Dr. Carl Safina is the director of the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program, a MacArthur Fellow, and author of the best-selling "Song for the Blue Ocean."


People who fly over the Atlantic and the Pacific sometimes scoff at the idea that the ocean is being overfished. They seem to think that the ocean is an inexhaustible resource. But isn’t it true that most fish in the oceans are along the continental shelves, and that that’s where most of the world’s fleets concentrate their efforts?

When you look at the oceans, they seem so vast that you think to yourself, "how could people possibly fish out the oceans?" The oceans cover much more of the earth’s surface than the land does and people don’t even live all over the land, "how could we possibly be fishing out the oceans?" But the thing is, the fish in the ocean are concentrated only in the narrow margins along the continents — on the continental shelves (the narrow margins of relatively shallow oceans that are along the edges of continents), in some of the current systems, and in the borders along currents. They’re not just spread evenly in between the continents. And there aren’t more of them in deeper water the further out you go.

When I was a kid, people thought we were going to develop the oceans and develop fishing to feed the hungry in the future and if we caught this many fish right along the coast, imagine how many we were going to catch when we get out to the middle and learn how to fish there. But the thing is that most of the ocean is, biologically, a desert. The life is there, but it’s very sparse, and where it’s concentrated happens to be along the continents, because that’s where all the nutrients run off the land. We can not look for a lot of extra food in most of the oceans and a bigger catch in the future because there’s not much out there.

A couple of people we have spoken to have said that they think you and others tend to overstate when you say that conduct of the fishing effort is the primary reason for the decline in fisheries. They point to pollution and other environmental fluctuations as likely bigger problems. Would you care to speak to that?

The vast majority of scientific consensus is that the main agent of change in the oceans as far as fish populations is concerned is fishing. It’s not just my idea. Many people have come to the same conclusion independently of me. And at first I thought that I must be wrong. Because you look at the ocean, you say well, it’s so big, how can we possibly be fishing it out. How can that account for all of the changes that we’ve seen, but a lot of other people who’ve looked at it have concluded the same thing — that the main agent of change is fishing.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other things that contribute. There are environmental changes, there are atmospheric changes, there are inputs from pollution. There are all these things that are sort of pushing in the same direction, but if you think about how fish live and where fish grow, once they get through all those hoops of survival that are all sort of stacked against them and they finally get to be big, what do we do? We go and catch the survivors. So fishing is certainly a major, and I think the major reason for the changes in fish populations that we’ve seen.

We’ve done experiments. And certain areas where we’ve started fishing, the fish populations have gone down. And in those same areas, when we lighten up on the fishing, or we increase restrictions on fishing we often see an almost immediate increase. So that amounts to an experiment that we’ve actually done in these areas to see that fish do respond to fishing pressure. The more pressure, they go down, the less pressure, they come up.

We’ve run into a couple of fishery managers and a few fishermen who seem to think that dragging gear over the sea floor might even be beneficial to the ocean, by fertilizing and rejuvenating benthic ecosystems. Do you care to comment on that?

I just don’t see how it’s possible that dragging gear through the sea floor in a way that basically disturbs and destroys the bottom habitat could be beneficial in any way. There’s no fertilizing going on and it’s not really akin to plowing a farm field. When you plow a farm field, what you do is break up all of the natural stuff that is growing and then you plant your crop. In the ocean, you just break up all of the natural stuff that’s growing. Period. So how could that possibly be beneficial?

We have heard about the benefits of opening and closing fishing areas, like crop rotations. Do you think this is a worthwhile way of looking at managing the ground fishery?

I think that the idea of rotating areas in the ocean has one weakness to it and that is that normally, the way we catch fish in those areas is by dragging the bottom in ways that destroy the habitat and the habitat actually takes a longer time to recover than fish take to grow.

So I think that would make more sense rather than rotating areas would be designating areas. And some places are for catching fish with bottom dragging gear, and you just sort of ride off part of the bottom and other places are for catching fish with fixed gear where the bottom can recover and those communities that hold the system together can recover. But we’re still fishing on it. Some areas should just be off limits as rejuvenation zones and sort of seeding areas where juvenile fish are allowed to grow and develop with the idea that they will then eventually wander out, but wander out in higher numbers to be, eventually, caught in other places.

