Sustainability

A plea to new spearo’s

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A great weekend diving with friends was somewhat tarnished by the actions of a naive spearfisher. We were unfortunate to witness a spearo enter the water in a sanctuary zone (no-take zone) and spear a blue wrasse, a protected species in NSW.

Spearfishing is a great way to get some fish into your diet. It can be a great challenge learning to freedive and learning to observe fish behaviour. That being said, there are no throw backs with spearfishing. Which is why I implore people new to the sport to know where you can fish and what species are ok to target. Do not pull that trigger unless you are 100% certain that the fish is of legal size and not protected. The fisheries rules are in place to help sustain our fish populations so that everyone can continue to enjoy our oceans.

Getting started can be daunting. It might seem like there are a lot of species to learn and there are. I would recommend tagging along with someone more experienced until you get to know your local fish. Join a spearfishing forum – there are often people looking for buddies. Failing that, get out and go freediving without the spear and look up the fish you see. In only a few dives you will quickly learn the common fish at your local sites. If you really want to get straight into it, consider deciding on a specific species to target before you even get in the water. Failing all of this, you can follow 1 simple rule: If you don’t know what it is, don’t shoot it. 

Some useful websites:

DPI Fishing rules – http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fishing/recreational/fishing-rules-and-regs/saltwater-bag-and-size-limits

Marine protected areas – http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fishing/marine-protected-areas

Spearfishing forum – http://www.spearfishing.com.au/sf-forum/

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State of fear: what should we do about sharks in New South Wales?

Jane Williamson

Sharks have long been a symbol of the terror of the deep seas and a source of trepidation among Australian beachgoers. But a recent cluster of dangerous encounters with sharks in New South Wales has raised new concerns among the public and sparked fresh calls for culls.

Fears of more casualties are also changing the way our beaches are being used. Some high schools have reportedly cancelled their surf programs, and several surf lifesaving clubs recently announced that they will seek other venues for “Little Nipper” training.

So what’s actually happening with the sharks?

Shark attacks or shark bites?

Negative interactions between sharks and people can range from light (small lacerations and stitches required) to severe (large pieces of flesh removed, including limbs).

All are routinely termed “attacks”, but as this emotive word conjures up a perception of maliciousness on the shark’s behalf it is not a very useful description. There is a recent move to rename shark attacks as “shark bites”, in the same way that injuries from aggressive dogs on humans are documented, thus lessening the incorrect perception that all interactions with sharks are fatal.

Due to their public interest, there are good data sets on negative interactions with sharks in both Australia and globally that span centuries. Comprehensive data on shark bites, including those in NSW, are collected and compiled in the publicly available Australian Shark Attack File (ASAF), which was established in 1984 and is held at Taronga Zoo.

ASAF data and associated publications do show that shark bites have increased over the past couple of decades, from an average of 6.5 incidents annually from 1990 to 2000, to 15 incidents per year since 2000.

Interestingly, however, while the number of shark bites has recently increased, the number of deaths resulting from the bites remains consistently low (an average of 1.1 people per year over the past 20 years).

Why are fatalities from sharks not increasing in proportion with the increase in shark bites? If sharks were the premeditated killing machines portrayed by the media and entertainment industries, why do most negative shark-human interactions involve only one bite and not the victim being consumed?

Feeding habits

Answers lie in the way that sharks feed. Sharks are apex predators that actively hunt their prey, which can include fish, seals and whales. But they are also opportunistic scavengers that feed on dying or dead organisms, as do terrestrial predators such as bears and lions.

It is important to understand this because it means that sharks are not always the hunters they are painted as. A surfer in a wetsuit paddling on a board could be mistaken for sick or dead prey, floating on the water. The shark may give an exploratory bite to assess. Unfortunately such exploratory bites can remove substantial tissue and even limbs in humans, particularly if the shark is over two metres in length, and may thus be fatal.

Data from ASAF support the concept that sharks are not actively hunting humans as prey, and that a bite is more often a “mistake” by the shark. The vast majority of bites occur on a victim’s extremities (legs, arms), consistent with exploratory bites by scavenging sharks. The shark usually disappears after the initial bite. There are no accounts of a person also being bitten when coming to the aid of a bitten victim in the water.

More people, more encounters

While the number of negative interactions with sharks has risen this year, there have been previous clusters of interactions in ASAF data. A peak of 74 incidents was documented in the 1930s. Considering the method of reporting at the time, it is highly likely that this number was greater.

