Shark culls have also been carried out in Australia, the most recent one starting in 2014. The policy was ultimately cancelled in 2017 after public uproar, but the Australian government plans to re-introduce drum lines to kill sharks, using “smart” drum lines (a drum line is an unmanned aquatic trap used to lure and capture large sharks with baited hooks). Worldwide, around 80 unprovoked attacks are reported per year. Keeping in mind that we, in turn, kill 100 million of them, this is a disproportionately low figure.

While sharks are generally depicted as dangerous to humans, they serve a very important role in oceanic ecosystems. As top predators, they help to keep the ecosystem “clean”. As their numbers continue to decline, the oceans will suffer unpredictable and devastating consequences.

“Overexploitation of large apex marine predators is widespread in the world’s oceans, yet the timing and extent of declines are poorly understood,” researchers conclude. “Ongoing declines and lack of recovery of vulnerable and protected shark species are a cause for concern.”

Like all oceanic creatures, sharks are also threatened by rising water temperatures, pollution, and habitat destruction (especially around coastlines).

Journal Reference: Roff et al, “Decline of coastal apex shark populations over the past half century”, Communications Biology.


Old fish don’t want to swim deep — but we’re fishing them all out of shallow waters

Our ocean-swimming friends like to go to deeper waters as they age — or so we thought. New research revealed that this process, which we considered a natural element of fish’s development cycles, is actually caused by human activity.


Image via Pixabay.

Older fish tend to dwell in deeper waters than younger members of the same species. This phenomenon is known in biology as Heincke’s Law, developed during the 1900’s based on observations of North Sea plaice and other species in the Atlantic such as cod, haddock, pollock, and some flatfishes.

Grow up, move down

As it is so widely-seen in all manner of fish species, biologists assumed that it’s something the scalies naturally do as part of their life-cycle — in other words, that this behavior is ontogenic in nature.

Heincke’s Law, however, has started to show cracks in later years. Several studies (for example L. Schumacher et al., 2017) have called the presumed link between age and usual depth into question. A new paper published by a team of Canadian researchers proposes that a different (and more worrying) factor is at play: us. Their theory is that all big fish are found in deeper waters because we fish out any that dares remain in shallow ones.

Several ideas were proposed in the past in an attempt to explain Heincke’s law. Older fish slink to deeper, colder waters where lower metabolic demands allow them to live longer, one stated. Another, that all fish like to live in shallow waters, but competition pushes older members off of this prime territory. Or, coming from the other direction, that all fish actually love deep waters — but younglings swim to the top in an effort to protect themselves from aggressive adults down below.

Not satisfied with any of these explanations, the team — composed of members from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth and Queen’s University, Kingston — set out to investigate. They started by reevaluating datasets of cod stocks in the Eastern Scotian Shelf (off the coast of Nova Scotia) from 1970 to 1989.

Correlation does not imply causality

They selected this species and period because cod-fishing has traditionally been a major industry in Canada. But, faced with freefalling stocks, the country imposed a moratorium on cod fishing in 1993 that’s still in effect to this day.

On first look, the records seem to support Heincke’s view — throughout the years covered in the dataset, larger cod were found in deeper and colder waters. However, the team then ran computer simulations tying the capture depth and mass of fish to mortality rates induced by fishing. When these simulations were fed with fishing rates taken from the dataset, the outcomes were consistent with how we’ve seen fish stocks and distribution evolve.

When fishing-induced mortality rates were increased, larger fish were progressively pushed deeper. When fishing rates were set to zero, there was no age-related distribution across different depths, the team reports.

The findings are lent further weight by real-life observations. Due to Canada’s moratorium, no cod fishing took place in the investigated area between 2006 and 2010. The team notes that cod of all sizes and ages were found living together in shallow waters during this time, which they credit to the fact that older fish weren’t being fished out of the water.

Oceans house some of the largest, most complex ecosystems on the planet — and they underpin those on land. The results showcase the incredible pressure we’re putting on these systems and raise concerns about the damage we’re inflicting.

It’s also worth to note that between anthropic climate change and overfishing, we’re destroying fish stocks all over the planet. The problem is further compounded by pollution.