We’ve also run into people who say that it’s fine to think about fish as animals, but we must accept that we have to accommodate the needs of the world population of 6 billion human beings and manage the ocean accordingly. Do you care do comment on that?

Fish in the ocean are wild animals. They are not something that we control the numbers of. And we’ve acted in the past and we continue mostly to act as though they are just commodities that are free for the taking. The fact that there are six billion people who place higher demands on the oceans for food, makes it more imperative that we understand that those fish are wild — we are not controlling the supply of them. And if we want them in the future, for six billion or more people, we will have to approach it differently in a way that can sustain the pressure that we put on. So really, only by understanding that they are wild animals — they are not corn and they are not brown shoes in a warehouse — can we possibly take on an approach that could last and that could give people those seafood commodities that people are most interested in getting.

Some scientists we have spoken with say that Marine Protected Areas and ecosystem management regimes and so forth are band-aids that are a waste of money because there is insufficient data to implement them correctly. Instead the money should be spent gathering more data about the complex interactions of the species, the climate change, and they dynamics and distribution of plankton. Can you respond to that?

There are a whole bunch of scientists who are in the data collection business who want to see nothing but more data collection. There are a lot of things we don’t know, so we do need to do more studies which entails collecting more data. But there are a lot of things that we do know also. And we’ve also tried some experiments in certain areas for which there is data on the results. There are areas that have been closed to fishing, mostly in other countries outside of the United States. Which in fact are, ironically are a little more progressive than the United States. And, studies have been done on the abundance of fish in closed areas and the effect of closed areas on fishing outside of them. There’s a fair amount of information that shows, not too surprisingly, to my mind, that in areas that are closed to fishing, you have a lot more fish in just a few years.

And there’s some contradictory results about what that does to fishing outside the areas. In some places it seems like it has really helped a lot, in other cases it seems like it hasn’t really helped that much — or at least not yet. So there is information to go on, and it seems like the general consensus is if you close an area, the fish come back in those areas. And the areas adjacent to them experience better fishing as a result of fish wandering out of those closed areas. Not in all cases, but there is a general consensus that that mostly happens. So there are things to be gained from implementing some of those kinds of initiatives.

Some say that if certain management councils have been making decisions based on short term considerations for the industry, it’s because they really don’t have any long term data to go by.

They have had long term data though. The councils were told by their scientists year after year after year after year what was happening and what the trends were. And that’s generally been correct. The trend information has almost always been correct. And the councils have just refused to act on the information. All of that ounce of prevention year after year that was forestalled has added up to a pound of cure in places like New England. That collapse was not a surprise to anybody. It wasn’t really a collapse. It was a very, very long term grinding down of those fish populations in the presence of a lot of data showing that the populations were in decline for a long time.

Do you think that some scientists are paid by the fishing industry, not necessarily to create mis-information, but to muddy the waters in order to maintain the status quo in fisheries management?

Anybody learns in consulting 101 that the first thing you do and your main weapon — is always attack uncertainty. There’s uncertainty in everything. There’s uncertainty in the safety of driving an automobile. There’s uncertainty in everything that we do. So you can always find lots of uncertainty to attack. And the same is true with fisheries. There is uncertainty in scientific information by the very nature of scientific sampling. If you sample a whole population, you know exactly how many individuals there are. But we never do that. We only can sample part of it and then say that stands for the larger part. And that gives you an envelope of error, plus or minus. So there’s always some uncertainty to attack.

And that’s just the modus operandi for people who are paid by the fishing industry to keep everyone confused. There are people with scientific degrees, Ph.D.’s in scientific training who say that they are scientists. They are hired as scientists, but they are not really acting anymore as scientists because they are not interested in what the real information really says in any objective way. They have a certain goal to get to when they start out and that is keep restrictions off of the real fishing industry. That’s what they are paid to do. They do that by attacking uncertainty in data. But if you look back at the long term trends in almost all of these data sets, they have, in the vastly overwhelming number of cases, proven to be right in retrospect.

Do you think there needs to be a regulatory body that supersedes the management council, especially when they become overly concerned with the short term economic interests of the fishing industry. What’s the solution, in terms of the politics, to prevent another collapse like we saw in New England?

