In the continual effort of marine conservation it is tempting to ask, “Are we there yet?” even when we know there will always be work to do. Yet there are a number of success stories where conservation efforts are really paying off and sustainability is within reach.
Lovers of marine life, fishing, and seafood have been through some stressful years of late. The many factions that have interest in the marine environment, from recreational to scientific to economic, have long been wrestling over the common goal of a sustainable marine ecosystem. And while there are still plenty of fronts that justify concern, it is extremely rewarding to see that the conservation community’s collective efforts are having a real impact. We are making progress in understanding and successfully managing certain fisheries. Even better, we are seeing specific species that were once on the brink are now making a comeback.
Of course, none of the success stories here are static projects. There is still much to learn about habitat, spawning behavior, food sources, sexual maturity data, migratory patterns, repercussions of fishing techniques, and countless other details that factor into sound management plans. However, success in each of these species has the potential to generate greater understanding and more rapid progress with other species. Moreover, which each step, sustainability is becoming a reality.
The world famous ingredient to Maryland’s crab cakes no longer comes primarily from Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay delicacy has been under considerable pressure and stocks had been declining for much of the last 15 years in the Bay. In the last few years, however, aggressive moves have been made to manage and improve the state of the fishery in the Chesapeake. Stock numbers are once again on the rise though they have not yet reached sustainability levels. For the first time in over a decade, the Bay population has been over the target for two consecutive years and the highest numbers since 1997. Based on this progress, new targets are being set for 2012- 2026. However, the Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina fishery is just part of the blue crab story.
The blue crab fishery is one of Florida’s most important and has been regulated since1947. The numbers of Florida crab landings have declined considerably from their peak in 1965 at 27 million pounds to a fluctuating catch of about 30%-60% of that number. The number of fishermen and traps has also increased so drastically that annual takes per boat are less than 20% of the early hauls. The fisheries on both the Atlantic and the Gulf coasts were in slow decline for decades, but starting in 2002 there started to be a rebound in crab numbers that seemed to coincide with a period of wetter weather. Scientists are realizing there are still many unknowns with the blue crab, but it does seem capable of impressive reproduction numbers when conditions are right. The research continues, but the good news is the fishery appears to be sustainable if regulations are maintained.
The Gulf of Mexico has become a major supplier of blue crabs and the fishery is of great economic importance to the region. Louisiana, the biggest supplier in the Gulf states, has petitioned the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to see if they can qualify for “sustainable fishery” status. That review is not complete yet, but it is a good sign of the direction the fishery is pursuing. The biggest challenges to the Gulf fishery are “overcapitalization” – as in Florida, there are just too many commercial licenses issued – and the fact that shrimp trawlers have actually been catching more blue crab as by-catch than the entire fishery is landing in a year. The by-catch is at least partially released, but the mortality rates are thought to be quite high. Both of these issues are gradually being addressed through regulation and improved technologies in trawlers. Ongoing research indicates that eventually most of these fisheries should be able to increase total landings while actually improving the sustainability of stocks.
If there is a poster child for the type of documented recovery that is possible once protected status is implemented for a given species, it is arguably the imposing likeness of the Goliath Grouper. As an easily caught game fish, Goliaths saw a precipitous decline from the 1950s until threatened species status and fishing bans were established in 1990. Photos from the old Key West docks in the ‘50s show day fishing boats bringing in a dozen or more enormous Goliaths per trip. However, those of us diving Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coast in the late ‘80s were only able to chase rumors of these big fish, like a single specimen hidden in the Box Cars off Tampa, or a juvenile in the hold of the Mizpah wreck off Palm Beach. By the new millennium a buzz was starting throughout the diving community, as numerous artificial and natural reefs on both coasts of Florida were sporting not one, but several Goliaths. Local divers witnessed consistent improvement in both the number and size of the groupers. Even more exciting was the discovery of Goliath spawning behavior on the deep reefs, which stimulated a great interest in both the scientific and recreational dive community. While no one really knows what the baseline once was for a healthy Goliath population, best estimates place the recovery at somewhere in the 15%-30% range and the Goliaths were de-listed as “threatened” in 2006. Currently, this Grouper is a prohibited species for fishing and that status is not expected to change in the near future. Unintentional catches must be released unharmed immediately. It is unclear if a fully recovered Goliath population could ever sustain a viable fishery, but the chance of seeing living specimens reaching their 800 lb. maximum bulk is improving yearly. Not all areas in their original territory have recovered equally, but the areas with the greatest progress have seen a nice economic bounce with dive tourism. Today, every diver that feels a rush from being in the presence of 10 or 20 of these impressive giants is really celebrating a giant-sized success.
