Friday, December 24, 2010

Toxic Algal Bloom at Noordhoek

The City of Cape Town informed members of the public to avoid all contact with the water at the Wildevoelvlei and outlet channel leading to the sea. Wildevoelvlei had a well-established algae population dominated by species of blue-green algae named Cyanophyceae.

During the warm summer months, the algal population could increase dramatically, and this accounted for the current green pea-soup colour of the water.

Shellfish such as mussels harvested from the coast below the vlei were likely to be unfit for human consumption as a result of the toxins. Exposure to the algae could cause eye irritation, skin rashes, mouth ulcers, vomiting, diarrhoea, and cold or flu-like symptoms. Drinking or swallowing large amounts of contaminated water could be extremely dangerous.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Measuring the Impacts of Commercial Fishing

Two recent studies highlight a debate within the world of marine fisheries science over how to interpret available fisheries data and to determine the impacts of commercial fishing on the marine environment (see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=commercial-fisheries-impact&print=true#comments)

The global demand for seafood is high, and over the past several decades the harvesting of wild fish from the oceans has grown into a huge business. Between 1950 - the year the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization - began releasing an annual report of catch statistics, and the late 1980s the global annual reported catch ballooned from around 18 million metric tons to peak at about 80 million metric tons. Since then, the catch has stagnated, dropping to near 79 million metric tons in 2005.

There is no argument the industry's massive growth has vastly affected ocean ecosystems, but the extent to which this disruption has depleted and continues to deplete the sea's biodiversity has become source of a heated debate within the world of marine fisheries science. At the center of the disagreement, which is highlighted by two recently published studies, is a question: What is the best way to measure the ecological footprint of commercial fishing?

The answer is complicated, due to the inconsistent nature of the data from a large portion the world's fisheries, especially those operated by developing nations. But the authors of a new study published December 2 in PLoS One say they have for the first time quantified, on a global scale, the ecological consequences of commercial fishing. They say their results, gleaned by analyzing global catch statistics, reveal that only the expansion into new fishing grounds has maintained seafood supply by making up for devastating destruction of the biodiversity in older fisheries. Now, they say, there is no more room to expand, and current fishing practices are not sustainable.

Daniel Pauly, a professor of fisheries biology at the University of British Columbia, was a co-author of the new paper. Pauly, also the principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project (http://www.seaaroundus.org/) , says his group was able to measure biodiversity loss by developing a "'currency,' or common denominator, for the impact of fisheries on ecosystems," necessary because that impact varies depending on which species is harvested.

In previous work Pauly's group divided the planet's oceans into 180,000 individual cells and used catch statistics to determine the amount of every species caught in each cell between 1950 and 2005. Then, they determined the "primary production"—an ecological term referring to organisms at the very bottom of an ecosystem's food web—required to produce all the fish harvested from every cell. In ocean ecosystems primary production comes from phytoplankton. Each fish species needs a unique amount of primary production to survive, depending on their place on the food web. The higher in the web—or, as ecologists say, the higher the trophic level—the more that is required.

In the new paper the authors expressed the primary production required to produce the catch from each cell as a fraction of the total primary production—a value they inferred by analyzing satellite photos to measure pigmentation in the water—in each respective locale. The result is an illustration of the global "ecological footprint" of marine fisheries—one that, given current trends, cannot be sustained.

Not all marine fisheries scientists, however, agree that primary production required is a reliable enough measurement of biodiversity loss.

Care must be taken not to overinterpret the metric, says Kevern Cochrane, the director of the resources use and conservation division of the FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department . "I think it is a useful complement to other ways of looking at the picture," he says, but "it does introduce other uncertainties as well."

These uncertainties stem from the fact that it relies on records of fisheries catches. "If you really want to know what the health of the ecosystem is, it's better to focus on what is actually in the ecosystem, rather than what you get out of it," says Trevor Branch , a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington (U.W.) in Seattle. "There are lots of reasons why catches go up and down, irrespective of what's happening in the ecosystem."

Catch data alone do not necessarily reflect abundance, Branch explains, as catches are also driven by additional factors like economics, technology and fisheries management . For example, he cites the U.S. west coast, where "10 or 20 species have by this measure have completely collapsed." In fact, he notes, managers in that area have deliberately cut back on catches of those species. "Now those species are rebuilding, and many of them are not even overfished anymore, but the catches are still low," he says.