I think that you need to have a management body that is responsible for responding directly to scientific information. And once that’s done, people can agree about what to do with the latitude that science gives you. In other words, if scientists say that you can only take a certain number of fish this year, that should just be the number that you can take. Who gets to take it, how they get to take it — the fishery management body should fight over that among themselves. That becomes just a social and economic concern, but there should, I think, an agency that is in charge of taking scientific information — the best new data, and the best new advice, and then giving it to another council and saying, "here’s what the new limit is for the next five years. Now you decide what gets done with that."

But I think it should be a two step process, rather than what happens now, which is the scientists say here’s what should be done, it should be no more than this amount taken, and everybody says: "Well, no, that’s not enough. So we’re going to take 50% more than what you’re saying because you’re uncertain about it anyway, and that’s what we want to do."

Do you think that corporate interests have compromised the democratic process, such that a public resource, such as fish, is being financially exploited by the few?

In the United States we are supposed to have government of the people, by the people, for the people — it’s a grand ideal. And I certainly subscribe to it, but that depends on representation by politicians in office. And they are supposed to be citizens who get elected. They are not supposed to be people who are bought, and that’s what they become. The idea is that corporate interests and certain kinds of narrow, self-serving private interests are not supposed to be running government, but they have found a way around that in our democratic process by using their money to influence who gets elected, who stays elected, who can’t get their message across during election time. And that turns the whole democratic process completely on its head in a way that it was specifically designed to avoid.

You are someone who likes to fish and you like to eat what you catch. I know that you see wild fish as a legitimate food source, but that you are also concerned with the overfishing problem that has been caused by the world’s fishing fleets. Can you clarify your stance to those who might find these two standpoints contradictory?

I think it’s okay to use what’s in the ocean. It’s okay to use what is in the environment around us. It’s just not okay to use it up. So, the trick is simply when to know what is enough and what then becomes excessive.

In my own activities, I enjoy fishing for recreation, and I enjoy eating fish that I catch. But there are certain fish that I don’t fish for. There are certain fish that I only release. Often on my boat, we’ll take fewer than the allowable limit. But I think it’s okay to use it. As I say, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out when enough is enough.

Strictly from just a seafood lover’s point of view, is there enough of a reason to be concerned with the state of the ocean? From a seafood lover’s perspective, what is at stake?

If you love seafood, you should know that about a third to a half of the fish that we catch — that we like to eat are sold commercially and support commercial fishing and fishing communities and the rest of all the human interest they support. About a third to a half of those are depleted. There are problems with them. They are not as abundant as they could be, not as abundant as they should be. And some of them are on their way out in terms of being available for people. Now we’ve seen with certain fish that were once very available and very popular that we just don’t see them in the markets anymore and that’s because we caught too many of them.

In terms of the demise of fisheries, it seems that there are very different implications for first world countries than for third world countries. The danger of malnutrition is one such example. Could you speak about this issue?

In a place like the United States, what’s at stake is that people may not have the kind of fish that they like and that they enjoy eating, and that would be a loss. In other places, it’s a lot more serious than that. There are a lot of countries where people rely on the sea — really rely on it, not just for things that they like, but for things that they absolutely need for survival. And, depletion in those areas can translate pretty directly to malnutrition in children, poverty, social unrest, and political instability.

We have seen that in places like the Philippines. People are at war now at some of these islands. And some of the ideology that they are fighting over has to do with their need for, or their perceived need for autonomy, because people there are not content. The resources there have been failing them. And it just adds to all of the unrest and instability. But most of all, in my mind, the tragedy is that there are people that are really going hungry as a result.

Let’s talk a little bit about the globalization of the world fish market. How has the global market encouraged irresponsible fishing practices or overfishing?

The way the global market is starting to work as it becomes more and more international is that you have demands from far away. It doesn’t care where it gets stuff from. It doesn’t care if it takes all of it from the area near where you live because it can keep moving on. In more of a community based, and community managed setting, the whole thing is caring about what’s there where you live: Will we have enough cod in the future? Will we have enough abalones in the future?

The global market doesn’t care if you will have enough cod or abalones, it only cares if it will. And these people don’t care where it comes from. They don’t care if they get too much from certain areas.

