“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

The world’s oceans are teeming with life; so much life in fact that we have identified just a small fraction of the species that inhabit them. Yet even the immense biodiversity of our oceans isn’t enough to balance out the damage that human activity continues to inflict on many marine species. Open-ocean predators such as sharks, tunas, and swordfish, species at the very top of the food chain, are in decline across the globe due to overfishing and ineffective management. Meanwhile, species at the bottom of the marine food chain are declining as well due to policies that focus more on commercial yields rather than conservation. The world is quite literally eating away at the food chain from the top-down and the bottom-up, putting immense strain on marine life.NCMC-OUTLINE2

Fortunately, there are groups that actively campaign for better fisheries policies, both on the national and international stage. Wild Oceans (founded as the National Coalition for Marine Conservation in 1973) is an environmental nonprofit with the goal of bringing fishermen and environmentalists together to lobby for sustainable fishing practices.

Its co-founder, Chris Weld, was an avid fisherman who saw firsthand the impact of unrestricted fishing on many of the species he fished for in the Atlantic, from the prized marlin to the bountiful tuna. He recognized that a big part of the problem lay with foreign fishing vessels operating in US waters, as well as the use of indiscriminate fishing gear. Prior to 1976, there was no international agreement that prevented foreign vessels from fishing in coastal waters. Fixing that problem became the focal point of the young organization’s first conservation campaign.

Protecting the Predators

Since its founding, Wild Oceans has had a hand in many regulatory changes that have benefited large predatory fish species. Wild Oceans’ Bring Back the Big Fish campaign has been the driving force behind many of these changes. One of the campaign’s first accomplishments was the passing of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. The act consolidated control over fish stocks in US waters and split the responsibility of oversight among eight regional councils. It also established an exclusive economic zone that barred foreign fishing vessels from operating within 200 miles of the US coast line.

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A diagram showing the various methods used by commercial fishermen to catch fish in coastal and deep-sea waters.

While the Magnuson Act went a long way towards improving oversight of fishing grounds, it did not have a direct impact on conservation status of the most threatened fish species. To remedy this, the former NCMC began devising new federal plans to conserve Atlantic billfish, a group of species that includes marlin, sailfish, and swordfish. These species are among the most important apex predators of the Atlantic Ocean’s ecosystem. These predators help stabilize populations of many prey species including crustaceans, cephalopods, and small fish. With NCMC’s help, the Atlantic Billfish Plan was adopted, resulting in a ban on the sale of marlin and sailfish in 1990.

Wild Oceans’ signature achievement in billfish conservation was to come in 2012 with the passage of The Billfish Conservation Act, which ends the importation in the United States of an estimated 30,000 foreign-caught Pacific marlin a year. The Act marks the culmination of a united undertaking by a diverse coalition of angling and conservation organizations that Wild Oceans helped mobilize to work in cooperation with a bipartisan group of congressional champions. For its work in passing the Act, Wild Oceans received the prestigious IGFA Conservation Award in January 2013.

The Blue Marlin has long been a species of concern for Wild Oceans and other conservation groups.

The Blue Marlin has long been a species of concern for Wild Oceans and other conservation groups.

Besides billfish, Wild Oceans has devoted a lot of attention to the conservation of bluefin tuna. Beginning in 1988, the organization campaigned for new regulations under the Magnuson Act that would allow for the management and conservation of tuna populations throughout US waters. After lobbying Washington for two years, Wild Oceans finally prevailed in 1990 when Congress reversed policy allowing fishery managers to regulate tuna stocks.

Though the decision immediately benefitted tuna, it also had a positive impact for other large predator species such as sharks and marlins. The longlines commonly used in commercial tuna fishing are indiscriminate, snagging anything that comes to take a bite out of the bait. And while this practice hooks plenty of tuna, it snags a lot of other fish in the process. By allowing federal regulation of tuna, regional managers could now enact policies to reduce the bycatch of sharks, marlins, and other species that are unintentionally caught in these longlines.

Another signature achievement came about through a Wild Oceans lawsuit in 1999, aimed at minimizing longline bycatch. As a result, the National Marine Fisheries Service closed 133,000 square miles of U.S. Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico waters to all longlining, reducing bycatch of billfish by up to 75% and helping restore overfished swordfish by protecting their nursery grounds. Five years later, the organization secured a federal ban on longlining on the west coast.

Protecting the Prey

Though the oceans harbor vast and intricate ecosystems, their foundations still rest upon the smallest fish in the sea. Mackerel, menhaden, herring, squid, even sardines are all key species that provide food for fish higher up the food chain. These species and others like them are collectively referred to as the prey base, a category of species that larger, predatory species depend on for food, including us humans.

As of right now, the prey base is at an historic low as fisheries have shifted focus from dwindling populations of big fish to now dwindling populations of small fish. Not only is this a problem for sardine lovers the world over, but it also contributes to the decline of big fish who have to compete with our own voracious appetite for prey species.

This is where Wild Oceans and other marine conservationists are stepping in with more sustainable fishing practices based on ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM). EBFM as a concept is relatively simple and straightforward. Rather than thinking in terms of species, EBFM advocates thinking in terms of relationships. Management decisions under an EBFM system take into consideration the many links that a particular species of fish has with other predator and prey species and the ecosystem as a whole.

Menhaden are caught using purse seines, large nets that encircle schools of fish.

Menhaden are caught using purse seines, large nets that encircle schools of fish.

Apart from efforts to reform fisheries management, Wild Oceans has also launched campaigns focusing on specific prey species, such as menhaden. These small, oily filter feeders are the most important forage species in the Atlantic, providing a consistent source of food for striped bass, bluefin tuna, whales, sharks, osprey, a bevy of bird species, and many other marine animals. But despite their critical role in the food web, their numbers have suffered the past few decades due to growing demand for fish oils and other products, most of which are derived from menhaden.

In order to free up more menhaden for the big fish, Wild Oceans campaigned for new caps on the commercial catch of Atlantic menhaden. In 2013, the 15-state Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted the new catch limits, leaving an estimated 250 million menhaden in the water each year for the rest of the ocean to eat and putting them well on track towards a sustainable population that can satisfy the needs of both predators and commercial fishermen.

Fighting for Wild Oceans

The work of Wild Oceans benefits everyone by promoting balanced, sustainable policies that allow all of us to partake in the bounty of the sea without damaging it. It has orchestrated some of the most important conservation measures that have pulled many species back from the brink, and is widely recognized as a leader in marine conservation on the part of government agencies, recreational fishermen, and commercial fisheries. The importance of their leadership will only grow as we demand more from our oceans. But with their steady hand at the till, Wild Oceans will be able to guide us to calmer waters.

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