Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Demise of Herring in Prince William Sound Still a Mystery

By Margaret Bauman

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and millions of dollars in research, marine scientists still have no conclusions about the relationship between that environmental disaster and the demise of Pacific herring in Prince William Sound.

What we do know is that the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, spilling 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of thick, toxic crude oil, creating one of the most devastating human caused environmental disasters on record.

Then in subsequent storms and currents, the oil spread over 1,300 miles, fouling the shoreline, resulting in the deaths of vast numbers of wildlife, including sea otters, herring and birds.

Some of that crude oil is still not cleaned up, and while some species have recovered, herring have not. A once lucrative commercial fishery, the herring, which also provided nutrition for seabirds, salmon and marine mammals ranging from sea otters to whales, is still listed as “not recovering.”

What is not clear is the direct relationship between the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the demise of the herring fishery in Prince William Sound, but marine conservation scientist Rick Steiner of Anchorage says that without doubt the oil spill had a significant effect on the Prince William Sound herring population, and it is almost certainly one of the reasons for the crash in 1993.

“Most of the 1989-year class, that was spawned as oil washed ashore, was killed,” Steiner noted, in comments Sept. 10. “And, most of the adults were exposed to varying levels of toxic oil. The Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, Ichthyophonus, and Viral Erythrocytic Necrosis outbreaks were likely caused, at least in part, by suppressed immune systems in adult herring due to acute oil exposure, making them more vulnerable to such diseases and parasites.”

Still, marine ecosystems are complex, and many variables go into the herring equation – ocean conditions, zooplankton, stress induced by capture for the herring pound fishery, predation, and so forth, he said. “There are almost certainly multiple causes in the herring crash, but without doubt, the oil spill is one of them,” he said.

Steiner points to the April 2013 final report on the Prince William Sound herring survey program written by Scott Pegau of Cordova’s Prince William Sound Science Center, a document that concludes that “there is no consensus on the cause of the herring collapse in 1993 or the factors that have led to the low recruitment levels over the past 20 years.”

The survey program was funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The goal was to develop an integrated research program to identify potential bottlenecks to recovery.

Pegau noted in the final report that there appears to be agreement that Prince William Sound herring stocks are not likely to recover without multiple large recruitment events, and that large recruitment events can occur from a small adult spawning biomass.

“A single large recruitment event may be able to increase the adult population to a level where future large recruitment events occur,” Pegau wrote in his conclusions of the study. “The rapid increase in adults may cause new spawning grounds to be used and therefore increase the possibility of retention of larvae leading to strong recruitment.”

Pegau also observed that there is some evidence that change in recruitment is related to zooplankton levels, but also noted that researchers’ ability to identify the conditions that lead to a successful recruitment event have been hampered by the fact that during all of the herring observation periods there had not been a large recruitment event.

Steiner has been recognized by the British national newspaper, The Guardian, as one of the world’s leading marine conservation scientists, and one of the most respected and outspoken academics on the oil industry’s environmental record. At the time of the oil spill disaster he was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska, stationed in Cordova.

As a university marine advisor for the Prince William Sound region of Alaska from 1983 to 1997, he provided leadership in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, proposed and helped establish the regional citizens advisory councils, the Prince William Sound Science Center, and the billion dollar legal settlement between Exxon and the government, with which much of the coastline of the oil spill region was protected. He has also worked on oil issues in Pakistan, China, Russia, Lebanon, Nigeria, Shetland, central Asia and the Gulf of Mexico.

Today he conducts the Oasis Earth project, a global consultancy working with non-government organizations, governments, industry and civil society to speed the transition to an environmentally sustainable society.

In science, Steiner said, there is a theorem called “Occam’s Razor,” which is that among competing hypotheses to explain an observation, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. “Essentially saying that, when in doubt, the simplest hypothesis is usually the most accurate. Or,” said Steiner, “as they say in the south, “if it quacks, it’s a duck.