Researchers can more comprehensively evaluate an ecosystem by supplementing catch records with surveys of an area's biomass, and models, called stock assessments, which account for all available catch and survey data for individual species. "Wherever you have a scientific stock assessment, or the result of a rigorous scientific survey conducted using acoustic or trawl techniques, you should use that data as well," FAO's Cochrane says.

But stock assessments and scientific surveys are only available from a fraction of the world's fisheries—mainly high-value, intensely managed ones in the waters of developed countries. Often, catch data are the only information available. "It's the most globally available information—it's as simple as that," Cochrane says. He notes that the FAO is engaged in efforts to improve the quality and accuracy of global catch data, and to expand the world's library of surveys and stock assessments.

The authors of the new study argue that destructive overfishing by the industry has been masked by spatial expansion. "If people in Japan, Europe, and North America find themselves wondering how the markets are still filled with seafood, it's in part because spatial expansion and trade makes up for overfishing and 'fishing down the food chain' in local waters," said lead author Wilf Swartz , a PhD student at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Center, in a statement.

"Fishing down the food chain refers to a supposed phenomenon in which commercial fisherman, when they first move into a new area, target larger, longer-lived fish until they are depleted, at which point they shift to smaller, less desirable species lower on the food web until all that is left are species near the bottom of the web. Fisheries scientists have accepted this occurrence since 1998, when a landmark study authored by Daniel Pauly and colleagues and published in Science, concluded that the average food-web position of the contents of global catches—known to ecologists as the mean trophic index—was declining.

The mean trophic index has since become the most widely-used indicator of ocean ecosystem health. In 2004 the Convention on Biological Diversity named it one of eight indicators that would be used to monitor progress toward the accord's goal of reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

But a study published in Nature, November 17, by Trevor Branch and colleagues, found that the decline in the mean trophic index Pauly had observed in 1998 is no longer present in the global catch data. Further, the study cites catch records, stock assessments and scientific surveys to show that in many cases the index does not correspond to the average food-web position of the organisms researchers directly observe in the ecosystem. On the contrary, Branch says, "just under half the time what you get from catches goes in the complete opposite direction from what you get from the ecosystems."

Pauly says the new PLoS One paper "completely invalidates" Branch's Nature paper because the authors failed to account for the spatial expansion described in the former. As fisheries move offshore, he says, they first target large fish high on the food web—just as they did closer to shore. "Hence, moving offshore will mask inshore declines in mean trophic levels."

Branch counters that the expansion paper actually reinforces his study's conclusion that mean trophic index is not a reliable indicator. "Fisheries expansion is just another reason why we shouldn't trust catches," he says. "That was the point of our paper—that we shouldn't be basing our judgment on catches."

The value of the mean trophic index depends on an assumption that is not supported by the available data, says Ray Hilborn , also a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at U.W., although not an author on the Nature paper. In particular, he notes, recent evidence suggests fisheries do not necessarily begin by targeting fish higher up on the food web, but often simply pursue the most economically valuable species, regardless of their position. "If you think about it, what is the most expensive stuff at the market? It's lobsters, scallops, crabs and things like that. It's not yellowfin tuna," Hilborn says.

If catch data are not a reliable reflection of what is happening in ocean ecosystems, does that mean Pauly's argument that eventually our oceans will be left only with jellyfish and plankton overblown? Again, the answer is complicated by the inconsistent quality of the available information. But in the places for which there is good data, it appears things are actually improving, says Bill Fox , vice president and managing director for fisheries for the World Wildlife Fund. "For the last decade we have been making great progress—certainly in the U.S., northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many developing countries as well—in terms of improving the sustainability of fisheries," he says.

Hilborn agrees, citing a 2009 study in Science that brought together conservation biologists and fisheries scientists, and compiled multiple data sets—ecosystem models, stock assessments, trawl surveys and catch statistics—to assess the global state of fisheries. This study, on which Hilborn and Branch joined 19 other scientists as co-authors, showed that although the majority of commercial fish stocks for which there are data remain below target thresholds, fishing pressure has been reduced enough to expect that most of the ecosystems studied should be able to rebound to those thresholds.

