Tag Archives: fishing

Obama administration announces rule to deal with illegal fishing, seafood fraud

The Obama administration on Dec. 8 issued a final rule to implement the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to address illegal fishing and seafood fraud in the United States.

This rule will require imported seafood at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud to be traced from the fishing boat or farm to the U.S. border, helping to stop illegally caught and mislabeled seafood from entering the United States.

This is a statement by Oceana senior campaign director Beth Lowell:

Today’s announcement is a groundbreaking step towards more transparency and traceability in the seafood supply chain. We applaud President Obama for his ambitious plan to require traceability for imported seafood ‘at-risk’ of illegal fishing and seafood fraud.

For the first time ever, some imported seafood will now be held to the same standards as domestically caught fish, helping to level the playing field for American fishermen and reducing the risk facing U.S. consumers.

But the problem doesn’t stop here. We must continue to build on this important work and expand seafood traceability to include all seafood sold in the U.S. and extend it throughout the entire supply chain.

Without full-chain traceability for all seafood, consumers will continue to be cheated, hardworking, honest fishermen will continue to be undercut, and the long-term productivity of our oceans will continue to be in jeopardy.

American consumers deserve to know more about their seafood, including what kind of fish it is, and how and where it was caught or farmed. While Oceana celebrates today’s announcement, there’s still more to do in the fight against illegal fishing and seafood fraud.

 

About Oceana…

Oceana’s investigations of fish, shrimp, crab cakes and most recently salmon, in retail markets and restaurants found that, on average, one-third of the seafood examined in these studies was mislabeled — the product listed on the label or menu was different from what the buyer thought they purchased, often a less desirable or lower-priced species. Oceana has observed threatened species being sold as more sustainable, expensive varieties replaced with cheaper alternatives and fish that can cause illness substituted in place of those that are safer to eat.

In September, Oceana released a report detailing the global scale of seafood fraud, finding that on average, one in five of more than 25,000 samples of seafood tested worldwide was mislabeled. In the report, Oceana reviewed more than 200 published studies from 55 countries, on every continent except Antarctica, and found seafood fraud in 99.9 percent of the studies. The studies reviewed also found seafood mislabeling in every sector of the seafood supply chain: retail, wholesale, distribution, import/export, packaging/processing and landing.

The report also highlighted recent developments in the European Union to crack down on illegal fishing and improve transparency and accountability in the seafood supply chain. According to Oceana’s analysis, preliminary data out of the EU suggests that catch documentation, traceability and consumer labeling are feasible and effective at reducing seafood fraud.

For more information about Oceana’s campaign to stop seafood fraud, please visit www.oceana.org/fraud.

Shrimp slaves wait for justice 8 months after Thai raid

Nearly eight months ago, migrant worker Tin Nyo Win thought he was doing the right thing — the only thing — to help free his pregnant wife from slavery inside a Thai shrimp peeling shed. He ran for help and prompted police to raid the business, freeing nearly 100 Burmese laborers, including child slaves.

Yet the couple ended up first in jail and then held inside a government shelter, even though they were victims of trafficking. That’s where they remain today with a few other workers from the Gig Peeling Factory, waiting to testify in a slow-moving court case while their former employers are free on bail. Angry and frustrated, they just want to go home.

“I feel like I’ve been victimized three times. Once in the shrimp shed, the second time in … jail and now again in the shelter,” Tin Nyo Win said on a mobile phone smuggled in by another Burmese worker.

“Even prisoners know how many years or months they will be in prison, but we don’t know anything about how many years or months we’ll be stuck here,” he added. “It’s worse than prison.”

Recently, Thailand was lifted off the U.S. State Department’s blacklist, where it had been listed for the past two years as one of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders alongside North Korea, Syria, Iran and others. Some activists saw the upgrade as a political move by Washington to appease an ally, and 21 labor, anti-trafficking and environmental groups expressed their disappointment in an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Thai government lobbied hard ahead of the announcement, saying new laws have been passed to help protect victims. The government also said that 241 human traffickers were sentenced in 2015, and 34 officials are facing prosecution for involvement or complicity in the trade.

But critics say low-level people or brokers from other countries are typically the ones jailed instead of Thai business owners, corrupt police or high-ranking officials.

“Debt bondage for migrants is still the norm, and police abuse and extortion happens on a daily basis all over the country,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. “While it’s good that prosecutions are going up, the reality is that we’re still talking about the tip of the iceberg here.”

The country has been under international pressure to clean up its $7 billion annual seafood export industry, including the threat of a seafood import ban from the European Union. An Associated Press investigation last year uncovered a slave island with migrant fishermen locked in a cage and buried under fake Thai names. The reporting, which led to more than 2,000 men being freed, followed the slave-caught seafood to Thailand and on to American dinner tables.

The investigation also focused on the Gig Peeling shed in Samut Sakhon, just outside of Bangkok, where Tin Nyo Win and his wife, Mi San, were forced to work 16 hours a day. They had to rip the guts, heads and tails off shrimp that entered supply chains feeding some of America’s biggest companies, including Red Lobster, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and most major U.S. supermarkets. Many companies have said they are taking steps to prevent labor abuses.

