Cantwell Calls for NOAA Study on Ocean Acidification’s Effects on Seafood and Fishing

In Senate hearing Cantwell also backs ‘robust funding’ in Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization for fish stock assessments

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called for new federal action to examine ocean acidification’s potential threat to seafood and the commercial fishing during a hearing on the law that guides management of American commercial fisheries.

During testimony at the Senate hearing on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act Reauthorization, the Alaska Regional Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service told Cantwell that ocean acidification is a “cause for concern.”

Cantwell highlighted the need for a study that identifies which fisheries and fish habitats are most at risk from the effects of ocean acidification –as an expansion of a Puget Sound monitoring system for shellfish that she was instrumental in establishing in 2010.  She cited previous research that showed adverse effects on Alaska’s red king crab fisheries.

Such research also would be critical to understanding potential impacts to Washington state’s $30 billion maritime industry.  The sector supports 57,000 direct jobs and 90,000 indirect jobs, 60 percent of which are in the fishing industry.

“We want to make sure we understand the risks to our fisheries. We have some real life situations that are occurring,” Cantwell said today during the hearing of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. “On this issue, I think we definitely need a study to understand the impacts.”

In 2010, Cantwell secured funding to deploy ocean acidification sensors near major shellfish hatcheries in Washington state. These sensors, some that are attached to buoys in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS) network, allow shellfish growers to monitor ocean acidity in real time.  That way, shellfish hatcheries can close off their shellfish rearing tanks when ocean acidity is too high. Recent studies have shown a connection between ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide, and high mortality rates among young oysters and other shellfish like clams, geoduck and mussels.

“We have established a buoy system and information system as it relates to the shellfish industry to give us important data,” Cantwell said at today’s hearing. “These are valuable jobs in our region and these risks are high. So I definitely want to make sure that NOAA and the IOOS buoy program that we’ve developed might be expanded to look at this.”

Thursday’s hearing focused on how the fisheries law affects Alaska and North Pacific waters and what stakeholders propose to change in the next bill. Fishermen, processors, scientists and managers – including industry representatives from both Washington state and Alaska -- testified in what was the fourth in a series of regionally-focused hearings on the law.

Cantwell has been a leading voice in the Senate about the threat ocean acidification poses to fisheries and coastal economies. In a January subcommittee hearing, she highlighted why additional research is needed to understand ocean acidification’s potential damage to critical salmon food sources – including small crustaceans such as copepods. Witnesses raised concerns that copepods, key to healthy salmon populations, could find it harder to reproduce if their waters become more acidic.

Last September, she urged Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA’s Acting Administrator, to prioritize ocean acidification monitoring and research crucial to Washington state’s $270 million shellfish industry.

Cantwell also said today she supports authorization of “robust funding” for fish stock assessments, which provide data that regional fishery management councils use to set annual catch limits. Dr. Jim Balsiger, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service regional manager for Alaska, told Cantwell the agency is accepting public comments on a prioritization plan that will guide where “in the days of competing resources those assessments will be done.” But that reprioritization plan could shift resources from Washington state to other regions. That could hinder fishery management councils in Alaska and on the West Coast, which have rebuilt fish stocks over time by placing a high priority on scientific data.

In a discussion with Lori Swanson, executive director of the Seattle-based Groundfish Forum, Cantwell asked about the economic consequences of losing stock assessment money to other fisheries under NOAA’s draft plan.

“I think the key for the North Pacific is frequent stock assessments,” Swanson said. “If the assessments are less frequent, the fish stocks will still be fine --the management is very conservative. But…the less certainty we have in the stocks, the lower the quotas will be. The jobs and the livelihood in the North Pacific depend on frequent surveys.”

Cantwell asked for estimates on how much it would cost to meet assessment needs in each region without having to choose one over the other.

“If you don’t do these stock assessments, then you can’t come up with a management plan. And if you don’t come up with a management plan, then people can’t harvest this resource,” Cantwell said. “I hope we can work with NOAA and come up with something that meets the needs of this part of our economy, because I think we’re going to be challenged.”


