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Restoring the Ocean Food Web [Q & A]

Earthjustice attorney Andrea Treece discusses her work to protect forage fish species, like anchovies and sardines, which serve as the building blocks of the ocean food web.

Length: 17 min 54 sec

Recorded: September 2011

[ Download MP3 ]

Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch speaks with Andrea Treece, an attorney who focuses on west coast issues as part of Earthjustice’s core oceans litigation team.

Treece first started at Earthjustice as an intern for the Ocean Law Project. She now works on protecting forage fish species like herring, anchovies and sardines, which serve as the building blocks of the ocean food web and are being vacuumed out of the ocean at unsustainable levels.

Jessica Knoblauch: You previously worked at the Center for Biological Diversity. What brought you to Earthjustice?

Andrea Treece: Well, I’ve actually worked for Earthjustice off and on over the past decade, so I knew the organization pretty well. I first interned for the Ocean Law Project, which was housed in Earthjustice back in 2000, and actually worked for [Oceans Program Director] Steve Roady, who now heads up our oceans work and got to know him quite well. And then I worked for the California regional office a couple of years after I graduated from law school and really just developed a great respect for the work that the organization does as well as the people who are involved in doing that work.

Jessica: And so you’ve been working specifically on west coast ocean issues at Earthjustice. Are there issues in ocean management that are unique to the Pacific?

Andrea: I think that the west coast faces a lot of issues that are prevalent across the nation. I think that we have issues associated with water quality stemming from industrial agricultural runoff as well as pollution from cities and roads. We have issues associated with overfishing as well as issues associated with the problems of shipping and the conflicts between that and whale migrations, for instance.

So a lot of these issues are fairly cross-cutting across the nation and that actually is, I think, a great advantage because we can as an organization get a bigger picture of what’s going on in ocean resource management and pick our areas of focus strategically and trying effective cases strategically where we have good facts and we can apply the law in a way that will hopefully set a beneficial precedent for management in the rest of the nation.

Jessica: One of the big issues on the west coast but also I know on the east coast is overfishing. Earthjustice has engaged in a fair amount of litigation involving the Alaska pollock fishery, which is actually the nation’s largest fishery. Why did Earthjustice decide to focus on this area in particular?

Andrea: Well, I have to say, I wasn’t around when the case was first brought, but I think 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 and whether that allows, say, the Pollock population to just keep on going at a level that allows us as humans to keep eating it, 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.

Jessica: And one of the issues is this technique called trawl fishing, which involves basically pulling a huge net through the water behind a boat. What kind of impact does this practice have on Alaska fisheries and on the environment in general?

Andrea: There are a variety of impacts from trawl fishing. And there are a couple of different types of trawl fishing. So you have bottom trawl fishing that involves actually pulling, as you said, a really huge heavy net right along the bottom. And in doing so, it basically tears up all the bottom habitat, whether that’s the layer of mud that has all sorts of little crustaceans and worms that other fish and other species depend on for food. It rips up sponges, deep sea corals, you name it. It’s kind of like clear-cutting on land—but just in the bottom of the ocean.

The type of trawl fishing that’s generally used in the Pollock fishery is a midwater trawl, meaning that the net is drawn through the water column itself, although if it becomes really heavily laden down with fish it can also drag along the bottom and cause some damage. 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. You’re basically catching everything in your path. And in the case of a fishery that’s targeting a species like mackerel or pollock that a lot of other species feed on, you can, for instance, have sea birds diving down there and hunting through that school of fish while they’re being caught in the net. So those sea birds can be directly caught and killed while drowning in the net.

[Trawl fishing is] kind of like clear-cutting on land—but just in the bottom of the ocean.

There are also pretty serious indirect impacts in terms of simply removing the same fish that other species like sea lions or fur seals or sea birds eat. We’re removing them from the ecosystem so they’re no longer available to sustain other animals.

Jessica: So all of these other species that get caught up in this net, that’s what’s known as bycatch. I that correct?

Andrea: Yes, exactly.

Jessica: Okay. And is that something that the fishermen release after they pull up the net onto the ship or are there any regulations around bycatch for Alaska fisheries?