Col. Prasert Siriphanapitat, the Samut Sakhon deputy police commander, said witness testimony began in April in the Gig shed case against three Thai defendants and two Burmese brokers. Only one Burmese suspect has been located. He added that new laws mandate quick prosecution of human trafficking, meaning the Gig case will likely be closed by the end of the year. But Tin Nyo Win said he and his wife have not spoken to a prosecutor or been informed about the case’s progress.

Suwalee Jaiharn, director of the country’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons division, said Thailand’s eight shelters are there to protect undocumented workers and denied that those housed inside are prohibited from leaving. She added, however, that some victims of trafficking are more closely monitored if they are expected to testify in criminal cases.

“We are protection centers and not detention centers,” she said. “There is an exception when some victims are witnesses in human trafficking cases. We have to give them extra protection.”

Suwalee said Thailand’s laws allow victims to testify ahead of their trials so they can go home quickly, or stay and work in the country. But aid workers said these options are rarely made available to migrant workers, leaving victims to wait in facilities far from home.

“Somebody’s always ordering you, and you are always under watch by someone and having to get permission all the time. This is totally what trafficking victims would have gone through while they were being trafficked,” said Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw, senior case adviser at the Bangkok-based nonprofit Project Issara, which assists trafficking victims. “It is very difficult for them to feel empowered and like their needs are being met.”

For the first few months that Tin Nyo Win and Mi San were in the shelter, they said they were not allowed to have a phone. They couldn’t leave the shelter unaccompanied. They couldn’t work.

“If victims see that when they come forward they are kept in government shelters but not given freedom to work and move around, then what incentive do they have to come forward?” said Susan Coppedge, the U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador.

Following a supervised interview with AP at the shelter, Tin Nyo Win spoke candidly on a call. He said restrictions eased a couple of months ago, and victims can now have a phone and go outside the compound unsupervised. However, only eight people from the Gig case are still in the shelter, after 12 undocumented workers ran away. Those who remain worry they will never be compensated for unpaid wages and the abuses they suffered.

“My sister is in another shelter. She is 17 years old, and we have no chance to see each other. I’ve asked permission to see her many times, but I’m not allowed,” said Hkin Tet Mun, 31, adding that phone calls to her sibling are also prohibited. “I’m worried about her, and my sister wants to stay with me.”

Win Kai, 19, said he’s also desperate to leave, but feels trapped.

“My family is so worried about me,” he said by phone. “I don’t want to stay in the shelter. Can you help me quickly?”

Tin Nyo Win’s wife, now seven months pregnant, rubs the growing bump under her bright flowered shirt. She yearns to have the baby at home. But her husband says he won’t go — even if it means missing the birth of his child.

“We want to show the boss that we are really victims, and we want to show this to the court,” he said. “We want to see justice carried out.”

A historic fishing industry faces a warming world

The cod isn’t just a fish to David Goethel. It’s his identity, his ticket to middle-class life, his link to a historic industry.

“I paid for my education, my wife’s education, my house, my kids’ education; my slice of America was paid for on cod,” said Goethel, a 30-year veteran of these waters that once teemed with New England’s signature fish.

But on a chilly, windy Saturday in April, after 12 hours out in the Gulf of Maine, he has caught exactly two cod, and he feels far removed from the 1990s, when he could catch 2,000 pounds in a day.

His boat, the Ellen Diane, a 44-foot fishing trawler named for his wife, is the only vessel pulling into the Yankee Fishermen’s Co-op in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Fifteen years ago, there might have been a half-dozen. He is carrying crates of silver hake, skates and flounder — all worth less than cod.

One of America’s oldest commercial industries, fishing along the coast of the Northeast still employs hundreds. But every month that goes by, those numbers fall. After centuries of weathering overfishing, pollution, foreign competition and increasing government regulation, the latest challenge is the one that’s doing them in: climate change.

Though no waters are immune to the ravages of climate change, the Gulf of Maine, a dent in the coastline from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, best illustrates the problem. The gulf, where fishermen have for centuries sought lobster, cod and other species that thrived in its cold waters, is now warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, scientists have said.

The warming waters, in the gulf and elsewhere, have caused other valuable species, such as clams, to migrate to deeper or more northern waters. Others, such as lobsters, have largely abandoned the once-lucrative waters off the southern New England states of Connecticut and Rhode Island, having become more susceptible to disease or predators.

Lobster catches in Maine are booming as the species creeps northward, but as the warming continues, that’s a good thing bound to end. A federal report from 2009 said that half of 36 fish stocks studied in the northwest Atlantic Ocean have been shifting northward over the past 40 years, and that the trend is likely to continue.

Fish aren’t the only ones moving on, and not just in the Northeast. The U.S. fishing fleet has dwindled from more than 120,000 vessels in 1996 to about 75,000 today, the Coast Guard says.

For the fishermen of the northeastern U.S. — not all of whom accept the scientific consensus on climate change, and many of whom bristle at government regulations stemming from it — whether to stick with fishing, adapt to the changing ocean or leave the business is a constant worry.

