Published on Wednesday, February 19, 2003 by the Environmental News Service
Destructive Fishing Causing Ocean Crisis
by Cat Lazaroff
DENVER, Colorado - Some of the most productive marine fishing methods are also the most damaging, and should be restricted or banned, scientists argued at a scientific meeting this week. More than 400 leading scientists called Tuesday for the United Nations to issue a moratorium on longline and gillnet fishing, methods they say are wiping out populations of fish, turtles, marine mammals and other species in the Pacific Ocean.
In a full page ad which ran in Tuesday's "New York Times," the researchers urged a ban on industrial fishing techniques including longlining and gillnetting, which they blamed for the plight of the endangered Pacific leatherback turtle and other rare species.
The call to halt these wasteful fishing methods was made at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference being held in Denver, and in advance of the international Food and Agriculture Organization Committee on Fisheries meeting next week in Rome.
A total of 405 scientists from 47 nations - along with 100 conservation, animal welfare and other nonprofit groups - signed open letters to the United Nations, urging governments and fisheries managers in the United States and abroad to heed the worsening crisis of global fisheries.
"In recent decades the impact of commercial fishing on ocean ecosystems has dramatically increased, and we are confronted with the unprecedented reality that we are rapidly depleting the oceans' resources," states the letter printed in the "New York Times." "The oceans, once mistakenly thought to be inexhaustible, clearly are not."
The letter points out that more than 70 percent of global fish populations are now considered overfished or on the brink of being overfished, according to United Nations figures. Not just fish are at risk: "indiscriminate commercial fishing practices wastefully harm and kill millions of non-targeted animals per year, causing unsustainable mortality to sea turtles, sea birds, bluefin tuna, swordfish and sharks," the letter states.
Leatherback Turtle May Face Extinction
Among the marine species most threatened by longlining and gill netting is the Pacific leatherback sea turtle, the scientists wrote.
"Tragic declines of leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles have been well documented in the Pacific," said Dr. Larry Crowder, Duke University Marine Laboratory researcher, "and the impact of longline fishing on these and other marine species can't be understated."
This year's return of nesting leatherbacks to Pacific beaches was the worst on record, biologists report. Scientists estimate that there are now less than 5,000 nesting female leatherbacks left in the Pacific Ocean - down from 91,000 in 1980, a decline of 95 percent.
"The decline of the leatherback in the last five years is nothing short of catastrophic, and it is imperative that the global community come together to eliminate the use of the most destructive forms of industrial fishing before it is too late." said Dr. Sylvia Earle, a marine expert and explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society.
A recent report to the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that there are almost two billion hooks set per year by the longline fishing fleet. Longline fishing in all the world's deep oceans kills some 40,000 sea turtles each year, along with 300,000 seabirds and millions of sharks.
"The United Nations and Kofi Annan must recognize that in order to save the endangered leatherbacks, as well as imperiled sharks, seabirds and dolphins, we must stop these weapons of mass destruction from destroying our oceans," said Todd Steiner, director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. "There are just too many hooks adrift in the Pacific to give the leatherback a fighting chance for survival."
Next week, fisheries managers from around the world will gather in Rome, Italy for the 25th session of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization's Committee on Fisheries meeting. Scientists and environmental organizations are pressing these officials to place a moratorium on both longlining and gillnetting in the Pacific, just as the United Nations passed a comprehensive global ban of driftnet fishing in the early 1990s.
The United States has already taken some steps to protect embattled marine species by closing the West Coast to longlining altogether and restricting the Hawaii longlining fleet from fishing for swordfish. After a legal challenge by the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the National Marine Fisheries Service applied time and area closures for gillnet fishing fleets off the West Coast.
Bottom Trawling Called Worst of All
Another damaging fishing method which conservation groups hope to see restricted is bottom trawling, a common method to catch shrimp, fish, and other bottom dwelling sea life. Research presented Sunday at the AAAS meeting shows that despite frequent conflict over fisheries issues, many fishers, conservationists and academics agree that bottom trawling is the most ecologically damaging fishing gear.
The scientists presented findings that, for the first time, document and rank the full suite of ecological impacts associated with all commercial fishing gears used in the United States. Scientists urged managers, fishers and environmentalists to recognize that how fishing is carried out may be as important to the future of marine resources as how many fish are caught.
Though scientific data now demonstrates the collapse of fisheries around the world, many destructive fishing practices are still carried out, largely out of sight of the public and, hence, out of mind. Almost one quarter of the world's catch is thrown back into the sea dead or dying each year because the fishing gear cannot discriminate between target catch and other animals that are undersized, unmarketable, or not worth the price of bringing to shore.
About 2.3 billion pounds of sea life were discarded in the U.S. in 2000 alone, and thousands of the ocean's most charismatic species - including sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and seabirds - are killed each year by fishing nets, lines and hooks. These deaths have implications for both marine populations and marine food webs.
"Considering the documented decline in global fisheries, this kind of waste is unacceptable. But because this travesty is unseen by most people, it continues," said Dr. Crowder.
Experts agree that bottom trawls are one of the worst offenders, entrapping vast numbers of non-targeted animals.