“The simple explanation for the decline of Prince William Sound herring, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions, is the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“Nowhere else in Alaska has the herring population crashed as it has in the Sound, and nowhere else in Alaska has had 40,000 tons of a toxic chemical (crude oil) dumped into it, right at the time of herring spawning.”

While it has become fashionable in the marine research community to assert that there was no baseline data on the herring fishery in Prince William Sound prior to the oil spill, that is simply untrue, he said. Herring has been assessed and managed by government agencies for many decades prior to the spill, and they had a pretty good idea of herring population dynamics in Prince William Sound prior to the spill, he said.

Meanwhile, studies related to the demise of and hope of rebuilding the Pacific herring stocks in Prince William Sound continue, with marine biologists at Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Prince William Sound Science Center, and others.

“There are no conclusions,” said Rich Brenner, a research biologist with ADF&G at Cordova. “That is the nature of scientific consensus. We build information toward conclusions. That is the way it is.
“You think of science as building a glass house and people throw objects at it, and when those objects no longer break the glass, then you have reached scientific consensus,” he said.

Brenner also points to several studies on the herring fishery, published from 2007 to 2011 in scientific journals, which came up with different hypotheses.

One study published by the Ecological Society of America in 2008 noted effects of competition and predation by juvenile hatchery pink salmon on herring juveniles, poor nutrition in the winter, ocean temperatures in the winter, viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus and the pathogen Ichtyophonus hoferi, and suggested that it may well be difficult to simultaneously increase production of pink salmon and maintain a viable Pacific herring fishery.

The ADF&G studies include acoustic and aerial surveys, said Brenner, whose role is to facilitate a variety of studies, including current herring biomass trends. He also works with other agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Geological Survey, on studies into physiology and disease related to herring.

ADF&G keeps in contact with researchers with the Prince William Sound Science Center, who may be on the Sound at the same time, doing acoustic surveys, he said.

“We have been fairly focused on adult herring and adult spawning biomass. We are looking at prosecuting a fishery, and they are focused on juveniles.”

So the research continues, with many questions still to be answered.

Did the initial absence of zooplankton from the herring diet weaken their resistance to disease, ability to reproduce or defend themselves against predators?

Did the oil spill somehow inhibit the ability of the herring to fight off viruses and predators determined to have them for lunch?

Has there been too much competition with pink salmon from hatcheries in the area for the same food?
How do changing temperatures and other environmental conditions, or fishery management and harvests play into this picture?

Meanwhile, Steiner recently resubmitted a proposal he made to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council in 2002, proposing a herring permit buyback initiative as a restoration effort.

When he first submitted that proposal to the council in 2002, many permit holders were in support of the idea, Steiner said.

The money could then be used to buy individual fishing quota or other salmon permits, thus giving the former herring fishermen an opportunity to turn an inactive herring permit into some real fishing time.

And, said Steiner, this would clearly be best for the marine ecosystem, leaving all the herring in the water for the many predators that rely on them.

Unlike other fishery buyback, or capacity reduction/rationalization programs, programs based on economic efficiency rationale, the Prince William Sound herring fishery buyback for spill restoration purposes would have to be applied on an all-or-nothing basis, he said.

Participation would have to be mandatory, not optional, and to accomplish this, permit holders should be compensated at higher than current market value for their permits, he said.

Dutch Harbor, New Bedford Hold Steady as Top Fishing Ports

Dutch Harbor retained first place as the nation’s top commercial fishing port by volume in 2013, while New Bedford, MA., led all other ports for value in the latest annual report on the status of United States fisheries, released today.

Deliveries of commercial seafood to Dutch Harbor in 2013 totaled 753 million pounds, up slightly from 752 million pounds a year earlier, while at New Bedford, MA., the overall value of seafood delivered slipped from $411 million in 2012 to $379 million in 2013.

The 2013 edition of Fisheries of the United States, compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service, notes that U.S. fishermen in 2013 landed 9.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, an increase of 245 million pounds from 2012. Valued at $5.5 billion, these landings represent an increase of $388 million from 2012, the report said.

The average American, meanwhile ate 14.5 pounds of fish and shellfish in 2013, essentially unchanged from 2012.

