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As Fisheries Service Dithers, New England Porpoises Drown

By Carl Safina and Andrew Read

Photo: Harbor porpoise surfacing
Harbor porpoise surfacing in the Bay of Fundy. Credit: Ari Friedlaender.

Every twelve hours in the Gulf of Maine, a porpoise swims into a net it cannot see, struggles until it runs out of breath, and drowns. That’s because New England gill-net fishermen simply refuse to use a proven solution that they helped develop, a solution fishermen on the West Coast have successfully used to virtually eliminate deaths of dolphins and whales in similar nets there—a solution that the law requires in New England.

Fisheries managers had decided to temporarily close certain areas to gill-net fishing this month to help prevent more endangered porpoises from drowning. But new regional Fisheries Administrator and former New Bedford mayor John Bullard just gave those fishermen a free pass to ignore the law for another four months. This has so frustrated a national team of scientists who for years have worked on this problem, that they are boycotting a meeting scheduled for this week. Instead of more delay, we think the fishermen should have been told: Obey the law, or lose your nets.

Putting little sound alarms called “pingers” on gill-nets alerts porpoises to the presence of a net by emitting a tone every four seconds. Using them is easy. Yet New England fishermen have already gotten three years of extensions to get in compliance with a law that is fully a decade and a half old. Now, mainly to save New Hampshire fish processors income in the crucial fall season, Fisheries Service Regional Administrator John Bullard decided to delay the planned October closure until February.

Photo: Putting pinger on gill net
Pinger on gill net gear. Credit: Danielle Waples.

Four months is a death warrant for another couple of hundred porpoises before fishermen feel any consequence of ignoring the law. But the new delay suits many fishermen just fine. After all, what’s a couple of hundred more, compared to the 16,000 porpoises they’ve killed since 1990?

By announcing his decision without consulting the expert team whose official job is to work with officials and fishing industry reps to design ways to reduce harbor porpoise drownings (the Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team), Mr. Bullard so angered the team’s scientists that they are boycotting a multi-day meeting scheduled for the week of October 29 in Providence. The Team’s experts believe that, after three years of delay, further deferral signals to scofflaw fishermen that “denial and delay” can be a way of life.

Ironically, New England fishermen worked with scientists to develop pingers. Then, fishermen themselves pushed for their use in the 1990s, as an alternative to closing fishing areas. They got what they wanted.

And, when the National Marine Fisheries Service first required New England gill-net fishermen to use pingers in 1998, porpoise deaths indeed plummeted 95 percent, from more than 2,000 in 1994 to under 100 in 2001.

But federal enforcement faded. Many fishermen stopped using pingers. And—they frequently encroached into areas that had been officially closed to protect porpoises.

By 2003, fishermen fished without pingers on almost 75 percent of all nets. And they set their nets in closed areas in another 8 percent.  And these statistics come from fishing trips with federal observers on board!; we’ll never know how many violations went unobserved. Porpoise deaths quickly rose again; more than 1,000 drowned in 2005.

Three years passed. In 2008, the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, together with representatives of the fishing industry, proposed that unless compliance improved, additional areas would be closed to fishing. Then the fishing industry was given a generous two-year grace period to use more pingers.

But when the “grace” period ended in 2010—then again in 2011—less than half of observed nets complied with the law. The most recent estimates of the number of porpoise deaths is almost 800 annually, well above the legal limit. The porpoise population can’t withstand this intensity of mortality.

New England fishermen have exceeded federal limits on porpoise mortality in six of the past seven years, simply because they are unwilling to use the technique that virtually ends porpoise deaths. As a consequence, federal officials announced that new areas would be temporarily closed to gill-netting beginning on October 1, 2012. But just five days before the closure was to take effect, Mr. Bullard unilaterally announced another delay.

Fishermen work on the public’s territory, catching cod and haddock and other wild creatures belonging to all of us. So, next time you’re thinking of buying cod, ask if it was caught with gill-nets.  If it was, consider more ocean-friendly hook-caught cod—or maybe try the pasta until the region’s entire fishing community pressures their gill-netting peers to clean up their act and comply with the solution. We, and the porpoises, deserve better. Enough is enough. The fishermen have no legal or moral right to kill porpoises so needlessly.

Photo: Porpoise killed in gill net
Dead porpoise in a gill net. Credit: John Wang.

When will fishermen learn that when you take too much, you’re left with too little? Mr. Bullard’s decision typifies the kind of end-run around scientific advice that has for decades failed New England’s long-term ocean health. The federal government recently declared New England’s fishing industry an economic disaster. Mr. Bullard had those economics in mind, but instead of delay, he should have enforced the required solution.

