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Friday, November 26, 2010

Shrimp Bycatch - Why Care?

Next time you see that pound of wild-caught shrimp at the grocer or fish market, think a bit before putting it into your shopping cart. That pound of wild-caught shrimp may have cost the lives of up to 20 pounds of other marine life including sea turtles, rays, crab, coral, sponges, bony fish like flounder and herring, and occasionally a sea mammal or large fish like a shark. These other animals caught incidentally when fishing for a commercial species are called "bycatch."

What's the problem? Aren't these animals re-released to go about their lives?

While yes, these other, "undesirable" animals are usually thrown back into the sea as discard, most are already dead or dying by the time they make it on board the shrimp trawler. So that pound of wild-caught shrimp on your table also caused the deaths of up to 20 pounds of other species. The discarded animals become food for marine scavengers...they don't go back to leading their normal lives, swimming or crawling along the bottom happily-ever-after. And obviously, because they are killed, they are removed from the breeding population of their species thus depleting that species numbers even further.

The amount of bycatch varies from region to region and the type of fish that is the intended catch. Shrimp trawling causes the largest ratio of bycatch. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has documented shrimp trawling bycatch rates of up to 20:1 (20 pounds of other species are caught and discarded for every 1 pound of shrimp). They calculate the world average at just about 6:1. Shrimp trawlers in the USA have bycatch ratios that average between 3:1 and 15:1. To put this into perspective, in the Gulf of Mexico alone, being caught in shrimp tral nets kills from 25 - 45 million red snapper per year...and that isn't the only species in the bycatch.

In some areas of the USA, progress is being made to reduce bycatch by shrimp trawlers. One example is in the Gulf of Maine and the introduction of a new type of trawling net that doesn't have a top (conveniently called "topless trawl"). This new type of trawl net can reduce bycatch from about 30% of the total catch ( or 3:7 bycatch to shrimp ratio), down to about 10% of the total catch (1:9 bycatch to shrimp ratio). While most of the bycatch decreases with this new type of net, the flounder bycatch actually increases.

Yes, this new net is a little ray of good news. Other good news comes from shrimp fisheries with tight regulations, such as (again) the Gulf of Maine. But don't reach for that second pound of shrimp quite yet - bottom trawling has other effects that I'll bring up in a future post.

So what's a responsible consumer to do?

The first thing I'd like you to do is think before you buy. Think of every dollar you spend at the grocery store or fish market as a vote. By purchasing something, you are giving a big YES vote to how it's captured, processed, packaged, shipped, and marketed. Know what you are voting for. Also, research what you eat - I will continue to post on ocean topics here, but I encourage you to do your own research. Search the library, the internet, talk to local fishermen if you can, inform and educate yourself. Don't believe everything you hear or read :) Use the brain you were given to discover the facts, then decide for yourself how you want to shop, based on your own values system.

My personal philosophy is now to severely limit my consumption of commercial, wild-caught sea fish, down to almost nothing. I will perhaps eat a pound of local, Maine pink shrimp when they are in season, or a Maine lobster now and again, but I won't purchase and eat anything my research has shown me to be unsustainable. Is that the right choice for you? I don't know...that's for you to decide.

For further information:

He, P., D. Goethel, and T. Smith. 2007. Design and test of a topless shrimp trawl to reduce pelagic fish bycatch in the Gulf of Maine pink shrimp fishery. J. Northw. Atl. Fish. Sci., 38: 13–21. doi:10.2960/J.v38.m591

^ "Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper: Assessment Summary Report.". Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) Stock Assessment Report of SEDAR. 2005. 

Morgan, LE; Chuenpagdee, R (2003). Shifting Gears. Addressing the Collateral Impacts of Fishing Methods in U.S. Waters.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I admit to having a slightly different take on Thanksgiving Day than most Americans do. While I think it's a lovely thing that we have set aside one day to be with family and celebrate what we have, this is something I take time to do every day. I know, I know, it's also a day to stuff yourself with food, veg out in front of the TV, and do nothing all day. At no other time of the year is this considered "normal." Ah, yes, life in the 'States :)

But in the spirit of the day, I thought I would share with you some of the things I'm grateful for right now:

  • My family and friends who journey with me on this precious blue dot we call home (Earth)
  • Living in the beautiful state of Maine, having a super job, and awesome co-workers
  • That I can smell the clean scent of the sea when I step outside in the morning
  • Being healthy in mind and body
  • Seeing a spectacular sunset over Boothbay Harbor
  • The Living Waterfront
  • The World is Blue by Sylvia Earle
  • Folks like those at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, ME, who rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured wildlife and marine animals
  • That there are folks actually doing something about cleaning up oceans, protecting habitat, climate warming, oil disasters, overfishing, and land use issues. Thank you, each and every one.
  • That I live in a country where I can write these words without fear of government reprisals or censorship.

