The Blog Aquatic » Julia Roberson News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:21:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Q&A With Paul Greenberg, Author of American Catch Fri, 27 Jun 2014 13:00:43 +0000 Julia Roberson

Ocean Conservancy was honored to interview Paul Greenberg about his newly released book, American Catch, which hit bookshelves yesterday. We hope you enjoy our interview — and we hope that you’ll want to help ensure healthy fish populations by taking action today.

1) What made you decide to explore American seafood for your next book?

Originally I’d planned to write a book about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  It had happened just as my earlier book, Four Fish, was coming out and I kept being asked about it on the radio and it struck me as a defining moment for the ocean.  And so I’d actually even sold a proposal called “Under the Horizon” to Penguin and got to work on it as soon as the book tour was over.

But scarcely a month into my research, a flood of books started coming out.  Many excellent books like Carl Safina’s “A Sea in Flames” and Rowan Jacobsen’s “Shadows on the Gulf”.  Many not so excellent books too.

At that point I ran into Carl Safina and I said, “I’m supposed to write this oil spill book . . . “ and before I could even finish saying what I was saying he said, “Don’t do it!  Don’t! The people are all talked out, the scientists are all caught up in the NRDA process and won’t talk, and it will be years before we really know what kind of damage was done.”

Nevertheless I soldiered on.  I researched the oystering community.  I went out shrimping.  But on a dark night while pulling nets in Lake Pontchartrain, I started getting into a conversation with a shrimper about how his market had been severely disrupted by Asian shrimp.  The Spill, for him, was just kind of a sideshow.  A freak show even.  What was really at play was American food security and the prevalence of cheap imports had completely upended his world.  It was then that I realized that the Spill could be part of the story but just one part.  What we were really talking about was the disconnection of the American consumer from the American coast and all the consequences that resulted from that disconnect.

2) In your last book, Four Fish, you highlight cod, salmon, tuna and bass.  In this book you highlight the Gulf of Mexico shrimp, Alaskan sockeye salmon and the New York oyster.  Of those seven seafood delicacies, the oyster stands out—partly because it’s not a fish, but also because few people associate New York with oysters these days.  What made you want to highlight oysters?  What is your hope in promoting them in your book?

An oyster grower from Maine named Carter Newell told me during an interview back in 2012, “Shellfish aquaculture is the economic argument for clean water.”  He meant that because things like oysters, mussels, and clams eat by filtering the water they must de facto have clean water to be edible for humans.  This was a real “a-ha!” moment.

It meant that if we as a nation could become reliant on bivalves again (as we were magnificently before 1920) it could create a positive feedback loop.  We would want to eat from our waters and therefore we would want our waters to be clean.  We would clean our waters and then we would have more food.  And a not small part of this feedback loop is the amazing things shellfish aquaculture does for the marine environment to encourage the presence of more fish.

That really clicked in when I interviewed Bob Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association,  who told me: “We took a patch of 2.3 acres of black, eutrophic, anoxic bottom—unproductive and virtually barren, and after a few years it was transformed into one of the most vibrant dive spots in Rhode Island. We sent a few scientists to document the diversity and abundance of species. We found that our pissant little 2.3-acre farm was now home to a thousand baby lobsters, thousands of juvenile sea bass and other fish. We set up traps for scup around the perimeter because fishing on the lease was so good. We slammed them. We would catch keeper striped bass on the lease many months of the year, attracted to the lease by the forage fish and structured habitat around the oyster cages. When I took my kids fishing we went to the lease because I knew we would catch fish.”

That was pretty damn convincing.

3) It seems much of your book can easily speak to Americans who either live near a coastline, or spend a great amount of time there.  What about Americans from the inland states, or those who don’t get to visit the beach on a regular basis?  What message do you have for those who are part of this country with deep ocean roots, yet they may be detached from this history and local seafood in particular, on a day-to-day basis?