We think the choice for Mr. Bullard is not whether to close or open areas. Nor does he need to make a decision affecting processors one way or the other. The decision is whether to favor fishermen working legally or those working illegally. We think he should have said to gill-net fishermen, “Look, this problem is solved; pingers work and they’re required. Now stop playing games, and implement the solution: Use the pingers—or we’ll take your nets.”

 

Carl Safina is host of PBS’ new series, “Saving the Ocean” and  founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University; he writes and speaks on ocean issues. Andrew Read is Stephen Toth Professor of Marine Biology, Duke University; he has worked with New England fishermen and administrators on harbor porpoise avoidance since the 1990s. He will not be attending the next meeting.

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  3. Bob Vanasse
    Washington, DC
    November 20, 2012, 6:34 pm

    The Northeast Seafood Coalition has put out a release describing the successful efforts northeast fishermen have made to comply with the pinger rules and to fish with a low number of harbor porpoise takes.

    http://www.savingseafood.org/conservation-environment/gillnet-fishermen-committed-to-reduce-harbor-porpoise-intera-4.html

    GLOUCESTER, Mass. — November 20, 2012 — Gillnet fishermen in the Northeast region of the U.S. are making strident efforts to reduce harbor porpoise interactions and preliminary data shows a low number of takes in the month of October.

    A closure for gillnet fishermen that was set to take place in a large portion of inshore Gulf of Maine fishing grounds during October and November 2012 was changed to February and March 2013 due to analysis conducted by NOAA Fisheries based on an industry proposal submitted by the Northeast Seafood Coalition (NSC). This proposal showed more harbor porpoise would be protected by the closing the winter months rather than maintaining a fall closure. Gillnet fishers have been and are continuing to make concerted, proactive choices to benefit harbor porpoise and their industry.

    In October, fishing cooperatives, commonly referred to as “sectors,” with active gillnet vessels that operate in the inshore Gulf of Maine are moving forward with their commitment to minimize harbor porpoise interactions.

    Northeast Fishery Sectors with active gillnet fishermen have urged their members to deploy twice the amount of required “pinger” coverage in all management areas during October, with the intent of making sure the correct number of working pingers are deployed on the gear. Harbor porpoise pingers are acoustic alarm devices that emit a 10 kHz frequency to deter the marine mammals from swimming into gillnets. Many fishermen are working together to ensure they have more than enough pingers deployed. In New Hampshire, for example, fishermen who are not currently gillnetting offered their pingers to fishermen who needed extras.

    In addition to urging fishermen to use more than the required amount of pingers, under the leadership of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund (GFCPF), industry is also coordinating to replace current technology pingers with new light emitting diode (LED) pinger technology. The LED will enable fishermen and regulatory authorities who test pinger functionality to easily confirm if the devices are operating correctly simply by observing if the pingers are “blinking”. GFCPF received the first wave of LED pingers last week and fishermen began testing the new pingers over the weekend with the intent of providing feedback to the GFCPF and the manufacturer. Anticipating positive results from the testing, GFCPF is prepared to organize an all-out effort to swap out existing pingers throughout the Northeast Fishing Sectors with the new technology. GFCPF will seek financial partners to complete the regional program.

    Furthermore, multiple Northeast Fishery Sectors are collaborating with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Northeast Cooperative Research Program to develop an industry-based “hotspot” reporting tool that will help provide fishermen with real-time information about harbor porpoise sightings and interactions. This tool will allow the gillnet fleet the ability to effectively share information in order to influence decisions about fishing behavior. Industry began working on this tool earlier this year, and it will be available for wide-spread industry use beginning in early 2013.

    NSC and its members share a full commitment with scientists, environmentalists and concerned citizens to conserve harbor porpoise. Gillnet fishermen are acutely aware of the need to protect harbor porpoise and other marine mammals and continually make rigorous efforts to do so. Now, more than ever, gillnet fishermen are collaborating to reduce harbor porpoise interactions—as is already evident from the low number of takes in October.

    NSC looks forward to partnering with individual fishermen, Northeast Fishery Sectors, the Northeast Sector Service Network, NOAA Fisheries, the Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Team, the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, Future Oceans, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and all vested parties to ensure the gillnet industry achieves an unprecedented low number of harbor porpoise takes while continuing to provide healthy and sustainable seafood for the world.

