Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Iowa-the place where red snapper die?

Iowa—the place where red snapper die?

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone doesn’t just happen in the ocean, it starts upstream where people are careless with their use of the land. In places like Iowa, 35,000 feet straight below Alaska Airlines flight 2.

This is the place where nitrogen leaked, that fed the plankton, that fueled the bloom, that died and decayed, that sucked up the oxygen, that killed the red snapper, that ruined the Gulf of Mexico.

Far below, a grid of one mile sections as far as the eye can see. Water from farmlands, heading south to the Gulf of Mexico. Is somebody down there getting careless and spilling nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico? Is it Iowa? Or is it everyone? Is it simply the consequences of modern agriculture? Would we have to go back to the stone age to have a healthy ocean?

This brings to mind the lesson of Hank Bosma, a dairy farmer from the Yakima Valley, Washington who used to have a serious pollution habit. I got involved when Charlie Tebbutt with the Western Environmental Law Center asked me to look at some water quality monitoring data from the Yakima Valley, Washington state. Charlie asked whether monitoring data was likely to show what his clients believed, that a few bad dairymen were responsible for much of the waste polluting area streams. I told Charlie that I thought it was unlikely that monitoring data would implicate one or a few farmers. Boy was I wrong.

To make a long story short…most of the dairies were clean, and Bosma's dairy was very-very dirty. Monitoring the watershed every two weeks showed severe nitrogen plumes running downstream from Bosma's dairies.

A recent study says the same thing is true at a much larger scale, that a few locations in the Mississippi River basin are responsible for the great majority of the nitrogen that fuels the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. So there may be a solution, because it isn't everyone.

Flying from Washington to Washington (Seattle to DC), looking down at the Gulf of Mexico dead zone in Iowa, I don't think we have to go back to the stone age to have healthy red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. We just need to learn to farm right, and fish right.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Restoration turns into oyster bar for fish

Cownose rays were unwelcome guests at an oyster restoration project in the Chesapeake Bay, eating most of the project.

Most of the 775,000 oysters were gone just a few days after they were planted in the Piankatank River near Stingray Point.

The planted oysters were eaten before they had a chance to hide in the oyster shell reefs made just for them, probably because warm water brought the rays in earlier than usual. This isn't the first time that rays have made a feast off of oyster restoration projects, maybe they're learning the routine.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Overfishing harms kelp forests

Kelp help fish and fish help kelp. It sounds too good to be true, sort of a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" partnership.

We've long known that fish thrive in underwater kelp forests, now we find that fish help the kelp thrive.

Not only are the fish helpful, but removing fish harms kelp more than one of the other known threats, nutrient runoff. Predatory fish help kelp forests by eating snails and other kelp-eating herbivores, and thus stopping them from reducing the size of kelp forests. Scientist Ben Halpern says "this study shows that California is on the right track by limiting fishing in certain areas."

It'll be interesting to see what happens in the California's Channel Islands area now that new marine protected areas are in place. Will the protected kelp forests thrive better in the face of other threats such as El Nino and pollution?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Is the U.S. still overfishing? Part 2

What should we do about overfishing? How can we balance the needs of fish with the needs of fishermen? It's the central dilema of fishery management.

Thanks to a few engaged readers we have a blogfish debate in the comments section of: Is the U. S. still overfishing?

Comments center on a (so far) little-known example: persistent overfishing and serious depletion of some groupers and snappers in the U. S. South Atlantic region, in the Atlantic ocean from North Carolina to Florida.

What do you think? When should overfishing be allowed in order to support the economic and social needs of fishermen?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Invasion of the scary ocean blob creature

A mysterious rubbery "blob" creature that resembles scrambled eggs is smothering the ocean bottom in New England and beyond, and scientists are worried.

"This thing is ugly. It has no socially redeeming virtues," said Ivar Babb, after a recent study of the blob near Long Island.

The blob is an invasive sea squirt that reproduces quickly and forms large mats covering the ocean bottom, sometimes resembling scrambled eggs. Like some sort of scary ocean monster, it can change shape and has no known predators. At the first international conference on the blob, scientist Mary Carman even wondered if it's something newly evolved.

Invasive species smothers George's Bank, threatens valuable fish and scallops. It sounds like science fiction but it's real.

Blogs of interest

in case blogfish isn't enough for you...

Fishing Jones--more on fishing than you can probably swallow
Shifting Baselines--declining expectations for ocean health, cuz yoooou never saw it in the good old days
Water Conservation Blog--including those intersting finny things that reside therein
Environmental Economics--how to do anything with incentives

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Salmon game, try to swim upstream

Ever wondered what it's like to swim upstream in a modern river full of natural and man-made obstacles?