See below for a transcript of Cantwell’s exchange with witnesses at today’s hearing.


Witness panel 1


Senator Cantwell: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I think, you and I as you said, could probably be here all day with a whole variety of questions because this is important to both of our states and the interconnectedness of it all is practically obvious to us every day. One thing I wanted to bring up and ask you, Dr. Balsiger, is this issue of climate change and acidification because we are seeing unbelievable impacts on this with our shellfish industry right now. Our oceans take up to 25% of our CO2 and this has changed the acidity by 30% over the last 250 years, so our oceans are on track to be 150% more acidic by the end of this century. I have a couple of posters here that are one: something that we had to work with the shellfish industry which actually shows the signs of impaired shellfish growth for our oyster shells, and crab shells are made of the same materials. We have obviously implemented this new buoy system and everything to measure this so that we can get the proper time for seeding.


Our second graph is from the NOAA Oceans Fisheries Science Center which shows the potential impact of ocean acidification on Alaska Bering Sea Red King Crab catch. You can see that we could have a significant reduction in crab available because of the same attack on the shells of this particular species. So my question is: does NOAA have what it needs to understand the impacts to the seafood industry of ocean acidification? What data do we have now on ocean acidification and how it can impact fish stocks, what do we need to get to make sure that we are addressing this issue?


Dr. James W. Balsiger, Regional Administrator, Alaska Region, National Marine Fisheries Service: Thank you very much for that question. You have our data, I can see the charts, I’m familiar with those. At this point, fortunately, it’s largely, in the ocean, it’s largely a theoretical possibility. But if you look at the declining trend and our projections of what happens to all of the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere, over the next few years I think it is a cause for concern. We need to study this, we do have some programs and Kodiak looking at this and of course we also have a part of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center is in Newport, Oregon and I believe you have some material from there. We are watching this closely and we’ll be happy to keep you informed.


Senator Cantwell: Let me ask Mr. Oliver: How many vessels and jobs rely on the red king crab industry?


Mr. Chris Oliver, Executive Director, North Pacific Fishery Management Council: Let’s see, the red king crab industry is, something over, I don’t know the exact number, Senator, off the top of my head, but over one hundred vessels and literally probably into the thousands of jobs if you look at not just the vessels themselves but the secondary processing and associated industries, you‘re talking thousands of jobs of course in both Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.


Senator Cantwell: Mr. Chairman, on this issue, I think we definitely need a study to understand these impacts. We have established a buoy information system as it related to the shellfish industry to give us important data that was critical. These are valuable jobs in our region and these risks are high if this chart by NOAA is any indication of the drop off that could potentially happen, so I definitely want to make sure that NOAA and the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) buoy program that we’ve developed might be expanded to look at this and to make sure that crab fisheries are, that we are assessing these impact.


Secondly I wanted to bring up about stock assessments. I keep hearing from fishermen that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working and that data supports the current framework, but when we don’t do the stock assessments or we don’t do enough of them or we shift them around as people are proposing, I just wonder: Can we get from NOAA an actual cost of what it would take to do these fish stock assessments so that we are not shifting resources between regions of the country?


Dr. James W. Balsiger: Thank you for the questions. I don’t have that cost of an annual stock assessment in every region at my fingertips. We certainly can get that to you. We have develop --  have been working on a stock prioritization scheme to discover where in the days of competing resources those assessments will be done. We shared that with the council coordinated committee just last week here in this town. We’re taking comments on that. We’d be pleased to provide that document to you as well. Thank you for the question.


Senator Cantwell: But doesn’t stock assessment equal jobs? So to me when I think about how we’re managing theses fisheries, if you don’t do these stock assessments, then you can’t come up with a management plan. And if you don’t come up with a management plan, then people can’t harvest this resource. So it all begins with stock assessment. So what I’m trying to get at is: we don’t want to see a very limited pool of stock assessment dollars or tradeoffs between regions; we want what is the amount of money that is needed for stock assessment, and what level can we fund, and what are the economic impacts of that.


