IATTC Needs To Act Urgently To Protect Eastern Pacific Tuna Fisheries

Governments and fishing companies aren't doing enough to prevent the decline of tuna stocks as they put the demands of the fishing industry and consumers above the sustainability of marine life.

Tuna stocks around the world are dwindling because of fishing pressure, which is increasing due to the high value of the catch. The Pacific Islands fishery is the world's biggest, taking more than 1.2 million tonnes of tuna annually, with the eastern Pacific second, with a yearly catch of more than half a million tonnes. But the latter's regulatory body is failing in its job. Bigeye and yellowfin tuna populations are falling and the average size of captured fish is shrinking, a clear sign that those tuna are in dire need of conservation measures.

Following much needed measures introduced in the Pacific Islands Fishery last month, urgent measures to save falling stocks of tuna in the world's second-biggest tuna fishery, the eastern Pacific, must be initiated at a key international meeting this week. The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) must follow the advice of its own scientists and adopt forceful conservation measures at its annual meeting in Panama City.

Environmental groups are warning that closures of the fishery, both by area and by time, must be brought in to protect tumbling Pacific populations of skipjack and bigeye tuna.

Massachusetts Passes Oceans Act

Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Massachusetts’ 2300 kilometers of coastline and its 650 000 hectares of subtidal lands are an integral part of the Gulf of Maine — one of the most biologically productive marine ecosystems in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is delineated by Cape Cod at the eastern tip of Massachusetts in the southwest and Cape Sable at the southern tip of Nova Scotia in the northeast. It includes the entire coastlines of the U.S. states of New Hampshire and Maine, as well as Massachusetts north of Cape Cod, and the southern and western coastlines of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia respectively.

For centuries, the Atlantic waters of the Gulf of Maine have been used for fishing, recreation and navigation. In recent years, proposals for other uses, from gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas facilities to desalinization projects and wind and wave energy projects have dramatically increased. These new proposals raise concerns about how to manage marine resources amidst diverse proposals and intensified development pressures. Historically, decisions about how to manage ocean resources have been handled on a resource by resource, case by case, reactive basis. However, this approach is inadequate to face the complexity of the proposals and challenges facing Atlantic waters in the 21st century. The Massachusetts Oceans Act, a comprehensive and holistic approach to ocean management and resource protection, will coordinate and monitor all ocean-related activity. The Oceans Act of 2008, signed into law by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on May 28, 2008, is the first of its kind in the United States.

The culmination of the Oceans Act will be the Ocean Management Plan. The Plan will regulate many uses of the Massachusetts coastal waters—everything from wind farms to whale watching to cruise ships to the cod fishery. Specifically, it will:

  • Give the Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs the oversight, coordination and planning authority over ocean resources.

  • Decisions would be based on an ocean management plan created by a broad-based, 19-member ocean management advisory board comprised of state agency representative, state legislators, a municipal official and environmental, fishing and marine industry stakeholders.

  • The ocean resources management plan will be required to be based on the best available scientific understanding of marine and ocean resources. A 9-member ocean science advisory council will assist the Secretary in gathering and analyzing the best available science.

  • All programs and permits for activities in ocean waters will be required to conform to the ocean management plan.

  • Notably, commercial fishing will still be regulated by the Division of Marine Fisheries and will not be under the direct control of the Ocean Management Plan.

The MPA Inquiry in Bruny, Tasmania - part 1

A Case Study In MPA Planning and Implementation Difficulties

A key part of the Australian Government's marine conservation strategy, is developing a representative system of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Commonwealth waters by 2012. This will contribute to the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA), which is described in more detail in the Guidelines for Establishing the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas.

The stated goal of the NRSMPA is to:

establish and manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of MPAs that will contribute to the long-term ecological viability of marine and estuarine systems, maintain ecological processes and systems and protect Australia's biological diversity at all levels.

Bioregions have been defined as 'assemblages of flora, fauna and the supporting geophysical environment contained within distinct but dynamic spatial boundaries'. The identification of these boundaries and comprehension of the functioning of bioregions is essential for enlightened ecological management. Distributional boundaries are the result of responses of organisms to boundaries between changing environmental factors and studies of species distributions can therefore help us better understand the dynamics of marine regions.

