As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, after two years of obsessing over California’s drift gillnet (DGN) fishery for swordfish and sharks, I was finally about to talk to a local commercial fisherman who has been gillnetting for over twenty years. Out of the blue, I received the following email from him in November of 2010:
Subject: Please check your facts!
I recently read your blog on commercial shark fishing, SharkFreeSB needs a reality check. Your post about thresher shark fishing omitted a ton of pertinent facts. The facts are there has been a drastic decline in fishing effort since 1982 when there was 200 or more active drift gillnet (DGN) fishing boats. Why wasn’t this mentioned?
In the late 1980’s California Fish & Game biologist Dennis Bedford helped draft a new law prohibiting DGN fishing for thresher sharks from May 1st to August 15th to protect thresher sharks that come inshore to bare their young and mate. Is this fact new to SharkFreeSB? Also in 2001 all DGN fishing was closed from May 1st to November 15th from Pt. Sur CA. to Newport Oregon effectively creating a pelagic shark reserve of thousands of square miles. Can SharkFreeSB calculate how many threshers exist from Pt. Sur, California to Newport, Oregon?
Today there is a massive recreational thresher shark fishery during birthing and mating season in Southern California during the time DGN are not allowed to fish!
Please check out these statements with any California Fish & Game or any National Marine Fishery biologist.
I remain… (name)
The email above hit me like a brick. Although I knew about some of the restrictions he had mentioned, I had never realized how much they correlated with the decrease in landings. Noting a decrease in fishing effort combined with area and time closures helped explain the decrease in landings and helped to fill in a lot of the blanks that had kept me from understanding the history and current state of our shark fishery. For the very first time I was starting to realize and respect just how complicated fisheries are. Finally.
I immediately called the fisherman and spent almost two hours on the phone talking about everything from shark finning (which used to be very legal), shark fishing, bycatch mitigation efforts, and IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) foreign fishing vessels that he has seen drift netting illegally in our waters on the high seas. He also explained how all the DGN fishery restrictions over the years have forced him to expand into other fisheries during the summer just to make ends meet. Every spring he switches his DGN gear made to target swordfish and sharks, to trolling gear that targets albacore in the summer off the Oregon coast. He obviously does not get paid for the many days needed to switch gear, not to mention the money to buy additional fishing permits and the long months he has to spend away from his family in Southern California to go fish and live in Oregon. It’s sacrifices and risks like these that U.S. fishermen take just to put food on our tables that are rarely recognized and appreciated.
I was pleasantly surprised at the wealth of knowledge the shark fisherman was willing to share with me in such a polite manner, especially considering I was essentially attacking his way of life. Even though I am not a fisherman and have no idea what it feels like to have other folks trying to shut my fishery down, I can still use analogies to help me understand how that must feel. I guess since I am a graphic designer, it would be a bit like some group that knows nothing about graphic design telling me that they don’t think I should use Photoshop anymore. That would not only make my job more difficult, but it would probably force me to find another profession. When we put ourselves in a fisherman’s shoes it’s no wonder that most fisherman think most conservationists are crazy. It’s because a lot of us are. We get so caught up in our passions and emotions that it’s hard for us to realize that fishermen are conservationists, too. Unlike us, their livelihoods depend on preserving our ocean’s resources.
After researching the fisherman’s statements, I learned that he was actually being very conservative in regards to his references regarding a decrease in fishing effort and increase in area/time closures over the years. In addition to the closures he mentioned, I learned that in 1985, a closure was implemented in CA’s DGN fishery from December 15 – January 31 within 25 miles of the coast to protect whales, mainly migrating gray whales. I also learned that in 1990 voters approved Prop 132, which removed gillnets from state waters (within 3 miles of coast) and within one mile of the Channel Islands mostly in order to avoid interactions with pinnipeds. Then I learned that the closure implemented in 2001 “creating a pelagic shark reserve of thousands of square miles,” actually turned out to be the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA), which was implemented to protect leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles that come here to feed on jellyfish. When the fisherman said the PLCA covered “thousands of square miles,” he actually meant 230,000 square miles. When the PLCA reopens, the weather is typically too bad to fish anyway, creating serious safety-at-sea issues for the ones who decide to tough it out.
When you take weather, area/time closures and the fact that the DGN fishing season runs from May 1st – January 31st, one could say for all intensive purposes it is a year round ban. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why there are only around 32 active vessels in the fishery today compared to 200 in 1982. With only 32 vessels in California that still use DGN gear today, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to satisfy America’s demand for swordfish which has been about 2 to 3 times total U.S. domestic landings. Considering the pending legislation to ban the sale, possession and distribution of shark fins in California combined with what I was learning about our shark fishery, I decided to pull the plug on SharkFreeSB.com for good. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Right about this time I learned about this campaign that was responsible for removing locally caught common thresher and mako shark meat from the shelves of Henry’s Farmers Market chain’s 41 stores in California. Although all of my shark friends thought of this as a victory for sharks, I thought of it as a big mistake that I was partly responsible for. The NGO responsible for this campaign was the same NGO that invited me to speak about my SharkFreeSB campaign about a year earlier. While I was busy learning the facts about our DGN fishery, the NGO was engaging in an ill-advised campaign (that I had inspired) aimed directly at CA’s embattled DGN fishery.