Senator Begich: Can I add one piece to this before you answer that because I think this question is, the hearings we’ve had here in the Northeast for example, on the Northeast fisheries -- their stock assessments are spaced much further apart and how you can even do the correct determination of what those limits will be based on a three-year stock assessment makes no sense, but so can you also add to this request kind of a chart that shows for the regions and the species how often you’re doing stock assessments for the last, and I’ll just use a number here and you can modify this. But I’ll say for the last five years, what has happened so that we get a good picture and then I think what Senator Cantwell has asked for is a very good question. So if we see the history and then you whip on top of that, here’s what it would cost to get to what scientists would say is the right kind of assessments we need, what does that mean?  But this history I think would be also important.  I didn’t mean to interrupt your question; I just wanted to add to it before he answered. Please, back to you.


Senator Cantwell: Thank you.


Dr. James W. Balsiger: Yes, Thank you. We can provide that and although not exactly to the question in the North Pacific Council, the Alaska Fishery Science Center has looked at the cost in terms of reduced harvests because of uncertainty when you don’t do annual stock assessments. If you do stock assessments every three years, you have to be more careful. And so because of the long history of annual stock assessments and production by species in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, we can show approximately what it costs if you have to deal with larger levels of uncertainty. So that may be of interests as well.


Senator Cantwell: Do you know what a stock assessment is in general, like a basic cost?


Dr. James W. Balsiger: Well the stock assessment of course is many pieces, starting, most typically, with a survey in the ocean, a survey vessel, either one of NOAA’s vessels or a chartered commercial fishing vessel and so that starts for a particular stock at a couple hundred thousand dollars. But by the time you do the modeling, and all of the people who are involved in those, it’s a more involved question. I’d be happy to get back with better estimates of those. It’s fairly easy to say what the survey charter vessel actually costs, but by the time you include the rest of the assessment, probably even including the time the SSC (Scientific and Statistical Committee) looks at it to make sure it’s correct and peer reviewed, it’s a more complicated question. I’d be pleased to find some more details for that. 


Senator Cantwell: I’m just looking at my own math and in our region, but those numbers I gave you on this maritime analysis and the chairman actually came to the Pacific Northwest, we had a listening session on some of these issues. We’re saying that the fishing impact is probably somewhere between 15 to 20 billion dollars. So if you think on that and the tens of thousands of jobs that are related to that sector, coming up and telling our colleagues, “Hey, we need to make these stock assessment investments so that this economic activity can exist in our country” seems to be a pretty basic formula that most of our colleagues would get and I think would be supported by the industry. I don’t know of a lot of times when we can say, “If we fund these things, here’s the economic activity that’s going to happen.” But we know this: it won’t happen without those stock assessments because we obviously won’t be giving the green light to the level of catch and everything else. If you can get us those numbers, I think that would be very helpful for us in this larger question of how to move forward with good science and good fisheries. And to say nothing, I know there are a lot of people in the audience here today, of this vessel upgrade issue, Mr. Chairman, because as we get more efficient, there are all sorts of efficiencies that are going to be in place. All of this goes hand in hand into more efficiently and effectively catching the resource and more efficiency in the system, but we have got to have the stock assessment to go along.


Witness panel 2


Senator Cantwell: You know these panelists remind me of someone from the Pacific Northwest. I just wanted to mention again how many people are here from the Pacific Northwest. The United Catcher Boats are here, Fishermen’s Finest, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, the Groundfish Forum, American Seafoods, At-sea Processors Association, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers yes, that’s in Seattle, and the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. I might add Mr. Chairman, you and I were down at Fishermen’s Terminal. We were on one of the boats and took a picture, and someone in Seattle said, “Well, when did you get back from Alaska?” So the fact that our fisheries are so connected, anyway, we wanted to thank all of those people from the Northwest for being here, and we know how important the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens is for you. I will just say, Mr. Curry, adequate resources for stock assessments. What I am trying to propose here today is robust funding for stock assessment. I don’t think adequate gets it done. So, I hope that we can work with NOAA and come up with something that meets the needs of this part of our economy because I think we are going to be challenged. And Mr. LeVine, I didn’t hear you say the word climate change or impacts, so maybe we can get to that. But I’ve got to get to Ms. Swanson first, so you can think about that.