On 6 June 2005, the Tasmanian Minister for Environment and Planning issued a directive to the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) to conduct an inquiry and make recommendations on the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Bruny Bioregion, in south-eastern Tasmania.

Of the nine Tasmanian bioregions the Bruny Bioregion stands out as being the most complex and diverse in terms of ecosystems and human activities and uses. It is notable amongst the Australian bioregions for its very high number of species with very limited distributions. Alongside this ecological significance is the economic significance of the Bruny Bioregion to Tasmania, particularly for commercial fishing, marine farming, tourism and recreation, urban and industrial development and shipping.

At the beginning of the Bruny MPA inquiry the RPDC stated that:

A number of key characteristics will define MPAs established in Tasmania, including:
  • being established for the conservation of biodiversity;
  • able to be classified into one or more of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) protected area management categories;
  • having secure status that can only be revoked by a Parliamentary process; and
  • contributes to the representativeness, comprehensiveness or adequacy (CAR) of the Tasmanian MPA system.

The scope of the inquiry outlined in the terms of reference was for the Commission to:
  • use the identification and selection criteria contained in the Tasmanian Marine Protected Areas Strategy to assess and select those areas of public land in the Bruny Bioregion that are suitable for declaration as Marine Protected Areas; and
  • identify potential boundaries and management arrangements for those areas suitable for declaration as Marine Protected Areas.

The RPDC produced an Background Report in June 2006. This Background Report was placed on exhibition and public comment invited. The Commission received 42 submissions on the Background Report. Key issues raised in submissions were:
  • threats and pressures to coastal ecosystems, including overfishing and climate change;
  • existing status of the marine environment;
  • nature and location of important and unique aspects of marine habitats and communities;
  • the need for MPAs;
  • inadequacies of existing Marine Nature Reserves;
  • potential for economic impacts on commercial fisheries;
  • areas of high recreational interest and usage;
  • management and resourcing arrangements for MPAs; and
  • nominations of potential areas and natural features that would benefit from protection within an MPA.

As a result of the response to the Background Report the Commission considered that further public input was required before a Draft Recommendations Report could be prepared. Accordingly, an Interim Report was published in March 2007 and placed on public exhibition. The Interim Report focused on the identification stage of the process, i.e. the presentation of areas that may be suitable for inclusion within MPAs based on their meeting identification criteria in the Strategy. The Interim Report also identified threats to the marine environment in the Bruny Bioregion, and assessed the comprehensiveness and representativeness of habitats in existing MPAs. Interested persons and groups were invited to make written submissions on this phase of the process.

The Commission received 24 submissions on the Interim Report. Submissions broadly canvassed issues similar to those raised on the Background Report. Additionally, submissions at this stage:
  • provided further information on values of identified areas;
  • commented on the Commission’s analysis of the identification criteria; and
  • flagged areas they viewed as best candidates for MPAs.

The Commission then prepared a Draft Recommendations Report. The Draft Recommendations Report presented the priorities applied by the Commission to reduce in number the 45 identified areas in the Interim Report to 21 priority identified areas, from which the draft MPAs were selected. The main content of the Draft Recommendations Report was the presentation of areas that were considered suitable for declaration as marine protected areas, following application of the identification and selection criteria of the Strategy. These areas were identified using information from the Background Report and Interim Report, written submissions and submissions made at the Hearing held in September and November 2006. In August 2007, the Draft Recommendations Report was placed on public exhibition and public comment invited. The Commission received 191 submissions on the Draft Recommendations Report.

Key issues raised in submissions included:
  • Many MPA-specific issues, concerns and additional information: largely addressing social and economic impacts, and including safety and compensation issues;
  • Views on a broad range of considerations for management of MPAs (e.g. levels of protection, boundaries, enforcement, resourcing), and allowable activities within MPAs;
  • Views on threatening processes to the marine environment, with fishing getting considerable attention;
  • Uncertainty as to why MPAs are needed and what benefits they can provide;
  • Expressions of endorsement or non-endorsement across the recommendations broadly and also MPA-specific;
  • Concerns about the process of the inquiry and the level of consultation; and
  • Concerns about whether the Commission had adequately addressed the selection criteria in the Strategy.

