TRANSCRIPT - Dr. Carl Safina
Carl Safina is the director of the National Audubon Societys
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 isnt it true
that most fish in the oceans are along the continental shelves,
and that thats where most of the worlds fleets concentrate
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 earths surface than the land does and people
dont 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. Theyre
not just spread evenly in between the continents. And there arent
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 its very sparse, and where its concentrated
happens to be along the continents, because thats 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
theres 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. Its
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, its so big, how can we possibly
be fishing it out. How can that account for all of the changes that
weve seen, but a lot of other people whove looked at
it have concluded the same thing that the main agent of change
not to say that there arent 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 weve seen.
experiments. And certain areas where weve 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 weve 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.
Weve 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 dont
see how its 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. Theres no fertilizing going
on and its 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 thats 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 were 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.
Weve also run into people who say that its 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 weve 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 dont 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 weve 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. Theres 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.
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 hasnt 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, its because
they really dont 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 thats 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 wasnt 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?
in consulting 101 that the first thing you do and your main weapon
is always attack uncertainty. Theres uncertainty in
everything. Theres uncertainty in the safety of driving an
automobile. Theres 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 theres always some uncertainty to attack.
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. Thats 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
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.
Whats 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 thats 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, "heres
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 heres what should be done, it should
be no more than this amount taken, and everybody says: "Well,
no, thats not enough. So were going to take 50% more
than what youre saying because youre uncertain about
it anyway, and thats 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 its 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 thats
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 cant 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 worlds fishing fleets. Can you clarify your
stance to those who might find these two standpoints contradictory?
I think its
okay to use whats in the ocean. Its okay to use what
is in the environment around us. Its 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 dont fish for. There are
certain fish that I only release. Often on my boat, well take
fewer than the allowable limit. But I think its okay to use
it. As I say, its just a matter of trying to figure out when
enough is enough.
Strictly from just a seafood lovers point of view, is there
enough of a reason to be concerned with the state of the ocean?
From a seafood lovers 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 weve seen with certain fish that were once
very available and very popular that we just dont see them
in the markets anymore and thats because we caught too many
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, whats 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, its 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.
Lets 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 doesnt care where
it gets stuff from. It doesnt 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 whats there where you live: Will we have enough
cod in the future? Will we have enough abalones in the future?
The global market
doesnt care if you will have enough cod or abalones, it only
cares if it will. And these people dont care where it comes
from. They dont 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, its murky and you cant 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 dont really appreciate wild
fish is that we dont see them very much. The water visibility
in most of the oceans is only a few tens of feet thirty feet,
fifty feet its 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 dont 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 havent 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 havent
really been able to see it. Were sort of piecing together
concepts of it and there arent 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?
dont 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.
of mine says that people only care about animals that blink. If
they dont blink, people wont 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
Because only a few kinds of fish can be farmed, aquaculture could
be seen as a panacea from a seafood lovers perspective. Can
you discuss that?
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, were basically
down to like four kinds of animals that we eat you know
pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep thats 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.
Theyre 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 whats already out in the sea.
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 didnt take care
of them well enough and thats 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?
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. Thats by far the biggest change. And I very
much think that we can get them back. With the few steps weve
taken to try and get individual species back, they respond. They
do increase. And that to me is the most inspiring thing. That its
not hopeless. Its 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 couldnt
have life without the oceans. You couldnt 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 weve begun to reach the earths carrying
I think its
clear that some of the things that are happening in the oceans show
that we have overshot earths carrying capacity with sheer
numbers of people not just that weve 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 thats 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 thats 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
The whole thing
about conserving fish, its not just a story about restrictions.
Its a story about good management. If you want the most, you
dont just take it all right at the beginning. If you want
to buy the most with your money, you dont just spend your
whole bank account. You manage it so that over the course of your
lifetime, you live off the interest, you dont mine out the
a well established concept in natural resources, but its 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 peoples experiences of the
awe or wonder of nature are limited to photos or memories from childhood.
speak again to the wonder of the ocean and to the fact that it is
there for peoples 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.
was as a barefoot child with a pair of swim trunks and a butterfly
net. You dont need a lot of fancy equipment and expensive
gear to go and get some of that stuff. And theres a tremendous
amount to share with people. Its just endlessly rich.
What do you think the future looks like?
In view of
whats going on, are you hopeful? Do you think its going
to get worse before it gets better?
I think theres
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?
especially in government with regard to fisheries, its 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. Youre not living off the
interest. You are bankrupting the bank account and the fishing banks
are also bankrupted its 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 thats 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 theyre
taking right now. Weve 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 its 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 were
talking about getting these fish back and reinvigorating fisheries
in most cases, within about, a ten year period of time its
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 theyre
harvesting fish. These are misleading kinds of words and theyre
intentionally misleading words. And a lot of people have, sort of,
unthinkingly, bought into them. When we refer to them as stocks,
its like were referring to shoes in a warehouse. We
dont want to really acknowledge that these are living, wild
animals. And when we say that we are harvesting them, thats
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 were doing is were going out and were
taking them were 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 dont hunt
those animals commercially anymore. We have domestic animals that
we now use. But, in the oceans, were still in hunting mode
because the oceans are very, very productive.
important, I think, for people to realize that those fish are wildlife
and that what were doing out there is simply hunting wild
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 whats 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, thats 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.
as if you were, lets say, harvesting a cornfield with a bulldozer
that takes all the corn, but it also takes some of the topsoil along
with it. Thats 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 thats the people engaged in fishing. Theyve
lost, in many cases, their ability to make a livelihood. Theyve
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 theyve lost their
self identity. They think of themselves as seafarers and people
of the ocean, and they just cant do it anymore to nearly the
same degree. Many of them are out permanently now. All of whats
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 90s.
Now its 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 its 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
Do you think that the current world catch, at 87 million metric
tons, can be exceeded or even maintained under present management
who analyze the global fishing picture think that were at
about the maximum that we could ever take from the oceans. And in
many cases, its 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
thats 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?
prop up a lot of fishing power that can not be supported by the
resources. Its true also of other kinds of natural resources
extraction. If the industry cant 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. Its
one of the worst things probably the single worst thing that
has happened to fisheries world wide. If you had to pick one factor.
of analogous to the idea that a cat cant 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, its like
I was just wondering, you know, the tragedy of the commons, "Well,
if I dont get it, somebody else will get it
do you deal with that attitude?
You deal with
the attitude that if you dont get it, somebody else will,
by having a government with agencies that are responsible for making
sure that people collectively dont take so much that the ones
that are in it will run into trouble. That therell always
be enough for people, because you dont let them collectively,
take too much. Its not very complicated.
been infeasible because people have been in denial for too long,
or they dont 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 cant all do it in an unregulated way.
And you need to set limits based on how much the ocean is capable
of producing. You cant make it produce more than it can. and,
you know, its 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 dont
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 thats been turned around with better
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.
catch all the fish before they can reproduce. And once you have
fish in the water, you dont unleash everybody to go catch
as many as possible. And thats 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
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.
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
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?
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.
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?"