The paper “Exploitation drives an ontogenetic-like deepening in marine fish” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dolphins, otters, and seals killed and used as bait in global fisheries

A new study sheds new light on a disturbing practice of global fisheries — the killing of aquatic mammals to use as bait. Common victims include dolphins, otters, seals, and even some endangered species. The practice has received very little attention from the international community, researchers say.

Bycatch is a well-known and studied problem. It represents the incidental capture of dolphins, sea turtles, birds and other non-targeted species in fishing operations. But there’s another problem with fishing: that of bait. According to a new systematic review, the problem is much more widespread and dramatic than most people realize.

The study reports that more than 40 species of aquatic mammals have been utilized as bait since 1970 in 33 or more countries. In at least one big fishery, 80% of these species were deliberately killed to be used as bait. For instance, shark fisheries routinely kill dolphins and use their parts as bait for sharks.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Vanessa J. Mintzer from the University of Florida, says that there is very little information about this practice and how much wildlife it affects.

“Killing for use as bait is a primary threat affecting Amazon river dolphins, known as botos — the species and issue I have studied since my Ph.D. dissertation. With this global review we wanted to see whether, and where, other species were killed for bait, and learn about possible solutions to stop the problem,” says Dr. Mintzer.

Of course, it makes a lot of sense that this practice is kept under the lid. Killing animals for bait is, essentially, a clandestine activity. Even if it is legal, no one’s going to advertise it. So it’s not really surprising that the data about this practice is sparse at best — but this needs to change, Mintzer says. We don’t know how much of an impact it has, how widespread it is, and, especially in ecosystem hotspots, how many endangered creatures it threatens.

“For scientists already working on species and locations identified as “hot spots” in this review, organized efforts should begin right away to estimate these numbers,” she says. “It took years to determine that the hunt for botos was unsustainable and now conservation actions need to be expedited. We need to identify other affected populations now to facilitate timely conservation actions.”

The study also urges authorities to take action. In many parts of the world, it’s not even illegal to kill marine mammals and use them as bait, and even where it is, not much action is taken to enforce this. Lastly, it’s up to the consumers as well as the local communities and businesses to push for sustainable fishery initiatives. Top-down implementation alone isn’t enough, we need to act on all levels of society. After all, how would you feel if you knew your meal was caught with dolphin or otter as bait?

Coho spawning.

Greenland, Faroe Islands to stop commercial fishing of wild salmon for 12 years

Greenland and the Faroe Islands will completely stop commercial wild salmon fishing for the next 12 years. The move aims to allow the species to regenerate and return to rivers in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

Coho spawning.

Coho spawning on the Salmon River, Idaho.
Image credits Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington / Flickr.

It seems that one of the worst qualities an organism can have in the twenty-first century is being tasty. Case in point: wild salmon. While there are several wild species belonging to the family Salmonidae, nine of them are commercially-important — and they aren’t faring very well at all. Overfishing has left wild populations on the brink of collapse, with potentially disastrous consequences both on an environmental as well as economic and social level.

Teach a man not to fish

In an effort to allow Atlantic populations some time to recover, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and North Atlantic Salmon Fund have convinced Greenland and the Faroe Islands to stop commercial salmon fishing for the next 12 years. These two countries were selected as their coastal waters hold feeding grounds that are crucial for wild salmon, harboring many individuals from endangered populations in rivers like Saint John in New Brunswick and the Penobscot in Maine.

In exchange, the two organizations have pledged financial support for alternative economic development in Greenland, scientific research, and education projects focused on marine conservation.

For now, the exact details of this financial agreement are being kept confidential — but the Atlantic Salmon Federation is adamant that not government money will be involved. All funding will be raised by the two organizations or will come from private donations.

Greenland fishermen will also be allowed catches up to 20 metric tonnes per year for personal and family consumption only. Even so, the deal is estimated to allow over 11,000 mature salmon to return to home rivers in 2019 instead of ending up in a net.

And nothing sums up why we need to do this better than this somewhat obvious but very valid observation of Chad Pike, chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund:

“The best way to save North Atlantic salmon is to stop killing them,” he told The Globe and Mail. “This deal does that in meaningful numbers.”