Test your luck and skill at avoiding bears, surviving dams, oil spills and clearcuts, and avoiding fishermen, with the Salmon Sally game from the Rainforest Action Network.

Hints: try the "easy" setting first, and be sure to eat lots of dragonflies on your way upstream!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What's the slimiest thing on earth?

Maybe hagfish, otherwise known as slime eels. A deep sea scavenger that sometimes crosses over and eats the living if they slow down too much.

With the charismatic name, they seem perfect for a horror movie.

If you want to appreciate hagfish, don't touch, that's what makes the world class slime come out in unbelievable amounts.

These fish are survivors, basically unchanged for millions of years. Now these noble but unsavory fish are actively sought by fishermen, and they're overfished in some areas.

For you slime geeks, the slime is an amazing product, composed of mucous (proteoglycans) and made tougher by some long and extremely thin threads up to 60 cm long and 1.5 micrometers thick (about 1/100 of a human hair. Slime scientist D. S. Fudge can tell you more about slime if you really want to know.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Muscular help for ocean dead zones

In a nasty twist of fate, blue mussels that were busy cleaning up Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay were killed by an expanding dead zone.

Dead zones are usually blamed on excess nutrients from fertilizers and livestock. But the "demand-side" is a neglected human impact that creates or worsens dead zones. Over-harvest of oysters and clams that eat plankton has reduced the ability of coastal waters to consume and limit the plankton blooms that create dead zones.

Scientists were studying a lucky mussel-building boom in summer 2002, that was a miniature version of the once-grand bivalve empire (mussels, clams & oysters). They noted the "muscular" cleaning effect of some impressive mussel reefs and the clear water that resulted. But, alas, it was too good to last. A plankton bloom overwhelmed the bay and created a massive smack-down of low oxygen that killed the mussels and many other animals that couldn't flee. The bay will probably take a decade to recover.

Maybe this is a cause for California's "mussel building" Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Artificial reefs: garbage into gold?

Today's ocean riddle: what do the following things have in common?

Retired navy warships
Abandoned oil rigs
Worn out subway cars
Cremated remains cast in concrete

Answer: they're things that need a final resting place, and they find new life as artificial reefs in ocean waters.

The USS Oriskany, a stalwart aircraft carrier was sunk by navy divers today off Pensacola, Florida as the nation's newest and biggest artificial reef. The sinking is part of a new navy program that is riding the wave of support for making artificial reefs from things like oil rigs, subway cars, cremated human remains, and such rubbish as old tires.

The idea is that adding "structure" will help fish and ocean ecosystems, and also provide new places to fish and dive.

Concerns have been raised about potential harm, including leaching of toxic materials and the possibility that artificial reefs are really more about improving fishing and creating underwater tourist sites by concentrating fish and making them easier to catch or look at.

Can this really be a win-win scenario of garbage into gold? Maybe, but I worry that it will turn into another example of well-intentioned but misguided promises of benefits for fish?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Are Copper River salmon really better?

Hold onto your hat, it's Copper River salmon time in Seattle. The first batch was flown in today on Alaska Airlines, to much rejoicing.

Now we can watch normally sane people plunk down an amazing $30 per pound or more for salmon. That's something here in the heart of salmon country. (update 2: price is up to $38.95 per pound in Dayton, Ohio)

Why? Are Copper River salmon really better than other salmon?

Since blogfish is the home of a self-proclaimed expert (I caught my first salmon when I was knee-high to a Sasquatch, and I've eaten some salmon before the fish even knew they were dead), I decided to look into it.

According to Copper River Seafoods, it's fine salmon, careful handling, and smart marketing. Now that's believable, it's gotta be good to start with, absolutely must be handled right, and without a bit of hype who's gonna pay $60 for a dinner they have to cook themselves?

Some competitors outside the Copper River make solid claims that they have some equal or even better salmon to sell, but weaker marketing leads to substantially lower prices for their fabulous Yukon kings. You might want to try some.

My unoffocial poll of local salmon experts (who requested anonymity) says Copper River salmon is great, but no better than some other salmon that fetches much lower prices. Blogfish's taste testing ordeal (hey somebody had to do it) yielded the same conclusion along with some annoying bulges near my hipbones (musta been the Pinot Gris, but that's another story).
After all this, will blogfish pay the price to take home some Copper River salmon this year? Yes, but after the first week or so when prices start to come down.

Fish from the sky

The strange saga of salmon in the Columbia River just got a new chapter.

Coho salmon smolts 7-8 inches long disrupted a track meet in Astoria, Oregon when they fell from the sky onto the javelin throwers.