WAVING THE WHITE FLAG

Robert Bradfield was one of the East Coast’s most endangered species, a Rhode Island lobsterman, until he pulled his traps out of the water for the last time about a decade ago.

Bradfield, of Newport, started in the fishery in the mid-1970s and stayed in it for some 30 years, sometimes catching 2,000 pounds of lobster a day. During his final years, he was lucky if he caught 100 pounds, not even enough to pay for bait, fuel and deckhands.

He now works on a pilot boat, guiding larger ships in and out of the harbor. He is glad he’s still on the water, but he misses lobstering and the community of fishermen he used to see in Newport.

“There’s probably 95 percent attrition out of that fishery in this area,” Bradfield said. “Of all the guys I fished with, I was a lobsterman for 30 years, and there’s maybe three left.”

The number of adult lobsters in New England south of Cape Cod slid to about 10 million in 2013, according to a report issued last year by an interstate regulatory board. It was about 50 million in the late 1990s. The lobster catch in the region sank to about 3.3 million pounds in 2013, from a peak of about 22 million in 1997.

Bradfield’s take on the role of warming oceans is nuanced and reflects the many years he spent on the water. Shell disease, he said, has taken a toll on southern New England’s lobster stock, something scientists say is a result of rising temperatures.

Bradfield also agrees with scientists who say the increase in predatory fish, such as black sea bass, is bad for the lobster population. Warming oceans are responsible for the increase in those fish species off New England, scientists say.

But Bradfield, a father to three grown children, also said his decision to leave the fishery was more about economics than science. He thinks some published studies are inconsistent. And he laments that Newport’s docks, once home to dozens of lobster boats, are now down to a few.

“It tore me up to do something else,” he said.

Others in the lobster business dispute the science that lays the blame on climate change. Nicholas Crismale, a former lobsterman and president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen’s Association, is one of many lobstermen in his state who believes pesticide runoff is to blame.

Connecticut researchers found no pesticides in lobsters collected in Long Island Sound in late 2014. But Crismale, out of the business for four years and helping to run his wife’s restaurant, Lobster Shack in Branford, sticks to the hypothesis, even in the face of science.

“The warming stuff is a lot of baloney,” he said. “All that is is another scientist looking for a grant.”

Crismale said it’s a shame that lobstering, often a multigenerational enterprise in New England, is reaching its end in Connecticut. He used to bring his daughters out fishing with him, but they’ve grown up to be a lawyer and a teacher, and another generation isn’t taking their place.

“I’m never going to be able to take a grandchild out on my boat,” Crismale said. “And some of the other fishermen were second and third-generation fishermen. And they lost all that.”

Connecticut’s lobster fishery, based on Long Island Sound, has been hit especially hard by warming water and has been reduced to nearly nothing.

A power plant on the sound recorded more than 75 days with an average water temperature above 68 degrees Fahrenheit in each of the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, according to a regulatory board’s report. Between 1976 and 2010, that happened only twice. Lobsters prefer temperatures in the high 50s and low 60s.

There were nearly 300 lobstermen in Connecticut in 1999, and now there are maybe a dozen full-timers left.

Some in the Rhode Island lobster fishery said it’s still possible to make a living in the business.

Greg Mataronas, the president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, who fishes out of Little Compton, said regulations and territoriality prevent members of the state’s fleet from moving to more fertile grounds. But the few remaining lobstermen in Rhode Island are still able to pull lobsters from the state’s waters, he said.

“There’s a real disconnect between what the guys are seeing on the water and what the scientists are saying,” he said.

Bradfield isn’t buying it. He is glad he left the business, as painful as it was to leave a piece of his identity behind.

“There’s a saying: Behind every successful fisherman is a wife with a good job,” he said. “You go down to the State Pier in Rhode Island now, guys hate what they’re doing right now.”

HANGING ON, GETTING BY

David Goethel has spent most of his life fishing for New England cod, and he doesn’t want to stop now.

“I could catch the entire quota for the Gulf of Maine in eight days,” Goethel said in a bit of bravado he swears is not an exaggeration. “I wouldn’t break a sweat doing it.”

Fishing is in Goethel’s blood. He paid his way through Boston University by taking thrill-seekers out on “party boat” fishing trips in Boston Harbor and segued into commercial cod fishing in 1982.

Today, he operates a trawler that leaves from New Hampshire, its nets scouring the Gulf of Maine for fish. But the catch these days is different — with the cod in jeopardy and quotas that limit his ability to catch them at all-time lows, cod fishermen like Goethel try to eke out a living by supplementing cod with just about anything else they can catch.

Goethel is making much less money. In the 1980s and 1990s, he could bring in $120,000 in a year, but is now making about $60,000, without subtracting a health insurance bill over $27,000. He and his wife, who is up every day at 4 a.m. for a far-flung teaching job, haven’t taken a vacation in three years.

Retirement isn’t in the cards for the 62-year-old Goethel — at least, not soon.