    • Carl Safina
      November 21, 2012, 1:17 pm

      I am happy to read this, and I’m sure this will be better for those concerned, humans and porpoises alike. And scientists. We look forward to seeing all these fixes and improvements implemented.

      “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” attributed (probably apocryphally) to Mahatma Gandhi; I think a harbor porpoise might actually have said it.

  4. Marine Biologist
    New Hampshire
    November 13, 2012, 6:41 pm

    The harbor porpoise is not an endangered species.

    http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/federal_register/fr3783.pdf

  5. Mikolaj Koss
    Hel, Poland
    November 9, 2012, 12:46 pm

    I have couple of questions concerning this topic:

    1) As stated earlier in the comments, the fish industry agreed to purchase all the pingers. Does it mean that they are government funded e.g. Fishery Administration or fishermen have to invest their own money ?

    2) The closure of the new fishing areas. Is it directly related to the non-compliance with the law, i.e. fishing without pingers or is it a part of sustainable fishing policy, allowing fishing areas to recover ?

    3) Which of the two factors is more damaging financially to US fish industry : the closure of the fishing grounds or fishing with/ without pingers ? I read some article about gillnet by-catch of Guillmots in the US, where it was stated that the actual amount of fish being caught with or without pingers had not differed markedly (negligeable difference). So why is there so much reluctance in using them ?

    • Carl Safina
      November 9, 2012, 6:47 pm

      Mikolaj,

      1) Fishers are required to invest their own money in pingers. They also buy their own boats, nets, registration, insurances, and required permits. These are expenses of going fishing and complying with the laws and regulations.

      2) The closure of the new fishing areas is, yes, directly related to the non-compliance with the law in this case. (In other areas, closures are designed for recovery.)

      3) Closing the fishing grounds is more costly to the fishers and processors than using the required pingers. That is why the pingers are the solution desired by people in the process, including us. The porpoises, who don’t care about the costs to fishers, would probably prefer closed fishing grounds, since it’s better for them all-around. So we don’t think it’s wise that many fishermen have not invested the modest extra time and expense in using pingers, because facing closed areas is far more inconvenient for them.

      –Carl Safina

  6. Bob Vanasse
    Washington, DC
    November 8, 2012, 1:24 pm

    Dr. Safina:

    On behalf of my colleagues at Saving Seafood, I am replying to your comments about our charaterization of a portion of your post as an ‘ad hominem’ attack on Adminstrator Bullard.

    We are aware of the meaning of the Latin term ‘ad hominem.’ We felt that your description of the Administrator as “new regional Fisheries Administrator and former New Bedford mayor John Bullard” — which listed his current position and a position he had not held for two decades, while omitting more recent and more relevant qualfications — was misleading. We anticipated that it would cause readers to believe Mr. Bullard was a local politicial with bias toward the interests of the industry, and that he is less than fully qualified for his current post. We therefore considered it an ad hominem attack by implication, if not explicitly.

    Of course, we cannot know your intentions, but if you doubt the accuracy of our assessment of the effect of your words, I call your attention to comments left by two of your readers, who clearly were misled, precisely as we anticipated:

    “Susan” of Lawrenceville, NJ wrote “How is it that someone with a vested interest in the fishermen’s success in New England, a long time New Bedford local politican, was able to secure a position that requires an unbiased leader?”

    “Jo Ellen” of St. George Island wrote “It seems John Bullard doesn’t understand the consequenses of his constant delays. How is it that he has been able to hold his position as regional Fisheries Administrator? His actions, or lack of, show his ignorance in this field.”

    Respectfully,

    Robert B. Vanasse
    Executive Director
    Saving Seafood
    1025 Thomas Jefferson Street, N.W.
    Suite 420 East
    Washington, DC 20007

    • Carl Safina
      November 9, 2012, 6:50 pm

      Thank you. You quote 2 people, only one of which references Mr. Bullard’s background in politics. Respectfully, ~ Carl Safina

  7. Carl Safina
    November 7, 2012, 10:09 am

    Mr. Mirarchi and Saving Seafood quickly come to the defense of Fisheries Administrator John Bullard, whose recent decision we’ve criticized. Maybe a maybe a little too quickly, considering their own political interests.

    Contrary to the fishing industry’s toadying, self serving, beside-the-point (and also wrong) assertions about what we wrote about Mr. Bullard, we did not make any ad-hominem attacks on him. (Ad hominem means, “about the man,” and refers to attacking someone personally, rather than criticizing their professional actions.) We were not critical of Mr. Bullard as a person. We criticized his decision and his decision-making process on this issue, because it did not help solve the problem of hundreds of porpoises drowning needlessly every year in New England.