Once we had a vibrant freshwater seafood economy and infrastructure.  New York’s old Fulton Fish Market, which features prominently in my book, once had an entire city block devoted to freshwater fish ONLY.  Now there is very little freshwater seafood production in large part because we have drained so much wetland, rejiggered so many rivers and overfished larger bodies of water.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  There are 3,000 dams in the state of Connecticut alone.  Useless dams that impeded the migration of once important food fish like alewives, shad and eels.  We are experiencing massive eutrophication events in the Great Lakes due to poor application of fertilizers.  We can reverse that.  We also can do a lot more inland freshwater aquaculture.  In Illinois there are now shrimp containment farms up and running.  And then there’s the Asian carp, which we should eat out of existence.

4) The reception for your previous book, Four Fish, was incredibly positive – what are you hoping to achieve with American Catch?

As I think I did with Four Fish with respect to aquaculture, I’d like to pull back the blanket on the weird world of imports and exports.  The New York Times op-ed that just ran went a little bit viral, and I was getting flooded with emails and twitter responses that were like, “What? We’re importing as much salmon as we’re exporting?  And some of that is making a 10,000 mile round trip to China?” It’s a weird, weird, weird world.

Most importantly, I’d like people to eat from their own shores and invest their energies into making sure their shores stay safe to eat from.  That requires us to keep the water clean, manage our fisheries well and restrict coastal development.

5) You’ve written about taking your young son fishing – are you concerned or optimistic for the future of American seafood when he’s an adult?

I think if we can maintain solid management and curb coastal development there can be a good future for American seafood.  That said it will likely be a different seafood economy that what we’ve got right now.  My home, Long Island Sound, will be a lot more like the Chesapeake in terms of species composition than like New England.  Already blue crab is much more common than lobster in the Sound.  And there will be much more epochal shifts.  But nature adapts and I think we can adapt with it.

6) You seem like you’re a bit of a foodie and very well versed in cooking seafood. Do you have a favorite seafood dish or recipe?  How about your son?

I am not being lazy when I say that these three recipes that I already did for the Washington Post last month are among my favorite.  I make the fish fillets in spicy vinegar sauce, Beijing style regularly and if I’m having people over I really like to do the Hanoi style fried fish with turmeric and dill with all the various fixings.  It’s a beautiful preparation and fun to eat wrapped up in cabbage or lettuce leaves.  For my son I keep it simple.  Fish dusted in flour, fried and then finished with juice of half a lemon.  He loves that.

6) What is the one thing Ocean Conservancy members can do to help support American seafood?

Eat as many farmed American mussels, clams and oysters as you can.  There are of course other American seafoods you can eat, but farmed mussels, clams and oysters actually improve the marine environment.  By eating them you’re encouraging their propagation, which will lead to cleaner water in the end.

To learn more about American Catch, or to purchase the book, visit

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Mass Shellfish Die-Offs in Canada: Is Ocean Acidification to Blame? Tue, 04 Mar 2014 21:15:10 +0000 Julia Roberson

Photo: Barbara Kinney, Ocean Conservancy

News broke last week that a company called Island Scallops in British Columbia, Canada, had lost three years’ worth of business – 10 million scallops and $10 million. The CEO, Rob Saunders, identified ocean acidification as the culprit.

Now, there is rightly some attention to being paid to the mass shellfish die-offs in Canada. An oyster farm in the region has also come forward with tales of oyster deaths. The owner of the oyster farm was quoted in Canada’s Globe and Mail as saying, “It’s hard to say [what is causing these deaths] without having somebody there monitoring what’s going on.”

Scientists and policy experts agree that acidification and its impacts on coastal seafood, can be hard to untangle. Coastal areas are dynamic areas; things are constantly changing.

As Ocean Conservancy’s ocean acidification scientist, Dr. Sarah Cooley says, “We know coastal zones are complicated and disturbed places where natural systems and human damage intertwine.”

Many scientists want to better understand what is happening at Saunders’ operation. The good news for Saunders is that there are people just to the south of his operation in Washington and Oregon who have lived through similar experiences; there are policy experts that have identified ways in which the two states can respond to a changing ocean in ways that protects and enhances their coastal businesses, and above all, there are people that are passionate about this issue that want to help and better understand it.