“My wife is working far more than she used to,” he said. “I have to work more to make less.”

The challenges climate change have brought to commercial fishing are perhaps most noticeable in New England’s cod fishery, which has dwindled from more than 1,200 boats in the 1980s to only a few dozen today. In that time, the catch of cod has also plummeted, from more than 117 million pounds in 1980 to just over 5 million in 2014.

Most consumers haven’t noticed the collapse, with cod still readily available at restaurants and markets because of foreign sources like Iceland and Norway.

Scientists said late last year that the impact of climate change on Atlantic cod might be worse than previously thought. Fishermen pursue the fish in the Gulf of Maine and, farther off New England, the shallows of Georges Bank, both of which have experienced dramatic temperature rise. Around 2004, the gulf began warming about 10 times faster than previously.

“This is what global warming looks like in the Gulf of Maine,” said Andrew Pershing, a Maine-based marine scientist who co-authored the paper last year in the journal Science.

Goethel, also a marine scientist and a former member of a regional regulatory board, doesn’t bemoan the ocean’s changing temperature as much as the rules he must play by. Because of the tight quotas, he must avoid fishing around areas where cod live, he said. That is because cod are a “choke species,” and when fishermen reach their quota for cod they aren’t allowed to pursue other fish.

Like others in the cod fishery, Goethel has had to adapt, but at his core he remains a cod fisherman. The experience has left him frustrated and more than a little bitter.

He doesn’t dispute the scientific consensus about climate change, but he does think government regulators apply that science in a manner unnecessarily punitive to fishermen. He plastered a sticker on his boat declaring, “Who says there’s no fish?”

For the most recent fishing year, he was allotted 3,600 pounds of cod. He caught his allotment of 60,000 pounds in 2010, and leased and caught an additional 50,000. He believes that the cod have moved and not died off, and that he could easily continue catching high totals without strict regulations.

Scientists have said warming waters have indeed motivated some young cod to seek deeper, colder waters — some of which are closed to fishing.

The cuts to catch limits represented the first and biggest blow to the industry, and they stemmed from overfishing and subsequent regulations designed to stop fishermen from taking too much from the sea. They were meant to preserve the fishery for future generations, and it made earning a living difficult.

Climate change has only exacerbated that trouble.

Other obstacles, such as the government-imposed cost of on-board monitors to collect data to inform future fishing quotas, have rankled Goethel, who lawsuit seeking to block the charges is pending. But he perseveres.

“The future of the cod fishery is not that it’s in jeopardy,” Goethel said. “It needs to be recalibrated.”

Government regulators, such as John Bullard, a regional administrator for fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have said the quota cuts that irk fishermen are necessary to rebuild the stock. But he has acknowledged the rebuilding effort comes with an “economic price.”

The changes have been difficult emotionally for Goethel, whose sons, Daniel and Eric, are a fisheries biologist and a tugboat captain. He instilled a love of fishing in everyone in his family, and old traditions are hard to part with.

“Eric would get rolled out of bed to go fishing,” Ellen said. “He did the same thing to me.”

ADAPTING, COMMUTING

Michael Mohr harvested surf clams for almost 30 of his 55 years, and his desire to stay in the only business he has ever known now takes him far from his family.

The clams he caught for decades feed tourists and locals alike in towns all along the coast. Now, those clams, which he once caught off New Jersey, are found northward or farther out to sea.

Mohr has also moved on. About 10 years ago, he started commuting six hours each way from his home in Mays Landing, New Jersey, to the former whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He has also switched clam species; he got his start fishing for Atlantic surf clams but now pursues the ocean quahog.

The quahog is well known to New England diners as a stuffed clam or in its own kind of chowder. Both quahogs and surf clams populate supermarket seafood sections.

The reason for Mohr’s decision has been documented by published science, as well as on the decks of the boat he fishes from, the ESS Pursuit. Moving north for quahogs was a way to remain a clammer.

“We’re finding clams in deeper water instead of inshore water, where we used to work 25 years ago,” Mohr said. “It’s just affecting everything.”

Mohr leaves behind his wife of 20 years and makes the drive to New Bedford so he and his 29-year-old son, Danny, can spend 20 days out of 30 aboard the Pursuit. Mohr has two other adult children who live in New Jersey.

He has missed his children’s first days at school, their sports events, and weddings of loved ones while out chasing clams, and, later, quahogs. Missing out on family life is worse these days because of his long commute on Interstate 95.

Whether Mohr can make holidays like Thanksgiving is “hit-and-miss,” said his wife, Melanie.

Mohr’s migration story is common in the clamming business, said Dave Wallace, a Maryland-based consultant in the industry. It was once based largely off Atlantic City, near Mohr’s home, but has shifted northward along with the clams, he said.

Some fishermen have decided to instead pursue quahogs, as Mohr has, while others now travel farther out to sea to harvest surf clams. The surf clam fishery has slipped somewhat in the face of the changes, with a little less than 41 million pounds caught in 2014, the second-lowest total since 1980.

Mohr is undaunted. Clamming has been good to him, and if he has to spend more time on the road as he nears 60, so be it.

