posted in: TRCP Marine

March 18, 2014

Toxin talk

Mercury in seafood food chain
Mercury in seafood food chain. Image courtesy of Bretwood Higman, Ground Truth Trekking/Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday morning, I happened to be talking with another avid recreational fisherman about the presence of toxic elements and chemicals in some of the fish that anglers like to catch and a lot of people like to eat. The discussion centered on striped bass and the health warning posted in just about every Atlantic coastal state, with the exception of Massachusetts, where migratory striped bass and bluefish are caught.

Then, out of the blue, comes an email press release that the Food & Drug Administration is being sued because it has failed to respond to a petition filed in 2011 that requested (1) informational labeling on packaged seafood that reflects the joint recommendations of the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency in their online advisory; (2) consumption recommendations at the point of sale of unpackaged, fresh seafood, presented in a user friendly format; and (3) informational mercury level and consumption limit labeling on packaging or at the point of sale for seafood species with moderate or high mercury content that are not otherwise listed in the online advisory. 

Bingo! So the two of us having the discussion are not the only ones wondering why there is not more public awareness of this problem and why there are not more comprehensive requirements for making the public aware.

In my case, it is probably too late to worry about this problem. But I have four grandchildren, and they are likely to be impacted by their consumption of some fish. My children should be given the information that will allow them to make the right decisions for their children. Studies have shown that methylmercury, which occurs when airborne mercury is saturated in water, is a neurotoxin that leads to learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and impaired cognitive and nervous system functioning. Studies also have shown that PCBs have a known neuropsychological effect in children and can cause an elevated risk of cancer. Both of these contaminants bio-accumulate, primarily in fatty tissue. A copy of the study can be found here and Maine’s recommendations for stripped bass and bluefish consumption from the Atlantic coastal states are found below.

Striped bass and bluefish consumption advisory, Atlantic states
Figure from the Interstate Workgroup report indicating recommendations for striped bass and bluefish consumption. Figure courtesy of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, here we have a fairly comprehensive study of contaminants in fish and the potential hazards to the sensitive group, which consists of women of child-bearing age as well as young women and children. That group is advised by this study to consume from one meal a month to zero consumption. Others are advised to consume no more than one meal a month – not exactly an endorsement for eating seafood.

Virtually every state from the Mid-Atlantic to Maine has posted these warnings except for the state of Massachusetts. Why, I cannot find out. It may have to do as much with the workings of state bureaucracy as any other possibility. Some think that this has been done to protect the commercial striped bass fishery. I don’t know, but I do know is that it is not protecting the general public. There may be some reasoning by state health officials that they do not post the health warning. That has to do with the testing methodology. Methylmercury bio-accumulates in the fatty tissue. In some testing methods the entire fish is ground up, and the testing is done on that. This gives a lower reading of the toxic contaminants than if the test had been done solely on the part of the fish normally consumed.

It still seems strange to me that almost all the coastal Atlantic states have some level of warning about consumption of bluefish and striped bass. Most of the states in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took part in the study workgroup, in which Massachusetts had three participants. All of the New England states except Massachusetts since have posted health warnings about consumption of these fish. It seems odd to me that when fish cross the imaginary state line into Massachusetts waters they somehow become cleansed. Could be, ya know! There have been other Massachusetts Miracles. And if you believe that…!

2 Responses to “Toxin talk”

  1. Bill Johnson

    Is there a web site that lists the level of contaminants (in ppm or whatever) and recommendations on consumption for all fish sold commercially or commonly eaten by sportsmen? Seems that the government would sponsor such a page.

  2. Sarah Kempke

    Great question! Fish consumption advisories can be complicated because the exposure risk varies greatly based on geography and fish species, and unfortunately there is not an excellent one-stop-shop for recommendations on a federal level. The EPA collects information local fish advisories but the interface is a clunky and sometimes out of date. It is, however, a good place to start:

    The NIH, in an attempt to address some of these issues, recently published an excellent review of the different information and guidelines available for fish consumption in North America, called “Which Fish Should I Eat? Perspectives Influencing Fish Consumption Choices”. The tables in this paper compare a number of fish consumption guidelines in including federal agencies and non-profits and it does a good job of explaining why the recommendation process is so complicated. The paper can be found online here:

Leave a Reply to Sarah Kempke

Click here to cancel reply.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


posted in: TRCP Marine

March 12, 2014

Rules clarified for Florida snapper and tilefish take

Vermillion snapper
Vermillion snapper. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

You gotta love it when fishery managers admit they messed up and go back to doing the right thing.