It is heartbreaking for Saunders and his employees, to face an uncertain future. This is why Ocean Conservancy is renewing its call to double federal funding for ocean acidification research and monitoring – Rob’s story won’t be the first, nor will it be the last. We know that other businesses and livelihoods will feel ocean acidification’s impacts. But the good news is that with a smart investment now – $15 million dollars – the returns are huge. Monitoring already helped bring a $272 million oyster industry back from the brink. Members of Congress have an opportunity this spring to choose our long-term coastal communities’ health as they decide on their budget numbers for the coming fiscal year.  As Saunders said, “If we don’t figure it out, then we don’t have an industry.”

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Scallops Feel Acidification’s Impact; Lessons to Be Learned From Oyster Growers Wed, 26 Feb 2014 23:06:11 +0000 Julia Roberson

Photo: Rita Leistner/Ocean Conservancy

The Internet is buzzing: A scallop farming business in British Columbia, Canada, has lost $10 million and 10 million scallops because of ocean acidification. Island Scallops’ CEO Rob Saunders’ despair came through crystal clear in his quotes: “I’m not sure we’re going to make it,” and “[Acidification] has really kicked the hell out of us.”

Saunders has been in the business for 35 years and has never seen anything like this. This is a shocking story for many – corrosive water because of carbon pollution single-handedly destroying a scallop business? It sounds eerily familiar to what Pacific Northwest hatchery owners in Washington and Oregon experienced in 2007 and 2008, when oyster larvae were dying by the billions. Whiskey Creek Hatchery and Taylor Shellfish Farms lost nearly 80 percent of their businesses due to increasingly acidic water.

Things seemed hopeless in the Pacific Northwest until scientists and researchers at Oregon State University worked together to monitor the acidity of the water that the hatcheries were drawing in to their tanks. They were able to make adjustments to their operations that have allowed them to stay in business, and ultimately, thrive. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was critical to the effort, earmarking much-needed funds for monitoring and research. This collective effort to tackle OA led to the first-ever initiative to address acidification in the state, including the establishment of a new acidification research center at the University of Washington. Washington’s model is being emulated by other states like Maine.

This story of success is critical to Saunders’ experience. His operation and farm is very different from those of the oyster growers, but are there lessons that can be learned? The oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest have sounded the alarm that acidification is threatening their businesses and livelihoods. They were instrumental in bringing attention to this issue. An early-warning system for acidification has enabled them to stay in business. Is there a similar solution that would help Saunders’ business and other scallop farmers? Would a significant investment in an early-warning system for British Columbia be a game changer for these businesses that rely on a healthy ocean?

I am optimistic because of the great model we have from the Pacific Northwest (and because scallops are tied with oysters as quite possibly my favorite food). Ocean acidification is a big issue. It’s daunting. More stories like Saunders’ will come out in the future. But armed with the knowledge that rural communities and livelihoods are suffering as a result of what we are doing to the ocean, we have a responsibility to speak up, to get funding for cutting-edge research and monitoring, and to stop talking about this issue as if it’s hopeless. States and oyster growers have shown that action on acidification is possible.

These collective local solutions can add up to something big, but that doesn’t mean we can stop pushing for more action on the national level. The federal government currently budgets only $6 million a year for ocean acidification research. We’ve launched an online petition calling on Congress to double its research funding this year to help deepen our scientific understanding of this problem and protect thousands of jobs through awareness and adaptation. The appropriations deadline is coming up fast (March 31), so tell your elected officials to act now.

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New White House Environmental Advisor Has a Boatload of Ocean Cred Fri, 07 Feb 2014 18:17:07 +0000 Julia Roberson

Yesterday, Mike Boots was named acting director of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). This is fantastic news if you care about the ocean.

CEQ is the White House’s environmental advisor. It has played a central role in coordinating the federal efforts to restore the Gulf of Mexico and develop the National Ocean Policy. Often, CEQ has the challenge of balancing good, strong initiatives that protect people and the environment with the administration’s focus on jobs, long-term economic growth and all the things that often seem at odds with protecting the environment.  But these things are not mutually exclusive – and if anyone knows that, it’s Mike.

