Vacuuming The Seas

How a new U.N. treaty promises to end the untrammeled plundering of ocean fisheries and could be the first step in helping the ecosystems of the world's oceans recover from overfishing.
--By Dick Russel

The deep-water regions, those beyond the 200-mile sovereign national limits, are dominated by six countries -- Japan, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan and Poland -- which account for 90 percent of the world's high-seas catch.

It is their practices that the new United Nations treaty seeks to address, in a landmark agreement that National Resource Defense Council scientist Lisa Speer hopes "marks the end of untrammeled plundering of ocean fisheries."

The treaty's most crucial provision is its "precautionary, risk-averse" approach, meaning basically that nations must err on the side of the resource if marine scientists are unsure whether fishing pressure is damaging a particular stock's sustainability.

The accord also calls for improved enforcement, monitoring and scientific assessments, as well as protection of marine biodiversity by minimizing pollution and the needless destruction of non-target fish, also known as "bycatch."

In U.S. waters, where the National Marine Fisheries Service has classified over 82 percent of the commercial stocks as being overfished, the amended version of the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act will require managers to reduce fishing volumes and meet specific timelines.

Under the Act, first passed by Congress in 1976, eight regional councils acquired the authority to set annual catch limits within the U.S. 200-mile jurisdiction.

But, explains Bill Mott of the Marine Fish Conservation Network (an alliance of 100 sportsmen's and environmental groups whose intensive lobbying to improve the Act prodded Congress), the domination of these councils by representatives of the fishing industry "is like letting the fox guard the henhouse."

The Gulf of Mexico Council, for instance, permitted red snapper to be fished down to five million pounds per year, where they'd once been so abundant as to yield 30-million-pound annual catches. The New England Council refused to put a lid on the groundfishery at George's Banks, even after the Commerce Department Declared several species at or near commercial extinction.

At long last, though, the council's attitude appears to be changing. A newly amended New England groundfish plan, approved in late January, aims to reduce fishing levels by 80 percent though severely limiting the number of days a boat can be at sea. The plan also specifies several closures in the Gulf of Maine to protect juvenile fish.

While many fishermen complain that these measures will put them out of business, council chairman and commercial fisherman Joseph Branceleone says simply, "without fish, there will be no fishermen."

The latest groundfish protection effort, however, does not address the effects of towed gear being dragged across the ocean bottom -- which scientists are increasingly viewing as gravely damaging to the fragile habitat where juvenile fish feed on smaller organisms.

Mike Leach, head of a Cape Cod commercial fishing group, believes that, in order to rebuild the stocks, "Dragging should be banned and draggermen should be given assistance to switch to a more appropriate gear type."

Funds to achieve this, however, are scarce. The federal government has already committed $25 million to a program for buying out a relatively small number of fishing boats and an additional $62 million in loans, grants and matching funds to the beleaguered New England fishing industry.


Making the regulations work

Certainly, better enforcement is one key to improving the situation and, in April, federal regulators sent a strong message in seeking a record $5.8 million fine against two Massachusetts brothers and their 12 employees.

Their five boats were charged with illegally taking millions of scallops, cod and other ground fish in 1995, breaking the law 300 times and filing false reports to cover up their violations.

But other recent "solutions" to the crisis -- such as the National Marine Fisheries Service's encouragement to fishermen to begin focusing on so-called "under-utilized species" -- can have unanticipated consequences for marine ecosystems.

Take the little squid, for example, which as a food source is crucial to the survival of tuna, billfish and sharks, as well as marine mammals and many smaller fish. From a "trash fish" of scant interest to the American consumer a decade ago, squid have become popular as pan-fried calamari. With advances in refrigeration technology, their value (and their harvesting) has skyrocketed.

Back in 1964, less than 1,000 metric tons of the Atlantic long-finned and short-finned squid were being caught. By 1994. that the figure had soared to more than 40,000 tons.

At the same time, marine experts have noted an alarming trend. With far fewer schools of squid as bait in coastal waters, according to Robert Pride of the Atlantic Coast Conservation Association of Virginia, "many species of game fish are caught, even in late summer and in the fall, with empty bellies and a gaunt appearance."

Bob Schoelkipf, founding director of the Marine Mammal Standing Center in New Jersey, has similarly observed increasing numbers of emaciated harbor porpoises and seals ending up beached or entangled in near shore nets. "We are seeing another canary in the mine, which could be the starvation of many marine species," Schoelkopf says.

An idea favored by man in government, with the ostensible aim of reducing the number of fisheries participants and thereby curbing overfishing, is known as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).

