Peter 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?

Because it’s so difficult to work with cod in the field, we’ve conducted a number of laboratory experiments where we’ve 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 we’re able to look at how differences in habitat affect how predators interact with those juveniles.

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 they’re 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 there’s 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?

There’s a perception by the people that are out there fishing that we’re on the road to recovery, that things are fine, we don’t 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 doesn’t matter what kind of gear they’re using — are looking at the world from a particular scale. They’re on the surface of the ocean, the ocean looks the same, whether it’s healthy or sick, ‘cause you’re looking at that interface between air and sea. And if you’re dragging that net for a mile or two miles or three miles, you’re integrating everything that’s going on the sea floor and you’re only looking at what can be captured inside the meshes of those nets.

Well, we’re 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, what’s 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 they’re interested in there.

Traditionally in oceanography we’ve gone out and brought up a plug of the sea floor and we do that enough times and we can tell a story about what’s going on. But we’re 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 there’s 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 don’t 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 don’t know anybody who doesn’t 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 that’s protected versus an area that’s been dragged repeatedly?

When we go using subs or ROV’s — I’ve 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; there’s 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 — they’re surrounded by the larger boulders where mobile gear can’t 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 we’re 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, you’re gonna rip up the shrubs and trees and bushes and grass and all those things that attract wildlife to your backyard and you’re certainly gonna have a few birds and some squirrels and raccoons that are gonna show up, but you’re 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 we’re gonna fish.

We’re still 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; there’s a common thread through all of these studies.

I think we’re wasting our time and wasting our money. It’s 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.

That doesn’t 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 I’ve said, it’ll 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, it’s 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 don’t manage for maintenance or bio-diversity; there’s other federal legislation now that deals with that issue but mostly it’s targeted at National Marine Sanctuaries. And then if we finally get something that’s 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 we’re 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 I’m anti-fishing or I’m anti-trawling, or anti-scallop dredging, but that’s not the case. A lot of this girth here is fish flesh, and my basic thesis is not that we shouldn’t be trawling or dredging anywhere, but it’s just that I think we shouldn’t 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 we’re describing hundreds and thousands of new species every year. There’s future applications for organisms that we don’t know right now and societally, we shouldn’t be producing a management regime that may greatly affect or eliminate populations of animals for which we’ve not even looked at the societal benefits for.

I think a lot of the problems that we’re 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 wouldn’t be an issue; I mean, we wouldn’t 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 30’s, 40’s and 50’s 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, there’s evidence of fishing. There are very few places I can point to on a map and say, ‘No fishing takes place there.’ And that’s unfortunate because we’ve kind of gotten to a point, technologically, where everything is available to something.

What about your thought that the ocean doesn’t belong to the industry, it belongs to the nation?

In listening 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 industry’s 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; we’re not managing just for fish or we’re 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 there’s a little increase in the stock.

I hear a lot of arguments that you know, ‘we’re going out to the same places and they’re still producing; if we’re 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 40’s and 50’s, and then the large dive in population in the numbers of fish of many species, especially cod and haddock, then they can’t possibly be producing that same number of fish and have these huge population declines.

I’ve been working at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary; I’ve 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 they’ve 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.