Empty Oceans, Empty Nets — Issues
With a growing world population and marine fisheries in decline, fisheries experts have long hoped that aquaculture might one day take up the slack. In some ways it already has, but there are marine scientists who believe that large parts of the new industry thus far contribute more to a net loss of marine resources. The intense controversy over certain types of marine aquaculture pertains to what kinds of fish and shellfish are being farmed and how they are being farmed. In China, where millions of people are being fed by fish farms, the farms raise mostly herbivorous fish (like carp and milkfish) and invertebrates (like clams and oysters). It is important to note that these fish and shellfish do not require fishmeal in their diet. In contrast, many large-scale shrimp farms and salmon farms require large amounts of fishmeal because the animals being raised are carnivorous. Some sectors of the aquaculture industry are looking to the future and pioneering alternative methods of raising shrimp and salmon which are more sustainable. [back to top]
Although there is now considerable agreement among most marine and fisheries scientists (and many fishermen) that the world's fish stocks are in steep decline, and that this decline is in large part due to overfishing, there remains some controversy. Some scientists and fishermen believe the declines are caused by natural fluctuations in the marine environment such as changes in ocean temperatures, currents or biochemistry. Some believe that pollution is the key factor. There are also fishermen who question whether there is a real decline at all. We have documented regional disagreements over the abundance of resident fish stocks based on the absence of scientific assessment data or due to questions about the reliability of existing data. At times, these opinions contribute to a degree of mistrust between fishermen and fishery managers, or between fishermen and scientists. A good example is in New England and Northern Europe where we met several fishermen who firmly believe the absence of cod, haddock, or even swordfish in their traditional fishing areas is because the fish have migrated elsewhere. Nearly all fishery managers we've met agree that accurate assessment data is urgently needed for many of the world's fish stocks.
** To learn more about the global marine fisheries crisis and overfishing, some excellent books to read include Song For The Blue Ocean by Carl Safina; Sea Change by Sylvia Earle; and Fish, Markets, and Fishermen: the Economics of Overfishing by Suzanne Ludicello, Michael Weber and Robert Wieland. [back to top]
Over 27 million metric tons of "untargeted" fish and other marine creatures, almost 1/3 of the total world catch, are caught and discarded each year by the world's fishing fleets. The vast majority of this 'bycatch' does not survive. Bycatch is usually the product of unselective gear and unselective fishing practices. Some fisheries involve much more of this waste than others, but nearly all fisheries involve some degree of bycatch.
Avoiding bycatch makes fishing more of a science than many fishermen are accustomed to. Skippers need to be mindful of water temperatures, gear placement, bottom types, and the exact position of their boats in relation to areas that are closed. They need to avoid areas with mixed stocks as well as migratory, breeding and nursery areas. They also need to use fishing gear in a way that excludes this untargeted catch. Fisheries that use small-mesh fishing nets of the sort used for shrimp and small fish have the highest percentages of bycatch, but even large mesh nets can do serious harm. Gillnets and driftnets, if placed improperly or left in the water for too long, can drown large numbers of marine mammals, birds and seat turtles. Monofilament nets of all kinds that have been lost or discarded by fishermen (so-called ghost-nets) can drift with ocean currents for years, continuously killing sea creatures of all kinds. Nets are not the only problem. Long-lining is a common type of hook and line fishing that can involve excessive bycatch if used in the wrong areas, at the wrong depth, or if left in the water for too long a time.
The shrimp trawling industry has by far the worst bycatch levels of any fishery. For every pound of shrimp landed, at least 5 pounds of small and juvenile fish are caught and discarded. In many areas the ratio is over 10 pounds of bycatch per pound of shrimp. Gear modifications designed for shrimp trawls, such as the sea turtle and fish excluders required on U.S. trawlers, can significantly cut down on this bycatch, but unfortunately, shrimp trawling fleets of many other nations often fish without such gear modifications. The World Trade Organization recently decreed a U.S. law as an unfair trade practice because it requires shrimp fleets of other nations to use turtle excluder devices if they want to import their product into the U.S. [back to top]
Only two decades ago many fisheries experts assumed marine fisheries to be an inexhaustible resource. In such vast oceans, how could we ever run out of fish? Although most fishery managers and fishermen now know better, this centuries-old assumption still emerges in many of the interviews we've taped with seafood consumers. Most seafood consumers remain largely unaware that marine fisheries are in real trouble, although they realize that the price per pound is steadily rising for most kinds of seafood. To shoppers, there appears to be no shortage of seafood in supermarkets. Little do they know to what lengths the industry must go to maintain this inventory and what effect it is having on our oceans. Few retail seafood vendors know where the fish they sell come from, how they're being caught, or whether the stocks are imperiled.
