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Commercial Fishing – For Every Action – A Reaction

In 1687 when Isaac Newton published his three-volume Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, it’s doubtful that he considered the application of his Third Law of Motion to happenings in the natural world.  Considered to be more influential than Einstein in the history of science, and even though Newton was also a nature philosopher, a field much later known as the study of the nature, his focus in 1687 was the physiology of mechanics.  He would have had no idea that his Third Law, for every action there is a reaction, would someday apply to the decimation of the world’s seas.

In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives on May 10, 2001, Dr. William Hogarth of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) discussed the intent and purposes of the original Magnuson-Stevens Act signed into law by President Gerald Ford on April 13, 1976.  According to Hogarth, “When the Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed 25 years ago; the U.S. fishing industry lacked the capacity to harvest all the resources in our 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Congress, NMFS and the industry embarked on a program to promote domestic capacity. Now, we are confronted with a situation in which there is overcapacity in many federally managed fisheries.”

In other words, in 1976 almost everyone was still operating under the assumption that the seas held limitless bounty and very few had any knowledge of reproduction rates, sustainability levels, or management of fish stocks for the future.  While most of us still think of the 1970s as a progressive time, environmental awareness took a backseat to special interests and the political pressure those interests brought to bear.  The few scientists and environmentalists whose sense of doom for fisheries caused them to protest the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976 were labeled crackpots and tree huggers and little attention was given to their concerns.

During Hogarth’s 2001 testimony he further stated, “Viewed historically, it is apparent that Federal laws, programs and policies to promote the development of the U.S. fishing industry from 1977 to roughly 1990 are among the reasons we are now dealing with overcapacity… The United States became a major fishing power, and one of the top few seafood exporters in the world. However, it soon became clear that at least some key segments of the harvesting sector had developed excessive production capacity. Traditional fisheries stocks suffered major declines in parts of the U.S. EEZ. User conflicts among domestic groups of fishermen multiplied. By the end of the 1980s, everyone involved, including the Congress, NMFS, the Regional Fishery Management Councils (Councils) and industry became increasingly interested in ways to constrain harvesting capacity to more sustainable levels.”

While Hogarth’s comments only pertained to U.S. fisheries, by the early 1990s scientists and fishermen around the world were raising alarms over the declining fish stocks; blue-finned tuna in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean were disappearing, Pollock fisheries in Alaska were in trouble, Sardine fisheries along the coast of California as well as the west coast of South America have long since collapsed, crab fisheries were suffering, Salmon fisheries were in peril, Caribbean fisheries were declining, and the Gulf of Mexico was becoming a barren wasteland.  Aboriginal fishermen along the Indian Ocean and the coasts of Africa had to go farther for less catch.

We began to listen to the scientists and environmentalists in the 1990s; so long ignored, fired from government jobs around the world when they dared offer up fisheries management plans that set limits and seasons…how dared they espouse theories that fish stocks cannot survive and multiply in the onslaught of huge factory processing ships with the ability to take 100 tons of fish in a single net haul, setting several nets a day, working around the clock, staying at sea for months on end.

Finally we began to listen!  No longer considered loonies, scientists began studying fisheries targeted species and people began to listen.  Where do they spawn?  What is the age at which they can reproduce?  What is the survival rate of their young?  Where do the young stay until they are mature enough to join the trans-oceanic migrations or form schools along reefs and coastlines?  What is their position in the marine food chain and what feeds upon them?  And, their predators…what actions and by whom or what do those actions affect the predators’ numbers?  What purpose do the predators serve?  What affects the environments in which the young grow to maturity and where the adults survive to propagate the species?

After decades of thinking that a fish was a mere solitary creature that swam about unaffected, the complicated and co-dependent chain of nature was realized; for every action there is a reaction.

Mow down a mangrove swamp and build vacation homes…a fish nursery is destroyed.  Scoop up an entire school of tuna and for each female in the school, tens of thousands of eggs will never be spawned to drift in the seas as they mature, reproduce and perpetuate the species.  Dump waste upon a reef and that reef will die leaving many species of fish and crustaceans to perish for lack of protection.  Obliterate all the sharks by cutting off their fins; dumped still alive back into the sea where they spin helplessly as they sink to the bottom and drown…nature’s balance is turned upside down leaving sickly fish to infect others in their schools, fish the sharks would have eliminated.

So now, we listen and there is hope.  The revised Magnuson-Stevens Act renewed earlier this year carries heavy consideration of scientific data.  Bans on bottom trawling are slowly being put into place.  “Safe” nets that allow for the escape of by-catch are becoming the order of the day.  Turtle exclusion and escape devices are being developed and refined as this article is written.  People and governments are listening and, while many fish species remain in perilous waters and factory ships as well as pirate fishers still ply the oceans, small inroads are being made.  There is good to report in upcoming articles.

Sustainability in Commercial Fishing Series

Becky Bauer takes an in depth look at today’s Commercial Fishing…

After many years of debate, the dogged determination of environmental groups, and scientific studies, the cause of many large-scale disasters—killing floods and landslides, starvation from lack of topsoil in which to grow food, air and water degradation—is now recognized as a threat to global security. This threat is the clear cutting of forests throughout the world.

I am certain you are wondering what clear cutting has to do with commercial fishing. A recent study conducted by Dr. Les Watling of the Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine states that commercial bottom trawling and dredging destroys 150 times more sea bottom than clear cutting destroys forests per year. 150 x 16m = 2400m acres of sea bottom per year; 2,400,000,000 acres, a number so large as to be almost incomprehensible.

Take a walk with us and begin to understand the repercussions of our actions…  AWARENESS and Understanding are the keys to sustainability.

After 30 years as a wild and domestic animal rescuer, rehabber, and educator in the states, Becky Dayhuff became a scuba instructor and journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean.  She is a contributing photographer to NOAA and received a “Passionate People” award from Sirenian International based on her marine life writings, particularly her series on manatees.

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