So, the feedback loop between the resources and the community gets stretched so far, that a lot of the communities sort of get flung out of it. Then what you have is, rather than having business in a human context, you have humanity in a business context and that pretty much leaves humanity out of the equation.

Underwater, it’s murky and you can’t really see the fish. Do you think that might be one reason why wild fish might be appreciated less than other wild animals?

One of the major factors and the reasons why we don’t really appreciate wild fish is that we don’t see them very much. The water visibility in most of the oceans is only a few tens of feet — thirty feet, fifty feet — it’s not the kind of thing that you can go underwater with a camera and take a sweeping panorama of all the fish out there. So it starts to get a little bit more conceptual to people. Most people don’t get to see images of it.

If I say to you, Amazon Rain forest or Serengeti, or Rocky Mountains, or Alaska, you immediately have all these mental images. But if I say North Pacific Ocean, you just sort of draw a blank. And the only exception to that really at this point is coral reefs because the water is clear, the fish are colorful, and people have seen it on television as a result of that. But we haven’t seen the mating dances of cod, or the tremendous oceanic migrations of tuna. If we could see those things, like we see migrating birds, we would have much greater appreciation for the beauty and the ecological integrity, and just the magnificence of it. But, for the most part, we haven’t really been able to see it. We’re sort of piecing together concepts of it and there aren’t really the images that people have, the way that they have on land for terrestrial wild life.

I heard you once talk about how humans have an air breathing bias when it comes to sea life. You said that people, for example, are more likely to respond to whales and sea otters rather than fish? Are fish, with their gills, any less wondrous a life form?

I certainly don’t think that fish suffer in their biological status from the fact that they have gills. But most people seem to be able to relate better to things that breathe air. Part of it is that they come to the surface where you can see them better. And part of it is they are a little less "other" because they have lungs.

Another friend of mine says that people only care about animals that blink. If they don’t blink, people won’t care about them very much. But if you get to know about fish a little bit, you realize that for instance, that their migrations are as intricate and as lengthy as any bird migrations are. That in many cases, their courtship is very interesting and complicated. But they are pretty under-appreciated right now.

Because only a few kinds of fish can be farmed, aquaculture could be seen as a panacea from a seafood lover’s perspective. Can you discuss that?

When people first started to establish civilizations, if you look at the garbage pits, basically, there were lots of different kinds of wild animals that made up the diet. The diet was very varied. There were all kinds of gazelles, and different kinds of ducks and cranes and water foul and all these different kinds of wild animals. Only a few of them were well suited for agriculture. And now, we’re basically down to like four kinds of animals that we eat — you know — pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep — that’s five. And then after that it gets kind of thin pretty quickly.

We have this tremendously rich bounty from the ocean with all these different kinds of species — they taste different, they look different. They’re different in so many different ways. And, in aquaculture only a small subset of those will be able to be bred in captivity and at the scale that you need for commercial volume. So, aquaculture will not answer to all of our needs and it will likely cut down on our choices if we just go that one route, rather than take care of what’s already out in the sea.

In America, just in the last hundred and fifty years or so, our diet changed tremendously. There were a lot of different kinds of animals that we ate. Lots of different water foul, passenger pigeons — which are now extinct — were killed by the billions to satisfy appetites because they tasted really good. But people didn’t take care of them well enough and that’s what we need to learn from as far as our approach to the ocean.

What kinds of changes in the oceans do you see, throughout your travels, that concern you the most?

The biggest change that has concerned me the most over the course of my life is that there were a lot more fish years ago than there are now in most places. That’s by far the biggest change. And I very much think that we can get them back. With the few steps we’ve taken to try and get individual species back, they respond. They do increase. And that to me is the most inspiring thing. That it’s not hopeless. It’s not doom and gloom. That it really can work. But we have to put a little bit of energy into it. A little conviction.

In what way does the ocean set the earth apart from other plants?

The main thing that the oceans do for this planet is make life possible. You couldn’t have life without the oceans. You couldn’t have just what we have on land. You would not be able to have a climate that supports life. And there is no known life anywhere on earth that can function in the absence of water. So, water is integral to all life and the oceans are what stabilize our climate well enough to have that narrow range of temperature extremes that allow life to exist.

