Maine is Running Out of Lobster Bait. Is Farmed Salmon the Answer?

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The following is an excerpt from my most recent piece in National Geographic. Click here to read the full story.

ROCKLAND, MAINE – People love lobster. For some, it’s nostalgic, eliciting memories of bygone days and summers in Maine. For others, it’s a celebratory meal reserved for special occasions. From whole lobster or tail to a lobster roll or bisque—from Panera, McDonald’s, and Red Lobster to the finest white-tablecloth restaurant, lobster is an iconic American food. And waitstaff and apps tell diners that Maine lobster is thriving—it’s a sustainable fishery certified by the Marine Stewardship Council—so they can feel good about what’s on their plates.

The bait used to catch lobster, however, is less on people’s minds. But it’s unavoidable when talking to Maine’s lobstermen these days.

Genevieve McDonald fishes out of Maine’s largest lobster port aboard the F/V Hello Darlings II. Last November, she became Maine’s first female commercial fisherman (“fisherman” and “lobsterman” are the strongly preferred terms for both women and men in the industry, she says) elected to the Maine House of Representatives, representing a district that includes Maine’s two biggest lobster ports. Not surprisingly, McDonald ran on a platform many in the fishing industry support. But above all else, one issue stood out.

“Our biggest issue is the bait crisis,” she said in November, regarding a newly imposed 70 percent catch limit cut for herring, the most popular lobster bait. “I can’t get the herring quota back,” she said, “but I want to try to see about other… [CONTINUE READING]

Posted in Aquaculture, Fishing Industry, Lobster Fishery, Maine Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seafood Expo North America 2019

Today is the first day of Seafood Expo North America 2019 (SENA19), and I’m headed to Boston for the show. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is largest seafood exposition in North America with thousands of buyers and suppliers from around the world. There is also a conference program that features more than 25 educational sessions, presented by seafood industry thought leaders and experts from many segments of the seafood industry.

As a freelance journalist, I cover this event annually, as it’s a great opportunity to meet face-to-face with some of the sources with whom I work throughout the year. It’s also a great opportunity to keep up with trends in the seafood industry.

If you’ve followed my coverage of previous shows, you know that I’m often interested in the relationship between what is being discussed on the floor of the show where all the exhibitors are and what is being discussed in the conference sessions. As a journalist who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability, I’ve found it fascinating to look at how the concept of sustainability has been presented at SENA over the years. From the days when one didn’t see the word “sustainable” on the floor at all, to more recently when it seemed like every exhibitor had sustainability claims front-and-center, it’s illustrative to observe how the conference discussion tends to lead the marketing efforts.

In more recent years, the conference discussion has focused quite a bit on how the ubiquitousness of the word “sustainable” in the seafood industry has led to it meaning less and less. When companies start claiming “100% sustainable,” for example, it’s clear that we are no longer focused on a journey toward greater sustainability–and sustainability must always be a journey, never a destination.

This year at SENA19, I’m going to be taking a closer look at fishery improvement projects (FIPs) within the context of true sustainability. FIPs emerged in recent years as a tool for incentivizing fisheries to progress along the path to greater sustainability. With the advent of third-party certification, verification and advisory schemes (e.g., MSC, Seafood Watch) it became clear that the seafood industry needed a way to identify fisheries that had not attained an ecolabel but were still on the right path. In part, this was a direct result of market forces–like when Wal-Mart announced they would offer only Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seafood to US consumers. There was simply not enough supply, so they had to expand the definition of what sustainable meant to them.

The emergence of FIPs as a sustainability tool was also, however, about insuring that fisheries had incentive to improve rather than simply being marginalized. As I wrote in 2015 while covering SENA, sustainability must never become a club.

The leaders of the seafood industry need to avoid wearing sustainability blinders. Yes, we need to shine a light on those who are doing it well insofar as sustainability is concerned, but, more importantly, we must not allow those in our periphery vision to fall out of focus. Reward those who have worked hard to achieve certification, but also engage with those who have not. Certification is a tool; use it as such.

FIPs are a great way to engage those fisheries that have not achieved certification or been green-lighted by an advisory scheme, and the success of many FIPs is well documented. Having said that, FIPs are also vulnerable to many of the same issues as sustainability initiatives. Some point again to the example of Wal-Mart: When they were unable to meet their stated seafood sustainability goals, they shifted to also including FIPs. When sourcing remained problematic, the bar on which FIPs passed muster shifted.

