Protecting marine life 1. Renewing the world's fisheries

Posted: 10 October 2000

Author: Carl Safina

During the past 100 years, ocean fisheries have been stretched to the limits, and the era of limitless bounty is now over. This century must be one of care and renewal as Carl Safina explains.

In the twentieth century, ocean fish catches increased twenty-five fold, from 3 million metric tons to a peak of about 82 million metric tons in 1989. It declined the next year and has generally stagnated since despite increased fishing effort.

All major regions in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific, have declining catches. In some regions, catches peaked in the early 1970s and have since declined by more than 50 per cent. In much of the rest of the world, catches peaked in the 1980s and have since declined by 10 to 30 per cent. Only in the Indian Ocean has the catch been increasing as the same industrialised fishing that depleted other oceans develops there.

Few believe the global catch can expand significantly. In 1995, the United Nations called fisheries "globally non-sustainable." They noted, "It is important to continue to single out overfishing (and its economic counterpart, over-investment) as the main culprit."

Meanwhile, some of the world's greatest "inexhaustible" fishing grounds and marine ecosystems - notably the Grand Banks and Georges Bank of Canada and New England - are now largely closed following their collapse. In Newfoundland, shutdowns have entailed a government bailout that will cost nearly two billion dollars. Conservation issues are often pitched as 'jobs versus the environment,' but in the oceans conservation can make jobs.

People generally forget that fish are wildlife. So instead of sensibly living off the biological interest of wild populations, we have been mining their capital. Ironically, over-emphasis on short-term economics has resulted in losses of billions of dollars to fishing businesses and taxpayers subsidising those losses. We have stretched the oceans to their limits, resulting in depletion, ecological upheaval, human impoverishment, and threat to the food supply for many poor people around the world.

Depending on fish

shrimpsShrimp acquaculture© Chris Martin/Still PicturesFishing accounts for only about one per cent of the global economy. But on a regional basis, marine fishing contributes enormously to human survival. In Asia, more than one billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal protein. Worldwide, about 200 million people depend on fishing for their livelihoods, and fishing has been termed the "employer of last resort" in the developing world; an occupation when there are no other options.

Each year the number of people increases by an amount equal to the population of Mexico. Even if the fish that now go to fertilisers and animal feeds - a third of the catch - went to people, aquacultural production - seafood farming - will have to double in the next 15 years. Aquaculture has been growing rapidly enough to compensate for the decline of wild fish in commerce. However, since aquaculture requires property ownership and exports most of its expensive production to developed countries, increasing aquaculture may actually mean less food for truly hungry people.

Aquaculture faces challenges of its own. Half the people of the world live within about 60 miles of the coasts. This affects water quality. Worldwide mollusc production has already stagnated because of water quality problems. And many fish that cannot currently be bred are raised in captivity from wild fry which are getting scarce for some species because the wild fish are declining.

Aquaculture does not appear likely to take much pressure off wild populations. In fact, some shrimp farmers are now fishing with fine mesh nets to catch whatever they can to feed their shrimp. Aquaculture is likely to increase habitat losses and degradation. One major reason half the world's mangroves have been cut was to make artificial ponds to grow shrimp - for export to wealthy countries. Intensive aquaculture is in itself a source of pollution, releasing excess feed and faeces in semi-enclosed areas and creating over-nutrification and oxygen deficiencies in waterways. There have been problems with disease in dense, monoculture fish facilities adjacent to wild fish populations. Also problematic are the overuse of antibiotics which are toxic to some wild organisms. And alien species, including pathogens, have been introduced both intentionally and unintentionally during aquaculture activities, severely affecting some wild populations.

War on fishes

After World War II, fisheries adapted military detection technologies such as radar, sonar and loran to peaceful efforts of food gathering. But from the fishes' perspective it might have seemed that war was suddenly declared on them. Later came satellite maps of water temperature fronts, indicating where fish are congregating. Some satellites can now detect fish directly.

