Top marine scientists call for action on ‘invisible’ fisheries

To protect our oceans from irreversible harm, governments, conservationists, and researchers around the world must address the enormous threat posed by unregulated and destructive fisheries, say top marine scientists.

In an article published today in Science, Prof. Amanda Vincent of Project Seahorse at the University of British Columbia and Dr. Jean M. Harris of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in South Africa call for bold new approaches to the pressing global issue of overfishing and habitat destruction, including networks of marine protected areas, co-ordinated governance, and the co-management of fisheries with local communities.

"Governments and conservationists have tended to focus on the impact of industrial-scale fishing, which is indeed a big problem. At the same time, we must pay attention to small, local fisheries,” says Vincent. “They are ubiquitous in the world’s coastal waters and, unlike large fisheries, generally operate without oversight or record-keeping. Their impact may be small but cumulatively, it’s massive.”

Small-scale fisheries involve about 90% of the world’s fishers. Most of these 100 million or so fishers depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and many catch fish and other marine animals at unsustainable levels.

Destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling make matters worse. Trawl nets grab any and all forms of marine life, laying waste to the ocean floor. The total area bottom trawled is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clearcut annually around the world.

As targeted fish species shrink, both industrial and small-scale fishers move on to other species, depleting them, too, until finally they are catching anything that might provide food or generate cash. Government subsidies, in the absence of regulation, often serve to encourage this overfishing and habitat destruction—and must be abolished.

"We must act now with the most promising tools at hand. No-take marine reserves are one critical approach," says Harris. "Research shows they can be set up quickly to provide vital refuge for species to recover."

Smarter governance is equally important, says Harris: “What we know from the failure of management schemes globally is that regulation at the national level is not enough. Every layer of government, including regions and communities, must help small-scale fishers get control of the fisheries on which they depend.”

(via Marine Conservation Institute

Journal reference: Amanda C. J. Vincent, Jean M. Harris. Boundless no more.  Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1126/science.1255923.

Image credit: Project Seahorse

Bathing suits are not the only things that have gotten smaller in the past fifty years.

All these photos were taken on the same dock after fishing trips in the same waters. The last one was taken by post-doc Loren McClenachan, the rest were compiled by her from the records at Key West’s Monroe County Public Library.

Using the display boards as a size reference (they haven’t changed in half a century), McClenachan was able to plot just how much smaller trophy fish have become. The change is mainly due to changing composition of the catch - first fishermen target the larger species, and when their numbers have been depleted, they turn to a smaller species … and so on.

Read more about big fish stories getting littler — from Robert Krulwich — here.

"Seamount fisheries have often been described as mining operations rather than sustainable fisheries. They typically collapse within a few years of the start of fishing and the trawlers then move on to other unexploited seamounts to maintain the fishery."  

Philip Mladenov, author of Marine Biology: A Very Short Introduction, explores the future of seamount ecosystems on the OUPblog.

Image credit: By NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Too late to save Maui’s dolphin, experts says

Marine experts say it is too late to stop the Maui’s dolphin becoming extinct and New Zealand sea lions will be next unless changes are made.

Despite mandatory monitoring and recent restrictions on fishing zones, the Maui’s dolphins days are numbered.

"[The] stand out amongst them is bycatch in the southern squid fisheries." (…)"It’s not the fishermen, it’s the Government. The Government is paid to keep the species such as the Maui dolphin safe, and they’re not doing it," Roger Payne said.

New devices within nets have heavily reduced the number sea lions accidentally caught in fishing nets, but their numbers are still falling.The only way to ensure marine mammals are safe is to change fishing methods.

etsyfindoftheday 3 | 7.22.14

‘wild & free’ tote bag by aksalmonsisters

this canvas & burlap tote is adorned with one of my favorite earthy quotes and a sweet salmon screen print — perfect for seller aksalmonsisters, a pair of sisters from alaska selling ‘ocean-inspired wearable art’ to spread awareness for the future of sustainable fisheries <3 so kind! if you’re into the boho/rustic vibe, be sure to check out all their clothing and accessory options.


Hacking for Healthy Oceans

For 36 hours over Father’s Day Weekend, the Aquarium hosted an unusual sleepover. Few of the participants got much rest.

We were one of five sites for a first-ever State Department-sponsored Fishackathon. The goal was to find technological solutions so fishermen in the developing world can make their catch more sustainable.

Teams of coders, designers and project managers created website solutions and apps for smartphones and cell phones - tools that small-scale fishermen can use in places like West Africa and the Philippines to document their catch and report illegal fishing.