That’s why, as of March 13, charter captains and crews in Florida will be allowed to keep their recreational bag limits of vermilion snapper, groupers and golden tilefish in state waters of the Atlantic, including all of the Florida Keys.

Here’s the back story: In 2009, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council wanted to reduce the number of gag groupers and vermilion snappers kept by recreational anglers in federal and state waters of the Atlantic Ocean to help increase those fish populations. In addition to closed seasons, the council prohibited captains and crews of charter boats from keeping their recreational limits of vermilions. They also weren’t allowed to keep any groupers and tilefish, in the hopes of preventing bycatch of gag groupers. But captains and crew could keep their recreational limits of fish such as dolphin and other snappers, which led to confusion.

A year ago, the council voted to get rid of the rule. As of this past Jan. 27, captains and crew could keep their limits of vermilion snappers, groupers and tilefish in Atlantic federal waters. At its meeting last month in Tampa, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to eliminate the rule in Atlantic state waters, which means captains and crew can keep the recreational bag limit of all species of reef fish caught in those waters.

The reason for the change? The council said the decrease in the harvest of those species because of the rule was minimal. Plus, doing away with the rule eliminates confusion and will have a negligible effect on the populations of those species. More helpful was a five-month closed season for vermilion snapper. And there continues to be a four-month closed season for shallow water groupers, including gags, reds and blacks, the three most popular grouper species in Florida.

The vermilion snapper closure in Atlantic state and federal waters was Nov. 1-March 31. That closed season was eliminated because the closure worked and vermilion snapper populations had significantly increased. Lately, fishing for vermilion snappers and tilefish has been the best bet for South Florida anglers seeking to bring home fish for dinner. Fishing for sought-after species such as kingfish, cobia, wahoo, dolphin and tuna has been inconsistent at best.

Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.
Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

Being deepwater fish, golden tilefish are quite tasty, and they are fairly easy to catch. They are typically targeted in 600-700 feet of water by dropping bait to the bottom using an electric fishing reel. When you get a bite, you flip the reel’s switch, and up comes the tilefish. Captains I know regretted not being able to provide their customers with more golden tilefish than their allotted one per person. Now they can make additional drops and provide one or two more fish to take home.

The vermilion snapper change definitely won’t make much of a difference, as the fish are almost exclusively caught by drift boats in 160-300 feet of water. The limit on vermilions is five per person, and allowing the captain and the mate to keep their 10 fish on a drift boat with 15 or more anglers would not be significant except, perhaps, to those anglers who didn’t catch anything and would like to go home with a couple of snapper fillets.



posted in: TRCP Marine

March 6, 2014

A busy fishing February in the Gulf

Garret Graves
Garret Graves. Photo courtesy of Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Wow! It’s difficult to believe that so much fishing news could be crammed into the year’s shortest month.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Louisiana was dealt a blow when Garret Graves, the top man in the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, tendered his resignation to make a run for Congress.

Graves’ experience in D.C. gave him a good start into such a volatile position in Louisiana government, and his energy in jump-starting several long-delayed coastal restoration projects was a welcome change from past administrations.

His six-year tenure was highlighted by the state’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan, a course for prioritizing work estimated to run as high as $50 billion. The problem in past years was that the mountain was too high to climb, especially considering Louisiana has lost a couple-thousand square miles of coastal marshlands during the last 70 years.

Louisiana' s Sustainable Coast Master Plan
Louisiana’ s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. Image Courtesy of Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Somebody had to take the first giant step on that climb, and Graves did that.

As if anyone with that much to tackle needed more on his plate, 2010’s BP-Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was akin to adding an elephant’s weight on top of the monkey already on his back.