    I think John Bullard is an exceptionally fine man. He is dedicated and intelligent, devoted and selfless. For years I have been honored to know John, because he repeatedly shows himself to be energetically dedicated to making things better, by doing what he believes is the right thing. And he has in his long career done many things right.

    I think he made a very poor decision this time.

    Here is every sentence in the piece that references John Bullard. As most readers can plainly see, we made zero ad-hominem attacks. We criticized his decision-making process on this issue:

    “But new regional Fisheries Administrator and former New Bedford mayor John Bullard just gave those fishermen a free pass to ignore the law for another four months… Instead of more delay, we think the fishermen should have been told: Obey the law, or lose your nets… Now, mainly to save New Hampshire fish processors income in the crucial fall season, Fisheries Service Regional Administrator John Bullard decided to delay the planned October closure until February… Mr. Bullard so angered the team’s scientists that they are boycotting a multi-day meeting scheduled for the week of October 29 in Providence… just five days before the closure was to take effect, Mr. Bullard unilaterally announced another delay… Mr. Bullard’s decision typifies the kind of end-run around scientific advice that has for decades failed New England’s long-term ocean health… Mr. Bullard had [the region’s] economics in mind, but instead of delay… we think he should have said to gill-net fishermen, “Look, this problem is solved; pingers work and they’re required. Now stop playing games, and implement the solution: Use the pingers—or we’ll take your nets.”

    Again, as most readers can plainly see, there are zero ad-hominem attacks. We criticized Mr. Bullard’s decision-making process on this issue.

    Mr. Mirarchi’s comment that, “The authors would be well advised to avoid ad hominem attacks and focus on solutions which work for all,” is particularly divorced from the reality, thrust, and wording of what we wrote. In fact, we did exactly what he suggests.

    – Carl Safina

  8. Carl Safina
    November 7, 2012, 10:05 am

    The fishing industry comments here are full of sound and fury, but they are also largely off-point.

    The point is: sound-emiting “pingers” attached to nets warn porpoises of the presence of nets and solve the problem of porpoise drowing. Attaching pingers to nets is required and has been required for more than a decade. The problem is: A significant number of fishermen aren’t using the required, proven solution. As a result, hundreds of porpoises drown each year, needlessly.

    “Saving Seafood” disagrees with virtually everything we’ve said. We said Mr. Bullard made a poor decision by ignoring the scientific team process. I (Carl Safina) felt comfortable saying that because when I called John Bullard to tell him we were going to write something critical about his decision, he told me that he’d made the decision because his information led him to believe that essentially as many porpoises would be killed whether he delayed the closure or not (in other words, hundreds of porpoises a year would continue drowning), but that delaying would avoid economic pain to New Hampshire fish processors. He also said he felt, in retrospect, that going around the science process was something he regretted having done. So, we agree with him on that. We further wrote that we believed Mr. Bullard should not have seen it as a choice between processors and closed areas, but between fishermen fishing legally and those fishing illegally. In other words, we think he should more energetically enforce the regulations that have been in effect for years, because they would solve the problem of porpoise drowning while letting fishermen fish. That is hardly a radical, misanthropic notion. What it is, is the solution.

    We don’t “dismiss” economic impacts by saying that Mr. Bullard made the decision for economic reasons. We say he made the decision for economic reasons because: he made the decision for economic reasons. It certainly was not for conservation reasons. Or for scientific reasons. Or to honor the process that he skirted.

    The reason that delaying the closure of certain areas to gill-net fishing would kill as many porpoises as implementing the closure now (as originally planned) is that the closure is only temporary. Hundreds of porpoises die either way. “Saving Seafood” seems to think that it doesn’t matter whether hundreds more porpoises drown now or later.

    We, on the other hand, think it’s a big deal that hundreds of porpoises still die needlessly. We think it’s unacceptable that they die when there is a solution in hand that is used elsewhere to solve the same kind of problem with the same kinds of nets. And we think it’s intolerable that this remains a problem in New England more than a decade after using the solution was mandated.

    “Saving Seafood” writes, “moving the closure from October to February would not affect harbor porpoise conservation.”

    That is exactly the problem. It won’t.

    “Saving Seafood really typifies the callous lack of regard for the drowning deaths of hundreds of porpoises (due, remember, to non-compliance with regulations). Must we still quibble about whether 800 or 500 die each year (and our information indicates that the number is around 800). The fact is: porpoises die each day for no good reason. Being dismissive about the problem is exactly the mind-set that prolongs the problem.