This bizarre event happened when hundreds of thousands of young hatchery-raised salmon were planted in the lower Columbia River, and birds began catching fish and flying around over the nearby track meet, squabbling over who got to eat them.

These are the same birds that we humans have been squabbling about and harassing, because they've been eating too many of "our" expensive hand-raised salmon.

...all because we were promised that we could have both dams and fish, and it's turned out to be just a bit harder than expected...so now we spend BILLIONS raising salmon, driving them around in barges and trucks, and trying to stop birds and fish and sea lions from eating them in the unfriendly habitats of today's dammed river...

Makes me want to go back in time and promote the brave fish biologists who said the dams would kill salmon, and fire the ones who ended up running the agencies because they said we could have our river and damn it too.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Consumers helping conserve fish

Consumer power is helping to conserve fish, according to a new report from the Marine Stewardship Council.

Consumers can help by buying fish caught with sustainable fishing methods, and the MSC logo (above left) is one way to identify sustainably-caught fish.

There is some controversy over the questions "what is sustainability?" and "who decides which fish are caught sustainably?" In response, the MSC commissioned the study released today, which examined the environmental benefits of the MSC sustainable fishery certification program.

The MSC is an independent organization that certifies fish as sustainably-caught, according to a set of principles & criteria, and based on the evaluation of independent auditors who assess fisheries relative to the criteria.

Note that some big seafood retailers are catching the wave and switching to sustainbly-caught fish, so now is a good time for consumers to make their preferences known.

Know where your fish come from, and who caught them!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Size matters, at least in fish

If male mosquitofish could choose the size of their genitals what would they do?

The dilema comes from the tradeoff between mating and being eaten. Bigger genitals attract females for mating, but they drag in the water and slow down males trying to avoid being eaten.

Unlike most fish, male mosquitofish swing or display their prominent genitals (called gonopodia) during courtship, and females watch carefully and choose males with bigger genitals. But the big winners in the dating game may not live long enough to appreciate their success, since bigger genitals make it harder to escape predators.

Is the U.S. still overfishing?

Yes, unfortunately, overfishing continues in U. S. waters.

New data from NMFS show results for the first quarter of 2006. Some regions and fisheries actually got worse.

Since it's difficult to draw conclusions from the opaque NMFS reports, the Ocean Conservancy has developed an overfishing scorecard which looks at overall results through 2004.

One interesting finding from this scorecard is that success levels vary, and it's possible to identify some best management practices that seem to work. These best practices have led to progress in some regions and fisheries. (An updated and expanded scorecard will be available soon, and blogfish will cover the release.)

Overall, much remains to be done. Ten years after U.S. law was strengthened in an attempt to end overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks, managers are failing to meet these goals--even when measured by their own standards (generally: fishing below MSY and biomass above 1/2 MSY)

Are you surprised?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Magnets reduce longline bycatch

Can magnets help save depleted and vulnerable shark populations?

The World Wildlife Fund is betting yes, and supporting the innovative work of Michael Hermann. He has found that putting magnets on longlines targeting swordfish or tuna can reduce wasteful bycatch of sharks. This idea won the $25,000 grand prize in WWF's annual Smart Gear competition.

Shark bycatch is a global problem, and a full 20% of the sharks that have been assessed are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN red list of threatened and endangered fish worldwide.

Selective fishing is good and will improve the long-term sustainability of our use of fish...and maybe I should pay more attention to those claims that magnets will cure what ails me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Seafood masquerade-part 2

Florida officials have stopped the sale of 8,000 pounds of fake "grouper" in a sting targeting mislabelling of fish.

This is just a small part of the scam, with total fake fish sales exceeding 1 million pounds.

"When residents of and visitors to this state pay a premium price to purchase a highly desirable fish such as grouper, they are entitled to receive it," Commissioner Charles Bronson of the Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services said in a press release.

Fine and noble words from a consumer crusader. Now perhaps we'll see some progress on the currently legal practice of using phony market names to get higher prices for seafood?

...it almost sounds like Commissioner Bronson is responding directly to the The Great Seafood Masquerade here on blogfish, maybe he's a loyal subscriber(?)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Monsters of the deep ocean

Who wants to confront this scary animal in the dark waters of the Bermuda triangle?

Especially when it's related to the stinging Portugese man-of-war and some animals that can reach 40 meters in length.

No worries. Despite it's Darth Vader appearance, this one is a harmless small siphonophore, called Hippopodius hippopus. It was found by the Census of Marine Life along with many other amazing and interesting sea creatures.

Now I know what I want to be next Halloween.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Hallucinogenic fish

Big surprise for two men who ate this bland-looking fish...LSD-like hallucinations!