“It’s just a way of life,” Mohr said. “You’ve got to go where the money is at, and you’re happy. Right now, I’m happy.”

Wisconsin lawmakers forward bill to prevent activists from filming hunters violating laws

Wisconsin lawmakers edged closer last week to passing a bill that would prohibit animal rights activists from following, photographing or videotaping hunters in the woods.

The Assembly’s natural resources committee passed the Republican-authored bill on a 14-1 vote despite questions about whether it is necessary or constitutional.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer zone between protesters and abortion clinics, saying that it violated the protesters’ free speech rights, even though they were often terrorizing women, many of whom were already in an emotional crisis.

But while the committee’s minority Democrats questioned whether the bill might violate nature lovers’ free speech rights, only one of them, Rep. Diane Hesselbein of Middleton, ultimately voted against the proposal.

The bill also would add dog training, baiting and feeding — all controversial practices that many hunters regard as inhumane and “cheating” to the list of protected hunting activities. It would expand the definition of interference to include remaining in a hunter’s sight, photographing a hunter, using a drone to photograph a hunter and confronting a hunter more than twice with the intention of interfering with or impeding their activity. First-time violators would face a $500 fine. Subsequent offenses would carry steeper fines as well as jail time.

Hunters have been complaining of harassment since the Wolf Patrol, a group of animal rights activists, followed and filmed wolf hunters in Wisconsin and Montana in 2014 looking for illegal activity. The federal government placed Great Lakes wolves back on the endangered species list last year, ending Wisconsin wolf hunts for the moment. But now bear hunters fear that activists will come after them next.

Still, it’s unclear whether hunter harassment is really a problem in Wisconsin. State law already prohibits stalking and interfering with hunting, fishing or trapping activities.

During a hearing about the bill last month, its author, Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, pointed to anecdotes about people making noise under tree stands to ruin hunts as a reason it’s needed. But he didn’t cite a single instance where someone had been convicted of harassing or threatening a hunter and he didn’t respond to repeated messages seeking clarification of that point.

A state Department of Natural Resources spokesman had no data immediately available when asked if the agency has any record of hunter harassment convictions. Wolf Patrol representatives say the group has never actually impeded or interfered with anyone.

The bill’s opponents say the state’s stalking laws already protect hunters and blocking people from watching, approaching or photographing hunters on public land would violate the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.

Republicans on the committee joined with Democrats last week and adopted an amendment from Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, which clarifies that someone would have to intentionally interfere with a hunting activity to be convicted. But Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Stevens Point Democrat who voted in favor of the bill, still pressed the committee’s attorney, Larry Konapacki, for his opinion on whether the bill would withstand a constitutional challenge.

“That is a really difficult question,” Konopacki replied. “This is something that might be tested at some point.”

Survey: only 50 vaquita porpoises remain on Earth

A new scientific report finds that vaquita porpoises declined by more than 40 percent in a single year and consequently only around 50 individuals of the species likely remain on Earth.

The vaquita is the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, found only in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California.

While the vaquita population has been declining for decades, based on data through 2013, an international team of scientists concluded a year ago that fewer than 100 animals remained. The new report documents a 42 percent decline from 2013 to 2014, with additional animals killed in late 2014 and early 2015 before a fishing ban was instituted in April 2015.

“It’s horrifying to witness, in real time, the extinction of an animal right in front of our eyes,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Without drastic help, vaquitas could vanish completely in just a few years. We need the world to wake up and help save these incredible porpoises.”

Fishing gear is the biggest threat to vaquitas. They often drown after becoming entangled in shrimp nets or in illegal gillnets set for totoaba, an endangered fish that is also only found only in the Gulf of California. The totoaba’s swim bladder is illegally exported to Asia to make soup and for unproven treatments in traditional medicine. Demand for totoaba bladders has spiked recently, and a single totoaba bladder can sell for $14,000 (U.S.).

“We’re truly at the brink of losing the vaquita forever,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “It’s inexcusable that vaquita are paying the price for Mexico’s history of ineffective and half-hearted efforts to ‘protect’ them. Now, only the most extreme measures will help, and that means a zero-tolerance enforcement of the gillnet ban in the Gulf of California.”

Recognizing the need for urgent action, in April Mexico announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California and promised to increase enforcement against the growing illegal totoaba fishery. While Mexico’s actions are commendable, today’s new scientific report emphasizes that its actions may be too little, too late, and a permanent ban on nets in the Gulf and rigorous enforcement of that ban are necessary to save the vaquita.

The report also finds that Mexico’s previous efforts to ban fishing in vaquita habitat were unsuccessful. In fact, the number of boats within the porpoise’s habitat actually increased during the Mexican government’s previous efforts to ban fishing. Unless Mexico’s newest conservation measures are aggressively enforced, the vaquita will not survive. 

Conservation groups have requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the country’s illegal totoaba fishery. That could include a boycott of shrimp from Mexico. Groups have also sought “in danger” status for the Gulf of California World Heritage site that was designated, largely to protect the vaquita and the totoaba.

