Antiquities and Antiquaries

January 12, 2009

President Bush last week designated nearly 200,000 square miles of Pacific islands, reef, waters, and floor as protected, under the century-old federal Antiquities Act. This announcement sent the mainstream press racing for their globes and atlases, and momentarily put oceans at the center of the national conversation. Outlets that cover marine issues intermittently embraced the event, for better or for worse. The New York Times editorial board took this thoughtful stance on the perceived shortcomings of Bush’s move.


Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

More interesting than the news-driven coverage was The Economist‘s Special Report on the Sea, which ran in its Jan. 3 to Jan. 9 issue (Lead story is here, with links to others on the right). It’s rare to see the mainstream press devote such resources to this small corner (okay, 70 percent) of the world. True to form, Economist editors build an arc of logic into the package, opening with exposition about the state of the seas, before sliding into, if not policy prescriptions, commentary on politicians’ ineffectiveness on the issue (From “Saline Solutions“: “Is it too late to save the sea? The solutions to some of its problems are fairly clear, even if it requires political courage to put them in place.”).

A less obvious point lay scattered over the entire 16 pages. Readers of the Economist know that editors commonly save brain space on writing headlines and subheads by ripping forgotten gems out of antiquarian literature. This practice is particularly apt in this oceans package. The articles themselves directly address major, present concerns. The sprinkling of literary references throughout stories and captions has a subtle but powerful effect: Humanity has always lived and thrived by the sea. The ocean is a part of our identity, our history, and, because we eat so much fish, our bodies, too. Here is a list of most of these references, which all in all cover about 2,500 years of cultural history — a fraction of humans history with life by the sea.

“Inestimable stones, unvalu’d jewels”
Richard III

“The mackerel-crowded seas”
Sailing to Byzantium
William Butler Yeats

“Come, friends, and Plough the Sea”
The Pirates of Penzance

“There goes that Leviathan”
Angling Sketches
Andrew Lang

“Creeping things innumerable”
The Bible (Psalm 104)

What Are the Wild Waves Saying? Song, Stephen Glover

“Unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea”
To Marguerite
Matthew Arnold

“Oh, the shark has pretty fins, dear”
Mack the Knife
The Threepenny Opera, Brecht

“A trout in the milk”
The Writings of Henry David Thoreau

“Fishing up the moon”
The Wise Men of Gotham
Thomas Love Peacock

“Is it for you to ravage seas and land”
The Aeneid


Will Rising Tides Lift All Boats?

September 25, 2008

Global climate models have difficulty resolving possible regional impacts of global warming. The Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis at Florida State University recently tried to address this shortcoming by taking a ground-up approach to predicted sea level rise and its possible economic implications.

A new report (link in .pdf) is called Climate Change in Coastal Areas of Florida: Sea Level Rise Estimation and Economic Analysis to Year 2080. Julie Harrington and Todd L. Walton Jr. look at six Florida counties located around the state, from rural to urban. The researchers estimated how high waters might rise using tide data from six stations around the state. Their model returned a range for higher sea levels of 0.23 feet to 0.29 ft in 2030 and 0.83 ft to 1.13 ft in 2080, lower than IPCC general estimates, but both low and high estimates were used to model economic costs.

Harrington and Walton used historical damage costs from hurricanes and current property values. Costs associated with sea-level rise top $1 billion under a 0.16 ft rise, but escalate past $12 billion in a 2.13 ft rise scenario. The study does not take into account likely adaptation to rising waters or rising property values. Rather it is meant to identify areas at potential risk and assign dollar estimates to possible damage in a state where 80 percent of the population lives in coastal counties and that relies on coastal tourism for 10 percent of its income.

(Aside: Scientists have predicted Florida could suffer from sea-level rise long before the physical evidence for manmade global warming was clear. Watch this clip from a 1958 educational film sponsored by Bell Labs and produced by It’s a Wonderful Life Director Frank Capra.)

June 24, 2008

Elia Herman, Nicholas School graduate student, delivers some insight from her summer with the pound net fishery.

Elia Herman knee deep in fish

I spent this summer up to my knees in fish. Such is the way with pound netting ( A pound net is a fixed trap with a long piece of net that runs perpendicular to the shoreline to redirect fish to the trap, called the pound. The gear is fixed. The fishermen come over with a large boat, cinch up the pound net by hand (lugging the net out of the water) and then bail out the fish with a net attached to a winch.

