A Sea Change

John McMurray is a strapping fellow with a gray-salted beard who grins widely when plucking huge fish from the sea. He has been fishing for big ones since he was 10. Now 42, he runs a fishing charter boat. In July, however, he left the 33-foot One More Cast docked for the day in the Atlantic off Oceanside, NY, and went to Washington to show a Senate subcommittee a picture of his son.

Oliver, 4, had gone with his dad for the first time to fish for summer flounder, also known as fluke. On his first drift, with his line on the bottom, he hooked a 28-inch flounder, and hauled it aboard with his dad's help. “Now, that,” McMurray recalls telling the senators, holding up a photo of a fish almost as long as his son, “is what a rebuilt fish stock looks like.”

McMurray for years had rarely found summer flounder worth chasing. They were so overfished that the only ones he caught “were so small if you held them up to the light, you could see through them.” But after tough regulations cut fishing for flounder in 2000, they have grown large and abundant and now make up a good chunk of McMurray's charter boat hauls.  “If you give the fish a chance, it'll come back,” he says.

The flounder is just one example of how U.S. fishery managers are giving fish a chance by imposing stronger restrictions based on science. That approach was one of the key recommendations made a decade ago when the Pew Oceans Commission delivered a 144-page indictment of our treatment of the oceans—a report that helped focus public opinion on the plight of the seas and what's in them. Now the United States has one of the best fish management systems in the world.

The Pew Oceans Commission recommendations in 2003, followed by a similar report the next year by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, sounded alarms for the well-being of a resource that had been taken for granted.  The environmental movement, ignited by Rachel Carson in the 1960s and in full bloom by the 1970s with the first Earth Day and idealistic new laws, had focused attention on pollution, air quality, and inland waters. The seas were considered almost too big to fail.

“Nobody really paid attention to what was happening to that great resource and the damage that was occurring,” says Leon Panetta, the former California congressman and White House chief of staff who chaired the Pew commission before returning to Washington to head the CIA and the Department of Defense. “I think we changed the conversation, because I think people throughout this country now recognize that our oceans were in trouble.”

The 18 commissioners assembled by Pew were a diverse group that included elected officials from coastal regions, scientists, fishermen, and conservationists. They conducted hearings across the country, solicited expert advice, and in the end reached a strong consensus.

“The oceans are in crisis and reforms are essential,” the commission declared. “Our sense that no one owns this vast realm has allowed us to tolerate no one caring for it. … We are squandering this bounty.”

The Pew Oceans Commission found that wetlands were retreating and that coastal waters were choked with oil, toxic chemicals, and farmland runoff.  New residential and industrial developments were sending pollution into the seas. Nutrients had spawned dead zones in the water. Coral was dying. Invasive species and escapees from fish farms were pushing wild stocks aside. Thirty percent of the regulated fish species were overfished. Cod and sardine populations had collapsed; haddock, yellowtail flounder, halibut, swordfish, Pacific red snapper—all were in danger. And fish and birds were fleeing from fouled waters.

The report offered a list of recommendations that addressed nearly every facet of mankind's interaction with the oceans. It said that the nation needed a sustainable oceans policy and that Congress should create an independent oceans agency. Coastlines should be protected and coastal waters cleaned. It called for a series of marine sanctuaries. Fishing limits should be set through scientific evidence to sustain fish. Wetlands should be restored, rivers cleaned, and pollution controlled. Urban and residential development near the coast should be curbed, and the Army Corps of Engineers should be ordered to protect, not rework, the environment.

The recommendations were far-reaching and ambitious, and they threatened the status quo. They soon became mired in competing interests. From seaside developers to commercial fishermen to sportsmen to sunbathers, all had their own views of how the oceans should be used.

The results 10 years later: The oceans

The results, a decade later, are decidedly mixed.  The commission recommended, for example, funding for basic ocean research be doubled. Progress toward that goal has lagged; money to study the effects of ocean acidification on the $2 billion shellfish industry dropped to $23 million in 2011 from $29 million in 2008. Scientists are scrambling to find financing for their research.

“Funding is getting more and more scarce, particularly for environmental work,” says Kenly Hiller, a young biologist who is trying to raise cash through an online crowd funding site to study nitrogen runoff at Cape Cod, MA.  She pleaded for $6,000 on the site microryza.com when government spending cuts in March delayed her EPA-financed fellowship.

