Oceana Magazine Summer 2014: Pole to Pole
Pole to Pole
DiCaprio Funds Conservation Across the Entire Eastern Pacific
9,600 miles. As the crow files, that’s roughly the distance between Alaska’s northern coastline and Tierra del Fuego, Chile. In between lie two massive coastal currents, vast shoals of commercial fish, and a multitude of marine ecosystems.
A three-year $3 million grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation will allow Oceana to expand our conservation efforts in the eastern Pacific Ocean — from the Arctic’s cold seas to Chile’s teeming Humboldt Current. This hemisphere-wide approach will protect Pacific apex predators by reducing bycatch of keystone species, setting conservative catch limits for important prey, and protecting critical breeding, feeding and nursing habitats from industrial fishing.
“Leonardo DiCaprio’s grant will fund critical conservation work along the entire eastern Pacific coastline, protecting species, and restoring fisheries across a vast stretch of ocean,” says Andrew Sharpless, chief executive officer of Oceana.
The U.S. Arctic’s cold, clear waters are one of the most productive ocean habitats on the planet. Vast plankton blooms fuel an ecosystem that is home to iconic species, including roaming polar bears, raucous walrus, and nimble beluga whales. Millions of seabirds migrate from all seven continents to feed here. And the Arctic is an important source of food for humans, too. Native subsistence cultures have fished these waters for thousands of years, and the Bering Sea produces the most commercially caught fish by weight in the United States, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Even land-based ecosystems depend on the ocean’s bounty — migrating salmon transport critical nutrients to inland streams, fertilizing the landscape and providing food for bears and other land animals.
Yet climate change is irreparably altering this ice-dominated ecosystem. Arctic sea ice coverage reached a record low in the summer of 2007, declining an estimated 42 percent compared to ice coverage in the 1980s, according to a 2007 study by scientists at the University of Colorado.
“With the loss of sea ice, the Arctic is becoming more and more open to industrial activities,” says Susan Murray, Oceana deputy vice president for the Pacific. In order to best protect these ecosystems, Oceana is identifying and mapping important ecological areas throughout the U.S. Arctic in a series of four atlases.
“We are melding science with local knowledge from people who live in the Arctic,” says Murray, “to better understand how the ecosystem functions and identify areas that need protection.” The resulting atlases are designed to help decision makers identify areas that are essential for both the health of the ecosystem and local communities that depend upon the oceans for food.
Murray says that these atlases will aid Oceana’s efforts to protect the Arctic from increasing industrial pressures, including energy exploration, shipping, and fishing.
Alaska’s Aleutian Islands stretch for 1,100 miles across the Bering Sea, following a fissure along the northernmost edge of the Pacific tectonic plate. The westernmost island, Attu, is closer to Russia than it is to mainland Alaska. These remote, rocky islands are home to the western population of Steller sea lions. The boisterous, reddish-brown marine mammals can dive up to 400 meters below the ocean’s surface in search of fish.
In the 1960s, there were more than 300,000 Steller sea lions in western Alaska, according to estimates from NMFS. “But when industrial fishing descended upon the Aleutians, fishermen shot the sea lions and took their food,” says Murray. In 1997, the western population was declared endangered under the Endangered Species Act. By the year 2000, the population plummeted to fewer than 42,500 animals, less than 80 percent of historic levels, according to NMFS.
“Even though Steller sea lions were protected, industrial fishing continued to decimate their food source,” says Murray, “and the sea lions weren’t recovering.” In 2010, Oceana and our allies were successful in protecting sea lion prey by closing 12,000 square miles of sea lion habitat to bottom trawling. Murray says that Oceana is now fighting to maintain and expand these closures and secure reductions in the catch of important prey species, including Pacific cod, Atka mackerel, and pollock.
“The Steller sea lion is still facing a slow road to recovery, and the Aleutian Islands are key to their survival,” says Jon Warrenchuk, Oceana senior scientist and campaign manager, in a press release.
As one of the world’s major fishing nations, Canada catches 1.1 million metric tons of fish each year — 1.6 percent of the world’s fish catches by weight. Sharing many of the same ecosystems and fisheries as the United States, Canada is a key player in restoring Pacific fisheries. The country controls an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 2.76 million square kilometers and has the world’s longest coastline — yet Canadian fisheries are not realizing their full potential.
“The scientists we’ve spoken to say that Canada’s fisheries management system is not what it ought to be,” says Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s chief scientist and strategy officer. “Catches are well below what they could be, presenting a great opportunity to sustainably raise fish catches.”
Hirshfield attributes Canada’s low catch rates to a vicious cycle called “sustainable overfishing” — where drastic declines no longer occur, but any time a fish population begins to grow, fishermen catch the excess and prevent overall population growth.
“Oceana Canada will work to change Canada’s fisheries management system so that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will have an obligation to rebuild their fish populations,” says Hirshfield. He adds that Oceana will work with the Canadian government to restore the country’s fisheries to their potential by setting science-based limits on fish catches, reducing the catch of unwanted species, and protecting key habitats.
The California Current
The California Current is the predominant ocean current along the western coast of North America, flowing south from British Columbia to Baja California. This ecosystem is renowned for its productivity and vast migrations of ocean life, including powerful swordfish and vast shoals of sardines.
Oceana is working to safeguard this ecosystem by protecting habitat from destructive fishing practices and protecting keystone species, including sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, and sea lions.
