Archive for November, 2011

Nov 29 2011

Partnership Preserves Livelihoods and Fish Stocks

Stevie Fitz leases a fishing permit from the Nature Conservancy. He reports his catches as part of the group's effort to manage fish stocks in Half Moon Bay. (Peter DaSilva for The New York Times)


HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Stevie Fitz, a commercial fisherman, was pulling up his catch in one of his favorite spots off of Point Reyes in June when he saw something terrifying — in his nets were nearly 300 bocaccio, a dwindling species of rockfish protected by the government.

There are such strict limits on catching the overfished bocaccio that netting a large load, even by accident, can sideline and even ruin an independent fisherman.

Still, Mr. Fitz did not try to hide his mistake by slipping it back into the deep. Instead, he reported himself. With a few swipes on his iPad, he posted the exact time and location of the catch to a computerized mapping system shared by a fleet of 13 commercial boats, helping others to avoid his mistake.

“It was a slap in the face,” he said, “but we are trying to build an information base that will help everyone out.” He was later able to sell the bocaccio, although the catch still counted against his quota for the year.

A lifelong fisherman, Mr. Fitz is part of a very unusual business arrangement with the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group that is trying to transform commercial fishing in the region by offering a model of how to keep the industry vital without damaging fish stocks or sensitive areas of the ocean floor.

Five years ago, the conservancy bought out area fishing boats and licenses in a fairly extreme deal — forged with the local fishing industry — to protect millions of acres of fish habitat. The unusual collaboration was enjoined to meet stricter federal regulations and the results of a successful legal challenge. But once the conservancy had access to what was essentially its own private commercial fishing fleet, the group decided to put the boats back to work and set up a collaborative model for sustainable fishing.

Bringing information technology and better data collection to such an old-world industry is part of the plan. So is working with the fishermen it licenses to control overfishing by expanding closed areas and converting trawlers — boats that drag weighted nets across the ocean floor — to engage in more gentle and less ecologically damaging techniques like using traps, hooks and line, and seine netting.

The conservancy’s model is designed to take advantage of radical new changes in government regulation that allow fishermen in the region both more control and more responsibility for their operating choices. The new rules have led to better conservation practices across all fleets, government monitors say.

“It is blowing me away what is happening out there,” said William Stelle, the administrator for Pacific Northwest region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine fisheries service. But, he added, the conservancy “may be the most sophisticated example of the successful marriage of interests between the environmental community and the fishing industry in marine conservation.” Similar programs are beginning to appear in other places.

American fish stocks have been troubled since the early 1990s and remain so because of overfishing, pollution, and warming seas. The government says that today 23 percent of fish stocks are not at self-sustaining levels at current fishing pressure.

Congress passed a law in 1996 demanding that local fishery councils protect “essential fish habitat.” In 2006, it also imposed tight catch limits for overfished species. As a result, if a fishery exceeds its limit on just one of these species, under federal law, the entire area could be closed to commercial boats for a season.

Local councils have struggled to balance the inherent tensions of adhering to these limits without ruining the fishermen’s ability to make a living. To do this, they have imposed regulations like prohibiting fishing in some areas, dictating the catch season and limiting what techniques and gear are used.

But last year, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council replaced some of those restrictions with strict quotas on six imperiled species and parceled them out among all 138 commercial vessels along the coast. Government observers are now put on every boat to make sure there is no cheating.

The downside is that if one boat lands too much of a sensitive species, known as bycatch, it must be docked until it can buy another boat’s unused quota — and there is not always a market to balance the catch. The quota system also provides incentive for each fisherman in the risk pool to help prevent others from using up their quota. And the early results for fish stocks are promising. Bycatch has dropped from 15 percent to 20 percent of the total haul to less than 1 percent.

The Nature Conservancy first got involved in central California in 2004 when it was looking to invest in marine conservation zones. The group realized that it needed better information to preserve the most critical areas.

“What the fishermen had was a deep local knowledge of the habitats of certain species,” said Michael Bell, senior project director with the conservancy. “There wasn’t scientific information at that level that could match the fisherman knowledge.”

Read the rest from The New York Times.

Nov 25 2011

Shrinkage of Humboldt squid puzzles scientists

A scientist uses his hand to show the small size of a Humboldt squid found in the Sea of Cortez (Steve Fyffe / Stanford News Service)

David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A mysterious force has stunted the growth of Humboldt squid in the Sea of Cortez, and marine biologists suspect a change in the weather is to blame.

The ravenous animals normally weigh up to 30 pounds when they spawn at 12 to 18 months of age, but Stanford biologists have discovered a group of the squid that weigh only a pound apiece and spawn at less than 6 months old.