Has it ever occurred to you that the decline of our oceans is some indication that we’ve begun to reach the earth’s carrying capacity?

I think it’s clear that some of the things that are happening in the oceans show that we have overshot earth’s carrying capacity with sheer numbers of people — not just that we’ve caught a lot of fish and that there are fewer fish as a result. But, some of the really big things that have to do with large scale processes in the oceans. The amount of plankton — that’s the basic productivity for everything else that follows along the whole food chain — seems to be in decline partly because, if not mostly because of atmospheric changes that people are causing.

And the hole in the ozone layer, is known to be a major plankton killer and that depresses the overall potential productivity of the whole ocean. So while I think that catching fish because of the increase in population is the main thing, there are other things also that are sort of driving in the same direction with a lot of the destabilizing effects that the human pressure has put upon the planet.

There is a notion in fisheries management called that’s known as the interest on the principle, meaning that if fisheries are run in a sustainable manner, then the populations build up so much that there is surplus fish for fishermen. Can you speak about this principle?

The whole thing about conserving fish, it’s not just a story about restrictions. It’s a story about good management. If you want the most, you don’t just take it all right at the beginning. If you want to buy the most with your money, you don’t just spend your whole bank account. You manage it so that over the course of your lifetime, you live off the interest, you don’t mine out the principle.

And that’s a well established concept in natural resources, but it’s not a well established practice. Everybody knows that renewable resources are the ones that you allow to keep renewing and then you take the principle over a long term, it winds up to be a lot of stuff that you can get. But if you wipe it out early — if you take too much too early, you impoverish the whole system and ultimately, you impoverish yourself.

Increasingly the landscapes we all live in are cultivated, landscaped, and paved. These days, a lot of people’s experiences of the awe or wonder of nature are limited to photos or memories from childhood.

Could you speak again to the wonder of the ocean and to the fact that it is there for people’s enjoyment?

I think one of the greatest things about the oceans as far as the beauty and wonder is how available they are. In most places, the shoreline is public property. People are not even really allowed to own it and lock it up. You can go there, and you can walk along a rocky beach and find twenty lifetimes worth of things to look at wonder about and study and just feel tickled about how beautiful and fascinating and strange and delightful they are.

My introduction was as a barefoot child with a pair of swim trunks and a butterfly net. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment and expensive gear to go and get some of that stuff. And there’s a tremendous amount to share with people. It’s just endlessly rich.

What do you think the future looks like?

In view of what’s going on, are you hopeful? Do you think it’s going to get worse before it gets better?

I think there’s a lot of promise in the future — and there are warning clouds as well. And it really is very much up to us to decide. We are in a position where people shape the world. People are responsible for a lot about what the world is like. And we can choose. There is a lot of potential to bring things back, and have abundance and have beauty and there is also a lot of risk right now, I think. So. There is potential for some stuff that is not so nice to think about. But I think we have, overridingly, I think we have plenty of room left to have the kind of world we would all like to have.

Can you speak to the compromises that are made among competing interests that result in violating a minimum bottom line?

In government, especially in government with regard to fisheries, it’s a very, very simple thing that happens over and over again. Scientists say how much is out there. People say how much they want which is usually more, and so they split the difference. They take more than is actually out there, but not as much as they would like. But the result of that is mining down the capital. You’re not living off the interest. You are bankrupting the bank account and the fishing banks are also bankrupted — it’s an apt sort of word play.

Do you think that if the fish populations are allowed to recover and fish habitats are allowed to restore themselves, that the fishing efforts can be allowed to expand to a level that’s sustainable or is there a danger that it might return to the same level of exploitation that it was?

If the fish populations are allowed to rebuild, fishing efforts and catches could be higher than they are right now in many cases. Right now, a lot of the catches are so far down because at first they took too many. They took far more than the populations could produce on a sustainable basis.

But now, they are down so far that if they were to rebuild, what they could produce on a sustainable basis is a lot more in many cases, than what they’re taking right now. We’ve seen that with the recovery of striped bass, and redfish and king mackerel and the few cases where they have allowed the fish to come back and recover, fishing gets better, more people get into it, and it produces a lot more money than at that sorry endpoint where we are now for many other fisheries.