While it is easy to assume that today’s increase in negative shark-human interactions is directly related to an increase in the number of aggressive sharks in the vicinity, there are other hypotheses that can explain this pattern. John West, the curator of ASAF explains that more contact between sharks and people has also resulted from an increase in the number of people and how they use the beach.

The number of incidents and their locations coincide with an increase in the number of people residing in rural coastal areas, particularly in northern NSW. There has also been a steady increase in the use of beaches and water activities over past decades, which has resulted in more people being in the water.

People have also extended their time in the water, with an increase in the use of wetsuits. Methods for reporting negative shark interactions have also improved. All such reported interactions attract substantial media attention in recent times, leading to the perception of proportionally more interactions than actually occur.

It is also highly probable that the behaviour of the sharks may have changed and not the number of sharks in the water. Sharks are known to come into shore to follow baitfish, which have been prevalent in the shallow waters of beaches this year. It is difficult to know the probability of this without rigorous scientific data that track the patterns of movements of the sharks.

To kill, or not to kill

Following the recent spate of bites this year, controversy exists as to whether beaches in northern NSW should be meshed – which has been known to indiscriminately kill sharks. However, negative shark interactions continue to occur in beaches from Newcastle to Wollongong that are periodically meshed by the Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program.

Since 2005, shark bites have occurred at 13 of the 51 meshed beaches. This should not be too surprising because the nets are only 150 m long and 6 m high, allowing marine organisms to swim over, under and around them. Shark nets are not continuous curtains of net that completely enclose areas for swimming, as in the case of the stinger nets found in northern Queensland. Moreover, they are deployed for only part of the year.

But experience from Western Australia shows that shark culls also do not work. Instead, NSW Premier Mike Baird has announced an A$250,000 shark tagging and surveillance program alongside an international “shark summit” to be held this month.

Baird’s more measured and rational approach to beach safety should be welcomed as a valuable addition to a debate so often driven by fear.

Jane Williamson, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A MADAGASCAN ADVENTURE: Part 3

Part 3: Conservation and the Vezo

I promised to talk more about the Vezo people, whom I lived amongst for three months, in my last post, so here we go…

The Vezo are known to be the best fishermen in Madagascar. The name ‘Vezo’ translates to, ‘ROW!’ (Literally the imperative form of the infinitive verb ‘mive’, so it’s the command ‘ROW!’), which is apt, as they may well be the best seafarers in Madagascar as well!

Readying the pirogue

Readying the pirogue

Local fisherman. Photo by Sandy Maksimowska.

Local fisherman. Photo by Sandy Maksimowska.

(See more of Sandy’s beautiful photos here)

Living a hand to mouth existence as they do in Andavadoake, is a hard life. It begins before sunrise and ends when you have enough fish to feed your family, and on a good day you might have a little left over to sell as well.

The ocean and the seafood it provides is vital to the Vezo as the main source of protein in their diet and a crucial source of income. The sandy soil that surrounds their homelands make agriculture near impossible, so the sea really is their food bowl and therefore, needs to be managed in a sustainable way. Not to mention the inherent cultural value that the ocean represents for the Vezo.

Who are we, coming from rich, developed countries, to tell these subsistence fishermen what they can and can’t fish and what sizes they should be? The people of Andava (and beyond) don’t have the luxury of being choosy when it comes to their catch. They don’t have the luxury to be able to afford to throw things back if they don’t meet our conservation standards.

However, with a booming population (the village of Andava doubles in size every 10-15 yrs) comes increasing pressure on the once abundant food bowl; the sea. And what about the national and international (Europe and Asia) fleets that fish these waters as well? This has amounted to huge pressures on the inshore reefs and eco-systems that feed so many.

Blue Ventures (BV) recognized the challenge facing the reef and its people and seeks to engage and educate the community not only on the issues of overfishing and destructive fishing practices, but also to assist in developing strategies that will help fishers fish more sustainably (BV’s efforts are not solely focused on the marine environment. Take a look at their website to learn more about their integrated approach to conservation, incorporating community health and education programs! I simply cannot cover it all here). This has seen the adoption of temporary and permanent Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA’s) and the development of aquaculture projects such as sea cumber and seaweed farming. Aquaculture is growing rapidly, generating alternate incomes for families and also getting women more involved in income generation and importantly, management of these industries.