    The non-compliance problem, the lack of motivation to fix any problems with pingers, is more than a decade in the making. Pingers are very simple devices that are as simple to maintain as a fire alarm. Just change the batteries and make sure they emit sound. If it’s too loud to do that at sea on your boat, do it in port. It’s that simple. The fact that 40% of fishermen continue to deploy non-functional pingers or not use them at all suggests that the industry is still not serious about this problem.

    We believe it is fair to point this out to a wider constituency whose waters and wildlife are affected by the fishery. Just as the “fisheries disaster” has been engineered by decades of resistance to the policies that would rebuild fisheries, the problem with porpoises is a problem created by the fishing industry, prolonged by the fishing industry, and, in “Saving Seafood’s” most recent comment, apparently not viewed as a matter of as much importance, magnitude, and urgency as we believe it is.

    We think that, at this point, people who won’t follow the rules should be prevented from fishing, and people who observe the law, and who do what they can to avoid drowning porpoises, should keep fishing. We think regional Fisheries Administrator Mr. Bullard should have acted to make that point, instead of delaying action.

    As seen in the fishing industry’s comments here, inability to acknowledge a problem and to focus on solving it typifies New England’s approach to fishing. The results of this approach have recently earned the region’s fisheries a “federal disaster” designation. Meaning: more federal taxpayer money will flow into a region that has not learned to solve it’s own problem-making tendencies, and has not let its fish populations rebuild. Rebuilt fish can support sustainable fishing. Depleted fish cannot support fishing.

    Carl Safina and Andrew Read

  9. Frank Mirarchi
    Scituate, Mass.
    November 6, 2012, 10:13 am

    I find Mr. Safina and Mr. Read’s conclusion that NMFS Northeast Regional Administrator John Bullard acted recklessly and arbitrarily in shifting the timing of the harbor porpoise protection closure in the Gulf of Maine without basis. In fact, a careful analysis of porpoise mortalities in the area conducted by the Northeast Seafood Coalition concluded that the revised closure would actually reduce porpoise deaths.

    Moreover, the fishing industry has also contributed to mitigating porpoise deaths by agreeing to double the number of “pingers”, acoustic devices designed to alert porpoises of the presence of fishing gear. The industry has also purchased nearly five thousand additional pingers which are equipped with a more reliable technology.

    Readers should recognize that US fisheries are among the world’s most sustainably managed. Mr. Bullard’s decision epitomizes the difficulty in balancing resource protection with the need to feed our population. Mr. Bullard’s use of technology and good data and his inclusion of the fishing industry in the decision making process were absolutely correct.

    The authors would be well advised to avoid ad hominem attacks and focus on solutions which work for all. Elimination of the US fishing industry and outsourcing our seafood supply to nations which have weaker environmental protections is not a viable option.

  10. william skrobacz
    gloucester,ma
    November 6, 2012, 5:37 am

    assuming&exstrapolation is not a sience,that is the foundation of your research. you forget to add the hundreds of thousands of $$$ spent by INDUSTRY to eliminate this very real problem. put your self & every dollar you have into your job and have a bunch of eco-terrorists trying to kill you &your family dosen’t make me feel warn and fuzzy about anything

  11. Saving Seafood
    Washington, DC
    November 5, 2012, 12:51 pm

    Dr. Safina and Dr. Read accuse NOAA’s new Northeast Fisheries Service Regional Administrator, John Bullard, of not enforcing regulations on harbor porpoise by-catch. But they fail to mention the analysis that was the underpinning of Mr. Bullard’s decision, and fail to give credit to the commercial fishing industry for recent efforts at improving compliance and making the by-catch avoidance devices – known as “pingers” — more effective.

    Writing that, “new regional Fisheries Administrator and former New Bedford mayor John Bullard just gave those fishermen a free pass to ignore the law for another four months,” Drs. Safina & Read failed to mention NOAA’s rationale behind the movement of the two month closure from October 1 – November 30, 2012 to February 1 – March 31, 2013. The decision was not an arbitrary move by Mr. Bullard; it reflects the findings of an in-depth analysis performed by NOAA comparing the benefits of an October closure and those of a February shut down. The results of the analysis indicated that the February closure would likely be more effective in preventing excess harbor porpoise by-catch than the October closure. In his subsequent comments, Dr. Safina clarifies his concerns that the analysis was not peer-reviewed, but in the original article he and Dr. Read make no mention of the analysis, instead making an ad hominem attack on Administrator Bullard.