A new population survey for vaquita by U.S. and Mexican scientists is scheduled to start in September, around the time that fishing activity, and hence vaquita mortality, is at its highest.

Walker’s science cuts may hinder efforts to halt walleye decline

Fond du Lac resident Mike Arrowood says he has begun to see fishers from up north migrating south to find walleye.

“The guys at Manitowish Waters, they come down to Lake Winnebago to fish. Why should they fish in northern Wisconsin?” said Arrowood, chairman of the nonprofit group Walleyes For Tomorrow. “You can’t catch any fish.”

Wisconsin’s walleye have been in decline for as long as scientists have been collecting solid data, about a quarter-century, and it is Gretchen Hansen’s job to unravel why.

“I can tell you I have not yet figured it out,” Hansen said in a December interview.

Now the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ ability to research and reverse that decline could be at risk. Gov. Scott Walker has proposed cutting 18.4 research science positions in the agency’s Bureau of Science Services, potentially including Hansen and several others who study the state’s most popular sport fish.

At the same time, the governor has proposed spending $2.6 million to continue stocking Wisconsin lakes with walleye over the next two years, part of the $10 million Wisconsin Walleye Initiative — a short-term boost to the population that researchers say is unlikely to solve the underlying problems with the species.

“Stocking is a Band-Aid,” said Jake Vander Zanden, a professor of limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is part of a collaboration with the DNR, the U.S. Geological Survey and others to investigate the walleye decline. “You’re putting small fish into a system where there’s a problem with the fish.”

Ultimately, “the most cost-effective way” to solve the problem is to “have healthy, self-supporting systems,” Vander Zanden said.

Arrowood called the stocking plan “a waste of money” considering “how few survive.”

George Meyer, a former DNR secretary under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson who now heads the nonprofit Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the cuts would cause “a very dramatic reduction in data for managing fish and wildlife in Wisconsin.” His organization, along with other hunting and fishing groups, sent a letter to legislators criticizing the plan.

Asked what effect the cuts might have on walleye research, DNR spokesman Bill Cosh said the department considers walleye and other fish and game research to be “priorities for the agency and our customers,” and said the department “will work with the positions that we have available and prioritize our work.”

Helen Sarakinos, policy and advocacy director of the nonprofit River Alliance of Wisconsin, said the DNR did not appear to be fighting the cuts. The river and watershed advocacy group stands to lose $138,400 in funding under the proposed budget.

“It makes no sense at all that we gut all the planning and research that goes into protecting and stewarding these resources,” she said. “We have to ask: Why are they doing this?”

State lawmakers on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee may take up the DNR cuts on May 29. Three Republican members and one Democratic member of the JFC did not return inquiries.

Economic stakes are high. Sport fishing is worth about $2.75 billion in Wisconsin, according to the governor’s administration.

The governor has proposed to cut 66 positions from the DNR altogether. In addition, state law requires an agency to terminate all limited-term employees, or LTEs, before it can lay off a single permanent staffer.

A DNR organizational chart from late 2014 listed 12 LTE scientists in the fisheries and aquatic sciences section.

Walleye babies in trouble

In Green Bay, walleye are “a world class walleye fishery,” according to Titus Seilheimer, a fisheries specialist with the UW Sea Grant Institute. It supports big fish, and lots of them.

But the state’s inland lakes are another story.

Researchers have found that in many lakes, walleye are failing to regenerate their numbers — scientists call it a “recruitment failure.” Lakes that used to support natural reproduction no longer do.

The density of the youngest walleye, those under a year old, is down 6 percent a year overall in the northern lakes where most of the data are collected, according to the DNR’s Hansen.

“That is what is the most scary,” Vander Zanden said. “There’s something about the environment that is just not right for the babies to survive.”

There are also fewer walleye out there. Together, the “productive capacity” of Wisconsin’s lakes is down — like a garden that is less fertile than it used to be.

Clues emerge

There are numerous potential environmental causes, like predation, food, habitat or invasive species, Vander Zanden said.

So far, the researchers have have found some simple variables that predict walleye success, Hansen said.

That is an important step toward figuring out which lakes are likely to support walleye, which will help managers decide where to focus stocking or habitat restoration efforts.

Lake size is one top determinant; another is the overall temperature. Basically, walleye seem to do well in big lakes with cooler water. How squiggly the lake shoreline is seems to matter as well. They like darker water, but many lakes have cleared up.

The Wisconsin researchers have received recent recognition from fellow scientists for their efforts to tease out what is happening. A paper sent to the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences was deemed the “editor’s choice” in March, according to a DNR newsletter.

The editors cited “the impressive spatial and temporal scale” of the investigation and “the importance of (the) findings for management of walleye both in the U.S. and here in Canada.”

Some of the theories researchers are examining:

• All about that bass? Bass are up and walleye are down, and a popular theory among fishermen is that bass eat baby walleye. Arrowood, for one, believes it is a strong possibility.