Seaweed farming in Tampolove

Seaweed farming in Tampolove

Seacucumber pens in Tampolove

Seacucumber pens in Tampolove

BV’s establishment in the area came via an unlikely hero… Octopus! They’ve had incredible success with this lucrative fishery, which I believe, cemented the relationship between BV and the wider community. After the first temporary closure of the octopus fishery on one small section of reef in 2004, the community saw amazing results with unprecedented catches, and an increase in number and size of individuals. This strategy has been reproduced up and down the coast over the following years, and has now gone countrywide with communities in the northwest and northeast of the country using the same model, and Madagascar’s government establishing an annual national closure!

On the back of this success, many of the fishing communities saw the benefits of marine reserves and created their own network of reserves called the Velondriake (means ‘to live with the sea’ in local Vezo language) which comprise 640 sq km of protected area. It encompasses 25 villages and representatives from these villages establish and protect their marine reserves under the LMMA structure. BV volunteers collect data on both reserve and non reserve locations to help with the decision making and build a stronger case for the implementation of marine reserves.

Sustainability is key to the Vezo’s survival – what more of an incentive does one need to protect the Great Reef? And coupled with the adoption of aquaculture projects and other alternative income activities, such as eco-tourism, are showing this community that there is hope for their future.

President of the Velondriake stating the rules on opening day

President of the Velondriake stating the rules on opening day

Octopus reserve opening day on Nosy Fasy

Octopus reserve opening day on Nosy Fasy

My experience in Andavadoake told me that yes, conservation is a luxury, and yet it is necessary for the survival of fishing communities, not only in Madagascar. It was amazing to see so many people in this community willing to make sacrifices in order to mitigate the challenges they face with food and income security. It’s inspiring to see a community so focused on a common goal, which will not only benefit them as a people in the long term, but the environment upon which they rely, as well. Win, win!

So what did I learn/what have I taken away from the experience?

I’ve learnt to appreciate living a day-to-day existence, rather than always looking to the future for the next big thing – though whether I can maintain this back in the fast paced, developed world, remains to be seen. I’ve learnt to be more mindful of our oceans, what we’re taking from it and what we’re doing to protect it. I was inspired by many of the staff and volunteers I met along the way and am grateful for having made some great connections with people I know will be my friends for many years to come.

People always ask me, “what was your favourite part?” This is such a difficult question, but I guess my answer would be: Having the opportunity to live with the people of Andavadoake. Learning (sort of!) their language, listening to their stories, meeting their families, observing and participating in their way of life. Having that sort of context overlaid on the volunteer work we were doing, was for me, the best part. I wasn’t just counting fish, I was contributing to building a sustainable future for the people I met along the way.

On the whole, it was eye opening, enriching, challenging at times and a whole lot of fun. It gave me an appreciation for what it is to live in a remote community and the challenges they face each day and it gave me perspective on my own life.

Beautiful Andava Rock

Beautiful Andava Rock

And I saw the boababs and lemurs that had lured me here in the first place!

Boababs!

Boababs!

Brown Lemur in Parc National de I'Isalo

Brown Lemur in Parc National de I’Isalo

Ringtail lemurs in Réserve Park

Ringtail lemurs in Réserve Anja

Magical Indri in Parc National Andasibe

Magical Indri in Parc National Andasibe

Simporna (Silky Sifaka) in Parc National de Marojejy

Simporna (Silky Sifaka) in Parc National de Marojejy

Misaotra Bevata!

For Fish Sake!

If you love seafood, as I do (or know people who love it), I would highly recommend watching “What’s the Catch” which aired on SBS last night. If you missed it you can catch up on it here.

What's the Catch

The three part series follows Matthew Evans (of Gourmet Farmer), former chef and restaurant critic, on his mission to raise awareness and start a conversation about the origin, practices and sustainability of the seafood that we eat. Last night’s episode focussed mostly on prawns and seafood labelling.

In the spirit of starting a conversation about sustainable seafood, I’d like to talk about one of the most staggering statistics mentioned in last nights episode, which was that in Australia, we import 70% of our seafood! I think that figure is worth repeating here and it’s a figure that I would like to encourage my friends to pass on to their friends.

70% is massive! In the 2008/09 financial year that figure equated to 193 000 tonnes of imported seafood (Fisheries Research and Development Corporation). That’s 1 930 000 000 standard servings of fish in a country of just over 23 000 000 people – about 1.5 standard servings per week per person. The NSW Food Authority recommends eating 2-3 serves of fish per week. That means that half of our recommended maximum weekly fish consumption is coming from overseas (assuming that every single person in Australia eats seafood and sticks to the NSW recommendations, which they clearly don’t, but I think my point still stands). I see this as an issue, as it indicates that we’re not supporting our local fisheries.

