Overfished no more: 21 species off the watch list

By Ellen Knickmeyer / The Associated Press

Published Sep 4, 2014 at 12:02AM

But on the East Coast, the water’s warming, fast

FRIENDSHIP, Maine — Imagine Cape Cod without cod. Maine without lobster. The region’s famous rocky beaches invisible, obscured by constant high waters. It’s already starting to happen. The culprit is the warming seas — and in particular the Gulf of Maine, whose waters are heating up faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, scientists say.

Long-established species of commercial fish, like cod, herring and northern shrimp, are departing for colder waters. Black sea bass, blue crabs and new species of squid — all highly unusual for the gulf — are turning up in fishermen’s nets.

The Gulf of Maine’s warming reflects broader trends around the North Atlantic. But the statistic — accepted by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — underscores particular fears about the Gulf’s unique ecosystem and the lucrative fishing industries it supports for three U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

“These changes are very real, and we’re seeing them happen quickly,” said Malin Pinsky, a biology professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University who studies ocean temperature change and was not involved in the research that resulted in the 99 percent statistic.

— The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty-one species of fish made the leap this week off a watch list of seafood to avoid as unsustainably overfished, leaving conservationists and many fishermen and chefs celebrating the turnaround of a West Coast fishing ground declared an economic disaster area by the federal government just 14 years ago.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium upgraded the 21 species of West Coast bottom-dwelling fish known as ground fish — including rockfish, sablefish and other workhorses of the white-fish seafood fillet market — from its “avoid” category on the Seafood Watch list, meaning the food industry and consumers now should feel free to sell and eat those fish without guilt.

The declaration marks a rebound from 2000, when commercial overfishing of ground fish off California, Oregon and Washington had depleted those and other species so badly as to earn a government designation of an economic disaster.

The related federal cut in the allowable catch of ground fish off the West Coast “was devastating to a lot of the fishing families, but it was so overfished,” recalled Cindy Walter, the daughter of a professional fisherman and co-owner now of a California restaurant specializing in sustainable fish.

At the time, Walter assumed the ground-fish fishing ground “was going to be closed for a very, very long time, like most of my life,” Walter said. The fact it reopened after only 14 years “is a great thing because it really shows when you have the fishermen and the (nongovernmental organizations) and the government working … they can turn around a fishery.”

Key actions that helped the West Coast ground-fish rebound include greatly increased government monitoring and control of fishing boats’ take, assigning fishing quotas to individual fishermen rather than to types of fish, and closing off some areas of the ocean to safeguard vulnerable habitat, those involved said.

In the early 1990s, 500 commercial fishing boats plied the ground-fish fishery off the West Coast, said Brad Pettinger, a trawl fisherman and executive director of Oregon’s state commission for trawl-fishing. Fellow fishermen helped buy out many of those 500 to help bring down the total to 100 fishing boats today, Pettinger said.

“You want to match up the available fish with the right number” of fishermen, Pettinger said.

Ground fish account for more than 10 percent of fish caught in the United States, said Jennifer Kemmerly, director of the Seafood Watch program. Unlike many other types of fish, most U.S. ground fish are consumed in the country rather than shipped overseas.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has managed the Seafood Watch list since 1999 to encourage the food industry and consumers to avoid types of fish that are being harvested in unsustainable numbers.

Conservation groups say over 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are being fished more heavily than breeding populations can sustain. Fish of greatest concern for overfishing now include orange roughy and sharks, Kemmerly said.