The Beacon: Ashley Blacow's blog

Big Safeguards Achieved for Small Fish in California

Humpback whales feeding on forage fish in Monterey Bay ©Richard Fitzer

While lax catch limits for federally-managed west coast forage fish like sardines continue to be a source of major concern, the state of California announced today that, at least for state-regulated forage fisheries like squid and herring, it would embrace a new ecosystem-based management system, with an eye towards sustainability.

Forage fish may not be as charismatic as sharks or as majestic as blue whales, but, these small, nutrient rich species -- like squid and herring-- have finally received their long-awaited turn in the spotlight.

Forage fish pack a punch of nutrients to whales, dolphins, sea birds, and recreationally and commercially important fish. They are critical to the survival of our magnificent blue whales as well as the recovery of depleted Chinook salmon. However, until now, these little fish have not been managed in a way that accounts for the vital role they play in ocean health and ocean economics. This will change as the California Fish and Game Commission will now make their decisions on how to manage all the state’s forage species based on a set of principles that were fleshed out with input from conservation and fishing entities.


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Save Shark Week’s Stars

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Great white sharks keep the oceans healthy and balanced ©NOAA

Whether you fear them or admire them, most people have an instant reaction when they hear great white shark.  

Intrigue, mystery, and terror have guided attention on great white sharks since they lit up the screens in the 1975 thriller “Jaws.” The film made history 37 years ago for its chilling characterization of these powerful sharks, and swimming in the open ocean has never been the same since.

Great whites are making history once again, this time for their globally declining populations from bycatch in commercial fisheries, capture in beach protective nets, and slaughter for their fins, teeth, and jaws in the shark fin and curio trade.

Here on the US West Coast, new scientific studies have shed light on the status of great white sharks off California and Baja California, Mexico. Our great white sharks are even more unique than we thought; in fact they are genetically distinct and isolated from all other great white sharks around the world. They congregate off Mexican Islands and the “red triangle” off Central California (including the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes, and Point Sur), and make extensive offshore migrations to the distant “white shark Café” and even to the Hawaiian Islands.

But, sadly there may be as little as a few hundred adult great white sharks remaining in this population, far less than anyone expected. This low population alone puts these great whites at great risk of extinction from natural and human-caused impacts. Continued existence of these West Coast great white sharks is threatened by their low population size, inherent vulnerability to capture, slow growth rate, low reproductive output, and the ongoing threats they face from human activities. This is why Oceana is petitioning the federal government and the state of California to list this population of iconic sharks on the Endangered Species List.

What is threatening great white sharks off California and Mexico?

Young great white sharks are un-intentionally caught as bycatch in commercial fishing entangling nets. Set and drift gillnets--which together target California halibut, yellowtail, white seabass, thresher sharks and swordfish--catch great white shark pups in their nursery grounds.

Since 1980, over 10 great white shark pups have been reported being caught in these nets every year. The scary part is that monitoring of bycatch on these fishing vessels is very low so take of these pups remains underreported. In other words, more great white sharks are caught than we are aware.

Additionally, young great white shark “pups” caught in their nursery grounds off the Southern California coast have the second highest mercury level tested on record for any sharks worldwide. These mercury levels exceed six-fold the established thresholds where harmful physiological effects have been documented in other marine fish. Levels of harmful contaminants of PCBs and DDTs in their liver tissue are the highest observed in any shark species reported to date globally.

Endangered species status will bestow additional protections to white sharks, including better monitoring and management to reduce fishery bycatch and additional research to further understand these fascinating top predators of the sea.

As much as we may fear them for their bad rap, we need great white sharks to keep our oceans healthy. Just as wolves keep deer populations under control, great white sharks play a critical top-down role in structuring the marine ecosystem by keeping prey populations in check, such as sea lions and elephant seals, benefiting our fisheries and abundant wildlife.

Listing the West Coast population of great white sharks on the Endangered Species List will help us learn more about the lives and threats of these amazing animals through additional research funding and protection measures.

Please help us in our efforts to protect US West Coast great white sharks from extinction by signing a letter of support for their listing on the Endangered Species Act.


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The Next Wave of Plastic Bag Bans

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Sea turtles often confuse plastic bags with jellyfish, which makes them sick.©Flickr/Bag Monster

In a sweeping 5-0 vote, the Carmel-by-the-Sea City Council took action yesterday evening to ban single-use plastic bags in the quaint and beautiful coastal city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Oceana, as part of the Central Coast Sanctuary Alliance of local businesses and conservation organizations, has been advocating to the Council for months to take action to rid this source of pollution in the area and today invite you to celebrate this victory with us. This rides on the heels of similar bans put in place by neighboring Monterey and dozens of other California cities and counties.

Several other cities around Monterey Bay are currently discussing banning single-use plastic bags as well. Oceana will continue the effort to eliminate these plastic bags across the Bay, ultimately moving toward the goal of a statewide ban.

California distributes 19 billion plastic bags per year, many which end up littering our beautiful rivers and beaches and causing undue harm to wildlife.


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A Future Without Plastic Bags?