Pauly, meanwhile, maintains the situation is direr, and compares current fishing practices with a Ponzi scheme. "It has been, throughout, a raid on the capital," he says, and it's happened under the cover of spatial expansion. "The supply has been guaranteed, and has been provided by expansion. When expansion is not possible anymore, how will we guarantee the supply?"

TRAFFIC Bulletin report on Abalone

Measures introduced in South Africa to bring the unsustainable and illicit trade in abalone were never given adequate support before they were withdrawn, finds a new study launched on 16 December 2010 in the TRAFFIC Bulletin.

Abalone are types of sea molluscs (known locally as perlemoen), in great demand in East Asia for their meat and shell. Overfishing and disease have caused serious declines in several species world-wide. Numbers of one species found only in South African waters, Haliotis midae, have declined dramatically since the 1990s, largely because of highly organized illegal plundering of stocks. The illegal fishing industry has known links to domestic drugs trafficking and Asian crime syndicates, with the majority of the catch smuggled to Hong Kong.

In an effort to regulate the harvest and prevent unsustainable and illegal exploitation of Haliotis midae, in 2007 the South African Government placed the species in Appendix III of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). An Appendix III listing is a means by which a country can ask for assistance from all other CITES member States to help control trade in a particular species.

The measure was aimed to highlight abalone trade passing illegally through neighbouring countries and was the first time CITES measures had been used to regulate international trade in any abalone species. “While it seems clear that the listing only had a temporary impact on illegal harvest and trade in the species, it was never properly implemented in South Africa and its potential as a regulatory and monitoring tool was therefore never properly tested,” finds the TRAFFIC study. The listing was withdrawn in May 2010 with the South African Government citing administrative difficulties, principally owing to misunderstandings around the role of the various government agencies in CITES permit endorsement.

“The withdrawal of Haliotis midae from CITES Appendix III is troubling as it appears to be based on institutional constraints, rather than a fundamental flaw in the CITES instrument and process,” said Markus B├╝rgener, Senior Programme Officer with TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa, and author of the report. According to B├╝rgener, the Government should investigate affording Haliotis midae and similar looking abalone species greater protection under CITES, backed up with adequate resources.

“Almost all abalone range States experience illegal harvest and a CITES listing could assist compliance efforts for species found in these countries,” he said.

The TRAFFIC Bulletin is available at www.traffic.org

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Woeful Minister of Fisheries

The Editorial in the Cape Times this morning (21 December 2010) is a damning indictment of the failure of the Minister of Fisheries and her increasingly incompetent and reckless department in managing our lobster stocks.

As this blog has reported and re-iterated by the Cape Times Editorial, the Minister and her department are complicit in the continued destruction of lobster stocks which are now estimated to be at 3% of pristine by allocating a larger quota to the "interim relief lobster sector". Our lobster inshore stocks are in a substantially worse biological state than abalone. Instead of listening to her scientific advisers (who are the only professionally qualified fisheries managers left in her department) to not reward the interim relief poachers, shebeen owners, taxi drivers and the dead by increasing their quota from 53 tons to 200 tons, she is now the first fisheries minister in post apartheid South Africa to ignore her scientists. Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson can now hold her head in shame as she follows in the footsteps of various apartheid-era fishery ministers who allocated quotas against scientific advice and usually for questionable reasons.

What makes this Minister's mismanagement particularly sickening is that she tries to embarrassingly deny knowledge of the quota cuts for the recreational and commercial sectors (the job creators and tax payers) and the large increases for the poachers (who don't create jobs or pay any taxes)! But her signature is on the TAC document! Does she then admit that she signed the TAC document without applying her mind? If so, then her decision is unlawful!

Does this Minister not even have the courage of her conviction to defend her decisions? What an embarrassment. Perhaps fisheries should be returned to the Ministry of Environment where it was mismanaged less badly.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Marine Anti-Poaching Project Launched

The Department of Fisheries launched the Marine Anti-Poaching Project on 14 December 2010. The project involved the training of 60 veterans from (predominantly) the ANC's military veterans wing, MK. Their training over the past 6 months involved surveillance, intelligence, investigation practice and risk assessment.

However, while their training lasted 6 months, the project has a budget that will end in March 2011 which will mean that these ex military veterans will only be "patrolling" the coast for 3-4 months.