“Significantly reducing the harvest of wild Atlantic salmon on their ocean feeding grounds is meaningful and decisive,” adds Bill Taylor, president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Wild salmon stocks have steadily dropped to alarming levels in the past few years, caught between overfishing, ecosystem shifts caused by climate change, and other run-of-the-mill human meddling. Stocks have dwindled from roughly 1.8 million individuals returning on salmon runs in North America in the 1970s and ’80s to under 418,000 individuals in 1990, and the sustained efforts of the Atlantic Salmon Federation (about which you can read more here) have managed to prop up their numbers to roughly 600,000 in recent years.

Still, the situation is far, far from improving. Salmon runs across the US are at an all-time low: in California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and southern British Columbia, many bring less than 10% of their historical numbers. Others have simply stopped happening altogether, according to this paper by Robert T. Lackey from the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. This paragraph puts how dire the state of wild Atlantic salmon is today into chilling perspective:

“Every few years, there is a media celebration of ‘record’ salmon runs, but these temporary blips are due mainly to favorable ocean conditions coupled with a recalibration of what constitutes a ‘record’ run. If doubling a run from 2% to 4% of the historical level qualifies as a record run, then we are often there, however modest the increase may be,” he writes.

“More sobering, the majority of such runs are usually hatchery-bred fish. Nowadays wild salmon comprise less than a quarter of many West Coast salmon runs.”

Delegations from Greenland and the Faroe Islands will declare the zero commercial quotas at next month’s international summit in Portland, Maine, which will work retroactively to April 30.

The 12-year moratorium should cover two whole generations of wild Atlantic salmon, allowing them to reproduce in peace. Both organizations, as well as officials from the two countries, expect that this will help significantly raise population numbers in the long term.


Cyprian dolphins resort to chewing through fishing nets due to overfishing

Hungry dolphins are resorting to risky tactics to get food — they’ve taken to ripping nets for the fish inside.


Image credits Wolfgang Zimmel.

Researchers studying the interactions between fishermen and dolphins in northern Cyprus report that the animals are resorting to desperate measures to put food on the table — they’re tearing into nets to eat the fish inside. Nets in this area were up to six times more likely to be damaged when dolphins were in the vicinity.

The pirate porpoise


“It seems that some dolphins may be actively seeking nets as a way to get food,” said Dr. Robin Snape, an ecologist at the University of Exeter, who led the study.

Damaged nets are undoubtedly bad news for fishermen — the cost of repairing or replacing them can reach up to thousands of euros per year. Considering that most operations in the area are small-scale expeditions carried out by modest economic actors, it can pose a significant threat to their livelihoods.

However, the team says fishermen should own up to the situation for which they are, at least in part, to blame. The team points to overfishing as the likely cause of the dolphins’ behavior. Dr. Snape says the situation worryingly bears the signs of a ‘vicious cycle’ where depleted fish stocks result in poor catches, pushing fishers to deploy more fishing nets (which means more costs), further depleting stocks.

“Effective management of fish stocks is urgently needed to address the overexploitation that is causing this vicious cycle,” he adds.

Local fishermen have also called for maximum quotas and off-limits areas to better manage the area’s fish stocks.

As a more short-term solution, the team tried the use of pingers — devices that emit sounds at frequencies intended to drive away dolphins — to enable fishermen to keep their nets safe. However, that backfired quite spectacularly, the team concluding that these devices may have actually worked as “dinner bells” to attract the dolphins.

More powerful pingers may be effective as deterrents, they add, but such devices also have the potential to disturb the marine ecosystems they’re deployed in — so that’s not a viable solution.

The damage, however, isn’t one-sided. The team also tried to estimate how many dolphins died in the area as a result of human action. Reportedly, at least 10 dolphins were accidentally caught in the study area each year. They caution that this figure likely doesn’t reflect reality, as fishermen are likely to under-report such incidents — dolphins have protected status.

Another issue the team highlighted is dolphin consumption of plastic from the fishermen’s nets. They report that sizeable chunks had been cut out of the damaged nets they analyzed; at least part of that material — if not all — is likely to have made its way down the gullet of dolphins, they explain. Marine animal consumption of plastic is a world-spanning environmental concern. Species big and small, from fish to whales, have been found with ingested plastic waste.

A more local problem is that the dolphins of northern Cyprus are poorly understood, and likely only limited in number. So even the small-scale losses reported by the fishermen (again, likely under-estimated) would have a sizeable impact on their population.