Consumers are also mostly unaware of their own powerful influence each and every time they make a decision on which seafood products to buy and which not to buy. As long as there is strong demand for a seafood product, even if it's pushing a fish population to the brink of commercial extinction, the market will respond until the last fish is caught. No one is overseeing this world market, a market that has been largely unconcerned whether all is well in the ocean, or whether marine resources will be around for the benefit of future generations.
Fortunately, some recent changes are emerging within the marketplace that bode well for the future of marine fisheries. A series of new initiatives help provide information that has long been missing for consumers to make better-informed decisions when it comes to buying seafood (see What You Can Do). In addition to advisories such as 'dolphin-safe' tuna and 'turtle-safe' shrimp, there will soon be a much larger variety of seafood products that are independently certified and labeled as products of sustainable fisheries. A global certification program initiated by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a non-profit organization, has established criteria for "sustainable" fishing practices based largely on the United Nation's Code of Conduct For Responsible Fisheries. For a seafood product to qualify for the MSC label, it must be have been produced by a fishery with an effective management plan. The fishery must not exploit fish stocks that are overfished, or use fishing methods that excessively waste untargeted species or damage the marine habitat. [back to top]
Destructive Fishing Practices
In addition to overfishing and bycatch problems, there is growing concern that some fishing practices also damage marine habitats that are vital to fisheries, marine life and coastal communities. This can occur with both industrialized fisheries and with lower-tech subsistence fisheries in the developing world.
North Atlantic case study: Some marine scientists suspect that bottom trawling, a common type of industrial fishing, may in some areas damage essential fish habitat. Cod and other groundfish in the North Atlantic are caught primarily by powerful 'bottom trawlers' that entrap fish by dragging heavy nets with rollers over the ocean floor. In New England, we taped interviews with scientists studying the effects of trawling gear on various types of ocean bottom. Dr. Peter Auster of the National Undersea Research Center has accumulated a body of data based on observations made with submersibles and computer simulation. He has navigated over areas of sea floor with a remote video camera, both in areas that are fished infrequently and others that are more regularly trawled for groundfish. These sites include muddy or sandy bottoms and the rocky or cobbled areas that are more conducive to the growth of bushy-looking invertebrate species like sponges, soft corals, bryozoans, hydroids, and fragile worm tubes.
His research indicates that the living structures created by these invertebrates help provide a sanctuary for juvenile cod that must elude predators to survive. According to his research, the survival rate of juvenile cod increases in areas where there is a higher diversity of structure. In areas that are trawled regularly, the living structures are often damaged or destroyed, resulting in fewer places to hide. Obviously, variables affecting the recruitment of juvenile cod have importance for the restoration of some North Atlantic fisheries. In New England we interviewed bottom trawl fishermen ("draggers") who acknowledged the need to avoid fishing over bottom types that constitute essential fish habitat. A growing number of fishermen also share the opinion of marine scientists who see the need to establish marine reserves, areas that are permanently closed to all types of fishing.