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Some people tend to think of commercial fishers as indiscriminate pillagers of the sea. However, In Australia, most commercial fishing is highly targeted and must conform to strict environmental regulation. I can’t deny that there are bad apples (or should I say smelly prawns?) amongst the bunch, but overall, the fishers themselves know the importance of fishing sustainably. It is their business and livelihood after all. My experience of Australian fisheries is that they are generally supportive of sustainable practices. We need to get behind these fisheries which have strict environmental regulation and good practices rather than continuing to buy cheap imported seafood, of which we have absolutely no control over how it is produced  (not to mention the carbon footprint involved in importing 193 000 tonnes of seafood).

In my opinion (having worked in fisheries organisations in Tonga and Australia), Australia does have some of the best managed fisheries in the world, despite what some conservation groups might say. I’m not suggesting that Australia’s fisheries are perfect, I know we still have a long way to go, and I think that the consumer has a big part to play on that journey. Keeping our fisheries sustainable requires solid governance, research, extension and compliance (to name but a few components) which all costs money.

Australia’s Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF) is held up as somewhat of a gold standard in industry best practice (for the prawn trawling industry). Whilst acknowledging that there is still a large amount of bycatch produced in this fishery, the NPF really has done an outstanding job of improving their practices. They have been able to research and implement technologies to reduce bycatch (over 50% reduction in bycatch), develop management plans and conduct continual stock assessment modelling and ecological risk assessments because they are one of Australia’s largest and most profitable fisheries.

trawlers

Which brings me to my point; If we, as consumers want premium quality management of our fisheries we need to start supporting our fisheries and be willing to pay a premium for the seafood produced. Supporting our fisheries means that the individual fisheries industries will have more money to put toward sustainable management and implementing good environmental practice.

That starts with knowing where our seafood comes from (seafood labelling has a big role to play here) and choosing the sustainable options. That’s not always easy to do, but I think that keeping our fisheries sustainable is worth hunting around for that option. To help you to make those choices, I’ll put a few links at the bottom of this post. I highly recommend watching the rest of “What’s the Catch” and please engage in the discussion on sustainable seafood!

Links:

If you have any other resources that you’d like to suggest, please leave me a comment and I’ll add it to the list.

Guides and Recipes

Good Fish Bad Fish – A page dedicated to sustainable seafood with an excellent seafood guide including a seafood converter to convert less sustainable choices to more sustainable ones. Contains good summaries of ratings given by other organisations.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s (AMCS) Sustainable Seafood Guide – A simple “traffic light” system for seafood. An easy to use and understand tool but keep in mind that the simplicity of this system may miss some of the subtleties of choosing sustainably and may conflict with other agencies. For example Banana Prawns are categorised as yellow or “eat less” whereas the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has certified the NPF, where the majority of banana prawns are caught, as sustainable.

Sustainable Table’s Seafood page – Sustainable Table advocates sustainable food choices from all sources, not just seafood. But this is their seafood page with some excellent information.

The Good Fish Project – An AMCS initiative. Good summary of fishing and harvesting methods here.

Sustainable seafood restaurants

Fish & Co. – Fully MSC certified Sydney restaurant, meaning that if you wanted to, you could trace the fish on your plate all the way back to the vessel it was caught from.

Love.Fish – Though not MSC certified, they obviously care about where their fish comes from and support local fisheries. Sydney based.

Swampdog – Sustainably sourced fish and chips in Brisbane

Certification agencies and Non-Government Organisations

Marine Stewardship Council – The most rigorous international certification scheme available for seafood. See here for an interactive map of the certified fisheries.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

International Union for Conservation of Nature – For threatened species lists. Keep in mind that these lists are based on international data and may not accurately represent local populations. This works both ways; just because one species is sustainable in Australia doesn’t mean that it’s sustainable on a global scale.

Government organisations

Australian Government Department of the Environment – Australia’s export fisheries which have been assessed against the Australian Government’s Guidelines for the Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries.

Fisheries Research and Development Corporation – A good resource for fisheries statistics and information on fisheries research.

Australian Fisheries Management Authority – For information on the management of Australia’s Commonwealth managed fisheries. i.e. fisheries operating within 3 – 200 nm of the coastline. For state managed fisheries (within 0-3 nm of the coastline) see the individual state fishery pages.

Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences Fishery Status Reports – Status reports on Commonwealth managed fisheries.