Tag Archives: fisheries management

How to Kill One Million Fish: Murray-Darling

But it took a viral video posted on 8 January 2019 to drive home the ecological catastrophe that was unfolding in the Murray-Darling river system in Australia. In the footage, Rob McBride and Dick Arnold, identified as local residents, stand knee-deep among floating fish carcasses in the Darling River, near the town of Menindee. They scoff at authorities’ claims that the fish die-off is a result of the drought. Holding up an enormous, dead Murray cod, a freshwater predator he says is 100 years old, McBride says: “This has nothing to do with drought, this is a manmade disaster.” Arnold, sputtering with rage, adds: “You have to be bloody disgusted with yourselves, you politicians and cotton growers.”

Scientists say McBride probably overestimated the age of the fish. But they agree that the massive die-off was not the result of drought. “It’s about taking too much water upstream [to irrigate farms] so there is not enough for downstream users and the fish,” says Quentin Grafton, an economist specializing in water issues at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, blamed “policy failure and mismanagement” in a 19 January 2019 report, but called drought a catalyst.

Excessive water use has left river flows too low to flush nutrients from farm runoff through the system, leading to large algal blooms, researchers say. A cold snap then killed the blooms, and bacteria feeding on the dead algae sucked oxygen out of the water,   This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2012, the national government adopted the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, touted as a “historic” deal to ensure that enough water remained in the rivers to keep the ecosystem healthy even after farmers and households took their share.

In 2008, the federal government created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wrestle with the problem. In 2010, a study commissioned by the authority concluded that farmers and consumers would have to cut their use of river water by at least 3000 but preferably by 7600 gigaliters annually to ensure the health of the ecosystem. Farmers, who saw their livelihoods threatened, tossed the report into bonfires.  The final plan, adopted as national law in 2012, called for returning just 2750 gigaliters to the rivers, in part by buying water rights back from users. “It was a political compromise that has never been scientifically reviewed,” Williams says, adding that “climate change was never considered in the plan, which was a dreadful oversight.”..

Grafton says there are also suspicions of widespread water theft; up to 75% of the water taken by irrigators in the northern part of the system is not metered. Farmers are also now recapturing the runoff from irrigated fields that used to flow back into streams, and are increasing their use of ground water, leaving even less water in the system, says Mike Young, an environmental policy specialist at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

In February 2018, such issues prompted a group of 12 academics, including scientists and policy experts, to issue the Murray-Darling Declaration. It called for independent economic and scientific audits of completed and planned water recovery schemes to determine their effects on stream flows. The group, which included Williams and Grafton, also urged the creation of an independent, expert body to provide advice on basin water management. Young, who wasn’t on the declaration, wants to go further and give that body the power to manage the basin’s water, the way central banks manage a country’s money supply, using stream levels to determine weekly irrigation allocations and to set minimum flow levels for every river.

Excerpts from Dennis Normile, Massive fish die-off sparks outcry in Australia, Science, Jan. 22, 2019.

Unwanted Fish: Another Waste

Long before fillets reach your dinner plate, lots of seafood is thrown away. Overboard, actually. As fishing crews sort through their catches, they toss unwanted fish back into the sea—as much as 20% of the global catch. The vast majority die. On 1 January, 2019 the wasteful practice became illegal in waters of the European Union. Scientists believe the policy will lead to more efficient fisheries and eventually boost stocks, while incentivizing more selective fishing gear and strategies. But in the short term it could mean hardship for the industry and perhaps even compromise fisheries data, if hidden cheating becomes widespread.

Few expect all fishing vessels to obey the discard ban. “Put yourself in the boots of a fishermen who can see he will run out of quota for a species. If he does, he would have to tie up for the rest of the year. He might have to sell the boat, or sell the house,” says Barrie Deas, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in York, U.K. “What’s he going to do?”  Scofflaws could jeopardize not just fish stocks, but also data about how they are faring. Researchers, who suggest catch levels to regulators, get their discard data largely from independent observers on just a few boats—less than 1% of the EU fleet. Observed boats are now likely to discard much fewer fish than other vessels, leaving an official undercount of the discard rate and a falsely rosy picture of how heavily stocks are fished, says Lisa Borges, a fisheries biologist who runs a consultancy called FishFix in Lisbon. “It could bring about a very big, negative change,” Borges says. “I get very worried about European fisheries management.”