Indo-Pacific case study: Amidst the vast archipelagos of the Philippines, Indonesia and Micronesia, the use of dynamite and cyanide to catch fish is destroying one of the most diverse and productive coral reef ecosystems on Earth. Blast-fishers throw 'coke-bottle grenades' into reef areas teaming with life and then retrieve the dead fish, mostly for local consumption. The detonation rips apart coral reefs that provide essential habitat for fish and many other sea creatures. These living corals are very slow growing; some can take centuries to form. Cyanide-fishers capture live reef fish for the lucrative trade in aquarium fish and food-fish (both are export industries). Divers use squeeze-bottles to squirt a solution of sodium cyanide into coral heads where reef fish hide. The idea is to temporarily stun the fish, net them, and put them into tanks for transport to Hong Kong and other destinations. Most fish that come into contact with the cyanide are never retrieved; they drift away with the currents and slowly die. Many others die in tanks before they're sold. But not just the fish die-living corals also die on contact with cyanide. Because both blast and cyanide fishing destroy habitat that's essential to local fisheries, and because corals are so slow to regenerate, the fishers typically move on to other pristine reefs and the destruction spreads. Fisheries in these regions are in sharp decline and the economic impacts of this decline on island communities are significant. [back to top]
Diminishing Fish Stocks
According to the most comprehensive and recent data published by United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), two-thirds of the major marine fisheries of the world are currently fully exploited, over exploited, or depleted. Forty years ago that figure stood at less than 5%. A vast majority of the fishermen, seafood merchants, and fisheries scientists we have interviewed thus far report an alarming decrease in the volume and size of fish being captured. With a huge increase in the fishing capacity of the world's fishing fleet since World War II, the total world catch peaked in 1989. But since then, despite an ever-intensifying effort, the total catch of ocean fish has hit a plateau at about 100 million metric tons per year. In our interview with Dr. Daniel Pauly, he describes research suggesting that the total volume of fish in the ocean today are a small fraction of the biomass that existed a century ago. According to the FAO, annual increases in total world fish production are primarily the result of the growth of the aquaculture industry, mostly in China. [back to top]
Distant Water Fleets
Vessels from several industrialized nations travel long distances to fish in international waters or in the territorial waters of other nations. Distant water fleets that operate within the 200-mile EEZ of another nation usually fish there by agreement with a government agency. These arrangements can be beneficial to both nations if terms are equitable and an effective management plan is implemented. Too often, instances remain where the conduct of distant water fleets is more controversial. In Indonesia our film crew interviewed fishermen who report the illegal presence of foreign fishing boats in near-shore waters. Local fishermen and some international NGOs contend that in some cases these distant water fleets successfully bribe local enforcement agencies. People in coastal fishing communities (most in need of the resource) contend that these illegal fleets overfish and negatively affect their catch. In some African countries like Senegal and Mauritania distant water fleets fish by legal arrangement, but at times in excess of agreed-upon quotas. Some local fisheries officials report that some African governments are compelled to open their fisheries in order to secure foreign aid or to generate foreign exchange to repay development loans. [back to top]
Fisheries Boom and Bust Cycle
The demise of marine fisheries is occurring on an unprecedented global scale, yet the collapse of individual fisheries has occurred many times throughout history – a boom and bust cycle familiar to many fishery managers. As described by Michael Weber and his co-authors (Fish, Markets, and Fishermen: the Economics of Overfishing), fishermen discover an unexploited and plentiful fish stock, which then attracts an increasing number of boats to a fishery. The 'boom' part of the cycle begins as many fish are landed and for a while everyone prospers. Eventually fish are taken out of the ocean at a rate faster than they can reproduce. As the fish become scarcer, more effort is added to catch them. Fishermen invest in larger boats with more gear and more sophisticated fish-finding technology. As the more powerfully equipped boats compete for the remaining fish, the stocks decline even faster along with the catch. Finally the cost of hunting down the remnants of a once-plentiful stock becomes prohibitive and the fishery goes bust. [back to top]
Fishing Down the Food Web
A team of marine scientists, including Daniel Pauly and Villy Christensen, have distilled and correlated a large volume of fisheries data that indicates a gradual shift in the global catch toward smaller, plankton-eating fish and invertebrates that are the prey species of larger, predatory fish like tuna and swordfish. Their research, made possible with help of computer analysis, correlates FAO global landings data with the relative trophic levels of targeted fish stocks. The trophic level for each species indicates where it resides within the entire marine food web. Larger "apex predators" like sharks, swordfish and blue fin tuna are at the top trophic level. Species at mid-levels tend to be medium-size fish that prey on smaller fish. Fish at lower trophic levels feed on invertebrates and plankton. By removing increasingly large volumes of lower-trophic level fish, the fish at higher levels are deprived of the prey they need to rebuild their populations. Also, because the inter-relationships between fish species are not yet fully understood, there is a risk the fishing effort is disturbing an ecological balance millions of years in the making that is vital to many fish stocks. Pauly and his colleagues are concerned that "fishing down the food web" may portend the future collapse of more fisheries. [back to top]
