TRANSCRIPT - Dr. Peter Auster
Auster is the Science Director of the National Undersea Research
Center at the University of Connecticut.
From your studies, can you describe the effects bottom structure
has on predator-prey relationships with young cod?
so difficult to work with cod in the field, weve conducted
a number of laboratory experiments where weve simulated the
types of habitats that occur on the sea floor, aquariums and laboratory,
and introduced juvenile cod - zero year animals, ones that have
just settled from the plankton - and were able to look at
how differences in habitat affect how predators interact with those
The more complex
habitats increase the survival of those juvenile cod, decrease the
efficiency of the predators. And in habitats that simulate the chronic
effects of fishing, for which there are no organisms growing - a
cobble bottom - then the survivorship declines; the predators are
much more efficient. And in sand theyre even worse off - the
lowest amount of survival rate is zero, in the laboratory experiments.
What effect does bottom trawling have on bottom structure?
In areas where
theres chronic trawling and scallop trudging, a lot of the
structure, a significant amount of the structure from the sea floor
is removed animals like sponges and hydroids and all those
other animals that make their living attached to the sea floor and
these animals provide the cover for juvenile cod. And in areas where
these are removed, the survival of cod, from the computer models,
is very low, and the probability of good recruitment, in any given
year, is greatly reduced.
What have you seen in the submersible?
a perception by the people that are out there fishing that were
on the road to recovery, that things are fine, we dont need
to worry about any of these additional issues. I think one of things
that keeps that perception alive, is that fishermen themselves
and it doesnt matter what kind of gear theyre using
are looking at the world from a particular scale. Theyre
on the surface of the ocean, the ocean looks the same, whether its
healthy or sick, cause youre looking at that interface
between air and sea. And if youre dragging that net for a
mile or two miles or three miles, youre integrating everything
thats going on the sea floor and youre only looking
at what can be captured inside the meshes of those nets.
working on the sea floor and we can use submersibles, where we can
actually get in and go to the bottom and look around, or remotely
operate vehicles where these are tethered underwater robots and
we can sit here on the surface and watch on TV monitors, and get
a good idea of the landscape, whats actually going on the
sea floor. And I kind of liken that to my terrestrial colleagues
who work on land and can walk out on the fields and into the forest
and study the organisms that theyre interested in there.
in oceanography weve gone out and brought up a plug of the
sea floor and we do that enough times and we can tell a story about
whats going on. But were not really seeing that whole
landscape picture and how some of these animals that are not sampled
well, with these other kinds of blind methods. And theres
probably and this is probably an overestimate forty
people in the country that are working on these kinds of issues.
So you know,
when people say that there are other people in the science community
that dont agree with these things, they might not be ecologists
and they might not be people who are actually working on these kinds
of issues. I dont know anybody who doesnt agree that
there are impacts. What the value judgments, what we do with this
information, rests with individuals.
When you are down there in that submersible, what are you seeing
in an area thats protected versus an area thats been
When we go using
subs or ROVs Ive been doing a lot of work out
in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in areas that
are chronically fished, especially in cobble areas, you can see
that the cobbles are mostly bare; theres very low coverage
of animals that attach to the sea floor that provide cover for the
fishes. In areas that are more difficult to fish theyre
surrounded by the larger boulders where mobile gear cant get
in the gravel sea floor is covered with sponges or other
kinds of organisms that provide much more complex cover. So in my
minds eye I can picture what the sea floor would look like in the
absence of fishing in some of these areas. And how the absence of
structure is actually affecting the populations of fish that are
part of the natural community there as well as those populations
that we want to exploit for food and recreation.
I think we kind
of keep dropping back to these arguments whether there are impacts
and were not getting beyond this and talk about how do we
deal with this in a precautionary fashion. I think some this is
really a no-brainer. I mean, if you took a chain-sweep net or a
roller-rig net or a scallop drag and dragged it across your backyard,
you know, youre gonna rip up the shrubs and trees and bushes
and grass and all those things that attract wildlife to your backyard
and youre certainly gonna have a few birds and some squirrels
and raccoons that are gonna show up, but youre not gonna have
them in the numbers that they would normally appear nor the diversity
of animals that would normally show up there. Is that a good thing?
My own answer is no. I think society needs to decide where and how
much were gonna fish.
arguing about whether fishing is having an effect, and you know,
we just did a review where we looked at 90 papers, 88 of which had
measurable impacts of fishing. These are studies from all over the
world, all kinds of fishing gear, all kinds of habitats. The types
and directions of impacts are remarkably similar; theres a
common thread through all of these studies.
I think were
wasting our time and wasting our money. Its gonna be a long
time before we know how much fishing effort produces how much effect.
I think societally we need to make a decision about how much and
where are we going to allow these activities to take place in the
ocean. We certainly know enough to be precautionary. The United
States and most other nations have signed on to the United Nations,
the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing. We have our own
code of conduct for responsible fishing here in the US. And part
of that is to take precautionary measures.
mean that we need to absolutely prove, with 99% confidence, that
Action X produces Effect Y. What it means is that we have a pretty
good idea that Action X most likely produces this kind of effect;
that we ought to be preemptive and not be doing this everywhere.
