Emerging and Legacy Fish Worries


AFS Policy Director Tom Bigford

I was one of perhaps 25 AFS members who attended the 23rd biennial Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) meeting in November 2015. The general theme of “Grand Challenges in Coastal and Estuarine Science: Securing Our Future” included a series of presentations on new and lingering threats to fish habitat. The conference theme was coastal and estuarine, but the scientific challenges and policy priorities discussed at CERF likely extend well inland. Some of these concerns are “legacy” threats inherited by today’s generation; others are just emerging as new worries. Together, they demand our attention.

In my official role as AFS liaison to CERF (the AFS Estuaries Section also has a liaison), I want to share some observations from last fall’s conference. It was encouraging to see coastal and estuarine specialists focusing on many of the same issues addressed by AFS—blue carbon, ocean acidification, habitat protection and restoration, inshore- offshore connectivity, invasives, terrestrial connections, and more. There was also a strong contingent of students and young professionals, mirroring the strong showing at AFS regional and annual meetings. Finally, it’s nice to witness further evidence of the trend toward truly impressive posters. It’s always rewarding to talk directly with poster presenters and gain from their passion.

Before returning to the threats mentioned above, I do want to note that AFS organized a technical session on “Fish as Integrators of Ecosystem Health in Coastal Watersheds.” Our intent was to stretch CERF discussions inland and offshore, using fish as the metric. Seven talks and a dozen posters conveyed our strong interest in nearshore waters and served as a nice transition to two sessions on “Coastal Habitat Connections to Offshore Fisheries Productivity.” The three sessions addressed many timely aspects of fish population health and productivity. They also provided a nice basis for more specific discussions on issues such as the threats mentioned above.

The session on emerging and legacy contaminants was moderated by Elise Granek, a professor at Portland State University’s School of the Environment. She and her graduate students were among the scientists who shared research on chemicals reaching aquatic systems from wastewater, industrial discharges, run-off, atmospheric deposition, and the food chain. As you would suspect, spatial variability is rampant but the basic messages are evident—the well-known concerns provided by past transgressions (pesticides/herbicides, petroleum derivatives, heavy metals, excess nutrients) are being joined by an array of “new” chemicals that pose threats or could serve as indicators of larger concerns.

These challenges are ubiquitous—pharmacological medicines such as antibiotics, anti-depressants, and estrogenic compounds; personal and home care products; micro-plastics to enhance detergents and cosmetics; and much more. Besides increased awareness, CERF speakers shared scenarios where increasing human populations and shifting precipitation patterns might combine to increase aquatic exposure.

While you peruse your organic chemistry books in preparation for new frontiers in fish ecology, remember to search for your physics notes. Chemicals, new products, and much more deserve our attention. We’re already being alerted to physical and geological changes such as ocean acidification, shifting growing zones for plants and animals, and coastal erosion. The vessel noise research (Cecilia Krahforst at East Carolina University) mentioned in my column in the September 2015 Fisheries issue was presented at CERF. Those of us who specialize in biology and ecology (we know who we are!) need to stretch into other disciplines as we seek to manage at the ecosystem level.

These casual observations have me thinking about new partnerships to ensure AFS is engaged as fully as possible. We absolutely cannot be everywhere, but we can expand from our present footprint. As one example, water is essential to fish, but we are not often involved in wastewater discharge issues. The Water Environment Federation is one organization representing the industrial water sector. The federation’s 2015 meeting attracted more than 20,000 registrants for a technical program heavy on facilities maintenance, engineering solutions, and waste handling . . . but extremely light on connections to aquatic resources. Typical AFS meetings miss those connections, too. We occasionally address water diversions, but not usually the full cycle of water usage that will become more important as municipal and industrial subscriptions increase.

My suggestion is that AFS expand its network to partner with groups other than the usual and comfortable. And I recommend those groups do the same, reaching back our way. I plan to talk with the Water Environment Federation about the potential. We must engage with partners and sectors whose focus is on water! And they cannot ignore the implications of their activities. Together, I am hopeful for our future.

Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily AFS. Letters to the Editor are invited.

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