    Drs. Safina & Read point out that Mr. Bullard is a former mayor of New Bedford, which led commenters from New Jersey and Florida to question Mr. Bullard’s credentials and to suggest a conflict of interest. The authors failed to note that Mr. Bullard has not served as mayor of New Bedford for two decades. It was, in fact, a pro-environment decision — to build a secondary wastewater treatment plant, bringing the city into compliance with the Clean Water Act, that cost him re-election to a fourth term. The authors also failed to note that Mr. Bullard has significant qualifications for his current position. He led NOAA’s first Office of Sustainable Development and Intergovernmental Affairs under President Clinton, and is the immediate past President of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He holds degrees from Harvard and M.I.T.

    While NOAA’s analysis showed that moving the closure from October to February would not affect harbor porpoise conservation, it is greatly helping New England fishermen, who fish extensively in the fall and would have been significantly harmed by the planned October closure. By moving the closure from October to February, Mr. Bullard was not rewarding fishermen for non-compliance, as Dr. Safina suggests. He was acting as a fisheries manager should, by weighing environmental and socioeconomic concerns and reaching a resolution that avoids inflicting heavy economic losses on an already-struggling industry, while still managing to produce the conservation measures that the area closure was designed to achieve.

    Writing that Mr. Bullard made this decision “mainly to save New Hampshire fish processors income in the crucial fall season,” Drs. Safina & Read, dismiss economics as a valid reason to move the closure. Like many ecologists and conservation advocates, they forget or ignore that the law governing fisheries clearly states: “Conservation and management measures shall, consistent with the conservation requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (including the prevention of overfishing and rebuilding of overfished stocks), take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities…”

    Drs. Safina & Read also overstate harbor porpoise mortality. They begin their article by writing, “every twelve hours in the Gulf of Maine, a porpoise swims into a net it cannot see, struggles until it runs out of breath, and drowns.” This metric, however, exaggerates the most recent statistics by 40%. A death every twelve hours would mean two harbor porpoise deaths per day, or 730 a year. The most recent data available on actual number of harbor porpoises harmed by gill nets is 516, not the 800 annually that Safina claims. This means that the entire gillnet fishery harms 516 harbor porpoises out of a total population of almost 80,000 (at the most recent estimate). In a perfect world, no porpoises would be harmed, but it is important to note that far from the implication of mass slaughter that Drs. Safina & Read’s post suggests, current statistics show that gillnets harmed only 0.6% of the estimated total population.

    Drs. Safina & Read are critical of moving the dates of the harbor porpoise closure, partly because they see it as rewarding an allegedly noncompliant commercial fishing industry, writing, “New England gill-net fishermen simply refuse to use a proven solution that they helped develop.” The referenced solution, an acoustic device called a “pinger”, which deters harbor porpoises, has actually been used extensively by fishermen. NOAA’s most recent observer data on the devices’ use showed that the compliance rate was at least 90%.

    But the devices have not always performed perfectly. For many fishermen, noncompliance has never been an issue. Doing so isn’t always easy, however, because of difficulties with determining if and when the device has failed In actual fishing conditions, it is nearly impossible to hear the sound emitted by pingers (and thus to know that they’re working) amid the ocean sounds and engine noise, and almost impossible to tell if they are properly working when they are deployed underwater.

    Drs. Safina & Read mislead the reader when they write, “New England fishermen have exceeded federal limits on porpoise mortality in six of the past seven years, simply because they are unwilling to use the technique that virtually ends porpoise deaths.” Members of the fishery, working through the Northeast Seafood Coalition in Gloucester, Massachusetts, have made a concerted effort to improve the pingers’effectiveness. In the near term, fishermen have agreed to mitigate the problem by making efforts to double the amount of required pinger coverage, hoping that doing so will make up for any that might fail. They have worked with a pinger manufacturer to develop and distribute new pingers equipped with an LED indicator so that there is a visual indicator of whether the pingers are working, increasing their ability to ensure that the units are functioning properly.

  12. jim
    United States
    November 4, 2012, 2:57 pm

    So does this mean gillnet cod will be on the redlist since you already have made dragger caught cod in the northeast red? By the way draggers dont catch porpoise

    • Carl Safina
      November 5, 2012, 6:09 am

      Jim– Yes, very likely.

  13. NOAA employee #3
    November 2, 2012, 5:33 pm

    To this comment: “This discussion is about fewer than 700 takes of harbor porpoises out of a population that is now estimated to be approximately 80,000″

    1) Whether one subjectively considers 700 to be a big number or not (esp relative to population size) is irrelevant. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a statutory human-caused mortality limit (called PBR) is calculated for each population stock. The limit accounts for uncertainty in the population abundance (best estimate for harbor porpoise is around 80K but the real number could be much less), uncertainty in the bycatch estimate (mortality is probably higher than 700), population growth potential for the stock, and other defined management factors. Based on this estimated PBR limit, the NE gillnet fishery kills too many. Period. NOAA therefore has a job to do and is not doing it.

    2) The MMPA and associated regulations also required NOAA to reduce marine mammal to negligible levels, defined as < 10% of the PBR estimate, by 2001 (read: 11 years ago). This is referred to as the zero-mortality-rate-goal (ZMRG) and would amount to only 70 harbor porpoises being killed per year. By this standard, 700 is definitely a lot. NOAA has basically ignored the ZMRG requirements of the MMPA from the beginning.

    In fairness, NOAA is scrapped for resources and therefore must prioritize which issues it addresses. But it is dropping the ball on this issue.

  14. Carl Safina
    November 2, 2012, 4:05 pm

    Let us illuminate you on the sources of outrage. But before we do, let us assure you that if New England’s groundfish industry or the federal agency wants to assert that it’s OK to needlessly kill 700 harbor porpoises each year, we’re happy to take that case directly to seafood consumers. Now:
    Despite almost 15 years of investing your tax dollars in trying to solve this conservation problem through direct funding, research and development and agency support, the fishing industry still fails to comply with the law that they help craft.
    When the fishery was killing harbor porpoises at almost twice the agreed rate, it made an end-around the take reduction process. It convinced Mr. Bullard to change the timing of the closure.
    3. There has been no external peer review of the analysis that suggested that changing the timing of the closure would result in marginally fewer porpoises drowning. The conclusion magically changed between September 6th, when Mr. Bullard told industry that there would be no benefit to porpoises, and September 26th, when he said that six or so fewer porpoises would drown. Nobody outside the agency has seen the science behind this decision.
    4. The non-compliance is not just due to broken pingers. The most recent agency analysis indicates that, even despite the threat of the closure, one-fifth of fishermen failed to equip their nets correctly with pingers in 2010-2012 and another fifth (total: 40%) did not maintain their pingers in a functional state. We think that 40% non-compliance is not good enough performance.
    Imagine that your place of business was threatened with a closure unless you installed smoke alarms and changed their batteries regularly. You’d probably make the smart choice and install and maintain the alarms. Unless, of course, you thought you could persuade the building inspector to look the other way.

  15. Another anonymous NOAA employee
    Washington, DC
    November 1, 2012, 4:51 pm

    Does everyone who is expressing outrage here realize that

    [1] This discussion is about fewer than 700 takes of harbor porpoises out of a population that is now estimated to be approximately 80,000?

    [2] All Mr. Bullard did was move the dates of the closure from October to February.

    [3] That NOAA’s own analysis determined that there was little to no significant increased harm associated with moving the dates.

    [4] Much of the alleged non-compliance was not due to malice or negligence but due to malfunctioning devices.

    [5] The fishing industry agreed to purchase all new pingers, and to use twice as many as required in the interim.

  16. Carl Safina
    October 31, 2012, 4:57 pm

    We the authors of this piece would like to make a couple of points in response to the comments of the Northeast Seafood Coalition.

    1. Mr. Bullard’s decision to circumvent the consensus Take Reduction Plan and delay the fall closure was unprecedented, either in New England or at the national levels. The concept of closure was agreed to by the fishing industry in 2008 – they had four years to comply with the regulations or face the consequences. Mr. Bullard’s decision was made without consulting the Take Reduction Team and only a few weeks before a scheduled Team meeting. Why not wait three weeks and work through the legal process mandated by the Marine mammal Protection Act?

    2. Despite the Coalition’s selective choice of statistics, it is clear that the fishery continues to show very poor compliance with existing regulations. In the most recent analysis conducted by scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service (Orphanides 2012), compliance with pinger regulations was only 62% in the Gulf of Maine and by-catch rates were almost twice the maximum allowable rate.

    3. If the fishery has such a good history of complying with the regulations requiring pingers, why are they buying 1800 pingers now, four years after the most recent regulations came into place?