Senator Begich: If I can just say, we don’t mind you talking about climate change here. We don’t have our heads in the sand here.


Senator Cantwell: But we definitely want to make sure we are understanding the risks to our fisheries, and ocean acidification, I think is huge no matter you want to say or what your global thinking on it is. We have some real life situations that are occurring. But, Ms. Swanson, I wanted to ask you about stock assessments, what’s working, what isn’t. And I also wanted to ask you about vessel replacement. Because part of this is making sure we continue to modernize. I think fisheries management is about having the modernization of equipment, as well. And, how old are some of these vessels that you’re talking about in the Groundfish Forum and what they need to do to be replaced. And my sense is here somehow fishing and banking, fishing and financing, is an understanding something is particular to this industry and what you’re trying to do to upgrade the equipment. So if you could answer those questions, I’d appreciate it.


Swanson: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Senator Cantwell. Regarding stock assessments, I think the key for the North Pacific is frequent stock assessments. If the assessments are less frequent, the fish stocks will still be fine, the management is very conservative, but what will happen is the less certainty we have in the stocks, the lower the quotas will be. They will be disproportionately lower. I think the losses to the nation in terms of the resource, if we lose surveys. It’s very, very important, as you pointed out the jobs and livelihoods that are dependent. The North Pacific depends on frequent surveys. Regarding vessel replacement, with the rationalization of our sector, we are now in a position where we can start replacing vessels. Our vessels, I believe the newest vessel in our fleet was built in ’86, the oldest you’re going to go back at least into the ‘60s. They are still safe and protective vessels, but they aren’t modern vessels. A newer vessel will certainly be more efficient, would be able to do much more processing than the vessels we have now. They’ll be much more environmentally friendly, as well. Since we’ve gotten past the obstacle of stability, in terms of economic stability of the fishery, now the question is actually getting the contracts out. We have one vessel that is in the process of being built right now, and several that are close to starting, as well. There’s a lot of interest in some sort of assistance with vessel financing. In terms of supporting loans to begin construction, I think that’s a good investment in a sector that is really poised to become world class.


Senator Cantwell: And why isn’t vessel financing just happening on its own? What’s been missing there in the private sector that people just don’t understand about this business?


Swanson: Chairman Begich, Senator Cantwell, I’m not sure I’m really qualified to answer that question. I think in general, there’s some caution when the value of a particular entity is in the permit that it holds. And I believe that there may also be some legal constraints on the use of federal support as well. But I’m afraid that I’m not qualified to answer beyond that.


Senator Cantwell: Okay, thank you. I see my time’s up, Mr. Chairman. Well I’ll go back to Mr. LeVine on the question about. You were talking about ecosystems, and isn’t one of the biggest threats to the ecosystem acidification?


Levine: Thank you Senator Cantwell, Mr. Chairman, and yes. That is absolutely true. Also, it shouldn’t be just me talking about acidification or climate change. It’s something that concerns all the people at this table and all the people in this room. And it is something that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering and working to address. This ecosystem vision and the movement toward Bering Sea fishery ecosystem plan will enable us to consider ecosystem impacts, not just from fisheries, but from potentially acidifying waters, changing ocean conditions, from climate change and other effects, and make a robust and resilient plan for how to ensure these fisheries make it through whatever changes are coming. And so, absolutely, we appreciate your support for funding for research, your concern for ocean acidification and climate change, and both you and Senator Begich. And certainly think this is a place where we have an opportunity to get in front of it, to understand what changes might be coming, to prepare for them. And the best way to do that is to understand what’s happening in the ocean and how the choices we are making about fisheries and other industrial impacts are affecting it.


Senator Cantwell: Thank you.