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What is the Definition of Commercial Fishing?

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Last month’s column featured the Blue Fin tuna and described not only its far-ranging migration but also the devastating loss of some 80% of the Blue Fin’s population to commercial fishing.  But, what is the definition of commercial fishing?

The answer is so complicated; depending upon who one asks, the answers are as numerous as the people questioned.  Since scientists are finally moving from the miserably failed, long held practice of managing fisheries one species at a time to the enlightened realization that the loss of one species affects many fish species as well as other life forms, the definition of commercial fishing must be broadened.

No longer can the definition of commercial fishing be limited to multi-nation factory ships plying the deep waters of the world’s oceans.

The devastation of deep water and inshore fish populations as well as the destruction of coral reefs that are the spawning grounds and protectors of so many fish species should no longer be attributed to any one enterprise.

For the purposes of this series on commercial fishing, we have chosen to include a broadened definition of commercial fishing.  Therefore, commercial fishing will include all fisheries wherein the fishermen take fish and other seafood for monetary gain.

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While this definition may well cause controversy, none can deny that when money is involved in any endeavor there are some who only see immediate reward and do not look toward the future.  Whether it is fishing or mining or agriculture, greed takes over and many of the practitioners see only their growing bank accounts and not the irreparable damage and ultimate losses to and degradation of all species.

Certainly, there is no denying that factory ships have ravished the world’s oceans and seas.  From 1950 to 1989 these ships increased their annual take almost five-fold to approximately 95,000,000 tons.  With abandon, 95 million tons of seafood were taken from the world’s oceans in one year under the prevailing thought that the seas’ bounties were never ending.

And what happened as a result?

Fisheries collapsed, several targeted fish populations were harvested to the brink of extinction, non-targeted species known as bycatch suffered tremendous losses, fishermen and their families were displaced, homes were lost, businesses frequented by the fishermen closed, once vibrant communities became ghost towns, children were thrown into poverty and lives of despair; the cumulative effects sent shockwaves around the world.

But, not all the fisheries’ losses can be blamed on factory ships.  Once village-based subsistence fishermen, who fished to feed their families and immediate communities began taking more than they needed, the excess was sold to brokers waiting at docks who sent the catches to fast food chains, gourmet restaurants, specialty markets, and even fertilizer plants.

As recreational fishermen had increasingly more difficulty in finding trophy fish they were, perhaps, one of the first groups to realize the seas’ bounty was not endless and, now, much of the recreational fishing is catch and release.  In the past little thought was given to releasing a large, healthy specimen so that it could perpetuate its species but rather it was killed and hung on a wall for bragging rights.

Consumers also bear responsibility for the devastating decline in fish populations.

Should the gourmand in Japan refuse to pay $300 for a plate of Blue Fin sushi or the business magnate serve farmed seafood rather than wild caught Honduran lobster at his dinner parties, the commercial fleets would see their markets decline, forcing a reduction in takes.

Governments must be held accountable; officials who had the power to set and enforce rules more often than not catered to special interests and were concerned more with increasing their personal fortunes or being re-elected rather than the welfare of their constituents as a whole.  In addition, governments of oceanic countries failed and continue to fail to form alliances and protect their marine resources including what we now know to be widely migrating fish species that are confined by no border or boundary.

And, lastly, we the constituents of these governments; we who stood by and did not speak up as greedy commercial fisheries lobbyists coerced willing politicians, plying them with free trips to locales like Tokyo where they were treated as VIPs and enjoyed free lodging in 5-star hotels, obligating them to sign whaling and fishing agreements.  We are also guilty, we who habitually fail to see that our seas and their diminishing bounties affect us all rather than only those who live along the coasts and make their living there.

Significant changes in the way we view our oceans and the life within are beginning to occur.  The devastating practice of bottom trawling is being targeted by the United Nations as well as many scientific and environmental groups.  Scientists more concerned with science than ego are proving old theories wrong. Dr. Barbara Block of Stanford University recently disproved the separate populations theory under which ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, managed tuna catches for almost 40 years—40 years which saw the Blue Fin’s population drop almost 80%.

Governments, albeit much too slowly and still too heavily influenced by  lobbyists, are beginning to form alliances with neighboring countries and are setting up multi-nation marine environmental and fisheries committees to establish mutually beneficial catch limits and catch methods.

Estimates from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations state that 25-30% of all seafood consumed today comes from aquaculture while wild caught fisheries have fallen slightly over 3% in the past 10 years.  A determination as to whether the decline in caught fisheries is due to the decline in fish populations or from better management remains to be seen.

Consumers are very slowly becoming more aware and better educated regarding the consumption of seafood; gaining knowledge of destructive fishing practices but also the risks from eating species taken from polluted waters.  We, as consumers, hold the key to better management, cooperation between governments, the growing aquaculture industry, and, ultimately, the preservation of our life-giving oceans.

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.

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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.

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