My challenge to you is to think about 3 things you're grateful for each and every day, not just Thanksgiving Day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Return to an Age of Sail, part 2

Bringing back an sailing ships to transport good sounds crazy, doesn't it? Here we are in 2010, and as a society, we can't remember back just 100 or 150 years ago to a time when most goods were shipped using only the wind as power. No carbon emissions, no spilling of oil or fuel into the oceans, no concerns about rising fuel costs.

What's changed since then?

The world population has exploded from just under 2 billion people in 1900, to just around 7 billion today. Because of this, goods and raw materials are being shipped overseas in quantities previously unfathomable. The sailing ships of 1900 couldn't keep up with the demands of the modern least with old-style thinking and old-style architecture.

So let's think outside of the box for a moment? Let's ask "How can we?"

First, why can't the best designers alive today re-architect a new breed of sailing ship? A type of ship that can haul more cargo, sail faster, go into shallower ports, or heck, even have solar collectors onboard, maybe even built into the sails themselves...?

Would these new sailing cargo vessels be able to haul as much as a modern container ship? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not a shipbuilder or architect, so I don't know what is beyond possible with sail. But I think to get ourselves out of the corner we've backed ourselves into, we need to think differently. Old thinking got us where we are today: rampant consumers shipping millions of tons of goods and resources across the world, at a huge cost to the atmosphere and oceans.

One thought: perhaps if we curbed our voracious appetites for new "stuff", sailing ships might be feasible again.

Another: let's throw our prejudices about sailing ships out of the window before looking at the problem. Why can't we design a new type of ship that can haul large quantities of goods? Maybe it has 2 or 3 hulls instead of just one. These new ships don't have to look or sail like the ones of 150 years ago - they can be as different from the Cutty Sark as a modern cargo ship is from The Lynx.

Perhaps we ship smaller quantities of higher-priced or specialty goods via sail, saving container ships for the cheap, mass-produced stuff. Or use sail for the shorter hops within a continent, leaving the longer voyages for the modern, massive cargo ships. Or redesign containers to be lighter and fit into smaller vessels.

I really think it's possible to redesign the way we ship good and resources, but it's going to take time, effort, money, and the willingness of all of us to rethink our approach to many different things. Can we do it? Yes, I think we a society, though, we need to both believe that we can AND see the need for doing it.

If you'd like to read a stunning book on why we should be thinking differently, and why we should be protecting the oceans, I urge you to read Sylvia Earle's The World is Blue. It's been a lifechanging book for me, and I'll be examining it in more depth in upcoming posts.

This post and its photos are copyright Nancy Rynes, 2010.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A New Age of Sail? Part 1

The privateer "Lynx" rests before me at the shipyard, tied at the pier waiting to set sail again in a few days. Gentle swells lap at her black, wooden sides. She's quiet for the evening - sails gathered and secured, the US flag flying over her stern, her two tall masts and seeming tangle of lines stand in contrast to the apricot colored evening sky  behind her.

I sit on the edge of a tall concrete embankment with my feet hanging out over the water and next to the Boothbay Shipyard where Lynx is moored. In this area of Maine the first ships were built in the early 1600s and was the start of the local ship and boatbuilding tradition. Maine has a long shipbuilding history that continues to today here in Boothbay, and in Rockport, Rockland, Thomaston, and even in Bath where US Navy ships are still constructed.

The Lynx is a young ship. Launched in Rockport, Maine, in 2001, she sails the oceans as a sail training ship. She's an 1812 version of a Baltimore Clipper Schooner, built for Woodson K Woods by Rockport Marine, and designed by Melbourne Smith. At 72 feet at the waterline, she's somewhat on the small side as tall ships go, but small doesn't keep her from being a beauty.

Something about tall ships has always enchanted me. From the time I was a little girl I dreamed of sailing a tea clipper like the Cutty Sark, full with a load of precious cargo with only the wind as a source of power. Nope, I wasn't enchanted with with the life of a pirate like a lot of kids might be, I just wanted to sail a clipper. Alas, I was born much too late and the wrong gender to make that my life's work :)

The fleets of schooners and tall ships that sail today are typically used as private yachts, cruise vessels, or sail-training ships like the Lynx. Maine has a fair contingent of schooners, relatively small, two to 3 masted sailing ships built sleekly, typically to carry passengers in short voyages along the coast of New England. No one here in the US, at least as far as I've been able to find out, is still using sailing ships to carry legal cargo (I'll leave contraband out of the mix for now).

As I sit here and stare with awe at the Lynx, I wonder if perhaps a new age of sail might just be over the horizon? Commercial shipping accounts for 4.5% of global CO2 emissions by last count. Using the wind exclusively causes no emissions. I wonder...why can't we clever humans design and build a new breed of merchant sailing ships to carry goods across the oceans?