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Atlantic menhaden swim off Stony Beach in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. These small fish are a crucial link in the marine food web, serving as feed for larger sea predators, and they also are valued as commercial products in the animal feed, nutrition, cosmetic, and fishing industries. Pew has long advocated for ecosystem-based management, and in August, Atlantic states fishery managers committed to setting scientifically based catch limits to protect the food web.
Justin Benttinen Getty Images

A Big Win for a Small Fish

Never heard of Atlantic menhaden? If so, you’re not alone: The small fish doesn’t grab headlines the way that more charismatic marine life such as striped bass, humpback whales, or dolphins do. But menhaden are critical to the survival of all of these predators and then some, including birds such as osprey and eagles. Throughout their traditional East Coast habitat from Nova Scotia to Florida, menhaden are an integral piece of the food web—sustaining so many species that they’re often referred to as “the most important fish in the sea.”

Menhaden are also caught for use in the manufacture of feed for fish farms, pets, and livestock; to provide oil for the creation of nutritional supplements and cosmetics; and for use as bait by fishermen. That all contributes to making them the largest East Coast fishery by weight, with a catch that registers over 400 million pounds a year. In fact, menhaden have had a major impact on the economy and ecology of our Atlantic coast for centuries.

So when menhaden numbers shrink, animals that depend on them for survival suffer. Yet until 2013, there was no coastwide catch limit on menhaden. Although recent management measures to conserve the species have helped the population to increase, today it remains much smaller than its historic size, and the fish is no longer abundant throughout its full geographic range.

The good news is that recognition of menhaden’s importance and of how to best protect them has been growing. Scientists have long recommended that fishery management—even for a single species—should rely on ecosystem-based science, an approach that takes the broader marine food web into consideration when setting catch limits. The Pew Charitable Trusts has advocated for nearly a decade to secure ecosystem-based management for menhaden from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the body that regulates menhaden fishing.

To implement ecosystem-based fishery management for forage fish such as menhaden, research shows that guideposts known as ecological reference points (ERPs) should be used when setting catch limits. ERPs use a computer model to factor in the specific sustenance needs of predators and protect the larger food web. Pew was among more than 80 national, regional, state, and local groups and businesses urging the ASMFC to modernize management of menhaden through the addition of ERPs. And in August, after years of consideration, including a review of hundreds of thousands of public comments, the ASMFC committed to using ERPs to guide how it sets catch limits—a giant win for ecosystem-based science and menhaden, and one that sets a new precedent for using modern advancements in global fisheries science and modeling.

The model chosen by the ASMFC was developed by Tom Miller, a professor of fisheries science at the University of Maryland and director of the university’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and Andre Buchheister, who teaches fish conservation and management at Humboldt State University in California. Their research was supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program, established in 2004 by the Lenfest Foundation and managed by Pew.

“The researchers we funded worked with fishery managers for years to develop the model to ensure it generated specific, practical advice on sustainably managing menhaden and their predators,” says Lenfest director Charlotte Hudson. “It is gratifying to see its real-world application.”

“When enough menhaden are left in the ocean, their predators are healthier and more abundant,” says Joseph Gordon, who directs Pew’s conserving marine life in the United States project. “Communities along the entire coast benefit as the value of recreational fishing, seafood, and tourism businesses that depend on these species increases. Now, by setting catch limits that account for menhaden’s full ecological role, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has significantly advanced our country’s commitment to the modern, science-based management of fisheries.”

Demetra Aposporos

Fewer Mortgages Used to Buy Lower-Priced Homes in Philadelphia

Philadelphia has long enjoyed a higher rate of homeownership among low- and moderate-income households than many other cities. But two trends now pose a challenge to would-be homebuyers and people with limited incomes: a drop in the share of lower-priced home sales financed with a mortgage and the rising cost of houses in the city.

An analysis of deed transactions in Philadelphia, conducted by Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative and published in June, found that the share of mortgage-backed home sales in the lower-priced half of the market declined from 46% in 2000 to 35% in 2018. At the same time, the median sales price doubled, from $80,000 to $160,000. (These and all of the prices in this piece are expressed in 2018 dollars, to control for inflation.)