But researchers from UW-Stevens Point pumped a bunch of bass bellies and found no walleye. And the inverse correlation could be explained in part by the fact that bass are mostly fished catch and release, while people fish walleye to eat them — or that both fish are responding to other environmental factors. Meanwhile, muskies are eating walleye in some lakes, but it is unknown how important that is.

• Climate change. There is no obvious correlation. Climate change has affected all the lakes, but walleye have declined only in some of them. Researchers nonetheless believe it may be affecting the fish, in part because walleye tend to do better in cooler water.

Vander Zanden calls the problem “very multidimensional” — meaning a dizzying array of factors could be at work, and they affect each other.

Warmer temperatures could affect water clarity, lake levels, the layers of temperature in the lake, just to name a few variables, all of which could affect walleye. And bass do better in a warmer world, so if they are directly competing with walleye, more bass would be bad news for walleye.

• Overharvesting. Since the heated arguments over tribal walleye spearing in the 1980s, walleye regulation has been overseen by the courts, which affirmed the tribes’ right to spear fish. A legal agreement intended to keep the population sustainable declares no more than 35 percent of the adults can be removed each year.

It is a cap designed to be exceeded only once every 40 years, similar to how insurance companies plan for 100-year storms. And it covers all northern Wisconsin lakes in areas ceded by the tribes, although lakes vary in how productive they are for walleye.

Vander Zanden says some research suggests the one-size-fits-all limit may be way too high for some lakes.

“It is leaving them open to overexploitation,” he said — that is, removing more adults from the population than it can regrow.

He likened it to pulling out more money from a bank account than its interest rate can maintain, and therefore decreasing the principal. That may be causing some of the decline.

“Understanding is the basis for addressing the problem,” Vander Zanden said.

Scientists are beginning to mobilize against Walker’s plan.

This story is part of Water Watch Wisconsin, a project examining water quality and supply issues. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

57 workers in Department of Natural Resources get layoff notices on Earth Day

On April 22, Earth Day, 57 workers with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, including many scientists, were notified they may lose their jobs under cuts proposed by Gov. Scott Walker.

The Earth Day holiday, begun by former Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson, was not noted on Walker’s official or presidential campaign websites or social media.

Walker’s two-year spending plan would cut 66 positions across DNR, including just over 18 in the Bureau of Scientific Services. DNR spokesman Bill Cosh  said all 27 people in that bureau had to receive potential lay-off notices, even though not all of them may lose their job.

But, speaking on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Week in Review this morning, former state attorney general Peg Lautenschlager said the threats alone send a message that will make it hard for the DNR to recruit talented science professionals, harming the future management of Wisconsin’ natural resources.

The DNR and its scientists manage the state’s deer herd and fishing rights. They evaluate prospective mines and other potentially pollution-producing projects for environmental impact. They oversee the use of state land and maintain natural habitats and biodiversity.

The DNR ran afoul of Walker, however, when it insisted on studying rather than green-lighting a proposed open pit iron ore mine to be located in the pristine Penokee Hills region. Gogebic Taconite, the company that wanted to build the mine, gave Wisconsin Republicans $700,000 during Walker’s 2010 campaign, and the governor rewrote mining regulations to accommodate the company’s proposal shortly after taking office.

But the DNR held up the project and Gogebic Taconite eventually withdrew its proposal, saying it could not operate the mine safely in such an environmentally sensitive area.

Walker’s proposed cuts in that bureau have been criticized by Democrats, environmentalists and others who fear the loss of scientific expertise will hurt decision-making and increase the role of politics in environmental decision-making.

Top brands fail Greenpeace’s canned tuna review

Greenpeace, in its first ranking, found the majority of the canned tuna sold in the U.S. market fails to meet fundamental sustainability standards. The environmental group said the worst performers are the big three brands: Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist, which represent a combined 80 percent of the U.S. tuna market. 

The ranking, included in Greenpeace’s 2015 Canned Tuna Shopping Guide, looked at 14 well-known U.S. national and private label supermarket brands and concluded that most do not have adequate measures in place to address both sustainability and the human welfare and labor issues that plague the industry.

Eight of the 14 tuna brands evaluated received a failing score, including the brands by retail giants Walmart and Kroger.

“Consumers should know that popular and trusted canned tuna brands are contributing to ocean destruction at an alarming rate,”  Greenpeace’s Graham Forbes. “While the biggest brands have thus far refused to offer sustainable tuna, the silver lining here is that other companies are stepping up to provide ocean safe options for their customers.”

Wild Planet, American Tuna and Ocean Naturals received the top scores and were identified as the best choices for U.S. tuna consumers – all offering what Greenpeace called “ocean safe products.” Each brand has a comprehensive approach to sustainability and sources from operations striving to be fair and socially responsible.

Whole Foods finished near the top tier for selling only more responsibly caught tuna.

Hy-Vee and Trader Joe’s also ranked near the top, but continue to have some outstanding sustainability concerns, according to the organization.

The tuna ranking evaluated the sourcing policies and practices of the 14 brands, including:

• Whether the fishing method used to catch their tuna harms other marine life.

• Whether they avoid shark finning.

• Whether they can trace their products back to the sea.