While Graves’ second-in-command, Jerome Zeringue, has taken this lead role, it’s sure that Graves’ command of Louisiana’s coastal problems, its solutions, the battles over freshwater diversions contained in the Coastal Master Plan and his stature gained in the BP multi-layered settlement plan will be missed.

So what does that have to do with fishing?

It’s acknowledged that Louisiana coastal marshes mean more than terrific redfish, speckled trout and flounder among other near-coast species as well as crabs and shrimp. They are also a vital nursery ground for a host of offshore species, including several snapper species.

Back in the late 1980s, when Louisiana was battling low redfish recruitment and the first inkling of the state’s gill-net war that would come years later, just a handful of marine biologists talked about the decline of the coastal marshes.

They mentioned the decline of the marsh habitat was productive in the short term because the decay and erosion added nutrients to the system, but they added that there was a point of no return when the habitat reached a critical point where its productivity would rapidly decline. The word “collapse” was used often when it comes to the marshes’ ability to provide and sustain so many coastal and offshore species.

From what’s happened on the west side of the Mississippi River, from Buras south and west through Yellow Cotton Bay and to the Gulf of Mexico, it appears the decline in speckled trout catches in the last three years is proving the biologists’ prediction made nearly 30 years ago. Yellow Cotton Bay, once a place unrivaled in the Gulf for its fall speckled trout run, isn’t even on the map anymore after being totally wiped away by Hurricane Katrina.

So, restoring the marshes and the Louisiana coastline has more plusses than saving homes, communities, the oil and gas production and supply chain for the country that starts along the state’s coast, and vital overwintering waterfowl habitat. These projects can go a long way to providing food for U.S. tables.

Need more about February?

GMFMC logo
Image courtesy of GMFMC.

When the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council talked about reallocation of the red snapper resources, who could’ve figured Amendment 28 would give recreational fishermen across the Gulf a chance to take an increased share of red snapper from a stock that’s recovered more quickly than anyone, even marine scientists, could have imagined?

A series of public hearings throughout the five Gulf States in March will be held to get comments about a change that would grant recreational anglers a 75-percent share (commercials would get 25 percent) of any annual quota approved by the GMFMC more than 9.12 million pounds. At 9.12 million pounds or less, the allocation continues to be split 51-49 percent respectively between commercials and recreationals.

A list of the hearings can be found on the GMFMC website:

If you can’t attend one of the hearings, comments will be accepted at:

What’s grand about February and leading into March is that redfish are biting darned near everywhere on the coast. It’s a transition time for speckled trout, but we’re closing in on the time when giant trout will begin blasting artificial baits in Calcasieu Lake, and the trout will move to the bridges in Lake Pontchartrain.

The bonus is that all the frigid conditions up north have lowered the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River (all the while knowing that the melt-off will run our rivers high in April, May and even June) and bass fishing is terrific in the cane-lined runs off the Mississippi and in the lakes, bayous and canals in the Atchafalaya Basin, the country’s largest overflow swamp.



posted in: TRCP Marine

February 28, 2014

Public input prompts red snapper changes

red snapper
Gulf red snapper. Photo by Geeklikepi/Wikimedia Commons.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission always considers the needs of the state’s recreational anglers. The latest example came out of the FWC’s recent meeting in Tampa, where the agency gave tentative approval to an earlier start to the red snapper season in state waters.

Why? So recreational anglers could fish for the popular species over the Memorial Day weekend.

For the past several years, the red snapper season started on June 1 in state and federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. At a meeting this past November, the FWC’s commissioners asked staff to come up with a rule to allow the season in state waters to start “the Saturday before Memorial Day to optimize angler fishing opportunities.” The 52-day 2014 season would open on May 24 and run through July 14. The current 40-day federal red snapper season is June 1-July 10.

The rule presentation to the FWC noted that the red snapper season in federal waters off Florida could be modified when state seasons do not match federal seasons. The rule goes before the FWC at its April meeting for final approval. The season’s length and dates also could be modified at that meeting by the FWC.