Longlines string thousands of hooks through miles of ocean, indiscriminately wounding and killing sea life. (NOAA)

Andrea: It depends on the fishery and the type of animal that’s getting bycaught. If it’s something like a larger marine mammal, or, for instance, in fisheries that catch sea turtles, the expectation is that those animals will be hopefully released alive, but that’s obviously never guaranteed. When you’re talking about bycatch of things like seabirds, they may be more likely to already be dead or not survive that bycatch incident. Or certainly when there’s other species of fish even in the bycatch, it’s never certain. Even if they’re released, they may die anyway.

Jessica: You mentioned earlier that the protection of groundfish like pollock and mackerel is essential to supporting basically the entire marine food web, including Alaska’s Steller sea lions. How has intensive, industrial-scale fishing affected the sea lions so far

Andrea: 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 up in Alaska have declined by about 80 percent or so in the last 30 years. And part of that is due to a rather large shift in ocean conditions up there. 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.

Jessica: And so it sounds like we’re starting to realize that taking one species out of the ecosystem does have an effect on another species.

Andrea: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s easy to ignore species like mackerel and pollock and anchovies. They’re not very glamorous. They’re not even fish that we as people generally eat directly very much. So we just don’t think about them very much. But they’re really kind of a key almost like an energy bridge in the ecosystem. Those little food guys eat the plankton in the ocean. They get a lot of energy from that. And they in turn are eaten by an enormous array of species, anything from salmon, tuna, other larger fishes to whales, sea lions and seals and all of these species. The more sort of large, charismatic mega fauna that we really receive more attention and esteem really rely pretty directly on much less glamorous fish. And so when we take those out of the equation, it can cause a pretty drastic cascade.

… It’s easy to ignore species like mackerel and pollock and anchovies. They’re not very glamorous. They’re not even fish that we as people generally eat directly very much. So we just don’t think about them very much. But they’re really a key energy bridge in the ecosystem.

Jessica: What’s the status with the Alaska fisheries? Are they still being unsustainably fished at this point?

Andrea: Thanks in no small part to repeated litigation over the issue, the National Marine Fisheries Service has instituted some more stringent management measures to try and address overfishing of pollock, and 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.

Jessica: And kind of along the same lines as groundfish, Earthjustice is also ramping up efforts to protect forage fish. Why is there a sudden interest in these fish species or is this something that Earthjustice has always focused on?

Andrea: We’ve been focused on it for a while, certainly in the context of the Alaskan fishery we’ve been talking about. There’s a lot more interest across the board in forage fish conservation. In the past couple of years, I think in part because the notion of more ecosystem-based management of fisheries has taken hold more, 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 and to make more precautionary and more science-based decisions about how it manages anchovies and mackerel and sardines and squid and all of these other key prey species.

Jessica: It sounds like a much more holistic approach.

Andrea: That’s very true, especially in terms of fishery management itself. The traditional focus of it for decades has been on one fish species at a time without looking at where that fish fits in the bigger picture. So when we look at, say, herring, it’s all well and good to say, well, the herring population is healthy and we can take out 30 percent of it for human consumption and there will be enough left for continued human consumption. But that doesn’t account for the fact that salmon rely on herring and certain whales rely on herring and virtually everything else in the ocean that’s above the food chain in herring relies on it in some way, direct or indirect. So that’s something that we really have to start taking into account.

Ecosystem-based fisheries management: Prey species like herring are key to the survival of larger fish like salmon, who themselves are critical to the survival of other species.

Jessica: And it sounds like Earthjustice does take that into account. You mentioned salmon. I know that we have a lot of salmon work on the west coast.

Andrea: You were asking before about issues that are unique to the west coast. It strikes me that probably salmon protection is one issue that is more unique to the west coast. We’ve put in an enormous amount of effort in trying to protect the river habitats for spawning salmon from being basically sucked dry by water diversions and having all of that water from the salmon’s river habitats withdrawn and sent to southern California for industrial agriculture. And that’s been a huge ongoing battle. So now we’re trying to develop the other side as well. The salmon that are lucky enough to make it out of the river, we want to make sure that they have enough food to grow up nice and fat and healthy and go back and make more salmon. It’s a much more complex but I think also a much more interesting and inspiring picture than just looking at one species or one stage of life.