There are a number of different pound nets in the Chesapeake Bay and I had the opportunity to work with one fisherman and his crew on a project with the long-term goal of reducing bycatch. From the perspective of fisheries management the scenario could not be simpler: one fisherman, four nets. At least, this is what this 5’4” female graduate student thought before she ever set foot on a fishing boat.

It didn’t take long to realize that my first, and probably greatest, challenge was not figuring out how to sort fish or modify gear, but winning over a young fisher boss, several salty dogs, and a group of Bulgarian undergraduates just trying to earn a wage for the summer.

The first week our research team squeezed out two days on the water. The second week the fishermen were too busy and we only made it out one day. But finally, at the end of the third week, after I’d sorted through thousands of starbutters and longbutters, blue fish and spade fish, Spanish mackerel and spot, and after I’d heaved nearly 1000 skates and rays overboard (live bycatch they toss back), the fishermen thanked me for my help and wished me a good weekend. I (quietly) declared victory.

Earning their trust was one thing. Getting them to understand the need to change their practices while maintaining their trust was something else altogether. I’m still in the midst of it—part way through an experiment that will hopefully lead to modified gear, a good catch and fewer entanglements. Jury’s still out.

Regardless of the verdict, what this experience truly speaks to is the enormous challenge of fisheries management. The struggle of trying to work with a few fishermen in a micro-fishery in Virginia makes me wonder how large-scale fisheries management can occur in a manner that is anything but heavy-handed and top-down. Fortunately, some sort of compromise appears to exist in the MMPA -mandated Take Reduction Teams (TRTs) ( TRTs are comprised of fishermen, conservationists, scientists, and state and federal resource managers who all must come to consensus on policies that will protect marine mammals, while hopefully preserving the livelihoods of fishermen. Though far from perfect, they do appear to be an important first step in giving fishermen a chance to control their own fate—to keep fishing and save the whales.

Currently TRTs only exist for marine mammals; however they can also serve as a model for future management efforts of other species commonly subject to human interaction, such as sea turtles and sea birds, as well as efforts to control overfishing and habitat degradation. Perhaps, however slowly, success can come from a lot of cooks in the kitchen (all hopefully cooking sustainably caught fish).

A Fishy Executive Order

June 24, 2008

By Mike Orbach

Dr. Mike Orbach gives his opinion on the executive order by President Bush to protect striped bass and red drum fish populations.

A Comment on the October 20, 2007 Executive Order: Protection of Striped Bass and Red Drum Fish Populations

Marine fishery conservation always has two broad areas of objective and impact: 1) The biological objectives and impacts (how many fish, of which characteristics, come out of the ocean); and 2) the socio-economic objectives and impacts (who derives the benefit from those fish). President Bush’s recent Executive Order (Here) prohibiting commercial sale of striped bass and red drum caught in federal waters runs a significant risk of confusing these two areas of objective and impact. President Bush referred only to the biological conservation impact of the Executive Order. In fact, the biological conservation impact will be minimal, but the socio-economic impact substantial in terms of the allocation consequences.

The vast majority of these two fisheries are conducted in state, not federal waters. Striped bass, managed largely by the states under the umbrella of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is in fact one of the great success stories of successful recovery of the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina stocks. The primary impact of the President’s proclamation is to ALLOCATE the benefit of these fisheries in the federal waters to the recreational sector. Allocation is a perfectly legitimate objective in fisheries management, but the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act states that, “No (management) measure shall have economic allocation as its sole purpose”(MSFCMA, S. 104-297). While it is true that any fishing effort reduction may have biological conservation benefits, the primary effect of the President’s Executive Order will in fact be socio-economic, a fact that is virtually ignored in the Executive Order and the related press releases. Finally, do we really want the President of the United States making detailed allocative fishery management decisions, or for that matter biological conservation decisions? We have quite an extensive system set up under the MSFCMA and the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act to make such decisions, with the full participation of stakeholders, the states and the public. Based on the history of direct Congressional involvement in such detailed decisions, we should be very cautious. But above all, we should be honest and straightforward regarding our real objectives and their impacts.

Michael K. Orbach

Professor of Marine Affairs and Policy
Marine Laboratory, Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences

How to Pick a Shrimp

June 24, 2008

By Elia Herman

Elia Herman, Duke graduate student discusses her quest to find the right fish to eat.

I pull up to the Shrimp Shack where they serve heaping plates of shrimp smothered in garlic. As soon as I hear the bell ring telling me that my order is ready, I start to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs. After several minutes, all that remains from my foraging frenzy is a pile of shrimp shells and bad breath.

I know that sounds uncivilized, but seafood tastes good. How else can you explain a 12% rise in per capita seafood consumption in the U.S. since 2001?

Seafood seems to come up more often in conversation lately. Omega-3 this. Mercury that. And recently, people have started to think about where their seafood comes from. Forrest Gump showed us the myriad different culinary shrimp creations, and it turns out that fishermen catch shrimp in almost as many locations. On any given day, the waitress at my favorite round-the-corner restaurant may tell me one of several things about the shrimp I’m thinking of ordering: (1) It’s local North Carolina shrimp, fresh off the boat; (2) It’s from somewhere in the U.S.; (3) It’s from Thailand; or (4) Your guess is as good as mine.

As a concerned consumer, the last answer is an immediate sign to search elsewhere on the menu for flavorful foodstuff with a known home base.  Otherwise, I pull out my Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card, a wallet-sized guide to the “best”, “good”, and “worst” seafood choices. Running my finger down the list, I make a decision.  Thailand out.  Local in.  The “U.S.” response causes me to waiver. I know that shrimp caught in the United States is a fairly good choice (more regulations mean less bycatch, less habitat destruction, and less overfishing), but what if it’s coming all the way from California? I start to worry about carbon emissions.

This doing right is a complicated business.

After a few months of effort—going to restaurants, asking about fish, and examining my Seafood Watch card—I started to wonder how sustainable the seafood in North Carolina restaurants is overall.  I set out with a group of fellow graduate students to find out. To clarify, the American Heritage Dictionary defines sustainable as, “To keep in existence; to maintain.” Applied to seafood, sustainable means:  preserve the fish, their salty neighbors, and the environment.

Armed with questions, definitions, and insatiable curiosity, we hit the pavement, ran up phone bills, and created an online survey (take a peek at to see if restaurants—both on the coast and inland—sold sustainable seafood. And if not, why not?

Bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, we learned that nearly every one served shrimp, salmon, and tuna.




After scrutinizing some of the other menu items, we gave each restaurant a sustainability score based on what they served. We expected that demographic data would somehow predict a restaurant’s score. Perhaps coastal restaurants serve more sustainable seafood items because they have easier access to fresh fish and can be more flexible?  Maybe upscale restaurants use sustainable seafood more often because they can afford to make the “right” choices?

We were wrong on all accounts. Location did not affect the score, and neither did price. Inland or coastal, mom-and-pop joint or upscale restaurant, responses were completely unpredictable.

We decided to delve deeper. Rebooting our computers, we let the statistical magic run. We learned that if a restaurant already made sustainable choices, it was more likely to adopt additional environmentally-friendly practices later. Apparently our ever-warming climate can still produce a snowball effect.

But why don’t restaurants serve sustainable seafood in the first place?  According to the survey responses, sustainable seafood costs more and few fish companies supply it. Restaurateurs also feel they lack the information and know-how to begin changing their seafood-selling practices. Additionally, the seasonality of seafood poses a problem, as certain sustainable fish, such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, don’t run all year long.


I wanted to know how we could help restaurants overcome these hurdles. Over half of the restaurateurs wanted more information, either detailed information or a tidy list of good and bad seafood choices. In some cases, they also felt that personal, one-on-one consultations would best increase their awareness. Restaurateurs also thought that the ability to advertise as a sustainable restaurant might lure eco-friendly customers.

Fortunately, there already is a way to advertise admirable seafood-selling practices. The Marine Stewardship Council has analyzed fisheries and suppliers, awarding a distinctive blue label when they meet environmental standards. Of course, this label has not been integrated into mainstream consciousness like the popular “Dolphin Safe” tuna label. Educational campaigns that inform consumers and suppliers about the classification, however, may make it more popular and ultimately more useful.

Best of all, the infrastructure for sharing this information already exists. Organizations such as Seafood Choices Alliance, Environmental Defense, Blue Ocean Institute, and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch promote consumer and restaurateur education. Crucial to the sustainable seafood movement, this information can still get bogged down in confusing standards. For example, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch card lists mahi mahi (dolphin fish) in all three of its categories: “Best Choices” (U.S. Atlantic troll/pole), “Good Alternatives” (U.S.), and “Avoid” (imported). Although these distinctions may be important for management purposes, from the perspective of someone trying to run a restaurant or order a meal, these differences become cumbersome and may ultimately discourage attempts to make sustainable choices all together.

Between education and advertisement, conservation organizations are setting the table. The cornucopia of information just needs to be palatable so consumers can sit back and enjoy their sustainable, soon-to-be certified, Oregon pink shrimp sandwich.

Sustainable Seafood Survey Questions