The rubbery animals with their long tentacles are a precious livelihood for Mexican commercial fishermen along the Gulf of California, and they’re a prized prey for gringo sportsmen.

But to William Gilly, a marine biologist at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, they’re a scientific puzzle.

In a paper recently published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress, Gilly said he suspects the squid’s shrinkage was caused by the abrupt warming of the gulf’s water as a result of an El Niño that was detected during the 2009-10 winter.

The El Niño phenomenon, also known as the Southern Oscillation, occurs periodically when high surface air pressure over the Western Pacific pushes temperatures up throughout the tropical Eastern Pacific, including the Gulf of California, causing water temperatures to rise.

In September 2009, Gilly said, he and his colleagues cruised the Gulf of California, better known as the Sea of Cortez, and found abundant squid in their normal spawning grounds and their usual size.

“But in May, a year later, we couldn’t find any normal-sized squid in their normal spawning grounds,” he said. “Instead, the area was full of smaller squid – really small.”

A month later, Gilly said, the squid were still very small and spawning in what was formerly the normal spawning area for normal-size squid, while one group of full-size ones had migrated and were thriving 100 miles north around the gulf’s Midriff Islands.

“No one really understands the El Niño phenomenon,” Lilly said, “but it seems to be the best explanation – a change in the temperature is enough to change the total environment for squid or any other living organisms in the gulf.”

Read the rest at The San Francisco Chronicle.

Nov 25 2011

Rebuilding Fisheries: There’s an App for That

'iPhone' photo (c) 2008, William Hook - license:

Executive director, The Nature Conservancy – California

My daughter and I love to fish (on my iPhone). She’s 2; I’m a bit older, but we’re both excellent anglers (on my iPhone). Flick Fishing and Fishing Kings are our favorites. It’s no substitute for a father-daughter fishing trip, but there’s much less gear involved, and we never have to retie our lines. I’m keen on teaching her where her food comes from and never thinking fish comes from the grocery store. Catching things to eat is the world’s oldest profession, despite what they say about the other one. If you think about it, of everything we eat today, the only wild animals we still really hunt for food are fish.

The problem is that we’re getting too good at it.

That hunt is now going high tech in much bigger ways than my iPhone games. Off our California coast, environmentalists and fishermen have teamed up to use apps and iPads to not only find the right fish, but also to make sure we don’t catch them all. Keeping a stable population of fish healthy ensures there will be fish left to fish tomorrow. If you’re a commercial fisherman, you are required to record the number of fish you caught and where you caught them. Typically, you send all that data on hand-written logs into the federal fisheries agency and that’s the last you see of it. Enter eCatch, a new app developed by The Nature Conservancy and fishermen that lets them load their catch data at sea and have real time access to the latest information on where the fish are — the ones they want to catch and the ones they need to avoid.

Sharing information on what you caught and where is not the norm for fishermen. They tend to be the original rugged individualists and too often get caught in the race to catch more fish before the other guy does. The results of this have been bad for everyone: rapidly declining fish populations and fishermen going out of business. But a group of fishermen off our coast is trying to change the game by collaborating and sharing information.

Read the rest here.

Nov 24 2011

Unidentified floating objects are squid boats

On Sunday, these lighted boats appeared off the coast of San Clemente, harvesting squid to be marketed as calamari. (FRED SWEGLES, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER)

Lighted vessels seen off Laguna Beach recently and now off San Clemente are catching ‘market squid’ that will end up as calamari.


If you’ve seen the light, and it was off the coast the past few nights, chances are it was from a fleet of commercial boats harvesting squid.

They are known as “light boats,” and they use floodlights to attract squid, which a companion boat then gathers into a net.

They aren’t a new phenomenon, but anytime they show up off the coast, residents wonder what they are. Ken Nielsen, a longtime commercial fisherman and coastal researcher, says the boats were off Laguna Beach for two weeks and now are off San Clemente.

The squid they are netting are known as “market squid,” Nielsen said. They’re 8 to 12 inches long – not the same as several hundred jumbo squid that washed ashore in September. Those are known as Humboldt squid.

Read the rest of the story from the Orange County Resister.





Nov 23 2011

Squid and sardine fishing is no danger to species in Monterey Bay

By D.B. Pleschner

Special to the Mercury News

Posted: 11/22/2011

The Monterey Bay region’s healthiest fisheries are under attack by extremists.

Touting studies with faulty calculations, activists have been trying to persuade federal regulators to massively curtail sardine limits, if not ban fishing outright. But the science doesn’t support their conclusions. California already has a precautionary management system in place that provides comprehensive overfishing protection for sardines and other coastal pelagic “wetfish,” including market squid.