Globalized World Fish Market
With the advent of jet cargo and modern refrigeration, fish (fresh and frozen) have become a globally traded commodity. Most metropolitan airports have special on-site refrigeration facilities designed for seafood. In the large wholesale fish markets our camera crew has visited, it is common to see fresh seafood products flown in from half way around the world that were caught or harvested within the previous 48 hours. In Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market alone, over six million pounds of fish and shellfish are sold everyday and most of this seafood is imported. The US and Europe are also net importers of seafood and most this fish is imported from developing countries where effective fishery management plans usually do not exist. There have been cases, such as with orange roughy, where insatiable market demand elsewhere in the world has driven local fish stocks to commercial extinction. 30,000 metric tons of live reef fish, mostly caught with cyanide, are shipped into Hong Kong each year, where 80% of all seafood consumed is imported. This globalized market for seafood is one of the economic factors that can help drive overfishing. [back to top]
The tremendous increase in the fishing capacity of individual boats-and the doubling of the number of vessels in world fleet in just 30 years-could not have occurred without government subsidies. Since the emergence of 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the 1970s, many governments provide low-interest loans, loan guarantees, tax incentives, and fuel subsidies that attract investment money to commercial fishing. At first the idea was to maximize the fish harvest in waters no longer considered a part of the global commons. So successful were these measures that the coastal fisheries of most industrialized nations were over-exploited within 10 years. Despite the fact that even 'high-seas' fisheries are now being depleted, many of these government subsidies continue. Fisheries economists point out that, without subsidies, the commercial fishing industry would be insolvent due to the immense cost of maintaining over-capitalized fleets hunting after ever-dwindling stocks. We have taped interviews with fishermen and ex-fishermen in New England who believe governments should help to stop this downward spiral by ending subsidies and finding ways to equitably reduce the fishing effort. [back to top]
Laws, Treaties and Failed Management Regimes
Despite the existence of regional regulations, laws and international treaties designed to conserve fish stocks, the overall decline of marine fisheries continues. In many areas of the world, especially in developing countries, fishery management plans do not yet exist, and where they do, there is often little enforcement of quotas and other regulations. Corruption among government officials and poverty often compound these problems. Poverty is a key factor in the decline of fisheries in areas where millions of people turn to fishing for their very survival and long-term considerations can seem unimportant. Adding even more pressure on these fisheries, most of the seafood being imported into industrialized nations is caught in the waters of developing nations.
Even in industrialized countries, fishery management plans are often based on scant assessment data with quotas set at unsustainable levels. In the U.S. and Europe, there are problems inherent with management regimes that often undermine efforts to conserve fish stocks. The eight regional fishery management councils in the U.S. (that decide how to implement quotas and other regulations) are subject to the strong political influence of council members who represent what are often short-term economic interests within the fishing industry. In Europe, member nations of the EU are often at odds with each other over the allocation of fishing quotas in EU waters. As a result, fish caught by individual nations are often illegally landed to avoid being counted against quotas. Agreement over important issues, like minimum mesh sizes, becomes bogged down, resulting in practices that involve excessive bycatch.
International treaties pertaining to fisheries exist because many fish populations migrate across, or straddle, national boundaries. Many fish stocks are also caught in international waters. It makes no sense for one country to fish in a sustainable manner if the same stock is being fished by another country in a less responsible manner. It puts responsible fishermen at a competitive disadvantage and potentially nullifies any effort to conserve the stock. Fisheries treaties are subject to the same political wrangling that often 'waters down' management decisions made by regional councils in the U.S. Excessively high quotas end up being agreed upon to achieve a minimum consensus. International treaties have also historically had no means to effectively enforce their provisions. Compliance is essentially voluntary. There is also the problem of pirate fleets fishing under 'flags of convenience,' in which boats are expeditiously registered in nations that are not signatories to relevant treaties.