To be continued...

Carbon Trading and Biodiversity Credits

Conservation biology began life as a crisis discipline, its central tenet to understand and help reverse losses of biodiversity and habitat (Armsworth et al 2007) . Those losses of biodiversity and habitat continue today, implying that conservation biology is not achieving its central aim. New tools for protecting habitat and biodiversity are urgently required if these losses are to be halted.

Carbon trading is an administrative approach used to control carbon emissions by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of carbon. Carbon trading was introduced as part of the Kyoto Protocol's goal to reduce industrial nations' greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012. The idea was that countries whose emissions fall under the emissions cap - the permitted level of CO2 equivalent emissions per year - could then sell those carbon credits to countries who are not able to meet their own caps.

An article in the June 2008 issue of Conservation Biology - Using Carbon Investment to Grow the Biodiversity Bank (Bekesy and Wintle 2008) - contains a novel and exciting proposal for halting biodiversity losses through a capped carbon trading regime. The authors propose simply that:

...investors should be allowed to reap the dual benefits of carbon and biodiversity credits from one parcel of land and those credits could later be traded on the relevant markets.

This is proposed as a response to the current approaches to carbon emissions offsetting which rely largely on investment in monoculture plantations. The authors go on to say that:

[the proposed scheme is] ...more robust to uncertainty about carbon sequestration and is guaranteed to have broad environmental benefits, including restoration of degraded natural systems and endangered species habitats. The proposed scheme provides a mechanism for investing in the world's most threatened ecosystems that makes carbon, biodiversity, and financial sense.

This is topical at the moment due to a convergence of a number of powerful factors: In 2007 Rupert Murdoch declared that News Corporation would be carbon neutral across all of its businesses by 2010, committing to reducing and offsetting its greenhouse gas emissions. This follows commitments by the World Bank Group, Formula One, and VirginBlue, among other large economic interests. On 30 April 2007 Australia's Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments commissioned an independent study by Professor Ross Garnaut into the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy. The Garnaut Review's Final Report is due on 30 September 2008, with a Draft Report due by 30 June 2008. The review will recommend medium to long-term policies and policy frameworks to improve the prospects for sustainable prosperity. The New Zealand Government currently has a bill for emissions trading schemes before a select committee. Various reports by a range of groups support the scheme but differ in opinion as to how it should be implemented, and the proposed bill appears to currently be stalled in parliament without sufficient votes to pass in it's current form.

The Garnaut Climate Change Review's approach to climate change mitigation was initially set out in the Interim Report released in February 2008. That report stated that:

Australia must now put in place effective policies to achieve major reductions in emissions. The emissions trading scheme (ETS) is the centre-piece of a domestic mitigation strategy.

That proposed ETS was described in a discussion paper released in March 2008. Public forums on the Draft Report will be held in a number of capital cities across Australia from 7 to 11 July 2008. These public forums appear to be an ideal place for the powerful idea of biodiversity credits tied to carbon trading to be raised and debated in public.


Armsworth PR, Chan KMA, Daily GC, Ehrlich PR, Kremen C, Ricketts TH, Sanjayan MA (2007) Ecosystem-Service Science and the Way Forward for Conservation Conservation Biology 21 (6), 1383-1384.

Bekesy and Wintle (2008) Using Carbon Investment to Grow the Biodiversity Bank Conservation Biology 22 (3), 510-513

The Oil Industry Off Western Australia

WWF-Australia has recently released an excellent report on the Coastal and Marine Natural Values of the Kimberley. The Kimberley is one of the nine regions of Western Australia. It is located in the northern part of Western Australia, bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean, on the north by the Timor Sea, on the south by the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts, and on the east by the Northern Territory. The Kimberley was one of the earliest settled parts of Australia, with the first arrivals landing about 40,000 years ago from the islands of what is now Indonesia.