How long do you think it’s going to take, assuming that fisheries management kicked in, and taking into consideration the precautionary principle, to fully restore enough to go into full swing again, so to speak?

Most fish have really remarkable regenerative capacities and many of them have shown the ability to recover within about a decade. So we’re talking about getting these fish back and reinvigorating fisheries in most cases, within about, a ten year period of time — it’s not really that long. Many people could, in the time span of their working lifetime, see the fish come back and do a lot better than they are doing right now.

In your book, you talk about fish being some of the last wild life being hunted commercially. Could you speak about that?

A lot of times people talk about fish as stocks and they say that they’re harvesting fish. These are misleading kinds of words and they’re intentionally misleading words. And a lot of people have, sort of, unthinkingly, bought into them. When we refer to them as stocks, it’s like we’re referring to shoes in a warehouse. We don’t want to really acknowledge that these are living, wild animals. And when we say that we are harvesting them, that’s an agricultural sort of term — it sounds like something that you do to corn, or wheat, or watermelons.

But fish in the ocean are wild animal populations. They are wild animals in wild communities that have evolved together in their natural habitats and all we’re doing is we’re going out and we’re taking them — we’re hunting in the ocean, for the most part. And wild fish are the last group of wild animals in which we are really hunting — commercially. A hundred years ago — a hundred and fifty years ago — the markets were full of wild ducks and passenger pigeons, which are now extinct, and buffalo meat, and wild cranes, and things like that. We don’t hunt those animals commercially anymore. We have domestic animals that we now use. But, in the oceans, we’re still in hunting mode because the oceans are very, very productive.

But it’s important, I think, for people to realize that those fish are wildlife and that what we’re doing out there is simply hunting wild animals.

Would you care to comment on what an example would be of a large scale disruption of the ocean ecosystems that is likely to result from the fishing effort?

If you want to see what’s at risk, the poster child for overshoot is new England. Just about everything that can go bad in fisheries has already gone bad in New England. You have tremendous overfishing and depletion of a number of very important species and then the fishing gear that is primarily used is the bottom trawl — the big nets that drag on the bottom, which catch about half the fish in the world. In New England, that’s the primary fishing gear. That fishing gear deteriorates and degrades bottom habitat as it works. So every time it passes over the bottom — and in many cases, those nets pass many times a year, that bottom is less capable of supporting fish in the future.

So it’s as if you were, let’s say, harvesting a cornfield with a bulldozer that takes all the corn, but it also takes some of the topsoil along with it. That’s the overall effect of using that fishing gear. And then, you have the depletion, the disruption, the habitat damage, and ultimately, the top predator is the one that really takes the worst hit. And that’s the people engaged in fishing. They’ve lost, in many cases, their ability to make a livelihood. They’ve lost, in many cases the ability to have their family around them. Instead of going into those businesses, their children as they grow up have to look elsewhere and move away. And they’ve lost their self identity. They think of themselves as seafarers and people of the ocean, and they just can’t do it anymore to nearly the same degree. Many of them are out permanently now. All of what’s at risk can be seen in the microcosm of New England.

Do you think that the precautionary principle is being taken into consideration by fisheries managers these days?

Ten years ago, the precautionary principle, or the precautionary approach was mostly something that environmentalists were talking about and then it became accepted mainstream at the earth summit in the early 90’s. Now it’s actually embodied in a lot of new treaties and agreements and parts of U.S. law. It is not really put into practice yet, though. The next phase of recognition of the precautionary approach would be actually using it and so far it’s in the stage where it is now — showing up in mainstream documents and mainstream agreements — but not in the mainstream of actually how people manage fishing activities or the approach to other kinds of natural resources.

Do you think that the current world catch, at 87 million metric tons, can be exceeded or even maintained under present management situations?

Most people who analyze the global fishing picture think that we’re at about the maximum that we could ever take from the oceans. And in many cases, it’s a mosaic. Some of the important populations like cod, in the North Atlantic off Europe, or off New England are really badly depleted. In some cases, the fisheries are being managed really rather well (like halibut in Alaska). So far, Alaskan salmon are still very strong, even though salmon runs from the middle of British Colombia south are in very bad shape.