Environmentalists want to toughen up enforcement by installing cameras on ships, the practice in New Zealand and a few other places with discard bans. But Voces de Onaindi says this is impractical on some vessels and raises privacy concerns. Countries where discard bans have succeeded, including Norway and Iceland, have gradually introduced incentives and controls to develop the economic use of unwanted fish and create a culture of regulatory compliance. Those steps, Andersen says, lessen conflict but can take decades to achieve.

Ships banned from throwing unwanted fish overboard
Erik Stokstad

Fishing in the Arctic: Banned

The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) in Ilulissat, Greenland was adopted on October 3, 2018.  The historic agreement represents a collaborative and precautionary approach by ten countries to the management of high seas fish stocks in the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement covers approximately 2.8 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

Ice has traditionally covered the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean year-round. Recently, the melting of Arctic sea ice has left large areas of the high seas uncovered for much of the year. The Agreement bars unregulated fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean for 16 years and establishes a joint program of scientific research and monitoring to gain a better understanding of Arctic Ocean ecosystems. It also authorizes vessels to conduct commercial fishing in the CAO only after international mechanisms are in place to manage any such fishing. This effort marks the first time an international agreement of this magnitude has been proactively reached before any commercial fishing has taken place in a high seas area.

Signatories include the United States, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Norway, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation.

Excerpt from U.S. Signs Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Commercial Fishing on the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, NOAA Press Release, Oct. 3, 2018

Open-Ocean Farming

Ocean Farm 1 is the first of six experimental fish farms ordered by SalMar, a Norwegian firm, at a total cost of $300 million. InnovaSea, an American firm, makes large open-ocean aquaculture nets called SeaStations, which are currently used off the coast of Panama and Hawaii, but Ocean Farm 1 is “by far the largest open-ocean fish farm in the world,” says Thor Hukkelas, who leads research and development on aquaculture at Kongsberg Maritime, a Norwegian engineering company. Mr Hukkelas’s team provided Ocean Farm 1’s sensor system: 12 echo sounders mounted on the bottom of the frame, high-definition cameras dangled into the water at different depths, oxygen sensors and movable, submerged feeding tubes.

Fish farming plays an increasingly central role in the provision of sufficient amounts of protein to Earth’s population. People eat more fish globally than beef, and farmed fish account for almost half of that amount  Many wild fisheries are already at or past their sustainable capacity, so efforts to make fish farming more productive are vital.

Ocean Farm 1 aims to automate what is an expensive and difficult business, and to solve two key problems that occur in near-shore aquaculture: that there is not enough space and that it is too polluting. The excrement from millions of salmon can easily foul up Norway’s fjords, and their shallow, relatively still water is a breeding ground for sea lice. In the open ocean the water is deeper and better oxygenated. The currents are stronger and so better able to sweep away excrement.

Near-shore farms normally spread feed on the water’s surface and allow it to sink, but Ocean Farm 1 has 16 valves at varying depths, through which feed can be pushed. By putting it farther down in the cage it is able to keep the salmon in deeper water. The salmon are fine with this. The sea lice, which like the shallows, are not.

All of this means the number of fish can be increased. The Norwegian government wants to triple its aquaculture production by 2030 and quintuple it by 2050. “Scaling up of traditional aquaculture is not going to reach these high-growth ambitions,” says Mr Hukkelas.

Kongsberg is gathering data from all the sensors on the farm to build a machine-learning model, called SimSalma, which learns the behaviour of the salmon in order to optimise their feeding. Currently, human operators on the structure decide when and where to feed the fish by examining the data. By 2019 Kongsberg plans to have automated this, pushing feed at optimum times and places and reducing human involvement. The success and expansion of such projects would represent a major step towards maintaining global fish stocks.