The week before the FWC meeting in Tampa, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met in Houston to discuss Reef Fish Amendment 28, which manages red snapper. The council chose the amendment alternative that maintains the red snapper allocation at 51 percent for commercial anglers and 49 percent for recreational anglers if the red snapper quota is less than or equal to 9.12 million pounds.

If the quota is greater than 9.12, and currently it is 11 million pounds, then recreationals get 75 percent of the amount in excess of 9.12 and commercials get the rest. According to the council, based on the current quota, recreational anglers would get 5.879 million pounds and commercial anglers would get 5.121.

At that same meeting, the council came up with a new alternative that would make the shares a little more balanced by giving recreationals 75 percent of the red snapper quota in excess of 10 million pounds.

Public hearings from Texas to Florida have been scheduled in March to get comments about the red snapper allocation. The council will hold a final public hearing in May on Amendment 28. Meeting dates are available here.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionThe FWC has scheduled public workshops next month for a recreational fishing permit that would result in better information about recreational fishing for a variety of species in the Gulf. The proposal for recreational reef fish data collection “would better define the population of offshore reef fish anglers for survey purposes using a mandatory permit or registry system.”

The proposal said the system would give fishery managers better information on nine Gulf reef species: red snapper, gag grouper, red grouper, black grouper, greater amberjack, lesser amberjack, banded rudderfish, vermilion snapper and gray triggerfish.

Workshops will be held from Fort Myers to Pensacola, and there also will be a phone conference for those who can’t attend a meeting. The list of workshops can be found here.


posted in: TRCP Marine

February 25, 2014

Tipping point

Atlantic cod
Atlantic cod. Photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Creative Commons.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the academy’s official journal, looks at overfishing or, should I say “species depletion” to be politically correct, in a series of examples from around the world. One of these examples was right here in New England. The examples point out how over exploitation of specific resources have impacts on other resources and in some cases trigger a tipping point that essentially creates an irreversible change in the food web and species interaction.

Some may think that I am simply pointing a finger at the commercial fishing industry and blaming it for causing the over exploitation. Not exactly, but let’s face it: We would be having a different discussion if there had never been any commercial fishing in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. Don’t get me wrong – there should be commercial utilization of our marine resources, but we should have historically done a better job of managing that commercial utilization. I also think that all user groups need to recognize that they have impacts and, yes, that includes recreational users. Once we all take that big step of recognition, the management process can become a lot better.

Atlantic cod collapse graph
Image by Lamiot/Wikimedia Commons.

The New England case study (although actually the PNAS report discusses the northwest Atlantic) looks at the decline of cod and its inability to recover. Essentially, overfishing that persisted after passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act or may have actually been promoted by the implementation of the act caused a severe decline in the cod population. The void created by the decline allowed other species that had been held in check by the abundant cod to proliferate. They in turn feed on the juvenile cod and keep the cod from rebuilding. This is demonstrated by the Canadian Maritimes closure of approximately 20 years that still has not produced an upturn in cod populations.

While not in the finfish realm, the lack of cod in the 1980s led to a strong increase in the sea urchin population. At one point Maine’s urchin fishery produced $30 million in revenue. The lack of regulation allowed urchins to be overharvested in about 10 years. The lack of urchins that consume a variety of seaweed allowed the proliferation of seaweed. Crab populations benefited from the seaweed as it sheltered them from predation, and they in turn fed on the remaining urchins, making it almost impossible for them to rebound to their former numbers.

The PNAS study formalized what a number of marine scientists have said for years. Basically, if human or any other interaction with ocean resources creates a void by taking away a dominant species, that void will not remain empty for very long. Something else will fill it. They have contended that the total biomass of the oceans has varied very little over recorded history. It has changed, however, from desirable species to less desirable species. That is a trend that does not bode well for the future.

It is likely that we have reached the tipping point with New England’s iconic fish, the sacred cod. Certainly, changing water temperature has not helped and may well be the final nail in the coffin, but water temperature cannot be solely responsible for the dramatic decline in the cod’s population. Having gone past the tipping point, it is very possible that nothing can be done to recover this once robust population.



The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

Learn More

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!