There is, however, a new international treaty that is a noteworthy departure from these agreements: the U.N. Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. In contrast to other treaties, this agreement stipulates that management decisions will be made with deference to the precautionary principle (see below) in cases where research data is insufficient. The new treaty also has provisions for effective enforcement. Only nations agreeing to its provisions will be allowed access to selected fisheries. Boats of member nations are empowered to board, inspect and even seize vessels of non-signatory states if serious violations are uncovered. [back to top]
Over-capitalized Fishing Industry
Part of what drives over-fishing is over-capacity. As defined in Fish, Markets, and Fishermen: the Economics of Overfishing, over-capitalization is an "excessive level of catching power, more effort in terms of vessels, time, and gear, than is necessary to catch the amount of fish available." During our travels we have taped interviews with fishermen and ex-fishermen who describe this predicament. As fish become harder to catch and competition becomes more fierce, they're forced to invest more money to better equip their boats-and their homes are commonly used as collateral to secure loans. To make the payments on these investments, they are forced to fish longer hours, hunting even larger volumes of fish and the downward spiral unfolds. [back to top]
Overfishing happens when a fishing effort removes a volume of fish from a fish population in numbers that exceed the stock's ability to replenish itself. With fewer and fewer fish left in the water to reproduce, the future harvest-potential is diminished, thus an excessive short-term effort proves to be an inefficient use of the resource. Diminishing numbers of fish without a corresponding decrease in the fishing effort eventually leads to a population collapse, rendering the fish stock "commercially extinct." Most marine scientists believe that overfishing contributes in large part to the worldwide decline of marine fisheries, and many believe it is the primary cause. The refrain commonly heard is "too many boats chasing after too few fish." A growing body of research also indicates the ever-growing fishing effort may now be altering the balance of ancient marine ecosystems that nearly all fisheries and marine life depend on. This could lead to the future collapse of a growing number of fisheries. The crisis has the potential to get worse before it gets better as millions of people are affected. [back to top]
In evolutionary time, the large-scale changes taking place in the ocean are very sudden. Exponential growth of the world's human population is part of what drives the ever-growing fishing effort. 2/3 of the world's six billion human inhabitants live within 40 miles of an ocean and these coastal areas include many of the largest cities. With the total world population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, an additional 40 million people are likely be added to these areas each year. Today over one billion people in Asia already depend on ocean fish for their entire supply of protein as do one of every five Africans. Per-capita seafood consumption in the U.S. and in Europe is higher than in most developing countries and it has doubled in the last 30 years. [back to top]
A rule of thumb that a growing number of marine scientists, fishery managers and fishermen believe should govern fishery management decisions is the precautionary principle. They point out that for many of the world's fish populations, accurate assessment data does not yet exist and that a myriad of other uncertainties must be taken into account. Scientists are only beginning to understand the ecological needs of various fish species and the interdependencies that exist between them. Changes in ocean environmental conditions that can increase or reduce the reproductive potential of fish stocks are also not fully understood. In view of these uncertainties and the historic tendency of the fishing effort to overshoot quotas, many fisheries experts say the precautionary approach is long overdue. To help reverse the decline of marine fisheries, they say we must cautiously set and enforce fishing quotas that are sufficiently low to allow fish stocks to recover and then keep pace with the fishing effort.
The controversy: Many scientists we've interviewed note that there has long been a tendency for fishery management bodies and the fishing industry to discount scientific data when it indicates the need to reduce fishing effort to conserve fish stocks. With few exceptions, they say the industry is inclined to focus on short-term economic considerations rather than face the changes needed for the long-term health of the resource. In contrast, some of the fishermen we've met believe the scientific assessment data used by fishery managers is often inaccurate, that scientists are sampling fish populations with the wrong methods and in the wrong places. They feel that the scientific community routinely discounts their own observations made on a daily basis at sea. They also point out that quotas set too low can force them to wastefully discard fish. [back to top]
The size and fishing capacity of the world's fishing fleet has skyrocketed since World War II. Technical advances made during and after the war leave the ocean's fish with few places to hide and they are caught faster than they can reproduce. Sonar gives fishermen the ability to literally see the fish beneath their boats. More powerful engines allow them to hunt in larger boats that hold more fish and pull larger nets in ever- deeper waters-nets now made of strong monofilament. Boats are now constructed with steel and fiberglass hulls that allow fishermen to safely travel much farther distances. Satellite technology and onboard computers allow them to map the ocean floor, pinpoint their own position and that of their quarry. Immense factory trawlers fish around the clock for months at a time with advanced refrigeration technology allowing them to process, 'flash- freeze,' and store a thousand tons of fish in warehouse-sized holds. [back to top]
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