Under this scheme, and elsewhere, quota "shares" are allotted based on catch records and fishermen then buy, sell or lease these shares on the open market. That way, the thinking goes, you weed out the inefficient fishermen and replace them with professionals.

But turning fish resources into "private property" has come under fire from Greenpeace, which has forged alliances with many smaller scale commercial fishermen. The fundamental problems with ITQs, as Russell Cleary of The Massachusetts' Commercial Anglers Association puts it, is that they "presage a corporate takeover" and threaten the very existence of fisheries based coastal communities.

The notion has merit. Since New Zealand introduced ITQs in 1986, its three largest fishing corporations have snapped up half the awarded quotas. Two of the largest holders in America's ITQ based Atlantic surf clam/ocean quahog fishery are now the National Westminster Bank of New Jersey and a U.S. subsidiary of the world's biggest accounting firm, Holland based KMPG. Another big ITW purchaser is the Caterpillar Corporation.

None of this bodes well for the environment, since ITQs encourage the over-exploitation of "higher yield" fishing grounds. Enough pressure against ITQs has been generated -- Greenpeace activists seized a factory trawler in a Washington port last summer to dramatize the situation -- that the Senate Commerce Committee voted in March for a five year moratorium on such privatization while the effects on coastal communities and small-boat fleets are studied.


Making it sustainable

What then are the best approaches to the fisheries crisis? Last February, Greenpeace released a preliminary series of "Principles for Ecologically Responsible Fisheries," which the organization is urging fish buyers to use as benchmarks for seafood purchases.

These include a shift from large scale intensive fisheries to smaller, community based ones with sound practices. Fishing gear and methods damaging to fish populations or habitats should be phased out. No fishery ought to open or expand until "a verifiable, scientifically based, dynamic management procedure has been established."

At a recent conference, fisheries economist Francis Christy urged a "limited entry" policy on managers, pointing out that restrictions on the number of licenses issued to fish have proven effective in revitalizing the Maryland blue crab industry.

Fishermen themselves can and should play a greater role in ensuring their own survival. A 1995 survey by a British magazine, The Ecologist, cites numerous examples of coastal communities around the world evolving often unwritten rules to regulate their fisheries.

The Cocamilla people in the Peruvian Amazon, observing that their lake was being overfished by commercials from other regions, ruled that only subsistence fishermen be allowed to fish there. In Newfoundland and Japan, some communities hold annual lotteries for the best fishing areas. Among the Cree people of St. James Bay, Canada, and in Donegal, Ireland, fishermen in "developing economic structures for them to take on greater responsibility as ecosystem managers," says its program director Peter Shelley.

All this, of course, supports a small-scale emphasis but does not address the industrialized fleet problem. But what about a tonnage fee imposed by governments on the massive hauls of the big boat operations? The more fish you bring in, the more you pay. And the funds could be earmarked not only for fisheries research and management, but for job retraining.

A federal pilot program for the failing Pacific Northwest salmon fishery already funds jobs in the restoration of river habitats. The limited dollars available in the government's Fishing Industry Grants program are currently going to fishermen with inventive ideas for reducing waste by modifying fishing gear, and to commercial vessels helping conduct surveys of Atlantic herring spawning stocks.

There is no reason why fishing captains and crews couldn't stay on the water and plant shellfish beds, help the Coast Guard with harbor oil spill cleanups, conduct fish counts, aid in public education, take water samples and serve on enforcement teams.

But this will take a commitment where commercial lobbying interests like the National Fisheries Institute worry less about allocation and more about Congress' current plans to gut the NMFS budget and to remove from protection almost 70 percent of the remaining American wetlands.


Miraculous recovery?

When concerned citizens wake up to the ramifications of a dying ocean, ecosystem miracles can happen. It was the outcry of sports fishermen that forced managers to impose drastic sanctions on the commercial striped bass harvest a decade ago -- and the fish that enabled the Pilgrims to survive has made an unparalleled comeback.

In both Louisiana and Florida, successful ballot referenda spurred by sportsmen's groups have recently brought an end to the indiscriminate use of inshore entanglement gillnets. And in India, protesting fish workers have brought a halt to the registry of any new fishing boats in Indian waters.

There is little time to lose. Without greater mobilization against the rapaciousness and greed that are devastating the world's oceans, we are looking at a future where the wonders and sustenance of the sea are, if not gone altogether, confined to fish farming pens. And that would be an unthinkable tragedy.

(c) 1996, E Magazine