Others point out that FIPs often unevenly distribute the costs and benefits of improvement. In many so-called successful FIP models, fishers end up paying the lion’s share of the cost but don’t readily see the benefits. Because sustainability is increasingly seen as including not only environmental sustainability but also socio-economic sustainability, this shortcoming in the traditional FIP model is one that needs to be addressed.

With this interest in FIPs at the forefront of my mind as I head to SENA19, I’m excited to attend a panel discussion later today titled “Triple Impact FIPs: Finding and Capturing Value to Accelerate Fisheries Improvement.” The presenters claim that “FIPs may be achieving environmental improvement but at great social cost to fishers, those who in globalized supply chains are least capable of paying for improvement.” During the presentation, they will be discussing a revision to the FIP model that can “evaluate, track and incentivize improvement of fisheries’ social and financial performance along with their environmental performance.”

If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @RetTalbot.


Posted in CITES, Fishery Improvement Projects (FIP), Fishing Industry, Marine Stewardship Council | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Free Science Writing Workshop

sciencewriting-logo500-e1549394996102As part of the 2019 Maine Science Festival, I will be teaching a Science Writing 101 Workshop on Saturday (16 March) from 11:30 to 1:30 in Bangor, Maine.

Many scientists find it challenging and time-consuming to communicate in clear, simple terms with the average reader, while many journalists don’t have the time or interest to fully understand difficult scientific concepts well enough to report a science story in a general interest publication. We live in a time where data do matter and keeping science accessible and in the public eye is essential. In this workshop, I’ll lead participants through the process of reporting out a science story in a way that is both clear and compelling.

The workshop will be in Meeting Room D at the Cross Insurance Center at 515 Main Street in Bangor. Space is limited to 15 participants, and sign-up is required prior to the event.

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Cayman Islands Journalist on Front Line of Coral Reef Health


joe-avaryJoe Avary is a reporter with with Cayman 27 in the Cayman Islands, and we’ve been in touch since my Yale Environment 360 story that mentioned coral disease at a popular Grand Cayman dive site published earlier this month.

Last week Joe reported out the story of coral disease at Killer Pillar in a segment for Cayman 27, and I followed up with him to learn a little more about his experience covering coral reefs in the Cayman Islands as both a journalist and a diver.

As a journalist in the Cayman Islands I have covered numerous stories on the health of our coral reefs. They’re among the most beautiful and healthy in the region and economically important as a draw for tourists.

I am also a diver, and I feel that is definitely an advantage when covering marine issues. My coverage of reef damage incidents–like the Carnival Magic anchor incident in August 2014 and the subsequent volunteer reef restoration, and late billionaire Paul Allen’s mega-yacht ‘Tatoosh’ anchor damage incident in January 2016–helped ensure these entities were held accountable through the courts, or at least shamed into contributing to the restoration efforts monetarily. Taking my camera underwater to document these things brings the reef home to those who don’t dive or snorkel and it makes it real to them.

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As far as the disease stories go, these maybe get less attention than the big reef damage stories I mentioned before. But I think it’s still important from an environmental perspective because not only are reefs beautiful and a big tourism draw, they actually factor in safeguarding against impacts of hurricanes and major storms. I keep my ear to the ground and if I can highlight any sort of issue in the coral world, I go all in to bring them to the cayman 27 audience.

You can follow Joe on Twitter @345joey.

If you missed it, I followed up my Yale E360 story with a deeper dive into the Killer Pillar disease outbreak story  with the help of Tammi Warrender, a visiting scientist who has been diving with the Department of Environment (DOE) in the Cayman Islands since 2013.

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Saving Grand Cayman’s Killer Pillar

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I recently published a story about coral disease in Yale Environment 360, and I’ve had a lot of follow-up through social media. One of the top questions/comments I’ve received concerns Killer Pillar, a Grand Cayman dive site mentioned in the article. I wanted to take a moment here and give folks a little more detail based on my discussion with Tammi Warrender, the individual I mentioned in the story who reported the disease at Killer Pillar to Dr. William Precht.

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Killer Pillar is a popular dive site located in the Seven Mile Beach Marine Park on the west coast of Grand Cayman. According to Warrender, who is a visiting scientist and has been diving with the Department of Environment (DOE) in the Cayman Islands since 2013, it the busiest area for dive tourism in Grand Cayman. It is also, she told me, the only known site on the west coast of Grand Cayman where pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) can be found.

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The Killer Pillar dive site is located off Grand Caymen and marked here in Google Earth.