Just a few miles off the Oregon coast, the deep-ocean floor is blanketed with vast fields of sponges and colorful coral gardens. These deep-water habitats are essential to many species of commercial and recreational fish, providing areas for them to breed, spawn, feed, and grow to adulthood. Federal fisheries managers are required by law to minimize the impacts of fishing on these areas, known as Essential Fish Habitat. “Protecting these areas is essential to maintain both biodiverse ecosystems and healthy fisheries,” says Murray.
In 2005, Oceana was instrumental in protecting more than 135,000 square miles of sensitive seafloor habitat on the U.S. West Coast from destructive bottom trawling. Using data gathered on multiple scientific expeditions, last summer Oceana and our partners created and submitted a comprehensive conservation proposal to protect an additional 66 areas off the West Coast, including roughly 20,000 square miles of key habitats on the continental shelf and slope and an additional 120,000 square miles of deep-sea habitat. If adopted, the proposal would nearly double the total amount of seafloor protections in the Pacific off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California.
Oceana is also campaigning to phase out wasteful drift gillnet fishing gear in Pacific waters, which will reduce the bycatch of protected species like whales, dolphins, and sea lions. Mile-long drift gillnets are used to catch swordfish in waters off of California, but they also catch and kill thousands of other open ocean creatures. In 2011, for every swordfish that the drift gillnets fishery landed, one marine mammal and six fish — including sharks and tunas — were tossed overboard dead or dying. Oceana is campaigning to eliminate drift gillnets and replace them with more sustainable, cleaner fishing gears.
If you want to save the oceans to feed the world, you should go to Peru. Just offshore flows the Humboldt Current, another staggeringly productive ocean-current ecosystem. Cold water from the deepest parts of the Antarctic Ocean streams northward along the South American coastline — a process called upwelling —bringing nutrients like nitrate and phosphate to the surface.
“The Humboldt Current is the most productive fishing region in the world because of the large amount of nutrients it contains,” says Alex Munoz, Oceana vice president for Chile. “Sixteen percent of fishing at the global level takes place in these waters, particularly off the coast of Chile and Peru, so the area is of vital importance for both fishing and the lives of many species that feed on fish species, including anchovy, mackerel and sardines.”
The Humboldt Current creates an ecosystem teaming with marine life, and at the base of this food chain is the anchoveta. These small, silvery fish comprise the world’s largest fishery. Twice as many pounds of anchoveta are caught every year in Peru as any other kind of fish is caught anywhere in the world, according to Oceana research. “The anchoveta fishery is so large that it can fluctuate dramatically,” says Hirshfield. “When and if it collapses, it means that all of the animals and people that depend upon it face a serious problem.” The health of the Humboldt ecosystem depends on the responsible management of Peruvian fisheries.
Peru is an ideal location for restoring fisheries with science-based management, and Oceana is currently conducting feasibility studies in the hopes of establishing a Peruvian office. Munoz says that Oceana would work with the Peruvian government to better manage both the anchoveta fishery and the jack mackerel fishery, another overfished species. Oceana would also campaign to allocate more of the anchoveta catch for human consumption. Currently, Oceana estimates that 98 percent of the anchoveta catch is used to create fish meal products, including food pellets for chicken, pigs, and farmed salmon. “If Peru converted a mere 10 percent of the anchoveta fishery to human consumption, it would equal the entire catch of some countries, like South Africa,” says Hirshfield.
Before reaching the Peruvian coast, the Humboldt Current flows along the long coastline of Chile. These two countries share many of the same fisheries — jack mackerel, anchoveta, common hake, and sardines — and together they account for more than 15 percent of the world’s wild fish catch by weight.
DiCaprio’s grant will help Oceana achieve its goal of protecting a full 20 percent of Chilean waters by 2020 by working with the Chilean government and different local communities to create a set of marine protected areas around oceanic islands including the Desventuradas and the Juan Fernández Islands, the fjords of Patagonia, and the town of La Higuera in northern Chile. These protected areas would safeguard the rights and livelihoods of artisanal fishermen, benefit unique species like the Humboldt penguin, and protect sensitive habitat from destructive fishing practices, salmon farming, and potential energy and mining projects. Oceana is also working with the Rapa Nui to expand the existing Salas y Gómez Island Marine Reserve by closing Easter Island’s waters to industrial fishing.
Oceana is also campaigning to reduce shark bycatch in Chile’s swordfish fishery, which catches more shark as bycatch than they do swordfish. The fishery uses longlines — vast lines of baited hooks that float in the water — often composed of steel wire that sharks are unable to bite through. Oceana’ goal is to reduce shark bycatch by 30 percent by transitioning to different gear materials, like nylon, that allow sharks to free themselves by biting through the line.
“Sharks play an essential role in the functioning of marine ecosystems,” says Munoz, “and as top predators, their decline can destabilize the food chain and cause many negative ecological impacts.” Unfortunately, Munoz says that sharks are highly vulnerable to exploitation and require many decades to recover, because they grow slowly, have a long life, reach sexual maturity late, have long gestation periods, and have generally low reproductive rates.
“The Pacific coast hosts an amazing variety of different fisheries and marine life, from rich Arctic waters to Chile’s vibrant seamounts,” says Sharpless. “But the one thing all of these places have in common is the need for better protections and good management.” Sharpless adds that DiCaprio’s grant is unique, because it acknowledges the interconnectedness of ocean ecosystems.
“The health of each region of the eastern Pacific influences the health and productivity of others around it,” he says. “This grant allows us to restore ocean abundance on a hemispheric scale.”