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The Empty Ocean

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 924 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... HAS THE SEA GIVEN UP ITS BOUNTY? By William J. Broad
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2003
      NHNE News List
      Current Members: 924
      Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message.


      By William J. Broad and Andrew C. Revkin
      New York Times
      July 29, 2003


      Most of the earth's surface is covered by oceans, and their vastness and
      biological bounty were long thought to be immune to human influence. But no
      more. Scientists and marine experts say decades of industrial-scale assaults
      are taking a heavy toll.

      More than 70 percent of commercial fish stocks are now considered fully
      exploited, overfished or collapsed. Sea birds and mammals are endangered.
      And a growing number of marine species are reaching the precariously low
      levels where extinction is considered a real possibility.

      "It's an incipient disaster," said Richard Ellis, author of "The Empty

      A rush of recent studies, reports, books and conferences have described the
      situation as a crisis and urged governments and the industry to enact
      substantial changes.

      Behind the assault, experts say, are steady advances in technology, national
      subsidies to fishing fleets and booming markets for seafood. Demand is up
      partly because fish is considered healthier to eat than chicken and red

      Directed by precise sonar and navigation gear, more than 23,000 fishing
      vessels of over 100 tons and several million small ones are scouring the sea
      with trawls that sweep up bottom fish and shrimp; setting miles of lines and
      hooks baited for tuna, swordfish and other big predators; and deploying
      other gear in a hunt for seafood in ever deeper, more distant waters.

      Flash freezers allow them to preserve their catch so they can sweep waters
      right to the fringes of Antarctica. The trade is so global that an
      80-year-old Patagonian toothfish hooked south of Australia can end up served
      by its more market-friendly name, Chilean sea bass, in a San Francisco

      Seafood industry officials say overfishing and disregard for environmental
      harm peaked a decade ago. They point to the spreading adoption of gear that
      avoids unintended catches, acceptance of quotas and other limits, and
      agreements to conserve ocean-roaming fishes like tunas.

      "We now have a better understanding of the limitations of the resources,"
      said Linda Candler of the National Fisheries Institute, an industry lobbying

      Federal fisheries officials note that although 80 American fish stocks have
      serious problems, restoration plans are in the works, and other stocks are
      rebounding. The North Atlantic swordfish is often cited as a sign of
      success. After limits were imposed four years ago, it has now largely

      Pietro Parravano, who trolls for salmon out of Half Moon Bay, Calif., said
      fishery critics tended to overlook damage done by pollution and destruction
      of coastal wetlands. "It's not just our activity that's leading to this
      decline," he said. "If fishermen are doing something wrong, they're willing
      to adapt."

      The Problems Experts Worry About Extinctions

      Marine scientists have recently reported that improvements in fish stocks,
      where seen, are from depleted base lines that are a dim hint of the ocean's
      former bounty.

      In the early 20th century, harpooned swordfish were routinely 300 pounds
      apiece. Swordfish caught on long-line hooks by the mid-1990's averaged less
      than 90 pounds, barely big enough to reproduce. Improvements since then,
      biologists say, hardly represent a resurgence.

      Cod, which once could reach six feet in length, have essentially vanished
      off eastern Canada. Despite closures of fishing grounds, they may never come
      back, biologists say, because overfishing has so profoundly changed the

      One consolation to biologists measuring such changes is knowing that
      commercial extinction -- the point when a fishery is abandoned because of
      plummeting yields -- generally comes before outright extinction.

      Regional extinction appears to be possible, though. In 2000, the American
      Fisheries Society, representing fishery scientists and managers, reported
      that populations of 22 species, including various skates, sturgeons and
      groupers, had almost vanished.

      As industrial fleets push into new waters, experts say, the danger and
      damage spread. The laws and international pacts that do exist can be
      circumvented, producing persistent illegal markets in coveted species.

      The global fleets are sustaining harvests only by moving into untapped
      resources, said Dr. Daniel Pauly, a marine scientist at the University of
      British Columbia and co-author of "In a Perfect Ocean," a detailed analysis
      showing enormous drops in North Atlantic catches over the last century.

      "It is like a ring of fire burning through a piece of paper," he said.
      "Since the 1970's, when the big fishing areas of the Northern Hemisphere saw
      catches drop, you've had this front moving out, with a massive effort off
      West Africa, in Southeast Asia, the southern Atlantic."

      Moreover, scientists add, global fishing is spreading so fast that it is
      devastating marine ecosystems before scientists study them or get a rough
      idea of the size of populations. Off the coasts of North America and
      Australia, for example, biologists probing ridges and seamounts have found
      areas where trawls have uprooted communities of cold-water corals and other
      bottom dwellers that are centuries old.

      Recent studies estimate that stocks of many fishes are now a tenth of what
      they were 50 years ago. As prized species have diminished, fleets have gone
      further down the food chain, for smaller fish, more squid, even jellyfish
      and shrimplike krill.

      Industry calls it "biomass extraction" and turns the harvest into everything
      from fish sticks to protein concentrates for livestock or pellets to feed
      cage-raised salmon.

      International agreements protect some species, like tuna and swordfish in
      the Atlantic. But most fisheries in international waters are rarely

      Falling catches have led to fast growth in fish farming and other
      aquaculture. But these activities have exacted an ecological price, as well.
      Salmon and shrimp farms expanding in coastal waters from the Bay of Bengal
      to the Bay of Fundy displace ecosystems that are nurseries for much sea life
      or threaten local species through releases of nutrient-loaded waste,
      non-native species or diseases.

      The result has been a profound transformation of the oceans that is
      terrifying, said Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, formerly the chief scientist of the
      National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Fleets of squid boats can
      be seen by astronauts," she said. The lights attract the big-eyed
      cephalopods. "And with the demise of these creatures," she said, "the
      ecosystems upon which they're dependent become unraveled."

      The Causes Demand for Fish Is Booming

      Experts say the industry expansion has been driven by growing populations
      and prosperity around the world. Almost a billion people now rely primarily
      on fish for protein.

      Another factor is persistent subsidies that give fishing fleets breaks on
      fuel costs, vessel construction, insurance or other expenses. All told,
      according to private analysts and the Food and Agriculture Organization of
      the United Nations, the subsidies amount to about $15 billion a year, or
      more than a quarter of the $55 billion in annual global trade in seafood.

      Japan alone provides close to $3 billion in support for its fishing fleets.
      Support in the United States includes $150 million a year in tax rebates on
      marine diesel fuel, according to the World Resources Institute, a private
      research group.

      The subsidies are challenged by environmental groups and conservative
      organizations espousing free markets, including the Cato Institute. The
      problem, they all say, is simply that such aid results in too many boats for
      the available fish.

      Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies at Cato, said that
      regulating fishing fleets while supporting them financially was "like trying
      to drive a car by hammering the brake and accelerator at the same time."

      Another factor has been rapid advances in fishing technology. Much of the
      progress has been electronic: satellites of the Global Positioning System
      let fleets know their exact location, while increasingly sensitive and
      powerful sonar gear produces detailed readouts of schools and nooks where
      fish may lurk.

      Ted Brockett, president of Sound Ocean Systems in Redmond, Wash., which
      makes and sells devices for ocean vessels, said technology could help stem
      fishing damage if fleets used the innovations not to pursue the last fish
      but to find the right fish -- the size or species that can be harvested
      without degrading ecosystems.

      "There's a way to go," Mr. Brockett said. "But I think people are realizing
      there's a problem with the resource."

      The Remedies 'New Ocean Ethic' Is Recommended

      A host of scientists and organizations have recently sounded alarms and
      proposed solutions. Last summer, nations at an environmental summit in
      Johannesburg agreed to manage fisheries in a sustainable fashion by 2015.

      But long before then, ocean scientists and policy makers say, the continuing
      fishing threatens to damage the ecological foundations of fisheries in ways
      that may last for generations.

      In June, the Pew Oceans Commission -- with a nonpartisan membership
      including fishermen, scientists and elected officials -- recommended "a
      serious rethinking of ocean law, informed by a new ocean ethic."

      This fall, a federal oceans commission, after three years of study, is to
      issue a comprehensive report recommending new policies.

      "What I find encouraging is that a great many people now seem to understand
      that we're utterly dependent on the ocean and that we have the power to
      undermine the way the ocean works," said Dr. Earle, who holds positions with
      Conservation International and the National Geographic Society.

      Already, partnerships between boat owners and government and university
      scientists are producing innovations in gear to reduce unwanted catches
      while increasing the harvest of desired fishes.

      If nations shifted billions from subsidies to programs to buy out boats and
      retrain their crews, experts say, the industry could shrink without exacting
      too great a cost in jobs.

      The most important recovery strategy of all is simply to fish less, experts
      say. This can be accomplished in many ways.

      Harvest limits can be set, with quotas allotted to individuals in a fishery
      who can then trade them. Iceland has set the standard for this approach,
      which has also been adopted in a few American fisheries. By limiting the
      overall catch and allowing people to buy and sell their fishing rights, the
      system encourages some to leave the business, said William Hogarth, director
      of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Environmental and conservative
      groups, including Cato, support the practice.

      Fishing pressure can also be cut by creating marine reserves or closures
      that create nurseries. Some biologists have proposed that 20 percent of the
      oceans be set aside, although experts say that monitoring such vastness
      against piracy will be impossible.

      Reserves in coastal waters have already proved their worth, with rising
      catches in nearby areas. A notable success has been in St. Lucia, in the
      Caribbean, where reserves established in the mid-1990's increased nearby
      catches up to 90 percent.

      Some closures in American waters have led to sharp recoveries, said Mr.
      Hogarth, of the fisheries service. After a shutdown of bottom fishing in
      1994 in New England, he said, "scallops came back to record levels" and
      overall abundance soared.

      Mr. Parravano, the salmon fisherman who is president of the Pacific Coast
      Federation of Fishermen's Associations, called closures "a solution that
      does not fit for all fisheries." In some cases, he said, repairing damaged
      coastal habitats could better aid breeding and population recoveries.

      Nelson R. Beideman, who owned a long-line vessel that was lost at sea with
      its crew in 1993 and is now executive director of Blue Water Fishermen's
      Association, said that fishermen deserved credit for some of the
      initiatives. "These are the fish that our livelihoods depend on," he said.
      "Doing the right thing is only natural."

      Experts clash on the likely outcome of the flurry of activity. Mr. Hogarth
      sees ample reason for optimism if sound practices can spread before
      irreversible damage occurs. Overall, he and others said, fish can be
      extraordinarily resilient if their surroundings are not degraded too

      Still, he said, change requires a huge shift in consciousness. "There's been
      too much short-term vision," he said. "You look at all that water and think,
      `There's no way you could overfish it.' "

      Dr. Patrick M. Gaffney, a marine biologist at the University of Delaware,
      said the biggest problem was that science trailed the fishing fleets.
      "Oftentimes," he said, "you only start studying a species in its death
      throes or terminal decline."

      Mr. Ellis, the author of "The Empty Ocean," argued that the crisis would
      abate only when people better understood the threat and were persuaded to
      appreciate and protect the seas. "Worldwide awareness," he said, "is the
      root of the solution."


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