Nearly 40 participants gathered on a Friday night in Monterey with laptops, sleeping bags - and novel ideas for creating tools that will be effective in parts of the world where internet access and high-tech equipment is limited. By Sunday morning, they had solutions to offer.

In addition to tackling two State Department problem statements, we also asked our hackers to help with a Seafood Watch challenge: How can information about how fish were caught travel through the supply chain from the boat where it’s landed to the market or restaurant where it’s finally sold?

The outcome? Incredible.

The results were beyond our wildest expectations.

A four-person team we welcomed from the UC-Berkeley School of Information won the top national prize for “Fish DB”, a multi-layered solution to one of the State Department challenges. And a three-person team that formed during the Fishackathon won the Seafood Watch challenge with its “Go Fish!” app: a simple labeling system using colors and numbers to show sustainability and freshness of seafood items. The app incorporates gaming principles, rewards and social sharing features to encourage consumers to buy ocean-friendly seafood.

"I can’t believe what great results these teams produced over the weekend!" said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of Seafood Watch. "We will definitely tap into the talents of hackers in the future."

An appealing location

It might not be too hard to lure them back to Monterey, if comments from the Berkeley team are any indication. They used words like “epic” and “thrilled” to describe sleeping in front of the Kelp Forest and Open Sea, and having access to the knowledge of Aquarium staff and State Department experts.

“We had a blast!” team member Isha Dandavate told the UC-Berkeley news service. “I can’t even express how cool it was. Having the hackathon in an aquarium has sort of ruined us for all other hackathons.”

The State Department was equally thrilled, and is now making plans for a 2015 Fishackathon around World Oceans Day.

Learn how your everyday choices can support healthy oceans

Scientists are calling it “libricide.” Seven of the nine world-famous Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO] libraries were closed by autumn 2013, ostensibly to digitize the materials and reduce costs. But sources told the independent Tyee in December that a fraction of the 600,000-volume collection had been digitized. Irreplaceable documents like the 50 volumes produced by the H.M.S. Challenger expedition of the late 1800s that discovered thousands of new sea creatures, are now moldering in landfills.

Renowned Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings calls the closures “an assault on civil society.”

"It is always unnerving from a research and scientist perspective to watch a government undermine basic research. Losing libraries is not a neutral act," Hutchings says. He blames political convictions for the knowledge massacre.

"It must be about ideology. Nothing else fits," said Hutchings. “What that ideology is, is not clear. Does it reflect that part of the Harper government that doesn’t think government should be involved in the very things that affect our lives? Or is it that the role of government is not to collect books or fund science?” Hutchings said the closures fit into a larger pattern of “fear and insecurity” within the Harper government, “about how to deal with science and knowledge.”

Many scientists have compared the war on environmental science to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Hutchings muses, “you look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?”


We’ve tried lots of strategies for getting salmon over dams to their spawning grounds — fish ladders, fish elevators, fish trucks … even fish helicopters. But all of those methods are expensive and none of them are efficient.

Enter the salmon cannon.

(This reminds me of the old joke: What did the fish say when it ran into a wall? “Dam.”

Maybe they’ll have to change the punchline to “Shoot.”)


A young humpback whale died of starvation while entangled in a ghost fishing net. It washed ashore near Vancouver, Canada a few days ago and locals held a funeral for the animal. Officials are trying to identify who owned the lost fishing net. You can see the tail ripped up by the net. Full story and video.

Meanwhile, Canada’s ultra-conservative government is destroying endangered species act and dozens of environmental laws nearly every week with sneaky, backdoor amendments and secret legislation.

How? Regulatory capture. Canadian officials have successfully been bought by oil companies. In exchange, politicians are gutting environmental laws to help oil companies drill more pollutive wells faster and deeper with little to no regulatory oversight.

Follow climate adaptation.


The Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thynnus thunnus) is a sleek, 300-pound fish and a top predator in the ocean—but it is endangered from overfishing. Bluefin tuna is one of the most highly-prized fishes used in sushi and single fish will sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

Because it is endangered, there are strict regulations on how many fish can be caught each year. On Monday, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) met and decided to raise the quota (number of allowed fish caught), but by less than previous years.

Conservationists are celebrating this as a victory because the commission took the advice of the fisheries scientists to give the fish more time to recover before raising catch limits.

A related species of bluefin tuna, the Southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii), is critically endangered, which means there is no sign that its population is growing.

Living tuna photo: by Aziz Saltik
Dead tuna photo: by Flickr user 4-6


Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is one of the largest and fastest of all the world’s fishes. This particular species of tuna is capable of reaching 990 pounds but the average weight is 550 pounds. The average size of a bluefin tuna is 6.5 feet long. The color of the Atlantic bluefin tuna is dark blue above and gray below with a gold coruscation covering the body and has bright yellow finlets.

