10 components of a sustainable shark fishery, and how you can help implement them

x3170e00In 1999, government officials from all over the world gathered in Rome for a meeting of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Committee on Fisheries. The Committee meets every two years,  but one of the numerous outputs of this meeting was particularly significant, at least for sharks. Based on years of consultation and discussion by experts, the group agreed on a formal set of general principles that should make up sustainable and well-managed shark fisheries.

These 10 principles, part of a larger International Plan of Action for Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) , have helped shape more than a decade of scientific research and management priorities for the chondrichthyan fishes. When properly implemented and enforced, they allow people to use sharks (and rays and skates and chimeras, included in the IPOA-Sharks definition of “sharks”) as a natural resource while keeping populations healthy and allowing depleted stocks to recover.

According to the IPOA-Sharks, a national shark plan should aim to:

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Science in the Fleet: The Promise of Technology as a Panacea for Human Impacts

FleetCover1-REACHToday marks the release of Fleet: Wide Open, part 2 of my serial maritime science fiction adventure. With half the story revealed, we now see the roll technology plays in both the history and the day-to-day operations of the fleet. Specifically, we see three major technological advances that seem as though they would have been major solutions to the environmental problems facing the fleet, yet somehow, the world continues to fall apart.

In our world and the world of the fleet, we often hold up technological innovation as a panacea for global problems. It’s easy to look towards the next big advancement as the solution to our current woes — from alternative energy sources to groundbreaking trash removal devices — but what is often lost in the hype is the human component. Yes, technology is a necessary component of global environmental solutions. You can even look at the arc of human advancement as one long series of bootstrap-hoists — we need to utilize dirty tech to access environmentally sustainable tech (i.e. you can’t develop the ability to produce solar panels without first harnessing the energy locked in fossil fuels). But technology alone is useless without also changing human behavior. This creates a major problem, as technological innovation is often used as a tool to bypass human behavior entirely, the assumption being that it doesn’t matter what the individual does, so long as the tech is in place to mitigate it.

The horse piles of New York

Around the turn of the last century, New York City was in crisis. Horses, the primary means of transportation for people and products within the city have an unfortunate byproduct — feces, lots and lots of feces. At its peak, more than 60,000 horses were depositing upwards of 500 tones of manure every day. The horse crisis itself was the result of a major technological innovation — more efficient fertilizer based on mass produced phosphate. Where once there was a major economic incentive to collect the manure and resell it as fertilizer, now there was also no incentive. And so, the mountains of feces piled up. It got so bad that one editorial expounded that, by the 1930’s piles of horse manure would stand three stories tall and the city would be awash in an unending tide of feces.

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Largest U.S. Shark Fishery: Coming to a School Lunch Near You?

Spiny dogfish sharks have had a complicated history when it comes to fisheries management, going from hated pest to crashed fishery to conservation concern and now one of two certified-sustainable shark fisheries ever (the other is the Pacific species of spiny dogfish).  The story didn’t end with being certified sustainable though, and recently this fishery has been in the awkward position of keeping itself sustainable while also making sure fishermen can actually sell their catch.  Dogfish quotas have been leaping up annually since the Atlantic fishery was first considered for MSC certification, much to the chagrin of conservationists who would prefer the management plan pay more attention to the life history of these small but slow-growing sharks.  However, these increased quotas, combined with weakening demand in Europe as a result of the economic downturn, have lead to a massive surplus of dogfish in the U.S. market and dramatically lowered the price fishermen receive at the fish house.  Meanwhile, seafood chefs are attempting to get consumers to try out species they’ve previously overlooked (mainly because many of their former favorites are severely depleted), with dogfish sharks among the former “trash fish.”  While this movement gains momentum, fishing industry groups and 19 Senators and House Reps from coastal fishing states are exploring a different option, one that may put spiny dogfish in your local school lunch.

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Your homework: Find an environmental problem on campus, and fix it! Increasing sustainability at the UM food court

davesquaregreenuIn the fall of 2012, I took a class entitled “Using Communications to Influence Health and Environmental Policy: Theory and Practice”. The readings and discussions were fascinating, but what really got me excited was the semester project. Working with a group of other students, we were asked to identify an environmental problem on campus, and come up with a detailed plan to fix it. Our group was concerned by the lack of sustainable and recyclable options at the University of Miami’s food court, and focused our project on that issue. Below are modified excerpts from our group’s final project (the full document is approximately 50 pages). Though the class is over, I and others from my group will still be working with the University’s Office of Sustainability to help implement our project in the coming months. We welcome your feedback, suggestions for improvement, and assistance in achieving these goals! 

That's it- only trash cans. There are no recycling bins in the food court.

That’s it- only trash cans. There are no recycling bins in the food court.

The University of Miami has made a series of public commitments to campus sustainability, but progress has been extremely slow. One of the most obvious and public examples of waste occurs in the food court. Located in a central area of campus, the UM food court has over 3,000 transactions each day, and serves students, faculty, and visitors alike. Most of the food court restaurants provide packaging materials, plates, cups, and utensils that are not recyclable. Almost 2,000 pounds of plastic wrappers and utensils are thrown away every week, a figure that does not include the national chain restaurants. There aren’t even recycle bins located in (or near) the food court for the few recyclable materials provided by vendors!

The first step was determining what other universities do to reduce waste at their on-campus restaurants. We evaluated reports on this topic by four leading institutions: the Sierra Club, the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the Sustainable Endowment Institute, and the Princeton Review. Interestingly, no schools appeared on all four reports’ lists of the schools with the best sustainable practice, but Oberlin College appeared on 3, and three schools (University of Washington, Cal Tech, and Arizona State) appeared on 2 lists each. No schools located in the state of Florida were on any list, but the (relatively) nearby University of Florida received an overall grade of a B+.