The paper “Conflict between Dolphins and a Data-Scarce Fishery of the European Union” has been published in the journal Human Ecology.

Fishing areas.

In 2016, fishing ships cast their nets on over 55% of the ocean surface

Fishing now extends to over half the ocean surface on Earth, a new study shows — and some areas are surprisingly busy.

Fishing areas.

Each dot represents the average hours of fishing activity within an area of 10,000 square kilometers (3861.022 sq mi).
Image credits A. Kroodsma et al., 2018, Science.

Oceans cover more than two thirds of our planet’s surface, which is why we affectionately call it the Blue Planet. It might be time for us to seriously consider changing that name to the Fishing Planet, as industrial fishing occurred across more than 55% of overall ocean area in 2016, new research has found.

To put that into perspective, only 34% of the planet’s land area was used for agriculture or grazing in 2016.


Previous attempts at tracking and quantifying global fishing activity haven’t been very successful, mostly because of the data they worked with — a mess of data drawn from electronic monitoring systems on some vessels, logbooks, or even onboard observers on others.

Over the last 15 years, however, almost all commercial-size ships have been outfitted with AIS, or automatic identification system, transceivers. These instruments track the ship in real time and are meant to help ships avoid collisions at sea. The team drew on this cache of data for their study. They examined 22 billion AIS positions, recorded between 2012 and 2016. Using machine learning, they identified over 70,000 fishing ships based on these positions and then recorded their activity.

Most fishing, they report, took place in countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which isn’t that surprising. EEZs are ocean regions roughly within 370 kilometers of a nation’s coastline, within which the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea grants states special rights to explore for and exploit marine resources.

However, there were also hotspots of fishing activity further out in the open ocean, the team adds. Such spots included the Northeastern Atlantic Ocean and the areas of nutrient-rich upwellings off the coasts of South America and West Africa. Just five countries — China, Japan, Taiwan, Spain, and South Korea — accounted for roughly 85% of all fishing outside of any EEZ.

Tracking fishing efforts over space and time can help guide policy on the matter, to make sure fish stocks are harvested in a sustainable manner. The data can also help tailor marine environmental protections and international conservation efforts for fish, which are having a really hard time surviving. In the face of rising sea levels, and an increase in human activity at sea, both of these tasks could become central talking points in geopolitics, and would have a direct impact over consumer quality of life.

The paper “Tracking the global footprint of fisheries” has been published in the journal Science.

Credit: Max Pexel.

Fishing banned in the thawing Arctic for the next 16 years in historic pact

Nine nations and the European Union all agreed to ban commercial fishing in a huge area of the central Arctic Ocean over the next 16 years. The Arctic has experienced dramatic melting in the last couple of years, which has opened up vast, previously unavailable stretches of the sea to commercial fishing. The new historic pact aims to protect the local marine life which would have otherwise not been exposed to fishing were it not for the thawing induced by global warming. The agreement is meant to give scientists some time to understand how fishing in the newly de-iced Arctic would affect wildlife.

Credit: Max Pexel.

Credit: Max Pexel.

This year’s summer ice minimum in the Arctic was the eighth lowest on record. The 2017 minimum was 610,000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average and the eighth lowest year in the 38-year satellite record. The Arctic is warming twice as fast than the global average.

Since the water is warmer and the ocean is effectively expanding, more and more fish have moved in these new ice-free areas. Of course, fishing enterprises have tagged along smelling the new opportunities.

“In the past, when new patches of fish were discovered,” said Rod Fu­jita, director of research and development for the Environmental Defence Fund’s Oceans program, “they have been rapidly exploited, and sometimes overexploited.”

The area were fishing is banned by the moratarium covers 2.8m sq km. Credit: THE OCEAN CONSERVANCY.

The area where fishing is banned by the moratorium covers 2.8m sq km. Credit: THE OCEAN CONSERVANCY.

It’s commendable that this very important agreement could be reached despite growing strains in American-Russian relations and the current Presidential Administration’s skepticism towards man-made global climate change. The moratorium was agreed by Canada, Russia, China, the US, the EU, Japan, Iceland, Denmark and South Korea. The area where fishing is effectively banned covers 2.8m sq km or roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

The scientific community has been pressuring policymakers for years to do something about the situation in order to prevent a potential ecological disaster. Previously, overfishing of newly opened waters in the Bering Strait between Russian and the United States resulted in millions of tons of pollock that was removed in the 1980s. In the 1990s, pollock populations crashed and they have never recovered since.