The common snook, also known as Robalo, has long inspired an almost cult-like following among anglers. It may have been such passion and enthusiasm that was instrumental in making this fishery one of the earlier ones to receive attention and management. Starting as early as 1947, limited restrictions on haul seines sprang up in Florida and by 1957 it was illegal to buy or sell snook – strong action in its day. In the ensuing years, the regulations and fishing seasons have been modified over a dozen times and today there appears to be a viable healthy population for future generations. In prime habitat, it is now possible to see schools of over a hundred fish glistening in the shallow water. The extremely cold winter of 2010 killed thousands of snook in Florida, but rapid response was taken to limit fishing until assessments could be done and the season on both coast are set to open again on September 1, 2011.
This important fish has been popular with both commercial and recreational fishermen from the east coast of Florida up to Maine. The fishery was in decline and overfished for decades until the Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) was implemented in 1983. The logistics of assessing and enacting a plan’s details are never as straightforward as the concept would imply and summer flounder numbers continued to decline for another decade. However, in the mid ‘90s the population finally changed direction as recreational catches came more into line and species numbers have continued to improve since. Best estimates today are that flounder numbers will fully recover by 2013, exactly 30 years since action was first taken.
Forty years ago, it was easy to run a boat almost anywhere in the Florida Keys and find multiple lobsters under nearly every coral head. Lobsters are probably just too popular a food for that to be the case again, but we do have what is generally considered a sustainable and successful fishery in the Gulf and Southeast coast. The FMP was implemented in 1982 and has been revised numerous times since. The vast majority of the commercial fishery is in the Keys and there is currently a trap reduction program and mandatory use of degradable trap panels to prevent lost “ghost traps” from killing entrapped marine life. With continued monitoring and further adjustments to the regulations, this enormously popular crustacean should be around for a long time. While there are similar FMPs for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the status of the Caribbean/Central American lobster fishery is largely unknown but their health may have an impact on future demands of U.S. stocks.
Swordfish are highly migratory and roam thousands of miles along the Atlantic seaboard of the U.S. and the Eastern Atlantic coasts as well. The advent of longlining and the general popularity of the fish put severe pressure on the fishery as a whole. In 1985 when the first FMP was established, there was great concern about the amount of juvenile swordfish being taken, as well as the influence of overseas fisheries on the migratory population. Eventually, the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) – that also includes the swordfish fishery – got involved, but populations continued to decline. The turn-around came in large part during 1998 when public awareness was raised with the “give swordfish a break” campaign. Some 750 prominent U.S. chefs committed to not serving swordfish and supermarkets followed suit. The National Fisheries Management Service applied new standards in 1999 and over 130,000 square miles of Atlantic fishing grounds were closed to swordfish, while importing undersize fish was also banned. At the same time, the ICCAT instituted a 10-year plan for the fisheries recovery, and by 2006, the North Atlantic Swordfish had rebounded to 98% of the target goal – ahead of schedule! By 2009, the fishery was declared fully recovered. There is far less data on the fishery in the southeast, but recreational observations have seen substantial increases in the swordfish populations off the east coast of Florida in the same timeframe. Though the fishery now seems stable (5% over target in the northeast) the pelagic longline fishing technique most often employed does pose numerous threats to unintended by-catch of pelagic fish and mammals. Regulations such as requiring circle hooks to reduce by-catch deaths and satellite monitoring of boats to keep them out of high risk fishing grounds is helping, but there is still progress to be made here, and there are fishing techniques that are far more selective.
Stone Crabs are a unique fishery in that only the claws of legal size are harvested for their meat and the crab is released alive. As with most crustaceans, the claws are regenerated during future molts. The delectable and pricey seafood has become as iconic as sunshine to the state of Florida and is highly sought after during the October 15 to May 15 season each year. By regulating the size of the claw, banning claw removal of egg bearing females, and limiting the season, stone crab numbers have remained high on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. By the late 1990s, it became clear that the ever-increasing number of commercial traps were not increasing the overall catch by weight. In 2002, a “passive” trap reduction program was instituted and it is generally considered wise to continue to reduce the number of traps. At this time commercial and recreational fishermen are allowed to remove both claws if they are of legal size, but this leaves the crab defenseless and with limited feeding ability and should probably be discouraged.
Few fisheries have engendered more heated debate, concerns, and statistics than that of the red snapper. A visit to the NOAA website to analyze the last 30 years of regulation change, assessment counts, biomass analysis, and recovery projections will uncover many hours worth of reading and more charts and graphs than a Fortune 500 board meeting. This extremely popular recreational and commercial food fish is managed by two different programs and agencies; one in the Gulf of Mexico and another in the Southeast Atlantic. The pressures and influences are a bit different in each area and the Gulf is by far the most productive fishery. Management also started much earlier in the Gulf and it was realized in the ‘80s that the snapper were severely overfished. One of the big challenges in the Gulf was that the shrimp fishery was taking large quantities of juvenile red snapper as by-catch. In 1990, when scientists tried to establish what would be the maximum allowable Snapper harvest to rebuild the stocks, it was discovered that shrimp trawler by-catch alone exceeded the proposed catch limits. Thus unfolds the last 20 years of nearly constant research and regulation adjustment along with cooperation between the commercial shrimp and snapper fisheries to reduce pressures on the stocks. Red snapper numbers started making small increases in the mid ‘90s and have made some more notable increases in the last few years in the Gulf where stocks are now estimated to be about 11% of their 1945 levels. Some Gulf fishing operations report that stock recovery appears even better than that.
