Our Latest Scientist Interview: John D. Filmalter, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity

Our Latest Scientist Interview: John D. Filmalter, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity

Posted by Esther Jacobs on December 15, 2017

Our interview with John D. Filmalter, post-doctoral fellow at South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. His work focuses on coastal movements of adult estuarine dependent fish species. In the interview you can read more about Dr Filmalter’s research into fisheries and effective management solutions for sustainability.

How did you end up in science and research?

I decided to study Ichthyology and Fisheries Science after finishing high school, but my initial objective was to get into aquaculture. During the course of my undergraduate, I was captured by the scientific process and the allure of understanding the workings of the world around us. I have always been passionate about the marine world, and I guess following my passion led me into my post-graduate studies.

Did you know from a young age that you were going to go down the science route?

I grew up spending much of my time at sea and I always knew I wanted to have a career that revolved around the ocean. I don’t think I was set on becoming a marine scientist, but that option was always open.

What promoted the research behind the recent publication ‘Banning is not enough: The complexities of oceanic shark management by tuna regional fisheries management organizations’?

I was fortunate to be involved in a large EU FP-7 funded project on bycatch mitigation in pelagic fisheries, called MADE, during my PhD research. The team that I was part of spent many months at sea on various fishing vessels and witnessed firsthand, the practical workings of these pelagic fisheries. We also conducted research on post release survival of pelagic sharks and were involved in guiding onboard observer programs. As the plight of pelagic sharks gained global recognition, Regional Fisheries Management organisations (RFMOs) began to promote retention bans for certain shark species.  The major objective of our opinion paper was to highlight the shortfalls of such management measures if they are not backed by concomitant advances in bycatch mitigation methods and improved catch monitoring systems.

How indiscriminate are tuna fisheries such as longliners and trawlers?

All fisheries have a degree of non-target or incidental catch. On a catch percentage basis, tuna fisheries are actually relatively discriminatory when compared to other fisheries such as demersal trawling, however, the global extent of their operation means that even low percentages equate to a large biomass of non-target catch.  The selectivity of a fishing gear can also change depending on the fishing strategy. For example, when tuna purse seine vessels set their nets around schools associated with fish aggregating devices, they have significantly higher bycatch rates than when they catch free-swimming schools of tuna.

Who do you work with to collect your data, and are they reluctant to work with you?

Much of our work has been conducted in collaboration with European purse seine fleets operating in distant waters, but some of our work was also carried out in collaboration with small-scale longline fleets operating in Brazil and within the Mediterranean Sea, from countries such as Italy and Greece. Generally we found that all the fleets we worked with were very cooperative, as they understood the issues in their respective fisheries and were happy to help researchers in attempting to resolve them.

You mention that the positive fisheries management aspects outweigh the negatives. What are the positive aspects?

Positive aspects of fisheries management policies are outcomes that result in lower ecosystem impacts such as a reduction in bycatch and discards, or reduced carbon footprint, but also economic benefits such as increased profitability and harvest efficiency. Other positive aspects include improved catch statistics and adoption of sustainable fishing practices.

What are the negative aspects?

Negative aspects may include issues such as the need for government subsidies, job loss and reduced economic activity. In the case of retention bans for pelagic sharks, the negative implications include the potential loss of catch data which would result in an inability to monitor trends in their population as well as potentially inflating their value through reduced market availability, ultimately resulting in illegal targeting of banned species.

Why would a total ban negatively impact populations?

In pelagic tuna fisheries, the capture of sharks is currently unavoidable due to the fishing gears being non-selective, coupled with a lack of incentive to avoid or mitigate shark bycatch. While banning their retention directly reduces the number that are landed, it has a negligible impact on the number that are caught. Information from post release survival studies suggests that many sharks will not survive the capture process, especially in purse seine fisheries. As such, simply preventing their retention is unlikely to improve the status of their populations. There is a clear need for the development and adoption of measures that change fishing practices to directly reduce the catch rates of sharks.

 A potential secondary, and unintended consequence of banning retention in certain species is that they may develop into highly prized commodities, due to their rarity, with a much-increased value than they currently hold. This could result in them becoming a target species, rather than just an incidental bycatch, which would certainly negatively impact their population.

What would be the most effective solution to ensure a positive conservation strategy?

There is a strong need for improved catch monitoring systems in open ocean fisheries. Current observer coverage on many distant water fleets operating on the high seas is very low. Additionally enforcement measures are also generally very poor. Without monitoring and compliance, any management strategy is severely weakened. In an ideal world, time area closures around known bycatch hotspots and the establishment of strongly enforced bycatch quotas, based on maximum sustainable yield of the most vulnerable species caught incidentally, would likely result in the most sustainable fishing practices. I believe that with the correct incentives (e.g. closing a fishery once a bycatch quota is reached) the operators themselves will quickly develop effective bycatch mitigating techniques.

Where would you like to see global fisheries management in ten years’ time?

I feel that the biggest problems in global fisheries management centre around regulation, compliance and enforcement. I would hope that in the next decade, significant effort is directed towards these sectors. With strong compliance and enforcement, no management measure will have a significant impact on the sustainability of a fishery.

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