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Plastic bag bans help make the ocean safer for animals like sea turtles. ©Oceana/Brianne Mecum

Ordinances to ban single-use plastic bags are picking up steam here in California. A growing list of cities and counties in the state are taking action to get rid of this frequent source of pollution, which trashes our beautiful rivers and beaches and causes undue harm to wildlife.

Did you know that 19 billion plastic grocery bags are distributed in California each year, many of which end up as litter?

When plastic enters marine waters, it continually breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces that absorb toxic chemicals. Chemical laden plastic pieces are then ingested by wildlife and enter the food chain that we depend upon. In addition, animals can inadvertently ingest or choke on plastic bags. Over 267 species of marine wildlife have been affected by plastic bag litter.

One species in particular is the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The largest of all sea turtles, the leatherback swims an incredible 6,000 miles from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to California waters to feed on jellyfish. These prehistoric turtles easily mistake plastic bags swirling in the water for jellies and once ingested the turtles suffer dire consequences like malnutrition, starvation, intestinal blockage, suffocation, and drowning. One study found that one third of Pacific leatherbacks autopsied had plastic in their gastrointestinal tract.

Good thing we have alternatives to plastic bags like re-useable cloth bags, some of which you can even wash after a few visits to the grocery or department store. Re-useable bags also come in handy for other errands and outings like the local farmers market or an afternoon at the beach.

To date, 19 cities and 6 counties in California either have adopted or fully implemented plastic bag bans. Another 44 cities and 6 counties are in process of considering such a ban.  The California Supreme Court also recently ruled that expensive Environmental Impact Reports are not required for cities to implement these bans, making it much easier to take action.  This map shows cities and counties moving forward to ban plastic bags to date in California.  We're asking our Californian supporters to help us fill in the map and ask your local city council to consider banning single-use plastic bags in your area.

And whether or not your hometown has jumped on board with these bans, you can do your part to reduce plastic trash. Take a pledge today to use less plastic, and help keep the oceans a little cleaner.


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CA Fish & Game Commission Endorses Sea Turtle Bill

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Pacific leatherback sea turtles migrate to California waters to feed on jellyfish. © NOAA

Yesterday afternoon the California Fish & Game Commission voted unanimously to support legislation to designate the Pacific leatherback sea turtle as the state’s official marine reptile.

The Commission often does not take a position on legislation, making yesterday’s decision an even stronger statement as to the importance of California waters to leatherback sea turtles.

Support from the Commission is expected to help push the legislation (Assembly Bill 1776) through the Senate and eventually to the Governor’s desk, where Jerry Brown has until September 30th to sign new bills into law. 

The largest of six species of sea turtles in US waters, the leatherback makes an impressive migration from its nesting beaches in Papua, Indonesia to California waters to feed on jellyfish. Its 12,000 mile, round-trip journey is the longest of any marine reptile.

Pacific leatherbacks are listed on the Endangered Species List with as few as 2,100 adult female leatherback sea turtles remaining in the Pacific Ocean population. In January, 16,910 square miles off California’s coast were designated by the National Marine Fisheries Service as critical habitat for the leatherback.

AB 1776 will be heard next in the Senate Committee on Governmental Organization. Stay tuned!


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The Ghosts of Cannery Row

The Monterey harbor. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

Editor's Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Monterey Herald.

No town knows better what happens in a fishery crash than Monterey. Our infamous Cannery Row, once the heart of a bustling sardine industry, is now occupied by restaurants and tourist shops. Sadly, we are on a path to yet another Pacific sardine crash.

In a report published in February, National Marine Fisheries Service scientists warn the sardine population off the West Coast is steeply declining and fishery managers are making the same mistakes all over again. Yet, a separate report, "Little Fish Big Impact," by 13 pre-eminent scientists from around the world, concludes that current management of forage fish — like sardines, anchovy, and squid — is too aggressive and that catches should be cut in half.

A third study, aptly referred to as "A Third for the Birds" finds that seabirds are drastically affected when forage fish decline below one-third of their maximum numbers, which is the current situation for Pacific sardines. Hopefully these findings will be the catalyst needed to finally change the way forage species are managed.


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California Begins to Reel in Seafood Fraud

Red snapper is often mislabeled. [image via Wikimedia Commons]

With the help of sustainable seafood guides such as Seafood Watch, we can make informed decisions about what type of seafood to buy based on mercury levels, the type of fishing gear used, and the health of the fishery.

But those guides are undermined if the fish itself is mislabeled. Oceana recently uncovered through DNA testing that in Los Angeles County, 55% of commonly swapped seafood was indeed labeled incorrectly.

This means that we may only be getting the fish we ordered half the time. Seafood fraud is unfair to consumers who may be faced with health risks from consuming seafood with higher contaminant levels, or who are paying more for a less desirable substitute. We should be empowered to consume seafood we think is best for our health and we have the right to be served the seafood we are paying for.

The frustrating part is that there is little oversight on the long journey seafood takes from the ocean to our plate -- from transport to processing, to labeling, to shipping, and finally to grocery stores or restaurants. This extensive journey with little oversight and labeling leaves plenty of room for key information to be lost and for fraud to occur.