“There is no other high seas area where we’ve decided to do the science first,” says Scott Highleyman, vice president of conservation policy and programs at the Ocean Conservancy in Washington told Science Magazine.

“It’s a great example of putting the precautionary principle into action.”

Besides banning fishing in the central Arctic Ocean, the countries which signed the pact have also agreed to fund a joint scientific program meant to monitor and identify marine species in the area.

However, every such pact is only effective if it is respected. It remains to be seen whether countries will do that — otherwise, it wouldn’t be the first time commercial fishing takes place despite an international ban.

Trump administration eliminates new protection for endangered whales and turtles

In a saddening though not unforeseeable move, the Trump administration has taken another jab at the environmental protection laws in the US, throwing out a proposal to protect endangered whales and sea turtles — even though it was supported by the fishing industry.

A mother sperm whale and her calf. Image credits: Gabriel Barathieu.

Basically, the measure said that if too many protected species were being caught with gill nets, fishing with these drift nets would be stopped for up to two seasons. These nets can measure up to a mile (1.6 km) and often trap or injure numerous species, including endangered ones. Ironically, the industry members themselves proposed this measure, which only affected 20 fishing vessels.

Fin, humpback and sperm whales, short-fin pilot whales and common bottlenose dolphin, leatherback sea turtles, olive-ridley seat turtles and green sea turtles were heavily affected by the nets. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which under President Trump abandoned this measure, said that the fishing industry “has worked hard to reduce its impact” and that there was no need for such a protection scheme.

“Under the proposed regulations, caps would have been established for five marine mammal species and four sea turtle species,” the agency explained in a final action published in the Federal Register Monday afternoon. “When any of the caps were reached, the fishery would have been closed for the rest of the fishing season and possibly through the following season.”

Turtles can easily get trapped as by-catch in these nets. Image credits: NOAA.

The industry was taking efforts to follow this proposal even though it was only classified as “pending.” Michael Milstein, the spokesperson for the service, cited figures saying that by-catch has reduced substantially, but he was heavily contradicted by biologists and conservationists.

“The Trump administration has declared war on whales, dolphins, and turtles off the coast of California,” Todd Steiner, director of the California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, told the Los Angeles Times. “This determination will only lead to more potential litigation and legislation involving this fishery. It’s not a good sign.”

Steiner also said that a lot of the by-catch reduction is not owed to the industry improving its practice, but to the sheer reduction of the fishing fleet.

According to NOAA data quoted by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, the California-based gillnet fishery targeting swordfish “catches and discards more than 100 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions each year, in addition to thousands of sharks and other fish.” Katherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that even though by-catch numbers are decreasing, gillnet fishery still injures a large number of endangered animals.

Considering the extremely low numbers of some populations, even a few wounded or killed turtles and whales could make a dramatic difference. The Pacific leatherback turtle, for instance, boasts no more than 2,300 adult females in the wild, each of which is important to the population.

Oldest fishing hooks ever found show humans were fishing for longer than we’ve thought

Archaeologists have just found the oldest pair of fishing tools we’ve ever seen in a cave on Okinawa Island, off the Japanese coast. The fishing hooks are approximately 23,000 years old and were fashioned out of shells.

Pieces of finished (upper) and unfinished (lower) fishhooks found in the Sakitari Cave.
Image credits Masaki Fujita et al., PNAS, 2016.

Some 50,000 years ago, the first human settlers reached Okinawa and its neighbouring islands. How they managed to do this — and what they ate on the way — is still a matter of some debate. We just don’t really know the state of maritime technology at the time.

But a new set of fishing hooks found in Sakitari Cave, Okinawa, shows that its inhabitants had very good knowledge of how to live off the sea at a much earlier stage and on a much wider scale than previously believed. Japanese teams have been excavating the area since 2009 and have recently reported finding one complete and one incomplete fish hook created from sea snail shells. Carbon-dating pieces of charcoal found in the same strata as the fishhooks reveal they’re between 22,380 and 22,770 years old. Accounting for the method’s margin of error, this would make them the oldest fishing hooks ever found — previously the oldest were found in East Timor (dated between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago) and New Ireland in Papua New Guinea (20,000 to 18,000 years old).

