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Merry Fish Mass…

December 18, 2006
By David Helvarg

And a happy depleted stock recovery. As one of its last acts, the 109th Congress actually passed a half way decent reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This could be the first marine benefit derived from the change in Congress (see Blue Notes #30). With his electoral defeat, outgoing House Resources Committee Chair Dick Pombo seemed to lose his desire to kill off the world’s remaining fish in order to clear space for more oilrigs. The result was bipartisan passage of a reauthorization (through 2013) very close to Ted Steven’s Senate version. Steven’s, who added his name to the last revision in 1996, based many of the changes on how the North Pacific (Alaska) Fisheries Council operates. Under the new rules scientific measurements will be used to set catch limits rather than the whims of industry reps who dominate the eight federal regional fisheries councils. Had science based allocation been used in the past we still might have some healthy populations of cod off New England, sharks in the Gulf and Rock Fish off the West Coast. Where a stock of fish now becomes depleted, the councils will have two years to begin a rebuilding effort. Where individual fishing quotas are allocated in a ‘cap and trade’ system the law makes it clear these are licenses dependent on measurable conservation results, not a privatization of a publicly owned resource. The U.S. will also get more aggressive in combating foreign fishing fleets that turn pirate.

There’s some resonance in that since the Magnuson Act was originally designed not as a conservation measure but an allocation plan to kick out foreign factory trawlers operating in waters around the U.S. As an Alaskan fisherman once explained to me, “We kicked out the foreigners and then showed them how with American ingenuity we could rape and pillage the resource better than they ever could.”

Of course, as with many resource conservation laws, this reauthorization is only as good as it is enforceable. Unfortunately, too much is left to the good will of the industry folks on the regional councils, which remain the only federal regulatory bodies exempted from conflict-of-interest laws. The Marine Fish Conservation Network, which helped generate over 100,000 comments on behalf of the new reforms, also promoted an amendment, stripped off in the end, that would have required any over-fishing above the set limit on a depleted species be deducted from the next year’s allocation. These and other enforcement mechanisms ought to be revisited in the next Congress. After some good reform language was placed in the 1996 reauthorization the Network disbanded, thinking its job was done. Recognizing that constant vigilance is the price of freedom (and of fish) they don’t plan to make that mistake again.

Oil’s well that Ends wells

But we’re not capping any wells. Sadly, all we got in our stocking this year was oily sludge (slightly less carboniferous than lumps of coal). Which is to say Congress passed the “moderate” Senate version of an offshore drilling bill (see Blue Notes #28) that will now open up an additional 8.3 million acres of ocean to oil production in the Gulf of Mexico (our national sacrifice zone). A significant part of the income generated in these federal waters will be given to the state of Louisiana to restore its wetlands, which are being lost to the dredging, land subsidence and sea-level rise linked to the drilling and burning of fossil fuels. These same wetlands also got a good dousing of sludge following Hurricane Katrina that saw some 9.1 million gallons of oil spilled in and around the Gulf. Plus much of the new drilling will take place in deep waters far out from shore but well within the Gulf’s intensifying hurricane tracks. If, as President Bush says, “America is addicted to oil,” then the Gulf is overdosing.

A Novel call for action on Climate Change!

Speaking of catastrophic fossil-fuel fired climate disruption I got an interesting missive from author Bill McKibben. OK, he isn’t an author of novels, he’s a famous non-fiction environmental writer (nothing wrong with that). He’s also pissed off about the failure of government and the private sector to act on our latest planetary threat. Here’s most of what he wrote:

“Chagrined at the lack of action on global warming, I’m trying to concoct out of essentially nothing a nationwide climate change demonstration. We’re going to try and have 500 or more simultaneous rallies on April 14 at iconic sites around the country: mountaintops, on the levees in New Orleans, etc. Everyone’s going to take pictures and we’re going to use electronics to hook it all together, demanding an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050. And when we make a public announcement of this in a couple of weeks, I’d love to be able to talk about the underwater sites we’re going to include as well. I have one group in Hawaii that will go to a coral reef off Maui, but I figured you’d have some more good ideas–like how to get a group underwater off the reefs in Key West, and some other stuff in boats or on beaches that would look good, and be cool. As I say, this is pretty homemade stuff, but I think it’s going to work: so far everyone’s reaction is, ‘about time, how can I help?'”

Recognizing how profound climate change impacts on our coasts and oceans are becoming, BFC started talking to a few seaweed groups. Any of you who think your group might be interested in staging a marine themed climate action April 14, feel free to contact us at and we’ll hook you up with Bill and other cool folks.


The Yangtze River Dolphin or ‘baiji’ is gone, extinct after millions of years according to the results of a 5-week expedition that found no signs of the fresh water cetaceans. “It’s possible that there are two or three left that we missed somehow, but functionally they are extinct. It’s finished. This is very, very sad,” said August Pfluger, one of the expedition leaders. Chinese industrial pollution and ship traffic on the Yangtze are blamed for this extinction of what some once thought of as a ‘river goddess.’ Other water creatures likely to follow into the black hole of oblivion as a result of human activities include the Yangtze finless porpoise, the Vaquita (a small porpoise off Mexico) the Northern Right Whale (eastern U.S.), the Polar Bear and sea turtles.

If only America could be more like Eritrea

One of the last best times for wild fish was World War Two when humans were so busy killing each other that fishing pressure declined dramatically. In the 1990s, the Black Sea saw a dramatic decline in pollution after the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent collapse of coastal economies in places like Ukraine, Romania, Georgia, and Bulgaria. Today the most pristine waters in the Caribbean and Mediterranean can be found off Cuba and Libya, pariah states for much of the last fifty years. And then there’s Eritrea, whose long wars with Ethiopia kept foreign fishing vessels well clear of its Red Sea coastline. Only now Eritrea has decided to turn a legacy of war into a gift of life.

On Tuesday, December 12th, the Eritrean government announced plans to become the first country in the world to turn its entire 837-mile coastline and the waters around its offshore islands into a marine protected area. Once ratified the MPA plan will regulate industry, housing, ports, tourism and fishing along the coast to protect natural resources, officials said. The number of fully protected marine wilderness parks will also be expanded. Other than the ports of Massawa and Assab, Eritrea’s coastline is a largely underdeveloped desert. It also includes coral reefs, mangrove forests, nesting sites for turtles, and 73 species of sea birds. Species of recreational divers include Italians, Germans, Eritreans, but not too many Americans…yet.

Not Greek to Me

’50 Ways to Save the Ocean’ has now officially gone global with the purchase of Turkish rights to our book. With its extensive coastlines along the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas, Turkey seems a natural for reader interest and engagement in marine protection.

Come mid-January Barnes & Noble will also be highlighting the book on Save the Planet tables in the front of all their stores. Unfortunately we’ve not received an invitation to speak at the Istanbul Barnes & Noble.

Begging like a Hungry Gull

You might also consider how books like ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean’ and ‘Blue Frontier — Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness’ make great holiday gifts. For the non-literary inclined, we also have ‘Seaweed Rebel’ posters, ‘Blue is the New Green’ and Jim Toomey cartoon illustrated ‘Be a Seaweed Rebel’ tee-shirts for sale.

Or, if you enjoy Blue Notes and believe in the Blue Frontier Campaign’s efforts to build unity, provide tools to, and expand awareness of the solution-oriented seaweed movement consider an end of the year tax-deductible contribution. Just go find the DONATE button and do so. Best wishes for a happy sea/sun.

You can also buy t-shirts

T-shirts available in S-XXL, $20.00 +$5.00 shippping and handling, posters for $10.00 + $3.99 Shipping and Handling. Send an email to


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