Atlantic bluefins are warm blooded, a rare trait for fish and they are comfortable in the cold waters of Newfoundland and Iceland. Atlantic bluefins once swam in the Black Sea but have since become extinct in that particular body of water.

In the 1970s, demand for the Atlantic bluefin soared, particularly in Japan. In January 2012, a prime 523 pound tuna was sold in a Japanese market for a whopping $736,000, a world record. Despite repeated warnings, overfishing continues to decline this species’ population. Since the 1930s, the bluefin tuna has been one of the most important big-games species sought after by fishermen. With less numbers than the polar bear, the Atlantic bluefin tuna is listed as endangered.



Posted by Enric Sala

Pristine Paradise. Palau. It sounds like a mantra, which one cannot help but repeating after being there. We just finished a Pristine Seas expedition to Palau, invited by the government to explore, survey, and document the underwater world of this little island nation that is also a large ocean nation.

Unlike other Pristine Seas expeditions – typically in uninhabited areas – Palau has a population of 20,000 and receives about 120,000 tourists per year. But we went to Palau because President Remengesau has a bold vision, a National Marine Sanctuary where industrial fishing would be banned, where only Palauans would fish – for local consumption – and where protection of the reefs would increase economic revenue to the country through sustainable ecotourism.

Palau has a long history of traditional management of marine resources and encyclopedic knowledge of the natural history of the sea…

(read more: National Geographic)

photos by Manu San Félix and Enric Sala


Opah are large fish commonly harvested at least in Hawaii, so it’s a bit of a shock there are some rather fundamental aspects of its biology that have only been properly described quite recently. And by basic, I mean how large they get and what their coloration is. Many sources claim a maximum size of 6 feet and 600 pounds — or 2 meters and 270 kg on Fishbase — however, out of 17,590 fish measured in Hawaii, the largest measurements were a fork length of 1.63 meters (5’4”) and a weight of 89 kg (196 lbs). As for coloration, most descriptions from the 20th and 21st centuries were based on dead specimens with sloughed-off scales and failed to mention the orange to vermilion coloration with (except in one species) white spots; unexpectedly, one description from 1776 described the coloration perfectly accurately!

The first image shows a Lampris sp. with its coloration intact and the second shows a L. immaculatus with extensive scale loss. While commonly treated as one species, there are at least two (L. immaculatus is smaller and lacks white spots, L. guttatus has them) and it appears white spotted individuals may actually be several species.

Hawn, D. & Collette, B. (2012) What are the maximum size and live body coloration of opah (Teleostei: Lampridae: Lampris species)? Ichthyological Research 59(3) 272-275.


Snorkeling for Salmon

We join BLM Oregon biologists Bruce Zoellick and Corbin Murphy as they snorkel the Salmon River counting salmon. 

How do you count fish in a river? If you’re a fish biologist working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), you start by stuffing yourself into a dry suit and then traipsing through the forests and down to the river. With a snorkel and mask you plunge into the river and slither around in search of Coho, Chinook and Steelhead. These fish like to rest and stay cool in the recently built log jams. 

To track how many fish are in the Salmon River, fish biologist Bruce Zoellick and wildlife biologist Corbin Murphy stuff themselves into dry suits and strap on a snorkel to get up-close and personal with the fish. They count fish by species as they snorkel around the log jams and side channels. 

Habitat for Coho, Chinook, Steelhead, and a smattering of other fish that consider the “wild and scenic” river their home is getting a remodel. Through a cooperative effort, trees have been pulled up and hauled to the river where engineers have built log jams for fish and other aquatic species. 

The Salmon River Restoration Project is a cooperative effort with several partners including the BLM, Freshwater Trust, Nature Conservancy, Portland Water Bureau, and a host of others passionate about aquatic restoration. 

To learn more about the BLM’s fisheries program head on over to: 

You also check out footage of the restoration project in action, here: 

Photos and story by Maria Thi Mai and Michael Campbell, BLM Oregon Public Affairs

Do Fish Feel Pain?

For any living organism, pain is quite a complex experience to measure, even more when the subject can’t self-report. Human beings and many other mammals vocalize our pain and display other obvious pain signals, but fish simply just trash about on the end of the fishing line. This question of fish feeling pain has been pondered for decades now, so do they actually feel anything?

  • The mechanism of pain

Before I get into it, it’s important to really understand what’s going on when we talk about pain for human beings.

According to the medical field’s definition, pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with tissue damage. It’s so subjective that everyone feels it differently. The key is the emotional component. In order to suffer, your brain needs wiring that lets it feel both sensation and emotion.