The rising median sales prices reflect both a decrease in the number of lower-cost homes sold and an increase in the sales of higher-priced homes. In 2000, nearly 14,000 homes sold for less than $100,000, accounting for 65% of transactions for that year. In 2018, fewer than 8,000 such transactions occurred, representing less than one-third of the year’s sales. Over the same period, the number of homes that sold for at least $500,000 more than quintupled, to almost 1,800.

At the same time, the number of transactions for houses priced between $50,000 and $100,000—homes likely to be affordable for many households—declined sharply. In 2000, this price range accounted for roughly 38% of all home sales (over 8,000 transactions), while in 2018 the share in this range decreased by more than half, falling to just 15% of all sales, or roughly 3,800 transactions.

Meanwhile, small-dollar mortgages have been becoming harder to obtain and are less available than larger-dollar home loans. An explanation for this may lie in current lending standards and the fixed costs associated with writing a loan.

“Analysts have found two trends nationally since the Great Recession,” says Larry Eichel, senior adviser on the Philadelphia research and policy initiative. “Lending standards have become more restrictive after the housing bubble that set off the recession. And lenders tell us the fixed costs of writing a mortgage—whether for $80,000 or $500,000—are the same, but the profit is higher on the larger sale. That’s one reason why smaller mortgages are harder to get.”

In Philadelphia, the percentage of lower-priced homes purchased with mortgages declined from 2000 to 2018. For example, 62% of homes sold for prices in the 25th to 30th percentile of the market in 2000 had mortgages; in 2018, when that range represented homes priced from $76,551 to $94,000, it was only 40%.

Homeownership provides financial benefits, including an opportunity to build wealth over time, and mortgages offer people with limited resources the chance to partake of these. “While Philadelphia remains a relatively affordable place to live, that’s been changing,” says Eichel. “This new data raises questions on whether homeownership will still be attainable for people with lower and moderate incomes.”

—Kimberly Burge

Mangroves off the coast of Florida’s Crystal River provide sanctuary and nurseries for manatees, turtles, fish, and other animals. Such shrub communities, as well as seagrass beds, are integral in the newly formed Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, in the Gulf of Mexico. Florida’s network of preserves helps safeguard water quality and coastal habitats that are vital to the region’s economy and wildlife.
Charlie Shoemaker for The Pew Charitable Trusts

New Preserve Protects Critical Habitat in Florida

Off the west coast of Florida north of Tampa Bay, seagrass beds stretch as far as the eye can see—part of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass meadow, home to marine species that are the lifeblood of the region’s economy. In late June, Florida designated a new aquatic preserve here, for the first time in 32 years, to protect more than 800 square miles of waters.

Signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis (R), the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve borders the shores of Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties and is sandwiched between several existing preserves to create a contiguous protected area that covers about a third of the state’s Gulf Coast.   

The boundaries of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve contain 400,000 acres of seagrasses, vegetation that filters pollutants, absorbs heat-trapping carbon, and acts as a buffer against incoming waves to help prevent shoreline erosion. These underwater seagrass meadows shelter shrimps and crabs and provide nursery areas for red drum and other prized fish as well as food for sea turtles and manatees. The habitat supports a range of coastal tourism year-round—from summertime scavenging for scallops to world-class sport fishing and manatee-watching. The designation still allows for these activities, which generate more than $600 million annually for the economy, provide more than 10,000 jobs, and support about 500 businesses.

Pew worked with community members to help achieve the designation, which had broad-based support: More than 100 coastal business leaders and nine state and national recreational fishing and marine industry organizations signed letters of support. Companion bills from Florida Representative Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto) and Senator Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula) helped create the preserve, the 42nd in the state.

Listing the area as a preserve ensures that it will receive the state’s highest level of water quality protection, which means that government and communities must act if runoff from agriculture and cities or other pollution threatens to diminish water quality.

Increasing pollution from agriculture and as a result of a growing population in many parts of the state has made the need for this protection more urgent as nutrient-laden runoff has caused harmful algae blooms and contributed to red tides on both coasts in recent years, resulting in massive seagrass die-offs and fish kills.