    4. The Coalition’s statement about enforcement is completely disingenuous. It is true that some fishing trips are monitored by government observers, but data collected on these trips are never used for enforcement, because of concerns for the safety of the observers. Gill nets continue to be set without pingers and in closed areas, but enforcement of these regulations is very poor. As a result, an average of 840 porpoises were killed each year between 2006 and 2010.

    5. We maintain our assertion that the fishery’s long history of disregard for the law means that consumers should look elsewhere for sustainably harvested seafood.

    - Andrew Read and Carl Safina

  17. Northeast Seafood Coalition
    October 29, 2012, 3:52 pm

    The recent decision to modify the timing of the consequence closures in the Gulf of Maine to protect harbor porpoises is by no means a “free pass”.

    The Northeast Seafood Coalition (NSC) worked collaboratively with affected gillnet fishermen in the northeast region to put forth a proposal to modify, not avoid, the coastal Gulf of Maine consequence closure for one-year from a October to November to a February and March timeframe. Modifications to the Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Plan (HPTRP) are permitted through specified policies in the HPTRP that enable NOAA to make alterations. Bottom-line: recent data shows that more harbor porpoise would be protected by the adopted proposal.

    To say fishermen are “ignoring the law” with pinger (devices used to deter harbor porpoise from gillnets) requirements is false. According to NOAA publication “2010-2011 HPTRP Consequential Bycatch and Compliance Rates” written by Christopher Orpandides and Debra Palka in April 2012, “The percentage of hauls with full pinger deployment showed a large increase over previous management seasons, rising to its highest level since the 1998 HPTRP was implemented.” Observer data from NOAA Fisheries shows the gillnet fleet had the correct number of pingers deployed 82.5 percent of the time based on 883 observed gillnet hauls. To eliminate any question of whether pingers were working properly or not, affected gillnet fishermen offered to incur the expense of purchasing new pingers with LED-technology—this new technology provides visual confirmation that enables fishermen to instantly know whether pingers are functioning correctly. To date, 1800 new LED pingers have been purchased and will arrive within the week and more are likely to be ordered shortly. Until the new technology arrives, fishermen offered to deploy twice the required amount of pinger coverage to lower the likelihood of interacting with a harbor porpoise. To make good on their offer, fishermen have been sharing pingers, using fewer nets, or utilizing more current technology pingers.

    Groundfish fishermen in the northeast are stringently managed under regulations that produce accountability. Under the current management system, fishermen host federal observers and monitors on their vessels on a regular basis while operating under strict regulations that track every movement and pound of fish caught. Monitors, coupled with vessel monitoring systems track each vessels location and fishing whereabouts. If a fishing vessel travels into a closed area, the vessel and NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is immediately notified. It’s impossible for fishermen to “encroach into areas” officially closed to protect harbor porpoise without facing severe ramifications and repercussions.

    NSC and its members share a full commitment with scientists, environmentalists and concerned citizens to conserve harbor porpoise. Gillnet fishermen are acutely aware of the need to protect harbor porpoise and other marine mammals and continually make concerted efforts to do so. Achieving a win-win solution that advances the protection of harbor porpoise while also helping a struggling dayboat gillnet fleet, until such time as the Take Reduction Team was able to meet, was the goal of the recently approved proposal.

    Finally, the groundfish industry in the northeastern United States was recently declared a fishery disaster by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Consumers should continue to support local fishers (who utilize all gear types, including gillnets) because they are working within the law to selectively and sustainably harvest stocks with specialized gear to minimize interaction with unintended animals.

  18. Susan
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    October 28, 2012, 2:40 pm

    How is it that someone with a vested interest in the fishermen’s success in New England, a long time New Bedford local politican, was able to secure a position that requires an unbiased leader? How long is he going to retain that position?

  19. Jo Ellen
    St. George Island
    October 27, 2012, 8:34 am

    It seems John Bullard doesn’t understand the consequenses of his constant delays. How is it that he has been able to hold his position as regional Fisheries Administrator? His actions, or lack of, show his ignorance in this field. Or possibly Mr. Bullard is recieving a little extra pocket change for his actions?

  20. Anonymous NOAA employee
    Washington DC
    October 26, 2012, 11:36 pm

    Today I am ashamed at my agency’s lack of leadership. I can only hope a Federal court will do what NOAA’s leadership will not do, and that his to require fishers to fish safely and thereby protect dolphins.

  21. s wood
    October 26, 2012, 4:16 pm

    This makes me heartsick and I will be more mindful and inquisitive of how fish are caught. Looks like nothing less than ‘official’ criminal complicity in this willful destruction.