"The first time I was on a trawler, I was appalled to see that for every pound of shrimp caught there were 20 pounds of sharks, rays, crabs, and starfish killed. The shrimpers called this bycatch 'trawl trash' - I call it 'biodiversity'," noted Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. "Of course I recognize in some trawls it could be only one pound - in others 100 pounds for every pound of shrimp."
This bycatch is not the only collateral damage associated with fishing. Many experts agreed that habitat destruction that some fishing gears cause is even more ecologically damaging than the harm caused by bycatch.
"On land we can see how animals rely on structure, how the trees of a forest are important breeding, feeding, and hiding places - but in the ocean we have to prove it from afar," explained James Lindholm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"We now know that structures on the seafloor are critical for the future of cod, rockfish, and other commercially important species. But it's only in the last 15 years that we've had the technology to see these habitats, to see that the seafloor is not just an endless flat expanse, and to begin to understand how we are altering deep sea marine habitats - and fisheries - across the globe."
In many cases, fishing is destroying undersea habitats before scientists even have a chance to study them.
"The way we fish is like hanging a huge net dragged from an blimp across a forest, knocking down the trees and scooping up the plants and animals, and then throwing away everything except the deer," says Norse.
The destruction of deep sea, coldwater corals off the east and west coasts of the U.S. is one example. Hundreds or thousands of years old, these living corals can be destroyed with a single pass of a bottom trawl, and may take decades to recover, if they ever do.
"The damage to our ocean floors is more extensive and perhaps even worse than tropical deforestation," Norse said. "We must bring these issues to the forefront of fisheries management before it is too late."
Gear Changes Could Save Species
New work presented by Lance Morgan of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute synthesized data on the ecological impacts of the 10 major commercial fishing gears used in the United States and provides an expert ranking for each gear type. The overall ecological impacts associated with bottom trawls, bottom gillnets, dredges and midwater or drift gillnets ranked relatively high, with bottom trawling topping the list as the most ecologically harmful gear type.
The impacts from hook and line fishing, purse seines and midwater trawls ranked relatively low on the scale, though these methods are also known to snag unintended species including dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds.
"This is the first study to synthesize the science on these issues, but also to use social science methods to incorporate expert judgments. It gives managers a place to start in their deliberations concerning the relative levels of bycatch and habitat impacts from different fishing methods," said coauthor Ratana Chuenpagdee of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
"When you present knowledgeable experts - fishermen, conservationists, and academics - with science based information about gear impacts, and ask them to compare these collateral damages without knowing the names of the gear involved, they give surprisingly consistent answers," Chuenpagdee added. "It's unusual to find such uniform agreement about anything, much less fishing practices. But when you take out personal bias linked to particular gears, there is surprising consensus across these different communities."
The authors hope that their findings will stimulate local, regional, national and international conversations about how to reduce the collateral impacts of fishing.
"Too often this problem has been overlooked or ignored because of the lack of comparative measures. Our results indicate that there is more common starting ground on these issues than people have thought," said Chuenpagdee.
The scientists stressed that in many cases, there are ways to reduce the impacts of fishing, but noted that change will require political will and action. They suggest that managers and fishers consider "shifting gears" - phasing out or modifying destructive gears, and moving fisheries toward more environmentally friendly options.
Gear innovations, such as turtle exclude devices (TEDs) and streamers on longlines to scare away seabirds, have reduced bycatch in some fisheries, but propagation of these "gear fixes," through the global fishery has been slow, and in some cases governments have failed to fully implement or enforce the use of even proven technologies.
"Often the best solutions stem from fishermen themselves, but without political or financial incentive to promote development and use of 'gear fixes' or new operating procedures, destructive practices will continue," said Morgan.
Spatial management, where the use of certain gears is prohibited in sensitive habitats or popular breeding or feeding grounds of at risk species, is another option. But in the end, some gears may have to go.
"We need to think about restructuring fisheries around not using trawlers. Trawling has to be curtailed and phased out as a way of interacting with the environment - it is just too destructive," argued Daniel Pauly, University of British Columbia, a fisheries biologist.
"As a society, we make these types of judgments all the time - we don't have to do everything that we can do, in fact we have rules of restraint to prevent damage - we don't allow people to drive over the speed limit just to get somewhere faster, we don't allow machine guns to hunt deer, and we need not allow wasteful destruction of our marine resources."
Several U.S. states, including California, Alaska, Florida and Virginia, already have regulations limiting the use of bottom trawls. The scientists hope that this innovative approach to evaluating fishing gears and incorporating judgments by various interest groups will be applied in all areas, catalyzing new attention and action to reduce the bycatch and habitat destruction across fishing gear types.
"I eat fish that commercial fishers catch, I favor a strong fishing industry. But I also know that the way people fish is destructive and undermines the future of fisheries and fishermen alike," said Norse.
"If we are going to have fish and sea turtles and seabirds and marine mammals in the future, we have to fish in way that dramatically reduces the collateral impact of commercial fishing operations. With all the knowledge and creativity of fishermen and scientists, we can fish better. We can, and we must - for the future of the oceans and the sustainability of fisheries," Norse concluded.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003