The Kimberley coast and offshore marine communities and environments are recognized as some of the world’s most ecologically diverse. Not only is the Kimberley of global importance for its largely intact terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, it is also undoubtedly one of the world’s most intact large tropical marine ecosystems. WWF included the Kimberley marine region in its Global 200 inventory of priority places of the Planet. In the past twelve months, the spotlight has turned towards the Kimberley coast and marine environment, not for its biodiversity values but because of the hydrocarbon resources buried offshore.

The following picture shows the distribution of oil wells and pipelines off the Kimberley coast.

From the WWF Coastal and Marine Natural Values of the Kimberley report:

In the last decade, minerals and petroleum contributions to the Western Australia have risen by 10% per year to contribute $48.4 billion in 2006 and 30% of Gross State Product. (Department of Industry and Resources, 2007). Petroleum is the largest of these resource sectors and supports 50% of Australia’s market (Department of Industry and Resources, 2007). World demand has renewed incentive for upstream seismic exploration off the north west coast of Australia where natural gas resources are abundant (I.M. Longley et al., 2003). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, offshore petroleum exploration increased in the June quarter of 2007 by a massive $246.5 million (70.4%), of which Western Australia contributed $205.9 million (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).

A Beautiful Ray Migration Photo

Source: Pixdaus

Golden Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera steindachneri) migration off Key West, Florida.

Cownose rays are known for their long migrations in large schools. They are strong swimmers, able to cover long distances. The Monterey Bay aquarium site reports that the population in the Gulf of Mexico migrates in schools of as many as 10,000 rays, clockwise from western Florida to the Yucatan in Mexico.

A 1989 article from the journal Copeia: A Massive School of Cownose Rays, Rhinoptera bonasus (Rhinopteridae), in Lower Chesapeake Bay, Virginia (Blaylock 1989) describes the following massive migration event:

A concentration of Cownose rays, Rhinoptera bonasus, so great as to render direct counting of individuals impossible, was observed during surveys of the lower Chesapeake Bay on 25 July and 2 Aug. 1988.
The school was too large to photograph in it's entirety. Therefore, while flying transects across it, portions were photographed vertically...
The Florida Museum of Natural History website includes further detail on the migration habits of this species:

The migration patterns, in the Atlantic, include a northward movement in the late spring and southward movements in the late fall. Southbound migration has been observed to contain larger schools than the northbound migration. Smith and Merriner (1987) believe that the changes in water temperature, coupled with sun orientation, may initiate seasonal mass migration. They also suggest that the southward migration might be influenced by solar orientation while the northward migration might be influenced by water temperature cooling below 22ÂșC, but further studies are needed to confirm this. The migratory congregation, thus far, has not been linked to feeding or premigratory mating activity.

Surfing Hippo

A hippo swims in the surf at Thompsons Bay, about 50km (31 miles) from Durban, May 27, 2008. It is thought that the lone young male hippo has wandered from its habitat in Richards Bay. (REUTERS/Rogan Ward)

Buying Sustainably Harvested Fish - Not As Easy As I Thought

I like to cook, and I like to eat fish. Having just moved to New York from Australia has meant having to re-learn which of the fish varieties that I see on display down at my local supermarket are sustainable and which are not.

In Australia I would rely on the Australian Marine Conservation Society's Sustainable Seafood Guide. So I thought that I would look for a similar publication that was applicable to the USA. I found the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch site easily enough. Problem solved. Or so I thought...

A little further searching unearthed an article by Jennifer Jacquet (of Shifting Baselines) which describes how many illegally caught (or unsustainably raised) species are renamed as completely different species for resale in order to fool consumers who are trying to be responsible in their seafood choices. The examples she gives include Hake (labeled Tilapia), Red Snapper (75% of fish sold with this label are entirely different species), Shrimp (farmed shrimp labeled as wild-caught), Cod (labeled as Ling) and several others.

The EarthEasy Sustainable Seafood Guide gives the following tips for buying seafood:

  • Try to choose shellfish grown on farms using racks, lines or nets which are suspended in the water. These methods minimize damage to bottom habitat during harvesting.

  • Striped Bass, a well-managed Atlantic coast species, can be used as a substitute for some depleted species, such as Black Sea Bass, Rock Cod, Red Snapper, Grouper and Roughy.

  • Farmed Crawfish make an excellent substitute for Lobster, which, although plentiful are often harvested at minimum size - before having a chance at reproduction.