That year ended up to be Henry’s Farmers Market’s worst year in seafood sales in the company’s entire history. Also, fishermen were at sea catching common thresher sharks during the time of this campaign so when they came to port with the sharks they had caught (20,000 lbs. to be exact), seafood buyers could not give fishermen a decent price because their retail clients were starting to reject offers. As a result, most of the shark meat was donated to a local homeless shelter. This is just one example of how a campaign intended to save sharks had negative transfer effects all the way down every link of the market chain and did not save the life of a single shark. This weighed heavy on my heart and I felt an obligation to make things right, but how?
Even though fisheries are complicated, many folks want seafood choices to be simple and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program seems to be the go-to guide for folks wishing to make responsible seafood choices. At this time, the Seafood Watch program advised that all shark meat should be “avoided.” This rating fueled my previous misconceptions about CA’s shark fishery and now this rating was being used as fuel by an NGO to justify another campaign that targets locally caught shark meat. Coincidentally, around this time a scientist friend of mine was contacted by the Seafood Watch program asking if she would be interested in helping them with a much needed evaluation on the sustainability of California’s shark fisheries, which was way overdue. Great timing!
I told my partner I’d be happy to help and I called my contact at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to ask for help in providing any documents needed to properly evaluate CA’s DGN fishery. I explained to him the difficulties we have had with chefs as well as ourselves in understanding CA’s DGN fishery and also referenced the recent NGO campaign to boycott shark meat. As far as NMFS and NOAA go, it is not in their best interest to take sides. It’s in NOAA’s best interest to present the facts in an unbiased manner, and this is exactly what they did.
After my phone call, NMFS organized an information sharing workshop about California’s drift gillnet fishery that was held at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California in April of 2011. Attendees included the President of the NGO responsible for the Henry’s Market shark meat boycott campaign, DGN fishermen, seafood buyers and processors, Henry’s Director of meat & seafood, fisheries biologists, fisheries economists as well as representation from Seafood for the Future and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. The hope was that everyone involved would leave with a common understanding of the West coast DGN fishery for swordfish and sharks.
Robin Pelc, a representative of Seafood Watch was asked why common thresher sharks were listed as a species to “avoid.” Robin said the rating was based off of the IUCN listing as vulnerable coupled with a high bycatch to target ratio of 144% by number. NMFS scientists responded by stating that over 90% of the total bycatch by numbers in the DGN fishery comes from a single species, the common mola (sunfish). Although there has not been a definitive study on the survivorship of common mola released from DGN gear, observations by NMFS observers and researchers suggest that a high percent (>90%) of them are released alive.
The workshop was a success and the following statement was agreed on by all parties present – “Locally caught common thresher shark comes from a well managed U.S. fishery and is harvested with appropriate methods and safeguards to ensure sustainability.” The success of this workshop led to additional workshops held at the Westin in San Diego on May 10th & 11th, 2011. I ask that you please review the presentations found here because there is way too much cool stuff in there to cover in this post. Among the many things I learned at this workshop was that the population of common thresher and mako sharks is actually on the upswing and that bycatch of non-seafood species (marine mammals) has been cut in half due to successful bycatch mitigation efforts.
The information from these workshops was instrumental in the Seafood Watch programs decision to change the ranking of common thresher and shortfin mako sharks caught in California and Hawaii from “avoid” to a “good alternative” ranking just months after the meeting. Finally I felt at peace and thought that I could put all of this fisheries research and politics aside for a bit and just relax, but that didn’t last long.
It turns out the DGN workshops and the decision by Seafood Watch to say that locally harvested shark meat was a “good alternative” seafood choice was not enough to fix the image problem that our gillnet fisheries face. There are still many NGO’s out there that still accuse our gillnet fisheries of being “curtains of death” and would love to see our gillnet fisheries shut down. I’m not sure if these NGO’s understand the facts about these fisheries and the transfer effects involved with shutting them down, or if they just decide to ignore the facts to push their agenda. Either way, seeing press releases like this one reminded me that I still had a lot of work to do.