(Every human experience pain differently. Source)

To make the matter a little easier to understand, pain is a twofold experience, and there is a distinction to make between the conscious awareness of pain and the unconscious impulses of our nerves. The first step is the neurobio­logical process of our nerves communicating with the brain. That is the unconscious processing of impulses through nociception, the latter of which can also lead to complex hormonal reactions, behavioural responses as well as to learning avoidance reactions. The second step of pain is the emotional response to pain that varies from person to person.

  •  Emotion vs Sensation

Nociceptor nerve cells in our bodies deliver that initial pain-related communiqué along a route through the central nervous system to the brain. Research has shown that other mammals, birds and fish also have nociceptors. Sharks and rays don’t have nociceptors. The presence of those nerve cells implies that fish have the sensory capability to recognize when something is harming their bodies

Overall, the scientific consensus is that fish have the anatomical requirements to demonstrate neurophysiologic and behavioral reactions to pain as a means of survival. Now the bigger debate in this discussion is whether or not fish actually FEEL the pain. 


(Different anatomical components between the human nervous system and the fish nervous system. Source)

One of the primary arguments against fish having a feeling of pain is that their brains lack the structural elements, namely the neocortex, necessary for it. Without that, they cannot be aware of the pain as they are experiencing it. There is little evidence that exists to suggest that the fish also react emotionally to pain like humans. The physiological prerequisites for a conscious experience of pain are hardly developed in fish. 

Others have argued that fish could still have consciousness without a neocortex, and some other researchers believe that animal consciousness could arise from homologous subcortical brain networks. They are basically arguing that fish may feel pain through a different structural element than humans. Yet others believe fish have the same intelligence as other animals.


(One of the many PETA campaign posters against fishing: “Fish feel pain just as humans.” Source: Peta)

All in all, the majority of the scientific community believes that fish can sense the pain and hence can develop avoidance behaviors (study here), but it is very unlikely that they experience it emotionally like we humans do.

  • Then, why are the fish thrashing all over the place when they get caught?

It is crucial to remember that just because it looks like a painful experience to us doesn’t necessarily mean it really is pain. 

Some have suggested that the animals are simply trying to escape when hooked on a line and are thrashing, darting and pulling, and they considered it an unconscious flight reaction to being pulled in a direction they don’t want to go.

This study argued that fish showed only minor or no reactions at all to interventions which would be extremely painful to us and to other mammals. Pain killers such as morphine that are effective for humans were either ineffective in fish or were only effective in astronomically high doses that, for small mammals, would have meant immediate death from shock. These findings suggest that fish either have absolutely no awareness of pain in human terms or they react completely different to pain.

Other scientists do not really believe that fish may be experience pain in their own ways. Per basic biological facts, we know it takes a lot of brain power for primates to have even primary consciousness. The odds are slim that fish can do that with a smaller setup and a very small brain. 

To propose that fishes have conscious awareness of pain with vastly simpler cerebral hemispheres amounts to saying that the operations performed on the modern computer could also have been done by the 1982 model without additional hardware and software.”


(School of Big-Eye Scad (Selar crumenophthalmus). Photo credit: Bo Pardau)

  • Conclusion

You get it, everybody is pretty divided on the topic. The debate is still ongoing and there are many papers and books written about this. We can extrapolate all we want, but until we figure out a way for fish to communicate with us, this discussion will probably remain unsettled. 

Consequently, the take-away message here is that it is very difficult to deduct underlying emotional states based on behavioral responses, especially based on human standards of pain.

In any way, anthropomorphizing fish doesn’t solve their biggest problems, which really don’t have anything to do with whether they have a consciousness. Rather, if we want fish around, we’re the ones who have some thinking to do about how to stop overfishing, by-catch practices and toxic pollution.


We’re Fishing the Oceans Dry. It’s Time to Reconsider Fish Farms.

Aquaculture has gotten much greener, with American innovators leading the way.

For many consumers, aquaculture lost its appeal after unappetizing news spread about commercial fish farms—like fish feed’s pressure on wild resources, overflowing waste, toxic buildup in the water, and displacement of natural species. But consider this: Our appetite for seafood continues to rise. Globally, we’ve hungered for 3.2 percent more seafood every year for the last five decades, double the rate of our population. Yet more than four-fifths of the world’s wild fisheries are overexploited or fully exploited (yielding the most fish possible with no expected room for growth). Only 3 percent of stocks are considered underexploited—meaning they have any significant room for expansion. If we continue to fish at the current pace, some scientists predict we’ll be facing oceans devoid of edible marine creatures by 2050…

(read more: Mother Jones)