  • Ask your local seafood dealer or restaurateur about the source and catch-method of your seafood choices. Consumer concern is the best promoter of sustainable fisheries.

The problem is that guides such as this are only effective if the fish that a consumer is buying is correctly labeled. While this should be assured under consumer legislation and the FDA should work to enforce correct labeling, a study in 2006 found that the FDA was predominantly checking for the presence (not accuracy) of labels on food. That sort of checking would be unable to detect sneakiness such as we find with fish mislabeling. Clearly this is a problem currently in search of a solution. Until then I will be avoiding farmed fish, shopping from the Monterey Bay guide, and chatting to my fishmonger to see if he knows which fish can be guaranteed to be sustainably harvested.

UPDATE: This issue has been playing on my mind since I wrote this post, and I have started a series of posts about sustainability and the seafood industry. Part 2 of this series is here.

Global Warming Bill Blocked in Senate

On Friday United States Senators from the Republican Party blocked a global warming bill that would have required major reductions in greenhouse gases, after a bitter debate over its economic costs and whether it would substantially raise gasoline and other energy prices.

The Environmental Law Prof Blog has a good run down of what the bill proposed, including:

  • Capped annual US greenhouse emissions at 5775 million tons in 2012, reducing the cap every year until it reaches 1732 in 2050 -- a 70% reduction from projected 2012 emissions
  • An advanced clean fuel efficiency standard
  • A carbon duty or tariff placed on covered goods from countries that don't make a comparable effort to the United States
  • A Climate Change Worker Training and Assistance Fund
  • A Consumer Assistance Fund
  • A Transportation Emission Reduction Fund
  • A Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program
  • An Efficient Energy Use Program
  • A Zero or Low Carbon Generation Technology Fund
  • A Carbon Sequestration and Storage Early Deployment Program

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a prominent coal-producing state, argued that the bill was a huge tax increase. He maintained that the proposed system of allowing widespread trading of carbon emissions allowances would produce "the largest restructuring of the American economy since the New Deal." Supporters of the bill accused Republicans of muddying the water with misinformation.

Even as this bill died however, other approaches to federal climate action had already begun to appear. James Hansen, the NASA climate expert who has long been a leader and spokesman for global warming campaigners, has strongly endorsed a variant on the “cap and dividend” system for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions (different from the “cap and trade” mechanism in the blocked bill, which would invest revenue in various programs, with little money returning directly to taxpayers.)

“Carbon tax and 100% dividend” is spurred by the recent “carbon cap” discussion of Peter Barnes and others.... A tax on coal, oil and gas is simple. It can be collected at the first point of sale within the country or at the last (e.g., at the gas pump), but it can be collected easily and reliably....

The entire carbon tax should be returned to the public, with a monthly deposit to their bank accounts, an equal share to each person (if no bank account provided, an annual check — social security number must be provided). No bureaucracy is needed to figure this out. If the initial carbon tax averages $1,200 per person per year, $100 is deposited in each account each month....

The worst thing about the present inadequate political approach is that it will generate public backlash. Taxes will increase, with no apparent benefit. The reaction would likely delay effective emission reductions, so as to practically guarantee that climate would pass tipping points with devastating consequences for nature and humanity.

Carbon tax and 100% dividend, on the contrary, will be a breath of fresh air, a boon and boom for the economy. The tax is progressive, the poorest benefiting most, with profligate energy users forced to pay for their excesses. Incidentally, it will yield strong incentive for aliens to become legal; otherwise they receive no dividend while paying the same carbon tax rate as everyone.

It seems clear that some sort of emissions capping mechanism is urgently needed to force the industry to embrace clean energy technologies. Implementing whatever carbon-pricing mechanism we settle on may make the technological challenges seem trivial by comparison however. An interesting looking recent book by Krupp and Horn recounts a conversion with Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, in which he senator was explaining why he votes for such ludicrous subsidies to corn-based ethanol, despite its drawbacks a clean fuel. The response? "It's 28 votes, the strongest lobby in the nation."

From a beautiful Op-Ed by Brian Greene in the New York Times today:

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
Definitely worth a read.