And I think the concept of using marine protected areas, at no-take
zones as a precautionary measure, against the effects of habitat
degradation from fishing, against over-fishing, against by-catch
problems, against the loss of the diversity of organisms in the
ocean, is the way to go. Because, like Ive said, itll
be decades before we, at present rate of funding, fully understand
enough to be able to produce very strategic management actions.
What is the importance of marine reserves?
Funny you should
ask; I just finished writing a paper on that. I think marine reserves
provide a precautionary measure, its a bet-hedging kind of
activity against bad management decisions not just fishery
management, but other kinds of activities that happen in the ocean,
too. Under our current fishery management regulations, we really
dont manage for maintenance or bio-diversity; theres
other federal legislation now that deals with that issue but mostly
its targeted at National Marine Sanctuaries. And then if we
finally get something thats endangered, then the Endangered
Species Act kicks in.
And it also
provides protection against bad fishery management decisions, in
terms of providing the backdrop for maintaining the age structure
of populations; it provides the backdrop for maintaining the genetic
diversity of populations; it provides an area where habitat is not
impacted by human activities; and provides areas where juveniles
can recruit to the sea floor where other organisms provide cover
for them. So those animals may actually emigrate or swim out of
the protected area, and there will be a spillover effect where larger
animals can come out of the protected area and can be harvested.
These kinds of things have been demonstrated from other protected
areas in other parts of the world.
I think we need
to think about managing fish and fishing as part of managing for
the maintenance of biodiversity overall. We tend to look at fish
in one box, at least those species that we want to exploit, and
everything else in another box and somehow were going to manage
these things separately, as opposed to managing fishing as a subset
of maintaining diversity.
We need to develop
a sustainable management regime. We want to be able to save all
those things that affect the populations of fish that we want to
exploit, but we really dont understand how all those pieces
come together. Here in the Northwest Atlantic, one of the most well-studied
parts of the ocean globally, and we understand a lot about
the behavior of fish populations, but we dont understand a
lot about how they all interact, how changes in one part the system
affect another part of the system.
I think some
of these comments might be interpreted by some as that Im
anti-fishing or Im anti-trawling, or anti-scallop dredging,
but thats not the case. A lot of this girth here is fish flesh,
and my basic thesis is not that we shouldnt be trawling or
dredging anywhere, but its just that I think we shouldnt
be doing this everywhere.
Humans, in the
latter part of the twentieth century, tend to have the perception
that we know all we need to know on how to manage a system; we know
all we need to know about all the species out there despite the
fact that were describing hundreds and thousands of new species
every year. Theres future applications for organisms that
we dont know right now and societally, we shouldnt be
producing a management regime that may greatly affect or eliminate
populations of animals for which weve not even looked at the
societal benefits for.
I think a lot
of the problems that were trying to solve today are because
there are so many people trying to make a living using similar kinds
of gear out on the water. I mean, if it was just a couple of people
out there dragging, 24 hours, 7-days a week, it probably wouldnt
be an issue; I mean, we wouldnt even be sitting here having
this conversation. But because there are hundreds and hundreds of
boats dragging nets and dredges all over the continental shelf that
this has become an issue.
The places back
in the 30s, 40s and 50s that used to essentially
be refuges from the gear of the time, are no longer refuges. Places
that people would show me on a chart that nobody fishes there, and
we go look there with a sub or the ROV, theres evidence of
fishing. There are very few places I can point to on a map and say,
No fishing takes place there. And thats unfortunate
because weve kind of gotten to a point, technologically, where
everything is available to something.
What about your thought that the ocean doesnt belong to the
industry, it belongs to the nation?
to the people from the industry and talking with people from the
industry, I think that there is a mistake in perception that there
is an inherent right to fish, rather than an inherent privilege
to fish. And while the fishing industrys a long and respected
trade, both here in the US and internationally, I think we need
to be able to be managing for the ocean and maintain all the parts;
were not managing just for fish or were not managing
just for the benefit of the industry in general or particular sector
of the industry, but for the benefit of the nation; and that includes
conserving all the parts.
There seems to be excitement over the fact that theres a little
increase in the stock.
I hear a lot
of arguments that you know, were going out to the same
places and theyre still producing; if were affecting
the habitat, how could that be? I find that argument a little
incredulous because if you see how much fish used to be out there
in the 40s and 50s, and then the large dive in population
in the numbers of fish of many species, especially cod and haddock,
then they cant possibly be producing that same number of fish
and have these huge population declines.
working at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary; Ive
got colleagues that have been working out on the northeast peak
of Georges Bank, and they started prior to this emergency closure
out on the bank, and theyve been monitoring the recovery of
sea floor communities out in these gravel habitats. And even after
4-1/2 years those habitats are not fully recovered, when you compare
those to areas on the Canadian side of Georges that have not been
fished for a longer period of time.