This rare occurence is known as ichthyoallyeinotoxism (hallucinogenic fish poisoning). It comes from eating the heads or body parts of certain species of herbivorous fish after they ate some potent algae.

According to fish expert Matt Clarke, the effects of eating ichthyoallyeinotoxic fishes, such as certain mullet, goatfish, tangs, damsels and rabbitfish, are believed to be similar to LSD, and may include vivid and terrifying auditory and visual hallucinations. Thus the common name: "dream fish."

Just in case any enthusiasts decide to go out looking for "electric fish," be aware that your results may vary.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The great seafood masquerade

When is a red snapper not a red snapper? When you're at the seafood counter buying what you think is a premium fish.

According to a study of fish sold as red snapper, only 25% was the real thing. An amazing 75% was faux red snapper, cheaper fish trying to sneak into celebrity status.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg in the great seafood masquerade. Check out the FDA's official Seafood List of acceptable "market names." It's legal, tricky, and business as usual for seafood sellers to use phony market names to get more money for less-desirable fish.

Scary Patagonian toothfish becomes suave Chilean sea bass, and voila the price goes up. Ditto for skates and rays, sometimes cut with cookie cutters and sold as "scallops." Sebastes rockfish get sold as "Pacific red snapper" or "rock cod," despite being neither a snapper or a cod. Etc. Who knew?

In this case students in a college biology class who busted the fake red snapper accidentally, while learning DNA testing.

Mislabelling seafood is not exactly the best way for seafood sellers to inspire confidence. I sure hope they're telling the truth when they tell us not to worry about mercury in fish.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Vanishing corals protected

New hope for threatened corals--protection promises new recovery efforts.

Elkhorn and staghorn corals once produced "forests" of antler-like reefs in Florida and the Caribbean, but they're now being killed by warmer water, pollution, algae, sediment, and diseases.

Spokesperson Jennifer Moore stressed that ''NOAA has not said that global warming is the cause,'' even though the agency does blame warmer water.

Blogfish brought news last month of one way to reduce algae overgrowth, I hope recovery planning includes the necessary strong steps.

"Fishfinder" offered a skeptical view of coral recovery in yesterday's comments...but hope springs eternal here at blogfish, like the bald eagles and ospreys that fly over Bainbridge Island. When Silent Spring was published in 1962, who woulda thunk that DDT would be banned in 1972 and that bald eagles and osprey would recover so dramatically in a couple of decades?

Change seems impossible until afterwards, when it looks inevitable.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Alarm bells for endangered fish

More bad news, the list of endangered fish just got longer.

Today the IUCN released their annual list of threatened species worldwide. The number of marine fish on the list is growing, including this lovely and vulnerable humphead wrasse.

“Marine species are proving to be just as much at risk of extinction as their land-based counterparts” said Craig Hilton-Taylor of the IUCN Red List Unit.

Sadly, these fish are out of sight & out of mind, but hopefully not yet out of time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The inevitable logic of overfishing

Bad news today from New England, the fishing season for cod opened with yet another round of restrictions.

Cod are in trouble, and fishermen have to leave their boats tied to the dock most of the year. How did we get into this mess?

The inevitable logic of overfishing.
The inexorable tragedy of too many boats.
An inexcusable failure for people and fish.

How long must this go on? For awhile longer, I'm afraid.

Fishing interests and politicians from the region continue to ask Congress for more "flexibility" which translates to "can we please keep overfishing cod?" Haven't we learned our lesson from the last two decades of overfishing of cod?

It's time to end this overfishing entitlement, because some fish are just too valuable to kill. Right now, New England's cod are worth more alive and in the water than dead in a fish market.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

...and the dams came tumbling down

Can we really undo damage and restore rivers and fish?

We'll find out when the Elwha dams come down in 2008.

Once home to swarming runs of legendary HUGE salmon, Washington's Elwha River is now pristine except for 2 nearly useless dams and their relativley small lakes.

With no way past the dams, the remnant salmon runs are forced to exit the river at a hatchery instead of crashing upstream through the many miles of Wilderness streams that await above, empty of salmon.

Common sense says take them out, and amazingly our political system has gotten us there. So unlike the more typical pork, perks, and pet projects.

If restoration can work anywhere, it can work here. Our future awaits us in the upper reaches of the Elwha.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Imperfect males might get a date

If they're looking for older female fish, that is.

Biologist Molly Morris found that older female swordtails prefer less than perfect mates, unlike their younger female relatives who keep looking for Mr. Perfect with the same number of stripes on each side.

Perhaps the older females have learned their lesson and look for more important qualities like emotional availability.