The arms of the fishing industry grew so full of new gadgets that they could not simultaneously embrace the concept of limits. Between 1970 and 1990, the world's fleet doubled. It now has twice the fishing power needed to catch what the oceans can produce. Consequently, fishing became an extremely inefficient venture, so bloated with excess killing capacity that $124 billion is spent to catch $70 billion worth of fish. Subsidies such as fuel tax exemptions, price controls, low interest loans, and outright grants for gear or infrastructure, plug most of the $54 billion deficit. The United Nations notes that current world fleet cost cannot be matched by revenues at any level of effort. This marginalisation of profitability increases political pressure to keep catches too high.

Subsidies often arise from governments' efforts to preserve employment, something that could be more easily achieved by directing investment away from industrialised, highly-mechanised ships and toward smaller boats. Per million dollars of investment, small-scale fisheries employ between 60 and 3,000 persons, while industrial-scale fishing operations employ one to five persons. bycatchOverfishing is depleting the world's fisheries© Michael Roggo/Still PicturesBycatch and habitat

Fishes whose populations are at their historic lows include some very familiar table fare: swordfish, several species of tunas, red snapper, northern cod, several types of flounders, many groupers, and others. But overfishing is not the only problem.

Each year the fishing boats of the world draw up an estimated 27 million metric tons of marine life - about one-quarter to-one-third of total catch - which, dying or dead, are thrown overboard. Bycatch includes non-target fishes, juvenile target fishes, seabirds, marine mammals, and any other unintended creatures. Bycatch exceeds target catch in some fisheries. Shrimp trawlers' bycatch outweighs the shrimp themselves by 100 to over 800 per cent.

Waste is not the only issue; using everything would not solve the biological effects of catching large numbers of young fish, seabirds, sea turtles and mammals. Plucking hard on certain strings in the food web can cause vibrations in other creatures. In the Shetland Islands during the 1980s, terns, puffins, and other birds failed to breed when a fishery was developed to catch a small prey fish called the sand lance, upon which the birds relied heavily for food. In Kenya, fish that preyed on coral-eating urchins were depleted, allowing urchins to explode and damage the reefs.

In addition, fisheries suffer from habitat destruction and pollution. In many regions, bottom dwelling animals and plants (many of which feed and shelter fish) have been seriously damaged by commercial trawl fishing itself. Throughout the Indo-Pacific, many divers now catch reef fish for export to China by stunning them with cyanide, a potent poison which kills corals that are the fishes' habitats.

Habitats have also been degraded by activities unrelated to fishing. Roughly two-thirds of commercially valuable fish spend their early life in shallow coastal waters, but half the world's estuarine saltmarshes have been destroyed. Destruction of half the world's coastal mangrove forests costs five million tons of annual fish catch-more than six per cent of the world total. Agriculture, road building, and deforestation cause extensive land erosion and sedimentation of coral reefs and streams, while water diversions and dams have destroyed many salmon and sturgeon populations.

Management problems

Few countries have achieved any success in fisheries management. In many regions, there are no data for management. Where data exist, policy-makers often ignore it. In many areas fisheries proceed unmonitored. Where management exists, managers often fail to anticipate new markets and new fishing methods, or, fishers break the rules.

The United Nations says that 70 per cent of the populations of fish, crustaceans, and molluscs in the world's oceans "are in need of urgent corrective conservation and management." Their main concern, at the global level, "is to control fishing effort and to reduce it where necessary." But between 1989 and 1992, the world added 136,000 fishing vessels. Correcting the situation will mean reductions in fishing, requiring controversial decisions, political will and enforcement - exactly the things most governments find difficult.

Toward saner seas

Solutions are available. One of the most important would be to remove subsidies that prop up fisheries the resources cannot support. There are promising new advances in bycatch reduction devices, and recoveries of some depleted species show that fish can come back. The problems are largely a matter of political will, but politics reflects public opinion, and that means politics can be changed.

The oceans remain the great frontiers of Earth, offering scientific mysteries and compelling opportunities in super-abundance. But the end of a long era of mythical limitlessness and ideological freedom in the seas is upon us. This may seem a tragedy of sorts, but coming to grips with reality is always liberating in the end.

Carl Safina has been close to the sea all his life, as a fisherman, a seabird scientist and a voice for the restoration of abundance and vitality in the oceans. He is author of Song for the Blue Ocean, published in January 1998. Dr Safina has served on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, the Smithsonian Institution's Ocean Planet advisory Board and the World Conservation Union's Shark Specialist Group. In 1990 he founded the Living Oceans Program at the National Audubon Society, and serves as Program Director. Dr Safina is a lecturer at Yale University and is a recipient of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Scholar Award in Conservation and Environment, A MacArthur Fellowship, and the Lannan Award for Literature.

New stewards of the sea

The realpolitik of fisheries has long frustrated marine conservationists. All too often, short-sightedness has prevailed over scientific advice in setting catch limits, writes Michael Sutton. Now a new initiative pioneered by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Unilever food giant is working towards a radical reform of fisheries management.

The story begins in 1995 when WWF launched its Endangered Seas Campaign with the goal of reversing the effects of unsustainable fishing on marine fishes and the ocean ecosystems on which they depend. Coincidentally, Anglo-Dutch Unilever Corporation, one of the world's largest buyers of frozen fish, was beginning to worry about the future of its seafood subsidiaries.

Fortuitously, the two giants came together in early 1996 and announced a unique conservation partnership. They signed a statement of intent to establish a new organisation known as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) within two years. The idea was to create powerful market incentives for sustainable fishing by establishing a system of independent, voluntary assessment and certification of well-managed fisheries. logoProducts from certified fisheries could then be marked with an ecolabel, assuring seafood consumers that the source of their fish was environment-friendly. For the first time, too, consumers would have a way of promoting responsible fishery management through their everyday purchasing decisions.

WWF and Unilever pledged matching funds to set up the new organisation, and hired a project manager to oversee the development of the MSC. Recognising that the success of their joints venture would depend on broad support, the partners embarked on a campaign to win support for their idea. A worldwide series of workshops helped persuade fishers, seafood processors, conservationists, scientists, government officials, consumer advocates, and others concerned with the future of fisheries that the MSC was a worthwhile approach. Meanwhile, WWF and Unilever convened a panel of experts to draft a set of principles for sustainable fishing that would ultimately underpin the certification process. Test cases were launched to see if fisheries certification was practical.

The results were very satisfying, as the global fishing industry (which had originally rejected the concept of eco-labeling) began to embrace the idea. Trade organisations that had originally condemned the MSC and its founders began to take a fresh look, and some even published their own codes of practice. In early 1997, the MSC was formally established as an independent entity with offices in London. The new organisation was awarded charitable status later in the year, and took over from its founders the job of developing its infrastructure and principles. Dozens of stakeholders registered their support for the fledgling body, and fisheries around the world offered themselves up as test cases.

In 2000, the MSC announced the certification of the first fisheries: Western Australia Rock Lobster, Thames Herring and Alaska Wild Salmon. Support for independent certification and eco-labeling of fisheries continued to grow, and the MSC opened a US office in Seattle, Washington. Polls of the commercial fishing industry revealed that a majority of respondents believe that eco-labeling of seafood is here to stay.

The environmental community launched a new initiative known as the Seafood Choices Alliance, aimed at expanding seafood consumer awareness programs around the world. It seems that the original idea behind the MSC, harnessing market forces in favor of marine conservation, is finally beginning to bear tangible fruit.

Michael Sutton is former Director of WWF's Endangered Seas Campaign, and now directs the Marine Fisheries Program of the David & Lucile PackardFoundation in Los Altos, California.