In addition, Greenpeace examined how equitable and socially responsible the brands are. Poor working conditions are systemic in the tuna industry, and in the worst cases, human rights violations and slave labor take place.

The U.S. is the largest market for canned tuna in the world and the primary global market for albacore tuna, a species mostly caught by longlines. Longline fishing consists of multiple hooks on a single line that can stretch for miles. The longline fishery is less regulated and can be highly destructive when measures are not employed to mitigate bycatch. Thousands of tons of seabirds, sea turtles, sharks and other marine life are hooked and then left to die on the lines. Up to 35 percent of the longline catch can be species other than tuna, many of which are already vulnerable.

“Unfortunately, dolphin safe does not mean ocean safe. Turtles, sharks and other vulnerable ocean life are collateral damage in tuna fisheries that supply the US market,” said Forbes. “The big players have a responsibility to join forward-thinking brands in building a more responsible tuna industry.  As the market continues to shift, selling products that are bad for our oceans will be bad for business.”

The U.S. tuna ranking is part of a global Greenpeace campaign to transition toward fair and sustainable global tuna fisheries for our oceans and ocean-dependent people.

In addition to the ranking, Greenpeace developed a “Decoding the Can” page to assist consumers with the various labels and options on a tuna can.

On the Web

Greenpeace’s Canned Tuna Shopping Guide.

Mexico wants to ban nets, save endangered porpoise

Mexico wants to ban nets, save endangered porpoise

Mexican authorities are proposing a $37 million plan to ban gillnet fishing in most of the upper Sea of Cortez to save the critically endangered vaquita marina, the world’s smallest porpoise.

The plan would compensate fishermen for stopping the use of nets that often sweep up the tiny porpoises along with their catch.

Recent reports suggest there are fewer than 100 of the shy, elusive porpoises left in the Sea of Cortez, which is also known as the Gulf of California. The gulf is the only place on Earth where the marine mammals are found.

The proposal was submitted Tuesday for mandatory public consultation, and could be implemented in a couple of months.

The vaquita is threatened by gillnet fishing for totoaba, a huge, heavy fish whose swim bladder is prized by chefs in China.

There is already a protected reserve area around the mouth of the Colorado River delta, but the new proposal would greatly increase the no net-fishing area southward.

The new area would essentially include almost all of the vaquitas’ known range. The ban would initially be in place for two years.

The plan presented by the Agriculture and Fisheries Department would pay some of the fishermen to work patrolling the area to detect violations of the net ban. Some non-threatening net fishing techniques would be allowed for some months of the year.

Omar Vidal, of the World Wildlife Fund, praised the plan but noted that “enforcement is the main challenge,” because of illegal fishing by small boats in the area.

The biggest threat is China’s hunger for totoaba swim bladders; though fishing for totoaba is already illegal, the very high prices that Chinese chefs are willing to pay make it a lucrative illicit industry. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s website, one totoaba bladder can attract a $5,000 payoff in the United States, and more than $10,000 in Asia.

“If this works well, then Mexico will have given the world a unique example to demonstrate that it is possible to save an endangered species and support sustainable fisheries,” Vidal said.

But with perhaps only a couple of dozen reproductively mature females left, Vidal noted, there isn’t much time left.

Experts agree that capturing vaquitas to breed them in captivity isn’t an option because it would not be feasible to capture or hold a sufficient number of them to develop a captive breeding program. Furthermore, with so few vaquitas spread over such a wide area, chasing down and catching them would risk killing off the few remaining individuals.

Sarah Palin says her outdoors TV show won’t be overtly political

Sarah Palin says she doesn’t expect her new outdoors television show on the Sportsman Channel to be political — at least not overtly so.

Given her background, though, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate told reporters that some politics may seep through. She said she’s interested in promoting freedom of speech and gun owners’ rights.

“I want to be able to showcase what it is that I think is a healthy lifestyle and that utilization and enjoyment of God’s green Earth,” she said.

Her show, “Amazing America,” premieres on the outdoors-oriented network in April, and will profile personalities who like hunting and fishing. Palin will serve as the host, introducing the featured personalities, and occasionally traveling to where they live.

The Sportsman Channel is available in nearly a third of American homes with television, and is looking for the attention a personality like Palin can provide. Gavin Harvey, the network’s CEO, said that he’s anointing Palin “The First Lady of the Outdoors.”

The former Alaska governor is a Fox News Channel analyst and had a previous show on TLC about characters in her home state. She said that she’s “more excited about this (Sportsman Channel) project than I’ve been about many of the other projects I’ve done,” although she didn’t elaborate.

Although many people don’t associate her with “that granola lifestyle,” Palin said that she and her family eat organic food whenever they can.

“I do appreciate being able to feed my kids healthy food,” she said. “Their dinner just happens to be wrapped in fur, not cellophane.”

Palin said she particularly hopes that young women can be attracted to outdoor sports, and that her series encourages that.

“The world would be better to have more young women holding a fish in a picture and fewer of them in a bathroom looking in the mirror, holding a camera and taking a selfie,” she said.