On a world basis that’s what you have — you have a mix. You have a mix of things that are very badly depleted. Some that are still abundant. And a very small handful that are actually, actively managed well. All of the analysts think that on a world wide basis what we are catching now out of the ocean is pretty much maxed out — that there is no undeveloped, or undetected mother load, out there. There is no huge stock of something somewhere that we are likely to get in a way that is in remotely economically efficient.

Could you speak a little bit about the role of government subsidies in contributing to the overfishing crisis?

Government subsidies prop up a lot of fishing power that can not be supported by the resources. It’s true also of other kinds of natural resources extraction. If the industry can’t live off the resource, artificially propping it up allows it to have so much excess killing power, or extraction power, that it goes suddenly from not being able to exist as a viable enterprise, to being able to destroy the resource. It’s one of the worst things — probably the single worst thing that has happened to fisheries world wide. If you had to pick one factor.

It’s kind of analogous to the idea that a cat can’t kill all of the birds in its territory because it would starve if it killed almost all the birds in its territory. But a cat that you are feeding in your kitchen every day, can keep going out and killing birds until it has killed the last bird. The role of subsidies is, it’s like cat food.

I was just wondering, you know, the tragedy of the commons, "Well, if I don’t get it, somebody else will get it…" How do you deal with that attitude?

You deal with the attitude that if you don’t get it, somebody else will, by having a government with agencies that are responsible for making sure that people collectively don’t take so much that the ones that are in it will run into trouble. That there’ll always be enough for people, because you don’t let them — collectively, take too much. It’s not very complicated.

It’s politically been infeasible because people have been in denial for too long, or they don’t want to take their little cuts in the short term. But the big picture is pretty simple. There are too many people who want to do it. They can’t all do it in an unregulated way. And you need to set limits based on how much the ocean is capable of producing. You can’t make it produce more than it can. and, you know, it’s really just about that simple.

Do you think that gathering assessment data by placing observers on board with fishermen would provide some kind of solution?

I think it would be good for fishermen and scientists to work together from a couple of points of view. One is scientists tend to be very bad at communicating what they do and what their methodology is about and how it works. And so if fishermen could understand that better, maybe they would realize that scientific results are really rather accurate and do paint a true picture.

On the other hand fishermen often know a lot about catching fish, and can provide important and interesting pieces of information about how fish are distributed and where fish are at certain times and certain places. One of the things that fishermen are often frustrated with scientists about is they say scientists are using outmoded methods to do their sampling or they are not going to where the fish are really concentrated and those kinds of things.

What they don’t understand is that to get a good scientific index of a trend, you do have to use the same methods. They may not be the best fishing methods currently available, because the fishing efficiency continues to increase and improve. But if you use increased and improved fishing efficiency to do your sampling, then essentially you are doing your sampling differently every year and you do need to sample the same way, or a comparable way every year. So if fishermen and scientists work together, maybe the fishermen would understand a lot more and the scientists might be a lot better at explaining what they do and why they do it that way.

Why is it that the striped bass fishery is considered such a shining example of a fishery that’s been turned around with better management?

Striped bass is probably the best example in the world of good fishery management producing a spectacular recovery from a severely depleted fish. And, they did the two things that you have to do. And they are very simple things. They let the fish get old enough to lay eggs, and then they prevented people from catching too many. All you need to do is do that in every case and you would have vastly improved, healthy sustainable fisheries around the world.

You shouldn’t catch all the fish before they can reproduce. And once you have fish in the water, you don’t unleash everybody to go catch as many as possible. And that’s what the striped bass recovery plan was all about; protecting fish until they got to an older age where they could actually lay eggs a couple a times, the females, and then putting catch limits on so that there were enough fish left in the water to keep reproducing.

How long did it take striped bass to recover?

We were seeing very strong signs of striped bass recovery within five years. About 7 or 8 years out they seemed to plateau at a very high level and they were declared fully recovered about ten years after the plan first went into effect.

What is the solution for the problems surrounding the migratory swordfish?

