One hundred and ninety billion pounds of fish; 190,000,000,000 pounds…a number so large as to be virtually incomprehensible yet, according to recent statistics, one hundred and ninety billion pounds of fish are taken from our seas each year, mainly by commercial fishing.
The technology of catching fish has far exceeded the fishes’ abilities to reproduce and many scientists now estimate that the entire world fisheries will collapse by the year 2050 if commercial catch rates continue at the present pace.
While commercial fisheries complain that filling their holds is becoming increasingly difficult, the technology of catching continues to advance, allowing ships to range further, fish deeper, stay longer at sea, and fish 24 hours per day.
How are fish caught, by what methods?
As described by the Food and Agricultural Organization, a branch of the United Nations, the methods include:
- long line;
- surrounding nets;
- seine nets;
- gill and other entangling nets;
- grappling gear such as harpoons, spears and arrows;
- falling gear such as cast nets;
- and disabling devices like electro-shock, dynamite, and poison.
How can the fishing boats we have all seen possibly transport and process 190,000,000,000 pounds of fish each year?
Historically, most fishing boats were less than 100 feet in length and were without onboard storage facilities leaving them no choice but to return to shore where the catches were off-loaded on the docks of processing plants. Having to return to shore provided some protection to fish stocks since the boats could not remain at sea fishing around the clock for weeks and even months at a time.
But, technology and the building of larger ships with refrigeration brought about fleets that could stay at sea for months, catching then processing and placing their catches in cold storage. Still, the majority of commercial fishing boats had to return to shore with their catches, leaving fish stocks some ‘off’ time.
Then came even larger factory processing ships that allowed smaller boats to off-load their catches at sea, the latest in the American fleet arriving in Maine this past December. The American Freedom, owned by American Pelagic Seafood, is a 380 foot refrigeration and processing ship with $24,000,000 in upgrades performed last year in Europe.
According to a spokesman for APS, the American Freedom, with the capacity to handle 400 tons of fish per day, will host 20 smaller trawlers targeting herring and mackerel in the northern Atlantic. If herring and mackerel stocks are depleted as they were in the 1960s, and could easily be again due to the technological advances in fishing methods, fish species further up the chain that feed upon the herring and mackerel will decline.
Two of the many species dependent upon herring and mackerel are the Blue-finned tuna and Atlantic Swordfish.
As we read in the previous article on the Blue-finned tuna, 90% of Blue-finned stocks have disappeared since the 1970’s, mainly to over-fishing. According to a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1998, 70% of the Atlantic Swordfish population was lost after the introduction of longline fishing in 1963.
One of the many commercial fishing methods is longline fishing with lines ranging from one mile long to over 100 miles long from which thousands of hooks are hung. Duke University, in a joint project with other institutions of learning in the U.S., Britain and Scotland as well as various government agencies, has produced a map of the world’s oceans. The oceans are divided into 5 x 5 degree squares running from Greenland to the tip of South America, Northern Japan to Southern New Zealand. Each of those squares is then color-coded indicating the number of longline hooks deployed per year. The numbers are staggering.
While the Caribbean squares indicate less than 750,000 hooks each, those in the Atlantic directly in the path of Blue-finned tuna and Atlantic swordfish migration routes range from 5,470,000 to over 26,000,000 hooks per 5 degree square.
According to the Asociacion Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente, some 10 billion long-line hooks are deployed every year. AIDA also states that longline is the most rapidly increasing method of commercial fishing; a fact substantiated by the more valuable, less damaged carcasses compared to those hauled aboard in nets. It is no wonder that the populations of these two pelagic species in addition to many others are severely depleted.
Besides the devastating effect of longline fisheries on tuna, swordfish, sharks, and other pelagic fish, longline fishing has had a shocking effect upon seabirds, turtles, seals, dolphin, and other non-targeted species, called bycatch. A report commissioned by the American Sea Turtle Restoration Project and authored by Dr. Robert Ovetz in 2004 brought about a petition signed by over 1,000 scientists from 97 nations. The petition was directed to the United Nations and demanded a moratorium on longline fishing. To date, the moratorium has not been declared and non-targeted species continue to die at an alarming rate.
The report, Pillaging the Pacific, states that in the Pacific alone some 4.4 million species are taken each year as bycatch by longline fishers.
This overwhelming number includes 3,300,000 sharks; 1,000,000 marlin; 59,000 sea turtles; 76,000 albatross; 20,000 dolphins, and an untold number of Beaked, Humpback, and Sperm whales. While I have not yet found totals for annual Atlantic bycatch, individual species’ counts seem to be running almost as high.
There is an old American Indian saying, “When the land is sick, the people are sick”. Since the Indians incorporated all features of the land, their saying also includes the water and every species that lives within and upon. The phrase says so much in so few words. Care for the land, and also for the sea—for we are tied to it by the very fiber of our being.