Overall U.S. commercial landings of fish and shellfish for human food rose steadily since 2004, which 7,794 million pounds landed were valued at $3,611 million. By 2013, those landings reached 8,053 million pounds, valued at $5,292 million.

Landings for industrial purposes meanwhile dropped from 1,889 million pounds in 2004 to 1,827 million pounds in 2013, while the value rose from $145 million in 2004 to $198 million in 2013.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator for NOAA Fisheries, noted the importance of the commercial and recreational fishing sectors to the national economy, including job creation.

The report shows that while national totals of fish and shellfish landings remained about the same, total landings of wild salmon topped one billion pounds, up 68 percent from 2012, for a new record. The report also shows that for the 17th consecutive year, the Alaska port of Dutch Harbor led the nation with the highest amount of seafood landed, primarily walleye pollock.

Harvesters delivering to Dutch Harbor brought in 753 million pounds valued at $197 million, the report said.

And for the 14th consecutive year, New Bedford, MA, had the highest valued catch- 130 million pounds, valued at $379 million – due mostly to the highly valued sea scallop fishery. Sea scallops accounted for more than 81 percent of the value of the New Bedford landings.

Volume and Value of Seafood Deliveries at Western Ports Significant

By volume and value, seafood ports in Alaska, Washington and Oregon stand out in the latest federal seafood status report released today.

The statistics included in the 2013 edition of Fisheries in the United States, released by NOAA, ranks Dutch Harbor in first place.

Alaska’s Aleutian Island ports ranked second in landings, with 470 million pounds, up from 456 million pounds in 2012, and Kodiak, AK., was third with deliveries totaling 426 million pounds, up from 393 million pounds in 2012.

Alaska Peninsula ports, ranked eighth for volume, saw poundage slip from 191 million pounds in 2012 to 187 million pounds last year, while Cordova, AK, ranked 11th by volume, saw a huge jump from deliveries of 84 million pounds landed in 2012 to 147 million pounds in 2013. Ketchikan, AK., ranked 12th by volume, likewise saw a jump from 74 million pounds delivered in 2012 to 144 million pounds delivered in 2013.

Westport, WA., ranked 13th, saw its deliveries rise from 133 million pounds, in 2012 to 140 million pounds in 2013.

New Bedford, MA., ranked 14th, saw a drop in volume from 143 million pounds delivered to 130 million pounds. At Newport, OR., deliveries rose from 80 million pounds to 127 million pounds. Harvesters delivered 126 million pounds at Sitka, up from 67 million pounds a year earlier, and at Petersburg, AK., deliveries rose from 52 million pounds to 123 million pounds.

In rankings by value of deliveries to top U.S. seafood ports, Dutch Harbor, like New Bedford, saw a drop in the overall value of deliveries in 2013, down from $214 million in 2012 to $197 million in 2013, while Kodiak saw value drop from $170 million to $154 million.

Rounding out the top 10 ports nationally for volume, the Aleutian Islands slipped from $119 million to $105 million, the Alaska Peninsula saw value rise from $99 million to $102 million, and Honolulu, Hawaii, slipped from $100 million to $95 million.

Seventh ranked Cordova meanwhile saw value of deliveries jump from $40 million to $92 million. Values of fish delivered rose from $78 million to $89 million at Naknek, from $66 million to $84 million at Sitka, and from $80 million to $83 million at Empire-Venice, LA.

Ketchikan, ranked 11th in value of overall deliveries, saw a jump from $54 million to $76 million, and Petersburg, from $50 million to $73 million. Brownsville-Port-Isabel, Texas, ranked 13th, reported value rose from $54 million to $73 million, while Galveston, Texas, reported values slipped from $74 million to $72 million.

Fifteenth ranked Seward, AK. saw value rise from $62 million to $70 million, and 16th ranked Westport, WA., from $59 million to $65 million, while 17th ranked Bristol Bay experienced a drop in value from $79 million to $64 million.