In contrast, the Atlantic fishery management plan started much later and stocks are currently estimated at 3-5% of the 1945 levels. Dramatic restrictions have been implemented that close off vast areas of the deeper fishing grounds off Florida and Georgia. It is hoped that new theories on the habitat of the older, more productive spawning red snapper will help speed recovery of these stocks. With recent evidence that snapper may reproduce more rapidly than expected, there is hope that both fisheries may be able to surge in populations in the next 10 years. Even while stocks are recovering, both commercial and recreational catches should soon be allowed to exceed what they are today, and by 2036, catches could be double what they were at their peak in the 1960s – and still be sustainable.
In 1995, Florida instituted a controversial, statewide ban on gill nets, which in turn put many commercial fishermen in a place of considering a new livelihood. Hundreds of fishermen, particularly in the Gulf, had spent decades using gillnets to harvest inshore species. In the early 1990’s, several of these inshore fisheries were in decline, and problematic by-catch like redfish and sea turtles were of growing concern. While there was a difficult burden born primarily by these traditional fishermen, most agree that the numbers of mullet, Spanish mackerel, bluefish and redfish have rebounded substantially today. Some species are making slower progress, but the game fish that prey on these inshore species have also seen significant improvements. The reduction in the commercial fishing contribution to the economy has been somewhat offset by the boom in improved sport and recreational fishing economies, as well as some surprising alternative fisheries.
One of the most notable of these alternative success stories started unfolding on the Gulf Coast of Florida: raising hard clams in the abundant shallow sandy bottom around the Cedar Key area. Many dispirited gillnet fishermen in the region took on the challenge of learning this new aquaculture business, and by 1998 Florida was producing 10% of the nation’s clams and about $7.5 million in revenue. The warm waters of the Gulf allow essentially the same clams from the central Atlantic coast to grow two to three times as fast. Today Florida hard clams are raised in five counties creating a $54 million industry: completely sustainable and having no notable harmful impacts on the environment. Florida Sea Grant is involved in numerous aquaculture projects in the state and is supporting research to expand and diversify the hard clam fishery, including adding the native Sunray Venus Clam as a companion product.
Oysters are a topic rife with seemingly contradictory statistics. More than 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have declined to the point they are functionally extinct. Yet the reproductive cycle of oysters is actually fairly resilient to fishing pressures. For the most part, there are just a handful of productive fisheries left in North America. A small fishery in Canada and a couple of small sustainable fisheries on the U.S. east coast (New Jersey and Maryland) and the Gulf of Mexico are largely what remain of a massive and once abundant world fishery. The Gulf of Mexico is considered the last best place to produce and harvest oysters, mostly in an aquaculture format. There are still techniques to improve upon, but Florida has taken the strongest stand to harvesting by allowing only tonging or hand collection. The Apalachicola Bay area produces 90% of Florida’s oysters and is considered one of the cleanest oyster producing regions. The dredging in the rest of the regions has clearly been shown to be destructive to oyster reefs and detrimental to the entire reef ecosystem – even tonging has proved problematic if done carelessly.
However, with the oyster’s high reproductive rate and the very beneficial role they play in local environment, it seems restoration would be a slam-dunk. Unfortunately, efforts to restore oyster reefs have been met with mixed results and researchers are not entirely sure why. Clearly, it is an area requiring more research and understanding. The oyster industry is a tiny fraction of what it was in the 1800s, but for now, we still have a productive, sustainable region to harvest the bi-valve people crave. The knowledge gained can be useful in other regions and the oysters can continue to play their vital role in the marine ecosystem.
The Long View
This brief compilation is in no way meant to cover all the good work that is being done by researchers, dedicated professionals, commercial fishermen, and passionate marine enthusiasts. Nor does it suggest that there are not a myriad of serious fishery dilemmas still ahead of us. Perhaps it is best to look at the current environmental picture as a snapshot in time at a point of transition in marine stewardship. Understanding and progress are coming hand-in-hand as a map is made of what works in an abundant, but finite ocean, so it can be copied and modified to address needs in different corners of the globe. Ultimately, that is the importance of shining a light on what works as well as what doesn’t. Nature constantly reminds us that the best kind of problem to have is one that we created in the first place – because there is a very good chance we can put it right again.