In various layers of the same cave, archaeologists found evidence of charred eels, frogs, fish, birds or small mammals, suggesting they were cooked and consumed by humans. They also found human remains, seashell beads, and something they suspect may have been a grindstone. Based on the strata they were found in, this suggests that the cave has been continuously inhabited since at least 35,000 years ago. This came as a surprise for the team, as the island was previously believed to be too resource-poor to sustain a stable population.

Notable remains obtained from Late Pleistocene layers of Sakitari Cave. The red square symbols in rightmost column indicate probable seasonal hunting or gathering. Scale bars are 1 cm long.
Image credits Masaki Fujita et al., PNAS, 2016.

The charred remains of a crab found at the site are also significant, the researchers say, as it provides evidence of seasonal eating habits. The remains’ size indicates the animals were captured in autumn, during the carb’s mating season. By this time, they were larger and migrating downstream for reproduction — and this was, as the researchers put it, “also the season when they are the most delicious”.

All in all, the findings paint a new picture of our ancestors’ knowledge of the sea and the goodies that could be fished from it.

The full paper, titled “Advanced maritime adaptation in the western Pacific coastal region extends back to 35,000–30,000 years before present” has been published in the journal PNAS.




There is still hope: scientists show how fisheries can double production

The oceans are running out of fish. One third of fisheries have collapsed, meaning populations can not recover. Another third is being overfished, while only 29 percent of fish is currently caught sustainably. Forecasts suggest the situation is getting only worse. Given population increase, demand will jump so fisheries will become stressed further with no solution in sight. In reality, fisheries aren’t stressed by demand, but largely by perverse market incentives. A new research modeled thousands of fisheries from around the world and found that a straightforward economic reform will not only help fisheries recover in only ten years, but double production by 2050.


Image: Pixabay // Wikimedia Commons

Amanda Leland, senior vice president for oceans at the Environmental Defense Fund, along with colleagues wanted to see what would happen if the most successful fishery recovery story was replicated worldwide. Fifteen years ago, the West Coast fishery for groundfish, which includes rockfish and sole, hit a rock bottom low. That’s when the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) decided to change the business model. Instead of limiting how much fish the industry is allowed to catch in an area, the norm set by most governments around the world, the regulators imposed strict  individual quotas that each fisherman can catch throughout the year.

Though it seems a subtle change, it made all the difference. Before this regulation was put in place, fishermen competed with each other for a limit common stock. Many would sail as early as possible, set their biggest fishing nets and try to catch as much as possible. Eventually, the market becomes flooded with fish — much more than the market demands. Prices are very low which means fishermen have to catch even more to make up in volume, and moreover a lot of fish goes to waste because it gets spoiled. Today, the West Coast groundfish can be caught sustainably and provide enough food to feed 17 million Americans for an entire year.

The “catch share” program from the West Coast was modeled for 4,713 fisheries across the world, the equivalent of 73% of the world’s entire catch. The first analysis confirmed what other studies previously reported: most fisheries are in a deprecated state due to overfishing, while only a third of all these fisheries are actually sustainable. Three scenarios were considered: business as usual; one where all fishermen are allowed to catch under a limit; one where each individual fishermen or crew is allowed to catch a specific percentage or fish within a certain designated area. It was only this latter scenario that made any economic sense. Projections suggest the median fishery takes only ten years to recover. Also, fishermen would experience a 204 percent surge in profits by 2050, the researchers report in PNAS.

“It would be very hard to find another global, significant environmental challenge that could be solved so quickly,” Leland told the Huff Post.

Under this reform 16 million more metric tones of fish would be caught and $53 billion more in generated revenue are expected compared to ‘business as usual’.

“This research shows that we really can have our fish and eat them too,” says Chris Costello, the paper’s lead author and a professor of environmental and resource economics at UCSB. “We no longer need to see ocean fisheries as a series of trade-offs. In fact, we show that we can have more fish in the water, more food on the plate, and more prosperous fishing communities—and it can happen relatively quickly.”

The findings are revealing. The West Coast success story is truly inspirational, and now we have evidence that this was not a fluke — it can be modeled all over the world. The ball is in the policymakers’ court now.