“This new preserve could help to prevent that kind of runoff-related disaster along Florida’s Nature Coast,” says Holly Binns, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect ocean life and coastal habitats in the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Caribbean. “Protecting this valuable habitat will also help support the marine life the region’s economy is so dependent on.”  

—Anne Usher

Majority of Public Favors the Ability to Sue Police for Misconduct  

With legislation to address racism and the use of excessive force by law enforcement stalled in Congress, there is broad public support in the United States for permitting citizens to sue police officers in order to hold them accountable for misconduct or the use of excessive force, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center released in July. 

The legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” generally protects officers from being held personally liable in lawsuits unless they commit clear violations of law. A proposal to limit qualified immunity has emerged as a stumbling block in the congressional debate over policing.

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say that civilians need to have the power to sue police officers to hold them accountable for misconduct and excessive use of force, even if that makes the officers’ jobs more difficult. Just 32% say that, in order for police officers to do their jobs effectively, they need to be shielded from such lawsuits.

About 8 in 10 Black adults (86%) favor permitting citizens to sue police officers to hold them accountable for misconduct, as do 75% of Hispanic adults and 60% of White adults. There also are sizable partisan differences in views of qualified immunity, reflecting the divisions over the issue in Congress. A majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (84%) say citizens need the power to sue police officers for the use of excessive force and misconduct, compared with 45% of Republicans and Republican leaners.

The survey found that the public’s evaluations of police performance in several key areas have declined since the Center last explored attitudes among police officers and the public in 2016.

A 58% majority of Americans say police around the country do an excellent or good job of protecting people from crime, which is little changed from the share who said this four years ago (62%). However, there have been double-digit declines in the shares who say police forces do an excellent or good job of using the right amount of force for each situation (from 45% in 2016 to 35% today), treating racial and ethnic groups equally (47% to 34%), and holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs (44% to 31%).

—Demetra Aposporos

John Minchillo AP Images

Pew Scholar Awarded Nobel Prize

On Oct. 5, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus, which affects about 71 million people in the world.

Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Nobel committee called the discovery “a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases.”

“Thanks to their discovery,” the committee said, “highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health. Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C. For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world population.”

Rice, who is a professor of virology at The Rockefeller University, was recognized for his work while on the faculty of the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1980s and 1990s. He was named a Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences in 1986, in the second year of the program’s existence.

Each year, the program, the first to carry the Pew name, recognizes promising young researchers and provides them with grants, creating a community of more than 1,000 scientists. The grantees meet annually and share ideas. Rice is the fourth Nobel Prize recipient in the group, joining Roderick MacKinnon for chemistry in 2003, Craig Mello for physiology or medicine in 2006, and Carol Greider for physiology or medicine in 2009.

Rice, who was born in Sacramento in 1952 and received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1981, said that collaboration among the many researchers working in the study of hepatitis has been essential.

“We’re all a few in a cast of thousands,” he told The New York Times on the day of the announcement. “I feel a bit odd—a combination of humbled and embarrassed. I think there are many people who should feel very good about what they contributed today.”

A self-described night owl, Rice also told a reporter that the early morning call notifying him of his award threw him at first. “My initial impression was this had to be a crank call.”

In its announcement, the Nobel committee described each scientist’s contribution to the understanding of hepatitis C.

The committee noted that Alter, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, helped define a new form of chronic viral hepatitis in the 1970s that was separate from the early identification of hepatitis A and hepatitis B infections. Houghton, working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron in the 1980s, helped isolate the genetic sequence of the virus, which eventually led to its naming as hepatitis C.

“The discovery of hepatitis C virus was decisive, but one essential piece of the puzzle was missing: Could the virus alone cause hepatitis?” the Nobel committee said in describing Rice’s role in the discovery. “To answer this question the scientists had to investigate if the cloned virus was able to replicate and cause disease.”

Rice’s genetic experiments helped answer that question. He showed that the virus could be isolated and cause disease in chimpanzees, resembling that seen in humans. “This was the final proof,” the Nobel committee said, “that hepatitis C virus alone could cause the unexplained cases of transfusion-mediated hepatitis.”

—Daniel LeDuc

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