So what can be done about seafood fraud?

California is taking a step forward to begin tackling this problem at the state level through new legislation. Senator Ted Lieu introduced Senate Bill 1486, sponsored by Oceana, to require labeling of seafood at large chain restaurants (with 19 or more facilities).

If the bill passes and is signed into law by Governor Brown, chain restaurants will be required to provide information on seafood items ordered including what the species of seafood is; in what country it was caught; and whether it is farmed or wild-caught.  So rather than just seeing “Fish sandwich” on the menu, customers will have the information needed to make informed decisions based on health, sustainability, and buying local.

The Senate Health Committee passed the bill at the end of the day yesterday.  A huge thanks to the more than 5,000 Oceana Wavemakers in California who weighed in support of this bill with their legislators!

Despite trying to make the best eco-conscious decision, we are being swindled and deceived. Not only is it unjust to consumers, but to the environment and to those fishermen using more responsible practices.

We’ll keep you posted as this legislation progresses, and thanks again for your support.


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Leatherback Sea Turtle May Be CA’s Newest Symbol

© NOAA

Some fun news today: The Pacific leatherback sea turtle may soon join the California poppy, coast redwood, and grizzly bear as one of California’s official symbols.

Assemblymember Paul Fong introduced legislation (Assembly Bill 1776) that would designate the Pacific leatherback as the state’s marine reptile.

This bill is a fun way for Californians to learn about and appreciate the leatherback, while enshrining the ecological importance of this ancient species into state law. Among other things, the bill will establish October 15as the state’s annual Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day. It also encourages California public schools to include leatherback sea turtles into curriculum when possible and asks the state to support efforts to recover and preserve the leatherback.

The bill must receive enough votes in the Assembly and Senate before it can go to Governor Brown for him to consider signing it into law; the first vote will be in the Assembly this April.

If all goes well we will be celebrating the first Leatherback Day this October! Stay tuned.


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Victory! Pacific Leatherbacks Gain Protected Habitat

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This leatherback will now have a safe haven in the Pacific. [Photo credit: NOAA]

As of today, the ocean’s largest sea turtle now has 41,914 square miles of Pacific Ocean it can call its own.

Oceana has been working for five years to protect habitat critical to the survival and recovery of the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, and it paid off. Thanks to a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service, these magnificent reptiles will now be safeguarded off the U.S. West Coast.

Leatherback sea turtles migrate from Papua, Indonesia to the U.S. West Coast every summer and fall to feed on jellyfish — a 12,000-mile round-trip journey that is the longest known migration of any living marine reptile.

Sadly, these navigators encounter a gauntlet of threats as they make their journey across the Pacific such as poaching; ingestion of plastic bags which they mistake for their favorite food, jellyfish; and entanglement and drowning in longline and gillnet fishing gear.

Due to these threats Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s and as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. There have already been localized extinctions of leatherback sea turtles in India and the Sri Lanka and Malaysian populations have nearly disappeared. 

Leatherbacks from Papua, Indonesia and those that feed off the U.S. West Coast, are one of the turtle’s last strongholds in the Pacific Ocean. It is heartbreaking to think that a species that has been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 100 million years could indeed be wiped out by human actions.


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California’s Calamari Thanks You!

risso's dolphin

Risso's dolphins also thank you - squid is their favorite food. © NOAA

If you are one of the 3,600 ocean-loving Californians who spoke up for squid, we want to thank you!

You urged the state’s wildlife managers to maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem by not re-opening the market squid fishery after it was closed early when the maximum catch had been fished (118,000 tons or 236 million pounds).

I’m happy to report that the Fish and Game Commission listened, saying it will keep the fishery closed until next season, which opens in April. They also welcomed your request for better management of these critical fish species by adopting a policy that will guide how they manage these small fish and invertebrates into the future.

Forage species like squid, herring, and krill are the base of the ocean food pyramid, feeding everything from the charismatic humpback whale to the commercially important salmon fishery.

There is currently no state policy guiding management of forage species -- this would be the first of its kind.

This is a very exciting step forward and will ensure that fisheries managers start asking the right questions when determining how many forage fish to take out of the ocean. For example: How much squid do Risso’s dolphins need to be healthy? How much krill does the endangered blue whale eat? What’s the current population of dogfish sharks and how much herring do they need?

Also, let’s not forget that forage species are not only critical to a healthy ocean ecosystem, but to California’s economy as they bring in billions of dollars in revenue annually through coastal sectors like recreational and commercial fishing, tourism, and hospitality industries.

Without enough forage species recreational fishers will have to go elsewhere to find their sport fish, restaurants will have a more difficult time getting enough sustainably fresh and wild seafood for their menus, and whale-watching boats will have less diverse wildlife to show people who come all the way to California’s beautiful coast to see whales, seals, dolphins, and seabirds.

Stay tuned as we move toward better fishery management, and thank you again for weighing in!

Ashley Blacow is Oceana's Pacific Policy and Communications Coordinator.


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