After Centuries of Abuse, The Oceans Bite Back

1995 Environment Hawai`i, Inc. Volume 6 Number 5 (November 1995)

As central as the ocean is to our environment in Hawai`i, most of us tend to regard it -- if we think of it at all -- as a peripheral player, forgiving of abuse and able to tolerate endless insult. For years, it was thought to be capable of receiving all the sewage, trash, toxic waste, and runoff we put into it while, at the same time, its ability to serve up bountiful quantities of delectable, wholesome fish was thought to be practically infinite. Countless billions of dollars were saved over the years by the first practice, in the avoided costs of waste treatment and landfill and recycling expenses. In the case of the latter commerce, fishermen and the whole range of businesses dependent on them pumped significant revenue into our economy, in addition to providing the world with its most important source of protein.

No more. Ocean fisheries worldwide are in trouble. In the United States alone, once-rich fishing banks from New England to the Gulf of Mexico are being closed or are closed already, the result of years of over-fishing. In Alaska and further down the Pacific coast, strict quotas have had to be placed on the harvest of many formerly abundant species of fish. Nor does Hawai`i stand apart from this trend.

The High Seas

In Hawaiian waters under federal jurisdiction, the swordfish catch of longline vessels dropped by nearly half in one year (from 13 million pounds in 1993 to 6.9 million pounds in 1994). The drop comes in a fishery that is probably younger than most fish caught. Consider this: In 1987, the commercial catch of swordfish in Hawai`i was non-existent. By 1993, however, it peaked at 13.9 million pounds, while a year later, the catch was below the volume caught in 1991. Some observers of the industry attribute this to the departure of many of the vessels in the swordfish fleet to bluer waters. The reduction in the number of boats fishing could account for a diminished haul of swordfish. Just as easily, however, smaller catches could have prompted the vessels to leave. This is suggested in the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council's 1994 report on pelagic fisheries, which states that among the reasons mentioned by vessel owners for leaving Hawai`i were "poor swordfish catch rates."

How could a fishery arise, peak, and plummet in so short a time? The fact is that the swordfish fishery, and practically all other important commercial fisheries, have been managed in a fashion that gives the benefit of a doubt to exploitation rather than conservation. Precious little is known about the reproduction and health of almost all of the ocean fish species. Invariably, however, the people who manage ocean fisheries take the approach that, absent rock-solid evidence of fishery decline, the fishery is presumed to be in the pink of health. Such an assumption is unwarranted, of course, but hardly unexpected. With the eight fishery management councils in the United States being dominated by commercial fishing interests, exploitation of fish stocks is invariably favored over conservation.

Fishing for Dollars

Even if conservation becomes an issue, it is almost always defined in economic terms -- as conservation sufficient to allow the depleted stocks to recover to the point they can be commercially fished once more. Little or no attention is given to the impact of overfishing on the ecological health of the ocean itself.

This helps explain the fact that no attention is paid to the appalling rise in shark catch rates. Sharks are not species targeted by the commercial fishing industry. They are, rather, part of the industry's by-catch. Unlike other species in the by-catch that can be sold commercially, the profit to be made from the sharks lies in their fins alone. Instead of the sharks being cut free from the lines and allowed to return unharmed to the ocean, fishing crews routinely slice off the sharks' dorsal fins -- highly valued in the shark-fin soup favored by some Asian cultures -- and toss the doomed sharks back into the water.

With restrictions on the taking of sharks being put in place in Atlantic waters (precisely because of this practice), fishing fleets in the Pacific are finding a ready market for shark fins. Indeed, the dramatic rise in shark catches in Hawai`i, beginning in 1992, coincides with the ban on the catch of sharks in the Atlantic.

No one has any idea what this means for the health of the oceans, where the shark, as a top predator, plays an essential role in maintaining the natural balance. Worse yet, few seem to care.

On top of the environmental consequences of shark-finning, there's the troubling fact that men whose very livelihood depends upon the health of the ocean could be so callously indifferent to the welfare of sharks. That they could seem to relish inflicting harm to these creatures -- as one observer related to Environment Hawai`i (in an October 1995 article) -- reveals a side of human nature that is disquieting to ponder.

Observer Costs

Fish are free -- to the fishermen. Taxpayers pick up the tab for managing and monitoring the stocks of commercially desirable fish, for enforcing fisheries regulations, and for rescuing fishermen in trouble. Practically the entire budget of the National Marine Fisheries Service as well as the eight regional fishery management councils amounts to a federal subsidy for the commercial fishing industry.

By law, however, NMFS must ensure that fishermen do not inflict irreparable harm to federally protected species, such as sea turtles, marine mammals, and sea birds. To do this, NMFS must rely on the reports of interactions between fishing gear and protected species made either by paid, independent observers or by the fishermen themselves. Since the fishermen's catch reports have notoriously under-reported the interactions with protected species, NMFS has been forced to rely on observers -- thereby adding another log to the subsidy fire that keeps U.S. fisheries cooking.

In the Republican-controlled Congress, NMFS is fighting for its very life. Budget cuts have left it unable to pay for the longline observer program in Hawai`i. As an alternative to forcing the longline fishery to close altogether, NMFS proposed a plan to have the fishermen pay most of the costs, which would come to about $6,000 a year per boat.

The fishermen naturally opposed the plan, with the support of the industry-dominated Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

Few fishermen are wealthy. Still, it is time that the fishing industry began to pay the real costs of managing the resources it exploits. No less than mining companies that tear up federal lands for nominal fees, the fishing industry has made the American public pay twice for the products it sells: Once every April 15, and again at the point of sale. If there is some way of distributing the costs of the observer program so that not only the fishermen, but the auction houses, fish wholesalers, and chandlers pay a share, NMFS should try to find it.


In Hawai`i, the most critically overfished species remain the onaga and other bottomfish within waters under the control of the state of Hawai`i. Unless the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council takes the unprecedented step of overriding the state and moving in with its own bottomfish management plan for state waters, resolving the crisis of overfished snappers in Hawai`i will remain a matter for the state to address. (This it is belatedly doing, with the formation of a bottomfish advisory task force, which, like the federal council, is composed entirely of representatives from the fishing industry and public agencies.)

The task force's work remains unfinished, but the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Aquatic Resources was hopeful that it would have a plan available to go out for public review by the end of October. From early indications, the favored plan for bottomfish management involved area closures (closing, say, 20 percent of the bottomfish grounds in waters off each county) as a means to help bottomfish stocks recover.