“Trawl fishing is like clear-cutting on land, but just in the bottom of the ocean.”
Earthjustice attorney Andrea Treece (Brian Treece)
This is the fourth in a series of Q and As on Earthjustice’s oceans work, which works to prevent habitat loss and overfishing, as well as reduce the impacts of climate change on the ocean. Earthjustice attorney Andrea Treece is part of a core oceans litigation team whose work helps protect forage fish species like herring, anchovies and sardines, which serve as the building blocks of the ocean food web.
Jessica Knoblauch: You focus specifically on west coast ocean issues at Earthjustice. Are there issues in ocean management that are unique to the Pacific?
Andrea Treece: The west coast faces a lot of issues that are prevalent across the nation. That actually is a great advantage because we can as an organization get a bigger picture of what’s going on in ocean resource management. We can apply the law in a way that will hopefully set a beneficial precedent for management in the rest of the nation.
JK: Earthjustice has litigated heavily against industrial fishing in the Alaska pollock fishery. Why?
AT: It’s really one of the first cases that highlighted the ecosystem effects of fishing and how important it is to consider not just how much fish we’re consuming, but whether we’re leaving enough in the ecosystem for everything else to keep on sustaining themselves, including seals and sea lions and a lot of other key predators in the ocean. So it was a great case to try and bring that issue to the forefront and change the way that major fishery was managed.
JK: The Alaska pollock fishery uses trawl fishing. What is trawl fishing and why is it so bad for the environment?
AT: The pollock fishery usually uses a midwater trawl, which involves drawing a big net through the water column itself, although if it becomes really heavily laden down with fish it can also drag along the bottom. One of the big problems with drawing any sort of huge net through the water is that it’s impossible to be selective about what you’re catching, so you end up with a lot of bycatch. With bycatch, if it’s something like a larger marine mammal or a sea turtle, the expectation is that those animals will be hopefully released alive, but that’s never guaranteed. It’s kind of like clear-cutting on land, but just in the bottom of the ocean.
JK: How has industrial-scale fishing affected the area’s Stellar sea lions?
AT: It’s one of the factors that’s believed to have led to a major decline in Steller sea lions over the past several decades. Some figures estimate that Steller sea lions have declined by about 80 percent in the last 30 years. Part of that is due to a rather large shift in ocean conditions and that combined with pretty intensive fishing of the very same food items that Steller sea lions rely on has had a pretty devastating impact on them.
It’s easy to ignore forage fish species like mackerel, pollock and anchovies. They’re not very glamorous. They’re not even fish that we as people generally eat directly very much. But they’re really an energy bridge in the ecosystem. Those little food guys get a lot of energy from eating the plankton in the ocean. And they in turn are eaten by an enormous array of species, anything from salmon, tuna, other larger fish to whales, sea lions and seals. The more sort of large, charismatic mega fauna that we really receive more attention and esteem rely directly on much less glamorous fish. And so when we take those out of the equation, it can cause a pretty drastic cascade.
In the past couple of years, I think in part because the notion of more ecosystem-based management of fisheries has taken hold, there’s been more scientific study on the importance of these prey species to the rest of the ecosystem. And, that in turn should allow the government to incorporate that science into making more precautionary and science-based decisions about how it manages forage fish.
Thanks in no small part to repeated litigation over the issue, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has instituted some more stringent management measures to try and directly protect the food sources for Steller sea lions. I think Steller sea lions are still far from recovered, and it remains to be seen as to whether the way the fishery is being managed now is going to be enough to facilitate their recovery.
JK: How is Earthjustice protecting sea turtles?
AT: We’ve been involved for over a decade now in trying to protect sea turtles from the longline fishery off the Hawaiian Islands. Longline gear can be dozens of miles of line with hooks strung every 10 feet or so, so it’s a gear type that is pretty indiscriminate. You catch whatever decides to nibble on your bait and unfortunately that includes sea turtles, especially endangered leatherback sea turtles and the North Pacific loggerhead.
Back in the late 1990s, Earthjustice sued the NMFS for allowing hundreds of sea turtles to be killed by this fishery. We were able to get the fishery shut down for a while, but that battle has come up again and again over the years. The fishery eventually reopened, but that repeated litigation did result in a much higher standard in the fishery. And now, the Hawaiian swordfish fishery is one of very few fisheries that has someone on every swordfish longline boat recording how many turtles are caught and what condition they’re in, as well as the raw number of other species that are caught as bycatch. It’s also one of the few fisheries that now has a hard cap on how many turtles can be injured and killed per year. So it’s been a really concerted, repeated effort over the years to hold their feet to the fire and make them protect these very imperiled species.
There is something very compelling about sea turtles. They’re these incredible ancient creatures that make really remarkable journeys across the ocean. When you look at the fact that, for example, a Pacific leatherback will nest in Papua New Guinea and swim clear across the Pacific Ocean with no visual markers to guide them all the way to the California coast just to feed on jelly fish, that’s a remarkable creature.
A lot of our efforts in all of these fisheries focus on trying to get the agency to take a broader look and be more precautionary and proactive in how they manage instead of allowing this sort of death by a thousand cuts for a lot of years. We’d like them to focus a lot more on recovering species and less on just keeping them on the live side of extinction.