I started by responding to the Center of Biological Diversity on Twitter and my tweets caught the attention of David Shiffman from Southern Fried Science. David asked me if I’d be willing to write a guest post about CA’s DGN fishery for swordfish and sharks on his blog. I was thrilled at the offer and I proceeded to write my very first post about the transfer effects associated with anti-gillnet campaigns that I was all too familiar with. I am forever thankful to David Shiffman of SFS for giving me the opportunity to share my point of view. After asking if I could write a follow-up post about Hawaii’s shallow-set longline fishery for swordfish, David suggested that I start my own blog considering I had so much to say. I didn’t hesitate at all and within two weeks from my SFS post, EatUSseafood.com was born in March of 2012.
Now I just try to keep it simple by sticking to what I know. One thing that I know is that 91% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. This is up from 67% just 11 years ago creating an annual trade deficit of more than $10.4 billion, which is second only to oil in the natural resources category. This fact alone provides me with all the motivation I need to do what I do in my spare time. Since U.S fisheries are arguably the best managed fisheries in the world, I decided to support U.S. fisheries rather than attacking them and it’s the best campaign I’ve ever been a part of.
Another thing I know is that at the $3.50-$5.00 per lb. price range, CA & Hawaiian caught common thresher shark is an affordable protein source that is low in mercury and is only available 2-3 months per year. Taking this product out of the equation displaces honest U.S. fishermen (and everyone else in the seafood market chain) and also opens the door to more imports of seafood that is less ethically sourced (understatement of the year) to fill the demand for cheap protein. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you need to eat sharks to save them, I’m just saying that participating in campaigns designed to shut down responsible U.S. shark fisheries can actually do more bad than good for sharks worldwide.
I don’t get paid to fish and I don’t get paid to study or promote ocean conservation. I represent the 99% of the rest of us that volunteer our time to do the right thing for our oceans. Unlike fishermen and NGOs, we have nothing to gain or lose financially from conservation campaigns. We are genuinely pure, well-intentioned sponges. From my observations and experiences I have to say that the 99% of us sponges really have a lot working against us if we wish to hear all sides of any fisheries issue.
We are only subject to the information at hand and it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that fishermen are too busy fishing to have a chance to respond to and compete with all the attack campaigns that NGOs create against them. Fishermen spend their time fishing and they simply don’t have the time, money or resources that NGOs have to share their side of the story far and wide. The 99% of us really have a lot of power to do good for our oceans, but only if we are willing to do a bit of homework. But don’t worry because if you are anything like me, fisheries homework is fun as hell.
Shark (and ocean) conservationists are slammed with action alerts and petitions from NGOs that are designed to make it very easy for us to act, but they often oversimplify extremely complex issues. Remember that unlike us, these NGOs are being paid and they need our donations to feed their payroll. Ocean conservation has become a big business and it deeply saddens me to say that there are some NGOs that intentionally mislead the 99% of us into thinking that we are actually doing the right thing by contributing to their campaigns. If you got an email from someone saying you won $2,000,000.00 in the British Lottery and all you need to do is provide them with your personal info to receive the funds, I hope you’d be a little skeptical. I believe we should be just as skeptical about signing any action alert or petition that comes our way. We need to have our guards up and be aware of the fact that fisheries issues are anything but simple.
Direct actions have consequences and it’s up to us as to whether the consequences are positive or negative. It’s imperative that we investigate all sides of fisheries issues at hand before we make any decision to act one way or the other. If you aren’t sure about what you are signing or donating to, then the best action you can take is no action at all. Don’t be afraid to admit you are not an expert on fisheries issues because the fact is that over 99% of us aren’t experts either. Sorry, but we need to be more humble about this.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed I send some pretty nasty tweets to NGOs that engage in campaigns that I believe are misleading, dishonest and counterproductive. This is because it personally offends me to think that folks would intentionally lie to take advantage of our good intentions and money. I see this as nothing short of fraud and it bums me out how even the largest NGOs seem to be guilty of this sort of bullying. This is a waste of good intentions and money that could be directed towards effective conservation and it upsets me very much. It may sound harsh but I believe a bully needs to be bullied. In High School I used to hang out near the mentally challenged folks at lunch and I would mess with anyone that was cruel enough to mess with them. I like to stick up for folks that have a hard time sticking up for themselves, and now I want to stick up for honest U.S. fishermen. That being said, I hope you understand why I tweet what I tweet.
I’ve been referred to as a “rare bird” by fisheries managers before because of all the time I spend promoting and defending U.S fisheries. I really wish more shark (and ocean) conservationists would be rare birds, too. When we start to understand that U.S. fishermen are not evil and start to realize that they are people just trying to make a living like anyone else, it gives fishermen the option to actually take us seriously. This opens the door to future collaboration between conservationists, scientists and fishermen, rather than polarization. Think about it, fishermen are and always have been the real stewards of the sea. Remember that unlike us, their livelihoods depend on it. The knowledge, assistance and participation from U.S. fisherman are essential if we wish to achieve the conservation goals that we all have in common.