Americans can be proud of their fishery management system over the past few decades, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where one of the world's single-largest stocks of fish, Alaska pollock, is harvested, bringing in some $2 billion (€1.7 billion) and tens of thousands of jobs.
It's an incredible case study in how science and policy can combat poor regulation and lead to a full recovery of threatened stocks and improved management through meticulous science and shared commitment.
One example: If you’ve been on an Alaska pollock fishing vessel, you have seen the exhaustive monitoring systems that go into keeping track of salmon bycatch. Despite trawl nets that can bring up 200,000 fish in the space of an hour, each of the catcher processors plying the waters can -- and by most accounts do -- keep track of individual salmon that are caught to mitigate the impact on those threatened fish.
That kind of investment does not happen without the voluntary participation of fishing companies that are committed to science-based fisheries management.
One hundred-percent observer coverage, directed surveys by researchers, ear bone analysis, on and on -- it's complex stuff (See if you can understand this chart. You probably can't. Now try this one.)
When you take the “science” out of fisheries science, things can go downhill very, very quickly.
But as with many things Trumpian, there continues to be a creep of politics and anti-science sentiment into so many government agencies.
The most recent baffling move came this week with the appointment of notorious climate change denier David Legates of the University of Delaware to the role of deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
That’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow, particularly when my co-worker in my home office this week is aged 10. Why? Because the dark cloud of hazard-level smoke hanging over the Pacific Northwest from raging forest fires means my daughter needs to remain inside near an air purifier.
My colleague John Fiorillo commented on the whitewashing of language related to COVID a few months back, but – here’s hoping – COVID is a blip, and is nothing compared to the looming crisis climate change is bringing to the world’s fisheries.
Fortunately, you have a North Pacific fishing fleet that largely seems to understand this, and has worked together with researchers, NGOs and Native group stakeholders to develop a management system in the Bering Sea that has kept the biomass relatively healthy, and resisted the temptation to increase the 2 million-metric-ton quota cap.
In May, this management system took a blow when NOAA Fisheries announced it would cancel five of six critical research surveys in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands because of concerns over COVID-19 impacts on NOAA staff, crew and communities.
In my conversations with several Alaska pollock industry members, they viewed this as a poorly planned move, and a major red alert to one of the keys to keeping up with the stock management. The suggestion that drones could do the work just as accurately was not taken well.
The laissez faire attitude at the top of the Trump administration seems to have had a trickle-down effect, which was perhaps best encapsulated in a comment made by one high-ranking NOAA official at a North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in June that discussed the survey cancellations. While on the conference call, this official remarked that he was enjoying a gin and tonic.
Joke or not, it didn’t -- as far as I could tell -- elicit any audible laughter from the council members who were discussing the fate of one of the world’s most important fisheries.
Fortunately, the rank and file of NOAA Fisheries are for the most part accomplished, intelligent and very clear-eyed about the threats of climate change.
How do we know this? Well, the good women and men of the agency continue to tell the truth.
Kirstin Holsman, a biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said in a release Monday that "no matter how effective management is, by mid-century, maybe sooner, Alaska fisheries may reach a tipping point of rapid decline in the eastern Bering Sea if climate change continues on the current trajectory and fish and fisheries are not able to adapt to these changing conditions. To guarantee long-term success, we need to couple [Ecosytem-Based Fisheries Management] with global climate change mitigation.”
Bravo for sneaking that past the censors -- the phrase "climate change" has been scrubbed from several agency websites and documents, along with the phrases “evidence-based,” “science-based," and a host of other terms marginalizing vulnerable members of society. Oh yeah, "vulnerable" was stripped out, too.
The only “Deep State” conspiracy comes from the attempt to undermine critical thinking (if you've ever met a fisheries scientist, you know that they are too busy geeking out on their latest research to orchestrate a Deep State coup).
It's not just NOAA Fisheries scientists that are afraid, by the way. A stunning announcement came this week when 110 fisheries science societies representing 80,000 research professionals from around the world made the most forceful call yet for action.
"It is time to acknowledge the urgent need to act to address climate change," the groups wrote. "Delaying action to control greenhouse gas emissions is not an option if humankind wishes to conserve the aquatic resources and environmental safety of the world."
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