The facts don’t seem to matter to groups with a protectionist agenda. Their rhetoric leaves those unfamiliar with the fishing industry with the impression that overfishing is a huge problem in California. It isn’t.

Oceana and similar organizations want unnecessary cutbacks in sardine fishing, as well as substantial limits on other forage fish, including herring, anchovies and squid — which are also already managed sustainably.

Today’s fishery management of coastal pelagic species along the West Coast portion of the California Current Ecosystem is recognized as the most protective in the world, one of only a few areas that’s deemed sustainable by internationally recognized scientists. This is not a newly implemented strategy. The state and federal government established guidelines more than a decade ago for coastal pelagic species harvested in California and on the West Coast, maintaining at least 75 percent of the fish in the ocean to ensure a resilient core biomass for other marine species.

The sardine protection rate is even higher, at close to 90 percent. In addition, California implemented a network of marine reserves in state waters through the Marine Life Protection Act. Many reserves were established explicitly to protect forage species for other marine life. For example, more than 30 percent of traditional squid harvest grounds are closed in reserve, including important bird rookery and haul-out areas around Año Nuevo and the Farallon Islands.

Does that sound like overfishing to you?

Environmental groups say they want to establish an ecosystem-based approach to fishery management that takes into account species’ dependence on one another and would ultimately result in lower fishing limits. These groups were the prime movers behind AB 1299, a bill that failed to pass the Legislature, for good reason.

California already has the most precautionary fishery management system in the world. That bill would restrict our state’s fishermen unnecessarily and unfairly: Virtually all the forage species listed in the bill are actively managed or monitored by the federal government as well as the state, and most species are harvested along the entire West Coast, not just in California.

As for sardine management, environmentalists complained that the harvest-control rule used to set fishing quotas was outdated. But recent scientific analyses showed that the rule actually underestimated sardine productivity. Thus, recent year harvest limits were even more precautionary than necessary.

The Scientific and Statistical Committee advising the Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended a workshop in 2012 to review harvest control rule parameters, including sardine reproductivity. Annual fertility in sardines is known to be heavily age and size dependent. Future analyses, including both stock assessments and harvest management analyses, should include this important life-history trait. The fishing industry supports this work. A new and more complete assessment of the sardine-control rule will be developed.

Further, it’s time to enact international management cooperation for the sardine resource, not just restrictions on the state level. An international effort to mount a summer survey extending into both Mexico and Canada is planned for 2012. If Oceana and its allies are really interested in protecting sardines, they should fully support this scientific effort. We certainly do.

D.B. Pleschner is executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association. 

Nov 21 2011

Another Banner Year for Market Squid

'Squid' photo (c) 2011, Toshiyuki IMAI - license:

By Danna Staaf

The California market squid fishery is about to be closed for the second time in its entire history.

That may sound bad, but it’s actually a sign of a booming business. The annual quota for market squid is 118,000 tonnes, a number so high that for years no one was sure it would ever be reached. But just last year, an abundance of squid led the fishery to be closed on December 17th, and this year it’s due to close a month earlier: November 18th.

It’s worth remembering that this fishery follows a boom-and-bust cycle, and the science behind the squid is poorly understood. Last year I interviewed two squid scientists (former co-workers of mine) for an article in the Monterey Weekly, and came away with this:

Read the rest on Science 2.0.

Nov 18 2011

Squid fishermen ask state commission to halt closure

'Fishing boats' photo (c) 2007, Peter Pearson - license:

Commercial squid fishermen are enjoying a banner year and have asked the California Fish and Game Commission to take emergency action and increase the quota for market squid.

The Department of Fish and Game announced on Nov. 10 that the commercial fishery for market squid will close at noon Friday, Nov. 18.

The Commission was told Wednesday at its meeting in Santa Barbara that the squid will die whether they’re harvested or not. The Commission asked the Department of Fish and Game for an update on the harvest numbers and quota, and the Commission also asked the state’s Deputy Attorney General about the process for emergency regulations. Those details are expected to be worked out later today or at tomorrow’s conclusion of the two-day meeting in Santa Barbara.

Commissioner Richard Rogers, the chair of the panel, said there was a “mind-boggling bio mass” of squid. The commercial squid fishermen said the cold water event that exists off California has led to an explosion in all bait species, from krill to anchovies, sardines and squid. The “ocean is rich with fish right now,” one squid fisherman said. “There is a large krill population, and the squid are eating krill.” Fishermen believe the state’s quota for squid does not take into account boom years such as this one.

The DFG decided to close the season based on landings information and projections. The DFG determined that the season’s harvest limit of 118,000 short tons of market squid will be reached by that date. The squid fishing season runs from April through the following March of each year. A closure would mean the fishery would remain closed through March 31, 2012.

Read the rest at The San Diego Union Tribune.