Net gains: Open-ocean fish farming is becoming easier, Economist,  Mar. 10, 2018.

Survival of Bluefin Tuna

Japanese call bluefin tuna “the king of fish”. They eat about 40,000 tonnes of it a year—80% of the global catch. Demand is also growing rapidly elsewhere. Yet Pacific bluefin stocks are down by 97% from their peak in the early 1960s, according to a recent report from the International Scientific Committee, an intergovernmental panel of experts. (Japan disputes its findings.) In some places, fishing is three times the sustainable level, the committee says.

Aquaculture might seem to offer a way out of this impasse. But the bluefin is hard to breed in captivity. In the open sea, it can roam for thousands of miles and grow to over 400kg. It is highly sensitive to light, temperature and noise. Early attempts to farm it fizzled, but Kindai University persisted long after an initial research grant from the government ran out in the early 1970s. In 2002, funding itself from sales of other fish, it managed to rear adult tuna from eggs for the first time, rather than simply fattening up juveniles caught at sea. Now the chefs in Ginza can have a tuna zapped with an electric prod and yanked out of the university’s tanks on demand.

However, just 1% of the bluefin the university rears survive to adulthood. “We expect this to improve but it will take time,” predicts Shukei Masuma, the director of its Aquaculture Research Institute. Worse, the tuna gobble up lots of wild mackerel and squid. Scientists have experimented with soy-based meal and other alternatives. A company in south-western Japan said this month that it had managed to raise tuna using feed made of fishmeal, but it is costly and the fish are slow to thrive. Using wild fish for feed makes bluefin farming unsustainable, says Atsushi Ishii of Tohoku University. He sees aquaculture as a distraction from the thorny task of managing fisheries properly.

This debate is slowly seeping into the public consciousness. In 2014 the media made much of the decision of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a conservation body, to put bluefin tuna on its “red list” of species threatened with extinction.

Excerpts from The Japanese Addiction to Tuna: Breeding Bluefin, Economist, Sept 24, 2016

Endangered Fish as Delicacy

The most recent estimate puts the remaining numbers of vaquita, a porpoise found only in the waters of the Sea of Cortés, Mexico, at just 60, down from 100 two years ago…. The vaquita has been a victim of the shrimp and totoaba fisheries, showing up as bycatch in gillnets.

The totoaba is also an endangered species but its swim bladder is a delicacy in China, selling for as much as US $5,000 per kilogram in the U.S. and a great deal more in China. The matter has been taken up by Agriculture Secretary José Calzada Rovirosa with Chinese officials in an effort to stop the illegal consumption of the bladders.  Vaquitas are not only being killed by totoaba fishing. When illegal fishermen are pursued by the Mexican Navy, they often cut their nets and set them adrift, becoming an additional threat to the porpoise.

Removing these “ghost nets” will be one of the steps taken before the implementation of an assisted breeding program, said marine mammal expert Lorenzo Rojas Bracho from the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.

There are doubts about the feasibility of a breeding program as well as concerns about the risk. “We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said vaquita expert Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Excerpt from Assisted breeding for endangered vaquita?, Mexico News Daily, June 28, 2016

Justice 4 Fish

Hundreds of people have held a rare protest in Vietnam against the unexplained mass death of fish on the country’s central coast. Vast numbers of dead fish have appeared across some 200km (125 miles) of coastline since early April. A government investigation has so far found no links to a steel plant owned by Taiwanese firm Formosa Plastics.But many of the demonstrators in Hanoi blamed the company, and carried placards saying “Formosa Out”. Other signs read “Formosa destroying the environment is a crime” and “Who poisoned the central region’s waters?”

Environment Minister Tran Hong Ha said the die-off was “a very huge and serious environment disaster” and admitted that the government had been slow to react.He said Formosa Plastics had been ordered to dig up an illegal waste pipe at its plant.  Fishermen along the affected coastline are banned from selling their stocks, but seafood industry officials said exports, that bring in $6.6b a year, would not be affected.

Excerpt from Vietnam protest over mystery fish deaths, BBC, May 1, 2016