Mike and I worked together for many years at a small organization that focused on fostering constructive dialogue between conservation groups, fishermen and seafood purchasers. As you can imagine, these groups were often at odds with each other, especially given where the sustainable seafood dialogue was at the time. I saw him navigate among the interests of conservation organizations, North Sea fishermen, European foundations, and U.S. corporate behemoths and find the shared interests that tied them all together for the sake of a healthy ocean. (Many of these conversations happened at the Boston and Brussels Seafood Shows. And let’s just say that it’s really hard to get the smell of fried fish out of your suits after three days inside a conference center with thousands of exhibitors frying up their most delicious products.)

Mike has been outgoing CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley’s Chief of Staff since 2011. He knows CEQ inside and out. He worked tirelessly on the National Ocean Policy and efforts to restore the Gulf of Mexico. And he was integral to the roll-out of the Climate Action Plan.

It gives me hope that he’ll be at the helm of CEQ for the foreseeable future, as we have a lot of people that depend on a healthy environment and a healthy ocean for their jobs, their livelihoods and their way of life. There’s a lot of work to do. Nancy Sutley, Mike and the staff at CEQ have helped shape President Obama’s environmental legacy. Now, it’s time to solidify it.

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Collaborations Put California on the Path to Combat Ocean Acidification Wed, 27 Nov 2013 19:00:02 +0000 Julia Roberson

Hog Island Oyster Company has been in business for more than 30 years. Run by John Finger and Terry Sawyer, it is a family-owned business in Tomales Bay, Calif., that produces more than 3 million oysters annually, along with manila clams and mussels. John and Terry have the standard stresses and worries that come with operating a business, but when they talk about ocean acidification, you can tell their concern goes beyond the usual. Ocean acidification happens when carbon pollution from the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, turning the water more acidic. Animals like oysters, clams and mussels have trouble building their shells in increasingly acidic water, and this spells trouble for California oyster growers like John and Terry. Luckily, just down the road from Hog Island is Bodega Bay Marine Lab. John and Terry have partnered with ocean acidification scientists like Dr. Tessa Hill to help them monitor the coastal water where they grow their oysters. This allows Hog Island to respond to changing ocean chemistry in a way that doesn’t hurt their business.

Now, in partnership with Washington and Oregon, California is convening a top-notch group of scientists to better understand ocean acidification along the West Coast. They just held their first meeting earlier this week. California’s shellfish industry is valued at $26 million, and the entire seafood industry in the state accounts for more than 13,000 jobs. The panel, called the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel (say that five times fast), will be looking at what science is needed to help managers and businesses like Hog Island, and many others, tackle ocean acidification.

To learn more about this story, check out the video above.

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Beyond the Scary Statistic: Real People and Places Impacted by Ocean Acidification Mon, 18 Nov 2013 20:32:12 +0000 Julia Roberson fisherman holding Alaska king crab

Photo: Boris Kasimov via Flickr

There’s another big story out today about ocean acidification. Scientists are saying acidification could increase by 170 percent by 2100; another headline reads “ocean acidification set to spiral out of control.” These stories are from a new report released today at the climate talks happening this week in Warsaw, Poland. Big numbers, big meetings. But are there stories behind these scary headlines?

Let’s break it down:

  • The report says that the ocean is already 26 percent more acidic than it was prior to the Industrial Revolution. So what? Well, this increase in acidity has resulted in major losses at oyster farms, particularly in the Northwest. Taylor Shellfish and Whiskey Creek Hatchery had losses of up to 80 percent at their operations, before scientists figured out it was ocean acidification that made baby oysters (scientists would correct me and call it larvae) unable to grow their shells.
  • The report also says that the ocean will likely be 170 percent more acidic by 2100. That’s a big number. In people terms, that could spell big trouble for Alaskan king crab fishermen. Dr. Chris Long at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studied juvenile king crabs in acidity levels that correspond to what is predicted for 2100. After three months, there was 100 percent mortality. This explains why crab fishermen are “scared to death,” as featured in The Seattle Times’ excellent series on acidification. King crab is worth millions of dollars every year—and that’s just the fishery.
  • The ocean is acidifying at a rate faster than any time in the last 55 million to 300 million years. What does that mean? Well, we know the ocean has been more acidic in the past (like during the Cretaceous Period) and that some marine animals thrived during that time. But what is so concerning to scientists is that acidification today is happening so quickly that many animals may be unable to evolve or adapt quickly enough. Research has shown that in increasingly acidified water, clownfish (yes, Nemo) are unable to discriminate between friend and foe—in other words, they may swim toward predators instead of dashing back to hide in an anemone when danger lurks. Nemo is not going to be able to evolve overnight, and neither will many other creatures that will be impacted by this chemistry experiment happening in the ocean.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission’s webpage hosting the report says that “reducing carbon dioxide is the only way to minimize the risks [of acidification].” While this is true—we need to reduce carbon pollution going into the atmosphere (and in turn, the ocean) to truly tackle acidification—it’s only part of the story. States are doing what they can, right now, to address this problem that threatens jobs and livelihoods of people that depend on a healthy ocean.

  • This month, California, Oregon and Washington will convene a crackerjack group of scientists to figure out what information the West Coast needs to continue its efforts to address ocean acidification. They are leading the way on state approaches to tackling a big, thorny problem and can serve as a model for other states ready to do the same.
  • Maine is considering establishing a panel (similar to what Washington state convened last year) to address ocean acidification. In June, the state passed a resolution identifying acidification as a major threat to its coastal economy, communities and way of life.
  • It’s not a state initiative and it was announced in September, but it bears repeating—the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health Prize is a $2 million competition to develop breakthrough sensors that improve our understanding of, and responses to, ocean acidification. And today, Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK) are holding a House briefing on the role technology can play in addressing acidification.

Are any of these efforts going to solve ocean acidification in one fell swoop? No. But they will make a difference in the places where acidification is impacting people’s businesses and livelihoods. Sometimes, that’s not as exciting as a big, scary headline. But it’s worth reporting, and remembering, that behind every big global statistic, there are real people and real places being impacted—and that we all have a role to play in solving these problems.

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A Major Sea Change: Ocean Acidification Becomes a Top Priority Thu, 26 Sep 2013 17:30:23 +0000 Julia Roberson

Earlier this month, the Seattle Times unveiled their most ambitious multimedia project ever: Sea Change: The Pacific Ocean Takes a Perilous Turn.

After months of travel across the Pacific, journalists Craig Welch and Steve Ringman unveiled the thorough and striking series of videos, photographs and interviews that underline just what ocean acidification will mean for people. Welch and Ringman capture a changing ocean, focusing on how increasing acidification will impact communities along the Pacific Rim including American crab and shellfish industries.

The iconic oyster industries on both the East and West coasts have been coping with the effects of ocean acidification for almost a decade now—and research is showing that crabs and other shell-forming species may be seeing direct impacts soon.

The species in the crosshairs are not only culturally relevant, but also economically valuable—supporting jobs and feeding millions. This is serious business for the United States and other nations that depend on a healthy ocean.

Ocean acidification is finally bubbling to the top of the list of priorities for industry, science, government and conservations groups alike. Last week, the XPRIZE Foundation announced a $2 million prize to develop better ocean acidification sensors. The entire West Coast is working together to better understand ocean acidification and how state governments can react.

Even Washington, D.C., is getting in on the action. The Senate and House ocean caucuses hosted congressional briefings on ocean acidification featuring shellfish industry and agency leadership.

And the Seattle Times isn’t the only media outlet spreading the word. The Daily Astorian and the Sacramento Bee both featured op-eds this month about local industry concerns.

Increasing coverage of this important issue is getting people to start paying attention. But as the threat it poses to our ocean continues to loom even larger, we can’t let the momentum stop here.


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