The commission pushed for an overarching national policy on the oceans to try to bring sense to an area governed by 140 laws and a multitude of agencies. It was a “hodgepodge” in “disarray,” the commission said, and a policy was needed so that oceans would be used in a way that would sustain them for future generations.  But years of effort to get Congress to pass such a national oceans policy failed. Finally, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2010. Among other steps, it instructs the federal agencies that make decisions affecting the seas to work together, to employ science to guide deliberations, and to improve coordination with regional and state agencies.  

 “It has not been smooth sailing.” says Jane Lubchenco, who was a member of the commission and served as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2009 until early this year.  “There is significant backlash by vested interests who feel threatened by an integrated approach.”

But “as a result of the commission, we now have a national oceans policy that lays out those principles” of sustainability, she says. The president's executive order “has its focus squarely on stewardship. And it creates a National Ocean Council and regional councils as well as a mechanism for working across federal agencies. The importance of that should not be underestimated.”

Many of the problems pointed out by the commission have worsened in the past decade.  A data-based effort called the Ocean Health Index calculated in October that the health of the oceans rated a score of only 65 out of 100. The index did not exist 10 years ago, but Benjamin S. Halpern, a professor of marine conservation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is one of the authors of the index, says many problems have become more acute, though some have improved.

“I would say the two biggest problems are habitat loss with degradation in coastal areas, and overfishing,” he says. Rampant development, wetlands loss, agricultural and urban runoff, and resource exploitation all have an impact on the oceans, and growth in population has made many of those problems worse. More than half of all Americans live in a coastal county, a 40 percent increase since 1970.

The United States this year scored a 67 on the Ocean Health Index, placing it 75th among countries on a scale that is based on a variety of ocean uses and trends over the past five years. The score is “not a 20 or a 30, but I don't think anyone will celebrate that as a job done,” Halpern says.

Overlaying all of these problems is the changing climate. Oceans were once seen as an ally, perhaps even a savior, for a warming world: A third of the carbon dioxide produced by humans since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been absorbed by the oceans. But 10 years ago, the Pew commission pointed to the emerging science that the oceans themselves were changing.

Since the report's release, scientists have found that the seas are heating up, species that can move are starting to migrate to cooler waters, and those that can't are suffering. In addition, the carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans is making the water more acidic, which in turn hinders the growth of coral, shellfish, plankton, and algae. Coral beds, habitat for one-quarter of all marine species, are dying.
Joshua Reichert, who helped create the Pew Oceans Commission, acknowledges that climate change threatens to overshadow many of the problems that were the panel's focus. “Up until recently, the most serious problem affecting ocean health has been the staggering amount of fish and other marine life being taken out of the world's oceans each year,” says Reichert, who oversees Pew's environment work. “But that problem is soon to be eclipsed by rising temperatures and increasing acidity levels, which will have a devastating impact on ocean life.” Climate change, he says, presents “a dreadful scenario.”

The results 10 years later: The fish

The shorter-term threat in the seas is to fish, which help feed 7 billion people and which are the focus of both commercial and recreational industries in this country. For decades, the United States made feeble attempts to control overfishing, even as it watched cod and flounder disappear from New England, red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico, and rockfish from the Pacific.

Congress called for regulating fishing in 1976 in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, led by Senators Warren Magnuson (D-WA) and Ted Stevens (R-AK). When that did not work, lawmakers toughened the rules—but not the enforcement—in 1996 with the Sustainable Fisheries Act. The Pew Oceans Commission looked at the pattern of setting quotas and limits and found that they were sometimes arbitrarily fixed, often not enforced, and frequently altered under pressure from fishermen and the fishing industry.

Fishing quotas should be set to sustain fish for future generations, the commission concluded, not to protect economic or political interests. The estimates of fish stocks should be based on good science, not fishermen's hunches. In 2006, Congress responded: It said the fish estimates had to be determined by science, and stocks that were battered had to be allowed to regrow, with strict curbs on overfishing.

Heidi Marotta is at the heart of that process. She works with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to help sample fish off the Atlantic coast. Aboard the NOAA research vessel Gloria Michelle, based in Woods Hole, MA, she lays out some specimens of her work on a wooden sorting table: spotted flounders, a slithery squid, a butterfish, and a long, snakelike cutlassfish.

With a deft paring knife and electronic marker, Marotta demonstrates how she can rapidly enter the species, weight, length, and sex of her sampling prey into an onboard computer and quickly slice some crucial parts—an eardrum, tail, or spine— that will go to a lab to determine the specimen's age.