We have previously derided the decision to use ex military veterans. However, given the desperate state of chaos in the department of fisheries, coupled with the growing number of cases of gross mismanagement, "quota" grabs and shenanigans involving the farcical interim relief process over the past few months, the comedy of deploying ex military veterans is almost welcomed. At least there will be 60 more officers patrolling the coast?

However, on a serious note what is of concern is that although there have been a number of arrests of poachers reported in the media by the South Africa Police and the Department Fisheries, we are not aware of a single case that resulted in jail terms and asset seizures. This is principally because of poorly trained criminal prosecutors who are unfamiliar with environmental and fisheries laws, a magistracy that is overwhelmed with criminal cases considered a greater priority than green crimes and an inclination by the Department of Fisheries to raise cash through plea bargains and quick settlements.

And then of course you have the Department of Fisheries itself contributing directly and indirectly to poaching by being significantly reliant on the income from the sale of confiscated fish and mismanaging the allocation of interim relief quotas to extent that it has.

Until these and other systemic crises are resolved, the use of MK vets to patrol our coast whether for 4 months or longer will simply serve as a band-aid for a multiple gun-shot victim.

Friday, December 10, 2010

DAFF Admits to TAC Manipulations

The Cape Times today reports (Pg6 "Something fishing in allocation of interim relief quotas for marine poachers") that when the Department of Fisheries (DAFF) was questioned on the apparent incorrect catch limits stated in the 2010/2011 west coast rock lobster TAC document signed by the Minister, DAFF confirmed that although 53 tons was allocated by the Minister under section 14 of the Marine Living Resources Act for the "interim relief" sector for the 2009/2010 season, DAFF allowed the sector to "utilise" 180 tons!

So DAFF simply nonchalantly admits to permitting a substantial breach of the Marine Living Resources Act and to large scale poaching of our lobster resource. What makes matters even worse is that documentation in Feike's possession shows that the west coast rock lobster industry association is of the opinion - based on the quantum of lobster that was caught, processed and exported by the commercial sector for the "interim relief quota holders" - that the interim relief sector in fact caught about 500 tons of lobster! This would amount to an overcatch of 1000%!

It bears repeating. DAFF oversaw and sanctioned an overcatch of 1000%. To compound this mismanagement, DAFF has opted to adopt the same strategy its predecessor did with abalone. It is now denying the extent of illegality, mismanagement and poaching by the interim relief sector by planting its head firmly in the sand. If we turn to the archives, we will see that Monde Mayekiso had stated on TV's Special Assignment programme that there simply was no crisis in the management of abalone and that poaching figures were greatly exaggerated. Once Mayekiso was removed, the "new DAFF management" did an about turn, recognising that abalone management was in crisis and that poaching figures estimated by Feike and organisations such as TRAFFIC and SEAWATCH were in fact correct.

How tragically (last year's) history repeats itself. Will we have to wait for a new faction of the ANC to remove the current faction (as they had removed the Mayekiso faction!) before the new faction also then accepts what we are now warning about?

Will the Minister of DAFF have the dubious honour of shutting down the lobster fishery as it collapses because of her inability to manage the resource she is entrusted under our laws to protect and manage responsibly? Lobster biomass in the inshore waters is estimated to be at about 3% of pristine, which is substantially worse than abalone.

And by the way, why does DAFF permit the export of interim relief quotas and allow these "inshore quotas" to be caught by offshore commercial vessels? What DAFF has succeeded in doing with the interim relief is create a large class of poachers and a larger class of paper quotas.

In our view, DAFF is increasingly becoming the single greatest threat to the sustainability of South Africa's fisheries.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Minister of Fisheries Fails on Performance

South Africa's official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has scored the Minister of Fisheries a failing 4 out of 10 for her performance as a Cabinet Minister during 2010. In 2009, she was scored a 7.

In the annual Cabinet Report Card, the DA states that "the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries continues to bumble around ineffectively because of Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s failure to take proper control of her department’s strategic direction. The DAFF needs strong and visionary management; anything less threatens the sustainability of the sector and the country’s food security. Minister Joemat-Pettersson has proven herself to be neither
strong nor innovative."

The full Report Card can be accessed at http://www.da.org.za/docs/10712/CabinetReportCard.pdf