Swordfish are a really simple one. When they started being caught with long lines, which is a fishing line about thirty miles long with hundreds or thousands of hooks, they started going down — rapidly. That's because long-lines catch swordfish of all sizes, including a lot very young ones that have not spawned yet. In fact, almost 80% of the female swordfish that are caught on long-lines are not mature. They're too young to breed. And if you prevent 80% of the females from breeding and you kill them, you are going to destroy the population.

The fishermen say, "well, we can't just fix it ourselves," because there are all these other countries fishing for them. But not every swordfish just swims around the whole ocean like it's one big bathtub. There are swordfish that go up and down the coast to the same sorts of areas well within our two hundred mile limit.

And we actually already did an experiment about what would happen if the US acted uni-laterally. It was when we banned swordfish for a few years because of high mercury concentrations. If you look at the graph of the swordfish population, it started going down right after long lines came in, then as soon as the mercury ban went into effect, they came back in about five years almost as high as it had been before. Then the ban was lifted because the mercury standard was changed. And the long-liners went on them again, and they started going down and down again.

So the situation with swordfish is pretty simple, you have to get a lot of the long-lines out of the water. You can't just keep catching so many baby swordfish and expect to have swordfish grown up in the future.

Do you think it's possible to go backwards from the incredible technology and machinery that exists in the fishing industry?

I'm not at all advocating at all that people go back to row-boats and go and get lost in the fog. I think that we can use a lot of the modern stuff; reliable engines, radar, sonar, and all the things that make fishing a lot safer and a lot better. We just have to have an appropriate level of restraint and leave enough fish in the ocean to breed the next generation.

There are a bunch of people, including a number of commercial fishing organizations, that recognize this and want to fish in a way that is closer to the kind of fishing that was sustainable for the first few hundred years of fishing in the Americas. In New England, where things are so bad there is an association of people who want to fish commercially for cod with hook and line, and they do do that. Commercially its a very viable thing. And they can make a very good living catching fewer fish because their boats are smaller, they're not investing a lot of money in huge amounts of machinery and nets that cost tens of thousands of dollars and things like that. They go out with a tub full of line a bunch of hooks and they catch a lot of fish in relatively small boats.

They have modern engines. They have modern electronics but they have fishing gear that doesn't destroy habitat or catch a lot of fish. There are fishermen up there in commercial fishing organizations who love the skill that it takes to harpoon big fish, and they like knowing that by doing that, they're engaged in something that is not going to wreck the resource. They are still harpooning tuna, but a lot of them were formerly swordfish harpooners and they were to go back to harpooning swordfish, but they can't find any because there are not enough big ones around to do that. If we let them come back, we would have a ready fleet of smaller scale, more sustainable, modern fishermen. They're there and they're clamoring for management to cater to their need, which would be good for the oceans and good for all of us.

What are your feelings on the use of marine reserves?

I think the idea of marine reserves, or these, what they call "no-take" zones, or replenishment zones, where fish can breed, are really important. I think that any good management regime would include some marine reserves in their tool kit, in their matrix of actions.

To what extent do you think the consumer can improve the conditions in the fishing industry?

All fishing is ultimately driven by consumer demand and fishing interests often do a very good job in creating demand for a fish. In the last few years, they've introduced a couple of things that people had never heard of before, like orange roughy, and Chilean sea bass, which is actually a thing called Pategonian toothfish, its real name. The consumer responded, and because they responded all this fishing is happening. If the consumers had not responded, they wouldn't be fishing them because they would have no place to sell them.

So if consumers will orient their purchases toward relatively abundant and relatively well-managed fish, they can help reinforce and encourage having things done the right way, the sustainable way. If they orient their purchase power towards things like orange roughy and Chilean sea bass, then they drive things in the wrong direction.

And up until now, most consumers just have had no source of information to sift through. It's just there. Almost all of it tastes really good, and so they just pick up. And if they exercised a little choice and voted with their wallets, it would have a rollicking effect, really, on who catches what kind of fish and how.

Once consumers learn where they can find information, it's pretty easy. The "dolphin safe" label on tuna turned the whole tuna fishing industry upside-down in a very short period of time. And now there is more information for consumers. There's the Audubon guide to seafood, the Environmental Defense Fund is coming out with information that will be on their web site. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has some new stuff that's coming out. So these are all really good sources of information for people who have the questions; "Is it better to buy this?" or, "Is it okay to eat that?"