The 72-foot Gloria Michelle is a former Gulf Coast shrimper that was seized by federal authorities with its hold full of 16 tons of marijuana instead of shrimp. Lt. Anna-Liza Villard-Howe is now captain of the boat, part of the NOAA fleet of research vessels that includes 17 large ocean-going ships and about 400 smaller vessels. On fish surveys, Villard-Howe drops a net with a mouth 90 feet wide and 6 feet tall, weighted to drift 150 fathoms—900 feet—to the bottom. After pulling the net for 20 minutes, scooping the groundfish that hover there, she hoists the dripping haul to the deck. Marotta and a team of scientists swarm over the writhing catch to measure and process the specimens.

Commercial fishermen are often wary of the NOAA work, Villard-Howe says, and they complain that scientists are setting limits too low for their livelihoods. “Fishermen tell me we are doing it all wrong, we are in the wrong place, using the wrong gear,” she says.  “But the ones who take the time to learn what we are doing and why are generally on our side.”

When the scientists get back to their labs, they pore over the data, dissect the fish parts, look at surveys from other places and other years, and look at other fish—prey and predators—to come up with an estimate of the size, maturity, and trajectory of the stock.

Elsewhere, government-funded observers are riding fishing boats to count what's caught. Dock recorders are weighing and registering the catch brought back by commercial boats. And the fishermen themselves are reporting their hauls. All of that information feeds into a calculation that seeks to model what is happening to the fish under the surface, and how many can be taken from a particular population without depleting it. The recommended quota that emerges from this calculation then goes to state or regional fish management bodies, which include sport and commercial fishermen. They set the fishing rules based on that limit and adopt plans to rebuild overfished stocks. 

The law passed by Congress in 1996 and strengthened in 2006 after the blue-ribbon reports by the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and after lawsuits by conservationists to enforce it, requires that the catch quotas for any stock found overfished be stringent enough to try to rebuild the stock within 10 years if it is biologically possible to do so. “We've made a lot of progress,” says Lee Crockett, director of Pew's U.S. oceans program. “Since 2000, there are 33 fish stocks that have been rebuilt.”

According to NOAA's 2012 report to Congress, 70 other stocks are listed as either undergoing overfishing—with the fish being caught more quickly than they can reproduce—or already overfished, meaning they have been depleted to unhealthy levels.  But by June 2012, NOAA said science-based catch limits had been set for all 500-plus species that it manages. Although these limits apply only in federal waters, many states have adopted similar science-based methods.

Outside the 200-mile U.S. exclusive economic zone, it's a different story.  There are few rules on the high seas, and industrial trawlers from many countries—including the United States—feast on the big species that range far across the oceans: bluefin and yellowfin tuna, swordfish, large sharks, and marlins. High-tech electronic sensors find the fish, and lethal hydraulic machinery harvests them with an efficiency that gives the fish stocks little chance.

In 1950, fishermen pulled 17 million tons of fish from the sea; in 2010, the 3 million fishing boats worldwide caught 77 million tons, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The agency found that nearly 9 in 10 fish stocks it examined were either “fully exploited” or “overexploited.” Pew supported this year's creation of the Global Ocean Commission at Oxford University to assess threats to the world's seas, just as the Pew Oceans Commission did domestically a decade ago.

 “If you look at the fisheries, they are not as healthy as they were,” Reichert says. “The numbers of vessels out there, the number of hooks in the water every day, and the absence of government regimes have aggravated the problems that have been steadily building since the latter part of the 19th century. But I think there is now much greater awareness of the problems we face. The management regimes are getting better. These things don't turn around overnight.”

The process is slowly gaining converts, some reluctant. Terry Alexander, 52, a fourth-generation commercial fisherman in Cundy's Harbor, ME, longs for the old days. “I had 40 to 50 cousins and uncles who used to go out. There were plenty of boats and plenty of fish.  Now I'm the last of the clan,” he says.

“There are a few of us who still live off of fishing. We invested a whole lot of money to stay,” he says. “But there's not enough fish. That's the bottom line. There's not enough fish. We have to have management, and we completely understand that. Sometimes we have to make some really tough choices.”
   McMurray, the charter boat captain, agrees there is pain.  “It's a tough business. Every regulation they put into effect, you think it's going to destroy your business,” he says.  But he adds that without fish, there's no business.
   Because of the limits on summer flounder fishing, he told the senators in July, “I see more flounder than I have ever seen in my 13 years as a captain, or my 25 years as a
saltwater angler. This is one fishery,” McMurray said, “where I don't have to stress about abundance levels.”

Doug Struck is a former Washington Post foreign correspondent who writes about science and the environment and teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

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