Jessica: Let’s switch gears a little bit. Earthjustice also has an office in Hawaii that works on protecting animals like endangered sea turtles that are killed by longline fishing. Can you talk a little bit about our case work in that area?

Andrea: Sure. We’ve been involved for over a decade now in trying to protect sea turtles from the longline fishery off the Hawaiian Islands that targets basically swordfish and tuna. For folks who are not familiar with longline gear, it basically can be dozens of miles of line with hooks strung every 10 feet or so. So it can be thousands of hooks per longline set. So it’s another gear type that is pretty indiscriminate. You catch whatever decides to nibble on your bait and unfortunately that includes sea turtles, especially leatherback sea turtles, which are endangered. And unfortunately the Pacific leatherback is one of the more endangered sea turtles in the world, as well as the North Pacific loggerhead, which is also a really imperiled species.

Back in the late 1990s, Earthjustice sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for basically allowing hundreds of sea turtles to be killed by this fishery without really considering the effects and was able to get the fishery shut down for a while—a large area that was thousands of square miles closed to longlining while the government actually went back and looked at the effects of allowing hundreds of sea turtles to be killed when they’re an endangered species.

And that battle has come up again and again over the years. In 2001, we sued again because the fisheries service had come up with their own assessment of the fishery’s effects on sea turtles and it concluded that the fishery threatened the sea turtles’ survival but still decided to allow fishing to go ahead anyway. So that resulted in another lawsuit and another fishery closure. Over the years the fishery reopened, but that repeated litigation did result in a much higher standard in the fishery.

Earthjustice has worked for over a decade to protect sea turtles. (Ukanda)

The Hawaiian swordfish fishery is one of very few fisheries that actually has 100 percent observer coverage now, meaning that there is actually 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. And it’s one of the few fisheries that now has a hard cap on how many turtles can be injured and killed per year. So at this point, the fishery can only injure or kill about 17 loggerhead sea turtles per year, for example. And even that cap was recently rolled back thanks to another suit that Earthjustice brought in 2009 when the fisheries service proposed to basically triple the number of loggerheads that they would allow to be injured or killed per year even though they had also just determined that the species was declining and nearing quasi extinction. 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.

Jessica: I would imagine that the sea turtles are pretty crucial to the economy in Hawaii. I would imagine that a lot of tourists come to Hawaii to see things like sea turtles.

Andrea: I think tourists in Hawaii love seeing sea turtles. The species they generally see there are green sea turtles, not as many of the leatherbacks or loggerheads. But I think in general 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. So unfortunately that journey also puts them in the way of a lot of longline boats and other fishing gear, but I think there’s just something very compelling about them that makes people want to keep them around.

Fisheries have been allowing this sort of death by a thousand cuts for a lot of years. I think that’s why we see these species continuing to slide downward. We’d like them to focus a lot more on recovering species and less on just keeping them on the live side of extinction.

And I think part of it is obviously to try and get management decisions in these fisheries based on updated data and an accurate and honest understanding of where these turtles are starting out, that they are actually declining. A lot of our efforts in all of these fisheries are trying to get the agency to take a broader look and be more precautionary and proactive in how they manage instead of taking the view that they’ve been allowing this sort of death by a thousand cuts for a lot of years. I think that’s why we see these species continuing to slide downward. We’d like them to focus a lot more on recovering species and less on just keeping them on the live side of extinction.

Jessica: Well that’s all the questions that I have for today. Thank you so much for your time. And if our listeners want to learn more about Earthjustice’s ocean litigation work, please visit earthjustice.org/oceans.

For more than 100 million years, sea turtles have charted the seven seas. But over just a few short decades, these ancient and resilient creatures have succumbed to human activities, and their numbers are now plunging. Learn about sea turtles and Earthjustice's efforts to protect them in a photo slideshow: Sea Turtles in Peril

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