By Nick Houtman
IN THE FALL OF 2002, as the Klamath River dwindled in the wake of a dry summer, dead fish began piling up in eddies and small tributaries. Over a two-month period, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists counted more than 34,000, mostly adult chinook salmon that had died on their way upstream to spawn. The actual number was undoubtedly higher. In most sections of the river, crews were unable to tally all the floating carcasses from day to day.
Commercial salmon landings had been declining in prior years, and on top of a continuing drop in Pacific groundfish (species such as rockfish, cod, whiting and sole), the news from the Klamath seemed like another swipe at a once thriving West Coast industry. Contentious debates erupted among fishermen, farmers, tribal leaders and politicians about water management, fishery stock assessments and emergency relief for coastal communities.
By 2006, as salmon runs in the Klamath continued to plummet, groundfish cutbacks had already hit those communities hard. And when the commercial salmon season was closed in California and most of Oregon in 2008, fishermen in the two states took another $30 million hit.
By then, Oregon State University researchers were working on a long-term approach to a solution. “We had been asked if there was something we could do to address the salmon problem on the Klamath,” says Gil Sylvia, an Oregon State University economist and director of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport. “This is a fast-growing animal with a lot of uncertainties about it — so many stocks, so much complexity. Why aren’t we using more advanced methods to manage it?
“So one afternoon, a group of us developed a plan that became the basis for a program we call ‘Fish Trax.’ The idea is to enable fishermen to target healthy stocks — fish from rivers with strong runs — and to avoid weak ones, so fishermen can change the way they harvest rather than getting kicked off the water with total area closures. That’s the goal,” he adds.
The traditional maritime economy was clearly struggling, but programs like Fish Trax — which depends on genetics, digital data and collaboration among people who did not always see eye-to-eye — point the way to a new relationship with the ocean. Its proponents in community development and environmental policy are calling it the “blue economy.”
In an Ocean Week speech on Capitol Hill in 2009, Jane Lubchenco laid out the goals: “Americans want clean beaches, healthy seafood, good jobs, abundant wildlife, stable fisheries and vibrant coastal communities … . This collection of services depends on healthy, productive and resilient ocean and coastal ecosystems.”
As the newly appointed administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Oregon State marine biologist went on to define the characteristics of a “blue economy.” In short, fisheries, seafood production, recreation and other uses of the oceans would be joined at the hip with social sciences and ecology. Ecosystem services, climate change and ocean acidification would be factored into decisions about catching fish, allocating water and dedicating the ocean for specific activities. Renewable energy companies and scientists would share the waves with trawlers and crabbers.
Fishing — a legendary mix of grit, skill and luck — would remain a critical component of the “blue economy” but would become more reliable and predictable. A disaster with a salmon run would be mitigated by science-based restoration efforts. And it would all depend on innovative technologies, such as acoustics, digital mapping, ocean-observing systems and data management.
Despite its struggles, the traditional marine economy is a powerhouse. In Lincoln County alone in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are available), fishing and marine science jobs contributed $230 million to personal income, according to the county’s Economic Development office. Tourism added another $135 million.
Education and research are adding jobs in Newport, the county seat and home to Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, NOAA’s Pacific fleet headquarters and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s new Coastal Discovery Center. “When it comes to marine science and education,” says Gil Sylvia, “when you look at what’s been invested along the Oregon coast, there’s been over a $2 billion investment in the last decade. It’s much bigger than people understand.
“And when you talk about the ‘blue economy,’ you have to define what you mean by ‘blue,’” he adds. “A lot of it is traditional maritime, the fishing and seafood industry. For example, Seattle is the largest seafood city in the United States when you’re talking about large fishing vessels and processors, but most of the fish are landed in Alaska.”
The Right to Fish
Migratory fish like salmon, which are subject to a thousand threats in rivers and at sea, pose a daunting challenge to those who aim to align fishing with ecology. But things don’t get much simpler with more sedentary species, such as rockfish. Studies of their reproduction are ongoing. And then there’s uncertainty about the future of the ocean. How will warmer temperatures and acidic waters affect the coastal food web?
“Over time, we know rockfish recruitment (successful reproduction) can vary widely from year to year,” says Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, assistant professor in integrative biology at Oregon State. She studies rockfish under an annual permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service and must estimate the number of young fish she will catch. In her research along the Oregon coast, she uses devices that look like bags of garden fencing and are known as SMURFs — Standard Monitoring Units for Recruitment of Fish.
“From year to year, it’s tough to predict. Rockfish are so episodic in their recruitment,” she says. “This year we saw a species that we haven’t seen recruit much over the last five years — they have just been trickling in — go off the roof.”
Some species of rockfish can live more than 100 years, and as they grow, so does their reproductive potential. A 15-inch vermilion can produce about 150,000 eggs when it spawns. That might seem like a lot, but the real champions are the big old females. A 25-inch fish can produce more than 1.7 million eggs.
“Incorporating that into management is tricky,” says Grorud-Colvert. “Having areas like marine reserves where these older larger females can live is a powerful complement to other management approaches.”
She and other scientists are documenting the impacts of marine protected areas (MPAs), widespread globally but a relatively recent development along the Oregon coast (see “Spillover“). In Science magazine last fall, Grorud-Colvert and Lubchenco reported that MPAs now cover 3.5 percent of the surface area of the world’s oceans. More than five decades of research, the researchers reported, shows that fully protected MPAs, aka marine reserves, effectively increase the diversity and size of fish populations and enhance some commercial fisheries outside the boundaries.
However, just producing more fish may not be enough. In a paper in the journal Oceanography, Oregon State graduate student Allison Barner joined Lubchenco and other scientists in raising another possibility: Combine marine reserves with rights-based fisheries management, processes for giving individuals or communities exclusive rights to harvest fish in waters adjacent to a reserve. This arrangement even has a name: Territorial User Rights for Fisheries (TURF)-Reserve. The result would be that, in exchange for protecting the reserve, fishing communities would reap the benefits by being able to catch the bounty spilling over into their fishing grounds.
TURFs have not been proposed for the Oregon coast, but the idea is likely to raise hackles in fisheries management circles. Gil Sylvia calls it “politically combustible.” Paul Klarin of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development says the seas have long been treated as a public commons with open access. He leads planning for Oregon’s coastal waters, efforts captured in a map showing areas dedicated to specific uses: fishing, marine reserves, energy production, navigation and underwater cables (more trans-Pacific cables land in Oregon than in Washington or California).
The rules are different in federal waters, which extend 200 miles off the coast. Starting in 2011, a type of rights-based fisheries management known as individual transferable quotas — rights given to individual fishermen and capped at a total maximum harvest — were allowed under U.S. law.
Since then, the scientists say, the Pacific groundfish industry has shown signs of improvement. Revenues have risen more than 12 percent (not including whiting, Oregon’s largest single fishery). And 21 species have moved from “avoid” to “good alternative” or “best choice” under the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which advises eco-conscious consumers on fish to buy. (see “With America’s Fisheries Rebounding, We Can’t Turn Back“)
Data in DNA
Data are the currency of the “blue economy.” Satellites scan the sea surface daily, and sensor arrays on buoys and underwater gliders send information continuously to labs on land. The result is an ever-changing picture of temperatures, waves, winds, currents and water chemistry (see “Enduring Vigil”).
Some of the most powerful clues come from marine organisms themselves. In their DNA are patterns that reveal how whales are related to each other, whether or not corals can adapt to a changing environment and where salmon were born. If you’re a salmon fisherman, being able to distinguish one stock from another — those from the Klamath River, the Sacramento or the Rogue — could make the difference between holds that are empty or full when you return to the dock.
“Fishermen need to make decisions every day,” adds Sylvia. “Are we going to fish? Where are we going to fish? How are we going to fish? Data can be invaluable.”
Through a research program known as CROOS (Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon), Sylvia and his colleagues at the Oregon State marine experiment station are developing Fish Trax to provide that information. They aim to enable salmon fishermen to know where and when to target specific runs of fish, in effect to trace fish from rivers of origin to the sea. Salmon from each river tend to follow similar patterns as they move, and by analyzing the genetic fingerprints of captured fish, scientists can see where the animals tend to go.
“Fish Trax created (Internet) portals for fishermen to access their own data. They can ask things like ‘which stocks of fish did I catch at this depth in this location over a two-year period?’ And they can query the database and find out,” he says. However, that is just the beginning.
Fish Trax provides information to others as well: seafood processors, salmon hatchery managers, businesses and the public. “I see traceablity as a way to share information with the marketplace and to improve and standardize quality,” says Sylvia. “And to use that information in selling and marketing the product. It’s a powerful tool for doing that. We can do it today because we have digital information systems, which are part of the ‘blue economy.’ These systems open up immense possibilities.”
When the idea was first proposed, the reception was mixed. “The fishing industry loved it, but they were torn,” says Sylvia. “They worried about how the information would be used by managers. Could new knowledge be used to regulate the industry in unanticipated ways?”
Things came to a head during a meeting at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in 2006. Scott Boley, an Oregon State graduate and respected industry leader who died in 2007 (the Fish Trax website is dedicated to him), let people know that, while he had his doubts, the industry could benefit from it. “‘I’ve lost sleep over this. But things are so bad, I don’t see how it couldn’t but help us in the long term, to change this fishery around,’” Sylvia recalls Boley saying. “That was it. That profound statement got the agencies on board too, even though they had their doubts.” Sylvia and his team are continuing to develop Fish Trax with support from NOAA.
In its land-and-sea-grant mission, Oregon State brings together fishermen, agency managers, elected officials, scientists and engineers to create a “blue economy” for the future. “We get the luxury of looking five or 10 years down the road,” says Sylvia. “Industry doesn’t always have that luxury, but we do. It’s our job to plant and test ideas.”