A juvenile threespot damselfish nestled in a pillar coral colony in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. (c) NOAA

For those of you who have never seen a pillar coral colony, it is truly a spectacular thing to behold. Rising up in majestic, cylindrical columns from the bottom, the namesake pillars can reach two to three meters in height, dwarfing the surrounding coralscape. Grey-brown in color, filtered sunlight paints the pillars a golden hue, accentuating the animal’s uncharacteristic hair-like texture. These “hairs” are actually the individual coral polyps feeding, an unusual sight for many divers, as most corals feed largely at night.

While never the dominant species in the western Atlantic, pillar corals find themselves in an ever more precarious situation. Now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, pillar corals became a focus of scientists responding to the 2014 disease outbreak in Florida. A monitoring program that stretched along the Florida Reef Tract from central Miami-Dade County to southern Palm Beach County tracked 65 individual colonies. Despite some efforts to mitigate the ravages of the disease, within three years, all but one of those 65 colonies had turned from a vibrant focal point of reef life to a ghost white skeleton soon overgrown with algae. Today, it’s estimated that 96 to 99 percent of Florida’s pillar corals have been lost to disease earning the few surviving colonies the epitaph “the last unicorns.”


A pillar coral colony (c) NOAA

Within this context, the discovery of disease at the Killer Pillar dive site off Grand Cayman in June of 2018 raised serious alarm bells for Warrender. She says she’s always observed some degree of coral disease on Cayman Island reefs since she started diving with DOE some eight years ago, but now she’s seeing more. “Unfortunately, this is the common trend around the world, and coral disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent, severe, and widespread.”


Tammi Warrender working on the diseased Killer Pillar (c) Tammi Warrender

The disease at Killer Pillar was reported to DOE by a local dive company called Cayman Ecodivers. “The disease outbreak at Killer Pillar was already well underway,” Warrender recalls, “and several colonies were highly infected by the disease.” Given that other pillar coral colonies in the Cayman Islands were also showing signs of disease, she was thinking worst case scenario: local extinction.

Warrender led the disease intervention effort, working with individuals from the DOE Research Unit, Operations Unit, and other external associates such as Precht, Cayman Ecodivers and Dr. Karen Neely (who was also featured in the Yale E360 story). “It was a challenging project using several intervention methods, some of which have never been tried before on this specific species,” says Warrender. “I was very driven to carry out this research, knowing that if we did not intervene, it is highly likely that entire pillar colonies, hundreds of years old, would die.”

As I described in the Yale E360 article, Warrender and her team salvaged healthy parts of colonies by sawing them off and transplanting them on other reefs. They used chlorinated epoxy to try to stop the spread of the disease, and they treated healthy tissue fragments with a povidone iodine and seawater solution before moving them to a nursery in hopes of preserving them.

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DOE’s Paul Chin salvaging healthy coral from the Killer Pillar Dive Site (c) William Precht

“So far some of our methods have been successful,” she says, “but only time will tell whether our treatments and the pillar coral colonies at Killer Pillar will survive this outbreak.” She says research officers at DOE are continuing to monitor the results of the experiments. Recently Warrender et al. published preliminary results of the experiment at a poster session presented at Reef Futures 2018 (see below).

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“The best thing about this experience was working together with other coral disease researchers to figure out solutions to save this charismatic and rare species,” Warrender says. “This research gives hope that we can assist the survival of corals, which are highly infected by disease, however, our interventions are only buying time for the corals–we are treating the symptoms, not the underlying cause. These interventions should be used only in conjunction with large scale efforts to minimize our environmental impact and reducing carbon emissions.”

The effort to save Killer Pillar, like the effort Neely discusses in the Yale E360 article to save the last remaining high-density stand of pillar coral in the Florida Keys, may seem futile to some. In fact, I received a lot of feedback from readers of the article who expressed concern about overly-hyped optimism in the media regarding these types of interventions. Critical readers worried these interventions are experimental, expensive and not scalable. In many ways, I agree with those criticisms, but I think we must talk about context. If the goal is “Save the Reefs,” then I think we need to be having a very different conversation than the one which continually (and optimistically) profiles high-tech, experimental interventions. But if we’re talking about saving a reef or a legacy coral colony then these interventions–the efforts by scientists like Wallender–should be front-and-center.