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Know Your Fishermen as well as your Farmer

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their shar, photo by author

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their share, photo by author

amysquareFisheries had their ups and downs in the US in 2012. We’ve all heard the stories of overfishing, but there were also a few glimmers of hope as the New England cod fishery proposed to open previously closed areas, the Chesapeake oysters showed slight recovery, and MSC certification expanded and became more popular. News on the social side of the fishery – the fishermen and their families – is not as prevalent outside the small towns where they live. However, some of the most exciting developments happened on this front, starting with official community supported fisheries declaring themselves here to stay. They held a successful summit in New Hampshire this past July, placing them more in the public eye than ever before.

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What does a day of discarded plastic from a molecular lab look like?

Plastic consumables from a molecular lab. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.

To complement my post earlier today on the need for best practice guidelines to minimize plastic waste in a conservation genetics lab, I asked my labmates to save all of their consumables from a day of molecular benchwork. The above picture (Sharpie for scale) is the result. All told, we produced about 1/2 kilogram of plastic (it’s hard to get a precise weight, since many of the tubes still contain liquid). With only 3 people working a the bench, this was a relatively light day.

Establishing Best Practices to Minimize Waste in a Conservation Genetics Lab

I am, among other things, a conservation geneticist. What that means is that I use the tools of molecular ecology and population genetics to make observations about species and populations in at-risk ecosystems, assess the status of anthropogenically disturbed populations, and generate data that has direct applications to conservation and management issues. Essentially, the only difference between what I do and what a population geneticist or molecular ecologist does is the motivation—I select systems to work in that have a high conservation priority.

This motivation leads to a constant intellectual conflict at the bench. The tools of molecular ecology—PCR, gene sequencing, and, more frequently, high-throughput sequencing—are waste intensive. In order to avoid cross-contamination and practice precise, clean, technique, we use thousands of tiny plastic consumables every day. These come in the form of pipette tips, sterile packaging material, micro-centrifuge tubes, and numerous other plastic widgets. Often, because of the biohazard potential, these consumable cannot be recycled.

So we have a problem. As a conservation geneticist, we need these tools to produce the data necessary to make wise conservation and management decisions. As a sustainability minded individual, I find the massive daily accumulation of plastic waste inexcusable. Do we just accept this waste as the cost of conservation genetics? I believe that the answer is no. I think we can and should develop best practices to minimize the amount of plastic waste produced by a molecular lab while maintaining good, sterile technique. I would like to propose four guidelines, based off the principles of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, for minimizing waste in a conservation genetics lab.

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Potential in Small-Scale Kombu Fishing in Samani Town, Hokkaido, Japan

As part of the GCOE-INeT Summer School at Hokkaido University this year I have had the opportunity to use Samani Town as a case study of “the sustainability of coupled human and natural systems”. The small coastal town of roughly 5,500 people is dependent on farming, fishing, forestry, mining, and increasingly tourism. Samani town is one of the oldest towns in Hokkaido Island and kelp fishing just offshore traces its roots back to the Ainu people who first populated the area. While other industries are important to life and economy in Samani, fishing deserves special note both because of the history and the successful local management.

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Mermaids do not exist, and five other important things people should, but do not, know about the ocean

Mermaids depicted by a Russian folk artist. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons via New York Public Library

Last week, Animal Planet aired a fictional mockumentary about mermaids. From an educational perspective, it was a disaster that was rightfully described as “the rotting carcass of science television” by Brian Switek. As Dr. M on Deep Sea News pointed out, one of the troubling results of this TV special was the discovery that some people believe that mermaids are real.

When I pointed out on Facebook and twitter that mermaids do not exist and that I hoped none of my friends believe otherwise, it inspired a long and interesting discussion. Someone asked why it matters if people believe in mermaids, as they felt that a sense of whimsy among the public is a good thing. Someone pointed out that scientists are discovering amazing new species all the time. More than a few people said “anything is possible.”

Sure, scientists discover new species all the time, but while finding a new species of monkey, orchid, or jellyfish can be interesting, it is not proof that “anything is possible” and it is not the same thing as finding a species of talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies.  There’s a big and important difference between enjoying fantasy novels and wishing that certain fantastical creatures exist (i.e. having a sense of whimsy) and genuinely believing that those creatures really do exist.

These people don’t believe that in the vast and unexplored ocean, there may be some bizarre undiscovered species still out there. They believe that talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies exist and are acknowledged as existing by the scientific community. This displays a troubling lack of awareness of reality that likely is not limited to a belief in mermaids. For the benefit of those who have paid so little attention to what’s going on in the real world that they believe mermaids exist, here are five other things that you should, but likely do not, know about the oceans.

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False Fish, Pink Slime, and Dactylopius frappucoccus: food supply, food choices, and establishing a personal food ethic

One solution, though not everyone can raise their own chickens.

A significant source of food for me. Of course not everyone can raise their own chickens.

Food is a tricky. For some people, food choice is an essential component of cultural heritage and national identity. For others, food choice is a statement of philosophical or moral principles. For many, being able to reject food is an unobtainable luxury. One thing is certain: food is so central to the human experience that when we question our food choices, when we are forced (or force others) to change them, when we discover that the choices we make are not what we think they are, it is impossible to separate our food ethics from our social structure. Which is why seemingly trivial revelations–bugs in your coffee, meat made slime, or a fish by any other name–often result in major outrage and structural changes. Eating is simultaneously a deeply personal experience and one in which, for much of the developed world, we are completely detached from the source.

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