Rounding out the top 20, value of deliveries at Dulac-Shauvin, LA were steady at $64 million for both years; Newport, OR values rose from $37 million to $55 million, and at Astoria, OR, values rose from $39 million to $50 million.

BBRSDA Looks Into Potential Drift Permit Buyback

A fisheries organization representing drift gillnet permit holders in the famed Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery are looking into a potential buyback program.

With the potential of boosting permit prices and earnings of harvesters.

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association is taking this first step in the wake of a 2013 survey to which 81 percent of the Bristol Bay salmon drift gillnet permit holders who responded said they want to know more about a potential buyback program.

Prompted by such interest, the BBRSDA contracted with Northern Economics in Anchorage, which produced a report to assist the drift gillnet fleet in determining whether to further explore a buyback plan for their fishery.

Now BBRSDA plans to discuss the lengthy document with its membership at a conference on Nov. 20, during Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle.  Panelists for the discussion will include Matt Luck, BRSDA; Jonathan King, vice president and senior economist for Northern Economics; Jeff Regnart, Alaska Department of Fish and Game; Mike Sturtevant, National Marine Fisheries Service; and Bruce Twomley, Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

Copies of “Possible Design and Economic Outcomes of a Permit Buyback Program in the Bristol Bay Salmon Drift Gillnet Fishery” may be downloaded online at

The BBRSDA notes that the report does not address socio-economic information needed to fully evaluate the potential outcomes and impacts of a buyback program in the Bristol Bay drift fishery.

Following membership review and analysis of this report, BBRSDA will survey its members again, as to whether or not to proceed with a socio-economic impact analysis of a potential buyback. Both analyses are necessary to provide comprehensive information upon which to base a decision regarding the pros and cons of a potential buyback, the BBRSDA noted in a letter to members.

The report does provide objective economic information about the Bristol Bay salmon drift gillnet fishery, and projects how different buyback scenarios and associated payback schedules might impact gross and net revenues.

The report offers details on previous buyback programs for Washington salmon, Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands king and tanner crab, Pacific Coast groundfish and Southeast Alaska purse seine salmon fisheries.

The report notes that while the purchase of fishing vessels and/or permits under a buyback program is an effective approach to quickly reduce fishing capacity to the desired level that buybacks are not a panacea for solving overcapacity problems over the long term.

In particular, the report notes, buyback programs, by themselves, do not address a root cause of excessive fishing capacity- the race-for-fish.”  In this situation, the report said, each fisherman has an incentive to increase his or her fishing capacity in order to catch fish before someone else does.

The study also looks at options for what may be purchased in a buyback program, in terms of permits and vessels, and different economic effects of purchasing active and inactive permits.

The study does recognize that a buyback will likely result in increased profit needed to invest and improve quality while it may also create an incentive for some permit holders to over-invest.

For further information contact Sue Aspelund, executive director of the BBRSDA at or 1-360-927-4259.

Transboundary Mine Issues Prompt More Meetings in Southeast Alaska

Growing concern over plans for several Canadian mineral projects located on transboundary watersheds of key salmon rivers has prompted a series of meetings in Southeast Alaska fisheries communities that will end Oct, 30 in Ketchikan.

The meetings in community gathering places in Juneau, Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan were organized by Salmon Beyond Borders and the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Working Group.

At least five of the proposed Canadian mineral projects are located in transboundary watersheds for important salmon rivers – the Taku, Stikine and Unuk, which originate in British Columbia and flow into Southeast Alaska.

The Taku, Stikine and Unuk watersheds span some 30,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Maine, and have cultural and economic significance for Southeast Alaska.   The non-profit group Salmon Beyond Borders says the proposed mines in these watersheds are likely to produce acid mine drainage and toxic heavy metals which would harm Southeast Alaska’s fishing and tourism industries, as well as traditional subsistence activities of Alaska Native tribes.

For months now, Southeast Alaska commercial fishermen have been seeking help from the federal government to protect their region’s fisheries and tourism industries from potential water pollution from these proposed mines.

They want guarantees that Alaska’s water and fish will not be harmed by British Columbia’s mine development efforts.

Seabridge Gold noted in a news release several weeks ago that the company’s Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell mine project has already received its environmental assessment certificate from provincial authorities and expects to receive final federal approval by year’s end. The company estimates proven and probable reserves totaling 38.2 million ounces of gold and 9.9 billion pounds of copper, and on its community website estimates a 52-year mine plan.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

New Market Niche for Hagfish?

High school student's research project might ultimately lead to one

By Terry Dillman

A bright, enthusiastic high school senior in Illinois – far removed from the ocean – has found a compelling new use for hagfish, one that, if followed to its logical conclusion, could provide an equally compelling and potentially lucrative market for commercial fishermen.

Grace Niewijk pursued a very unusual premise for a science project during her final year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois: creating absorbent antimicrobial bandages and ointment from Pacific hagfish slime to use on burns and wounds. And she succeeded.

"If you had told me last year that I'd spend much of my senior year of high school researching, handling, and writing about slime eels, I'd have fallen out of my chair laughing," said Niewijk. "Even though I can't say I loved every minute of it – there were some awfully late nights along the way – I wouldn't trade the experience for the world."

After she finished testing her hypothesis, she wrote a 38-page academic research paper, which is under review for publication, and created a presentation about her research that she offered at several science symposia, winning local, regional and national awards along the way.

"I have had a truly astounding amount of success with my hagfish project. I did successfully create absorbent, antimicrobial bandages from hagfish slime," Grace noted. "It was so gratifying to have all my hard work pay off, and to have all that scientific experience under my belt."

This ugly primitive sea creature already fetches sort of pretty prices for some Oregon fishermen, mostly in overseas markets. Drawing on an abundantly available resource and willing buyers, a small number of fishermen cash in on a relatively small, but extremely hungry Asian market.

Demand for both flesh and hide exceeds supply, particularly in Korea, where hagfishing is almost nil due to extensive overfishing. They are prized as edible delicacies, and their hides yield, among other things, eel-skin wallets that patrons can use to shell out the money needed to purchase the eels of their choice from a restaurant's live tanks in a process similar to selecting live lobsters. Fishermen tend to enter and exit the slime eel fishery quickly, so catch numbers fluctuate, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) officials. For many of the commercial fishermen involved, it's a way to supplement income if another fishery they participate in didn't do so well in a given year. 
But the main reason for fluctuations in participation and landings is the market itself: it remains small compared to other fisheries, with low domestic demand because slime eels don't please palates of people at home. The capricious market takes a toll on processors and hagfishermen alike.

The live market is especially trying, because keeping the eels alive for shipment is no easy task. The prime concern is keeping them from suffocating in their own slime.

"It's all about the survival rate," says Brad Bailey from Eko Uni Import & Export of Tacoma, Washington. "There's so much work involved. You have to babysit the darn things."

Pacific hagfish have numerous glands along both sides of their bodies that emit a protein whenever they feel threatened – which is always. It reacts with seawater to create huge amounts of tenacious mucous to help them easily slip away. Researchers say a single eel can quickly turn a five-gallon bucket of seawater into a slime pit. After the catch, fishermen and processors stay busy removing slime from hagfish tanks to keep them alive. For shipping, processors pack the eels into containers filled with saltwater and liquid oxygen to keep them breathing and keep the containers cool.

Bailey says it's a touchy process, but those with the know-how can deliver the goods alive and well – and keep them alive.

Niewijk, who contacted Fishermen's News last year for information on where to find live hagfish for her project, quickly discovered this firsthand.

Using live Pacific hagfish from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Olympic Coast Seafoods shipped directly overnight to the high school lab, Grace transferred them immediately to a 75-gallon tank filled with ocean-mimicking chilled salt water. She tested salinity weekly and adjusted as needed. She provided the hagfish with PVC piping to hide in, and used minimal lighting "to mimic a natural benthic environment as closely as possible." She fed the hagfish all-they-could-eat whole squid once a month, and followed proper protocol for vertebrate care and treatment. An institutional review board reviewed her procedures, and the slimers were imported under importation and transfer permits she obtained from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She frequently consulted hagfish experts throughout the project.

Niewijk carefully collected slime (in sea water) and exudate (raw fish product collected without sea water) from multiple fish at various times over several months to ensure random sampling.

Douglas Fudge, associate professor and head of the Comparative Biomaterials Lab at the University of Guelph, Ontario, acted as Grace's primary mentor throughout the research process, and Dr. John-Paul Rue, a Naval Academy orthopedic surgeon, served as her expert on bandages and wounds. Classmate Maura Dahl collaborated on parts of the research, Niewijk's family offered support and financial assistance throughout the project, and numerous others provided overall project guidance and assistance, helping her "to design and perform a successful experiment to derive new and unique products."

"This study culminated in the successful creation and testing of absorbent antimicrobial bandages and ointment using the slime of Pacific hagfish," Grace concluded, noting that it backed up her hypothesis that processing hagfish slime correctly would preserve its antimicrobial properties and would form a tough, absorbent material ideal for creating a bandage "because of its unique intermediate filament structure, its ability to capture liquids, and its high levels of antimicrobial activity."

"Future research based on this study should refine materials, develop methods of mass production, and investigate efficacy against other bacteria," she noted.

Niewijk said further development could lead to superior absorbent bandages that promote faster, more complete healing, and "decrease infections by creating an environment less conducive to microbial growth" in wounds and burns without unsightly or crippling scar tissue. Biodegradability and relatively simple methods of processing would also make the bandage materials "more environmentally friendly than most current synthetics." Production costs could also be significantly less.

Hagfish or slime eels play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem as bottom-feeding scavengers. They clean the ocean bottom and release nutrients into the food web to boost the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

Based on the results of Niewijk's experiments, the maligned yet (in some cultures) revered bottom dwellers could play a top role in human health – and possibly in hagfishermen's economic health – sometime in the future.

Slime collection and use would not significantly affect ocean ecosystems, Grace noted, because hagfish are already harvested in large quantities without apparent negative impact (don't tell the Korean fishermen). Making the slime a "marketable commodity" instead of a mucky nuisance could enhance, rather than harm the fishermen's bottom line.

Overharvest From Illegal Fishing Threatens Crab Populations

A new study released by the World Wildlife Fund says that crab populations in the Russian Far East are at risk of collapse because of overharvest from illegal fishing.

The ten-year study of trade and customs data identified major discrepancies between the amount of crab reportedly harvested in Russian waters and the amount imported into other countries.

The study concluded that two-to-four times the legal harvest limit had entered the global marketplace. The magnitude of illegal crab fishing puts the entire Bering Sea marine ecosystem at risk, the report said. The waters where the crab was taken are shared by Russia and Alaska and produce almost 200 million pounds of legally caught crab each year.

Michele Kuruc, WWF vice president of marine policy, said the US is likely importing large quantities of crab and other seafood which may have been illegally caught. The problem, said Kuruc, is the US is unable to say how much is illegal. “We need a way to obtain and assess this information if we want to address this global illegal fishing problem,” he said.

Konstantin Zgurovsky, who heads the WWF-Russia marine program, called for better port control and a transparent, international monitoring system of fishing activity and seafood trade.

The report notes that Russia has in recent years worked to shrink the illegal crab problem by developing bilateral agreements with Japan and South Korea, developing a national plan of action to address illegal fisheries, and continued enforcement at-sea. Yet the problem is multilateral and it demands a multilateral solution, the report said.

Official customs data from South Korea, Japan, China and the US indicate that in 2013 these four countries imported 1.69 times as much live and frozen crab from Russia as official Russian harvest levels.

The report also noted that foreign-flagged vessels harvest crab illegally in Russian waters, and some Russian-flagged vessels either overharvest or harvest crab illegally. Misdeclaring product quantities, off-loading undeclared product onto a transport vessel at sea, or delivering undeclared drab, or declared using fake documentation, directly to a foreign port are known techniques to launder crab.

The report, Illegal Russian Crab: an Investigation of Trade Flow, is online at

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