The oceans are warming and annual severe bleaching events may increasingly occur. Coral diseases are reported with more frequency and over a broader area, and, in places like Florida, the anthropogenic stressors are not going away anytime soon. We likely can’t save the reefs–we likely can’t even return them to a severely shifted baseline–but perhaps we can create “systems in waiting.” These systems in waiting, beyond the importance of being a genetic repository of biodiversity, may be the tools that help inspire future generations to develop the political will and scientific interventions to return the oceans to a state where coral reefs will once again thrive.


Tammi Warrender at Killer Pillar (c) Tammi Warrender

To learn about scientists working to save the last remaining high-density stand of pillar coral on the Florida Reef Tract, read my full article “As Disease Ravages Coral Reefs, Scientists Scramble for Solutions” in Yale E360.  You can follow Tammi Warrender on Instagram at @coralreefwarrior.

Posted in coral, Endangered Species Act (ESA), Forida, Global Climate Change, Southeast Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

As Disease Ravages Coral Reefs, Scientists Scramble for Solutions (Excerpt from Yale E360)

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The following is an excerpt of my article on climate disease fromYale Environment 360. Click “CONTINUE” at the end of the excerpts to read the full article at

In September 2014, William Precht received an alarming phone call. “I’m seeing something funky out on the reef,” a colleague reported. “It looks like disease.” At the time, Precht, a marine biologist and environmental consultant working in coral reef restoration, had been monitoring a Port of Miami dredging project to ensure preservation of the nearby ecosystem. When Precht donned his scuba gear and dove to the site to investigate a few weeks later he couldn’t believe what he found. “The whole reef was lit up in disease,” he recounts. There were more than 30 coral colonies (each 4 to 16 inches across) with white bands and lines on them, and other corals were entirely white. “You could see this line of mortality moving across the reef — I was blown away.”

Precht was witnessing the early signs of a new and rapidly spreading coral disease outbreak sweeping along the Florida coastline, threatening the third-largest reef ecosystem in the world. The outbreak first appeared in pockets of diseased coral near Miami. Four years later, it covers 96,000 acres of reef extending about 275 miles from West Palm Beach to the lower Florida Keys. By some estimates, as much as 35 percent of the coral population has been lost. Several species have nearly vanished, including majestic colonies of pillar corals (Dendrogyra cylindrus), a threatened species that can reach heights from 6 to nearly 10 feet. The few surviving colonies are…[CONTINUE]


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‘Holy Grail’ Test for Illegal Cyanide-Caught Aquarium Fish May Be Fatally Flawed [Excerpt from NatGeo]

This is an excerpt from my latest article in National Geographic.

A widely celebrated test believed to be able to determine if tropical marine aquarium fish were caught illegally using cyanide may be based on problematic data, a new study says.


Blue tangs are popular saltwater aquarium fish that until recently couldn’t be bred in captivity. It’s believed many of them are caught using cyanide to stun them.

KOMANG SWERVES TO miss a pothole and then to avoid an oncoming bemo, the ubiquitous minibuses providing public transportation throughout Indonesia. He turns off the main road onto a sandy track. Large leaves slap against the truck’s rusted sides, as bags of reef fish slosh in the back. Ahead, through an insect-splattered windshield, chickens and children scuttle in a cacophony of squawks and laughter until the lushness gives way to a cobble beach with a fishing village huddled against dark hills in the distance. Komang pulls up near a small building. A man leans against an overturned dory surrounded by the detritus of his livelihood—nets, a boat beyond repair, a rusted engine block.

He leads Komang to a concrete pool filled with seawater. A fish darts into the open, gills gaping. Komang nods. There’s a brief negotiation, then the man nets and bags the fish and hands it over.

Komang returns to the truck, placing the fish in the back with the others. He starts to slide in behind the wheel but stops, as if he forgot something. Komang removes a plastic bag containing several small tablets from his pocket and hands it to the fisherman.

The scene repeats that day at fishing villages along the northwest coast of Bali. Komang is a middleman. He buys fish from fishermen and drives them back over the island to Denpasar, where he sells them to exporters at a profit. For those concerned about illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, the middleman system in Indonesia is a roadblock to sustainability. It often removes traceability from the supply chain, as provenance is lost by the time the fish reach the exporter.

There’s also a more insidious concern: Those tablets Komang handed out are potassium cyanide. Combined with seawater in a squirt bottle, they’re used to paralyze fish, making them easier to catch.

It is estimated that during the past half century more than 2.2 million pounds of cyanide were illegally used on Philippine coral reefs to exploit fish for the aquarium and… [Continue Reading in National Geographic]

Posted in Developing Nations, Indo-Pacific, IUU Fishing, Ornamental Fisheries | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment