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HomeLifePurse Seining and the Collapse of the Fisheries

Purse Seining and the Collapse of the Fisheries

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The final method of commercial fishing covered in this series is purse seining.  Deployed to catch schooling fish near the surface including mackerel, herring, sardine, anchovy, and some species of tuna, purse seine nets can be 1,200 feet or more in length with an approximate depth of 40 feet.  Using spotters in boats and in the air, purse seine fishers look for signs of schooling fish.

Once a school is found the purse seine net is deployed from the mother ship, the leading edge towed by a small boat as the mother ship turns in a circular pattern.  Once the two ends meet, a line run through the bottom of the net is drawn up much like a drawstring purse while the top edge is held on the surface by a series of floats.  Everything within the purse seine is trapped.

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Thousands upon thousands of targeted fish are trapped in one set of the seine, dolphins often used as markers for spotting schooling fish are trapped, sea turtles, untargeted fish species, floating debris under which the targeted fish hide is trapped along with any other hapless marine creatures and birds who use the debris for shelter, small whales…all trapped.

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While the birds may be able to fly off before the purse seine is hauled aboard, everything else encircled by the net is often doomed…bycatch, useless to the fishermen, killed as winches, block and tackle, or suction hoses are used to haul the catch, often crushing dolphin and other unwanted species.

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“Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal
and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it… How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible…
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the
other of their closing destiny…
Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could
I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish?… There is no escape.”

The poem paraphrased above was written in 1937 by Robin Jeffers upon observing the sardine purse seine fisheries off the cost of California.  While the poem is lengthy Jeffers’ likened the doomed schools of fish caught in purse seines to the loss of civilizations and the inevitable death of all living things.

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Back in 1937 when Jeffers wrote “Purse Seine” he had no idea how visionary his poem would prove to be.  Although his allegory was more a statement on the fleeting circle of life, he, as well as the majority of others operated under the false assumption that the sea held unlimited and inexhaustible bounty.  Jeffers has not a clue that the purse seine fisheries he was observing and thought beautiful in a terrible sort of way would contribute to the demise of ages-old cultures as well as laying waste to our seas.

As Jeffers was writing “Purse Seine” the California sardine fishery was already collapsing due to over-fishing in spite of warnings issued by a few scientists working for the government of California that sardine fishing should be regulated.  Those scientists were replaced when a new ‘fishermen friendly’ governor was elected.  He replaced them with his own experts who vociferously decried that the sardine fisheries were in no peril.  By the end of the 1930’s many thousands of California purse seine fishermen as well as cannery workers were out of work when the sardine fisheries collapsed altogether.

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Having “mined out” sardines along the California coast, according to a study by Malcolm MacGarven commissioned by the European Union, Star-Kist and Van Kamp Foods simply moved their operations south to the coast of Peru.  With little effort their sardine fisheries operations were converted to Pacific anchovy.  By the 1970’s the Peruvian anchovy purse seine fisheries had also collapsed putting even more people out of work and creating tremendous hardships and starvation for indigenous fishermen who had fished anchovy for many generations.

Here in the Caribbean commercial fishermen use purse seines to catch Yellow Fin tuna.  Statistics published by ICCAT in 2004 show that the size and weight of the Yellow Fin is declining due to over-fishing.  “For example, in the Atlantic during 1997-2001, 54 to 72% of the Yellow Fin tuna caught by purse-seine vessels each year were small (individuals that weigh less than 3.2 kg).”  The report further states that, because so many juvenile and young Yellow Fin are taken, the sustainability of Yellow Fin may be at risk.

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Because so few of the Caribbean nations have viable fishing regulations and little or no enforcement of the regulations currently in place…is it possible that the Caribbean Yellow Fin tuna fisheries is facing the same fate as the California sardine and Pacific anchovy fisheries?

Will Caribbean fishermen face the same tragedies as those in California and Peru while mega fishing corporations move on elsewhere to repeat their pillaging with no thought of the consequences to the local peoples left behind?

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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