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#587 - Oceans Without Fish, 25-Feb-1998

The destruction of life in the oceans has progressed farther than
anyone had suspected, according to a new report in SCIENCE magazine.[1]
The causes are overfishing and pollution,[2] but the focus of the new
report is overfishing alone. SCIENCE is the voice of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The world's catch of ocean fish peaked in 1989 and has been declining
since.[3] In the early 1990s, scientists reported that 13 of the
world's 17 major fisheries were depleted or in steep decline.[2]
Typical is the Grand Banks fishery off the shallow coast of
Newfoundland in the north Atlantic. There, after 350 years of
commercial exploitation, the haddock, cod and flounder have all but
disappeared and the fishery was officially closed a few years ago.

The depletion of the world's most popular fish species has set off
three trends, each of which is adding to the oceans' troubles: (1)
fisherman are adopting new technologies that (2) allow them to fish in
deeper waters, and (3) they are fishing lower on the food chain.

New Technologies

** Don Tyson, the Arkansas chicken magnate and supporter of Bill
Clinton, has gone into the fishing business in a big way. Commercial
fishing can be very profitable if conducted on a grand scale. In 1992,
Tyson bought the Arctic-Alaska Fisheries Company, and three other
fishing companies. They operate a fleet of industrial super-trawlers
that each cost $40 million to build and reach the length of a football
field. These trawlers pull nylon nets thousands of feet long through
the water, capturing everything in their path --400 tons of fish at a
single netting. These super-trawlers stay off-shore for months at a
time, processing and freezing their catch as they go, thus giving them
a major advantage over smaller land-based boats.

Approximately 40 percent of what these super-trawlers catch is
considered trash and is ground up and thrown back into the ocean. They
call it "bycatch" and, according to investigative reporter Jeffrey St.
Clair, it can include endangered sea lions, and seals, as well as
unwanted fish.[4] (In the northeast Atlantic alone, the bycatch in a
year's time amounts to 3.7 million tons.[1])

** Trawlers are now using technology developed by the military to fish
waters as deep as a mile, catching species that few would have
considered edible or useful a decade ago. Now that the shallow
fisheries are in serious decline, trawl nets fitted with wheels and
rollers are dragged across the bottom of the deep oceans, removing
everything of any size. Squid, skate, rattails, hoki, blue ling, black
scabbard, red crabs, black oreos, smooth oreos, deep shrimp, chimeras,
slackjaw eels, blue hake, southern blue whiting, sablefish, spiny
dogfish, and orange roughy are now being harvested from the deep ocean
and sold in seafood stores, cooked into "fish sticks" at McDonald's, or
processed into fake "crab meat" for seafood salads.

Part of the problem is consumer ignorance. For example, orange roughy
began to appear in fish stores and on the menus at fancy restaurants in
the U.S. just a decade ago. Yet in that short time the species has
become threatened with extinction. The orange roughy lives up to a mile
deep in cold waters off New Zealand. Now scientists have learned that
species living in deep, cold waters grow and reproduce very slowly. The
orange roughy, for example, lives to be 150 years old and only begins
to reproduce at age 30. Recently, the principal stocks of orange roughy
around New Zealand collapsed. Still, today in Annapolis, Maryland, fish
stores, orange roughy is available for $8.99 per pound, and there's no
sign telling consumers that the species is threatened. "People wouldn't
eat rhinoceros or any other land creature that they knew was threatened
with extinction. But they're eating fish like orange roughy without a
clue to what's happening," says Greenpeace fisheries expert Mike Hagler
in Auckland, New Zealand.[3]

Radar allows ships to operate in the fog and the dark; sonar locates
the fish precisely; and GPS (geographical positioning system)
satellites pinpoint locations so that ships can return to productive
spots. Formerly-secret military maps reveal hidden deep-sea features,
such as mountains, which are associated with upwelling currents of
nutrient-rich water, where fish thrive. Combined with larger nets made
from new, stronger materials, modern fishing vessels guided
electronically can sweep the oceans clean --and that is precisely what
is happening. As a result, the ocean's fish are disappearing, and so
are the family-scale fishing operations that used to dominate the

** Because modern fishing equipment is immensely expensive, the stakes
are high. With big money on the line, the fishing industry has curried
political favor. As a result, modern fishing factories like Tyson's are
subsidized by federal and state governments. Tyson's company has
received more than $65 million in low-interest loans from the federal
government, to help build 10 of these super-trawlers. According to
Jeffrey St. Clair, the Seattle-based factory-trawler fleet has received
$200 million in federal subsidies.

Furthermore, because so much is at stake, deep-water factory trawlers
cannot afford to let up. They must keep fishing until the last fish is

But it gets worse. The new report in SCIENCE shows that humans are now
fishing not only in deeper waters, but also lower on the food chain.[1]
This has ominous implications, because as the lower levels of the food
chain decline, the chances of revival at the top of the food chain are
diminished even further. Scientists are now discussing the "wholesale
collapse" of marine ecosystems.[5] "It is likely that continuation of
present trends will lead to widespread fisheries collapses...," says
Daniel Pauly, the author of the new study.[1] "If things go unchecked,
we might end up with a marine junkyard dominated by plankton," he says.

Pauly's new study examined the diets of 220 fish species, then gave
each species a numerical ranking in the food web, between 1 and 5.
Those assigned a 1 are plankton --tiny floating plants that
photosynthesize, using the energy of sunlight to convert water and
carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, thus forming the bottom of all
aquatic food chains. Level 2 is zooplankton --tiny floating animals
that eat plankton. Top predators, such as the snappers inhabiting the
continental shelf off Yucatan, Mexico, receive a ranking of 4.6.

These data were combined with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
data on fish landings worldwide. The result is an estimate of the
average place in the oceanic food web (the average "trophic level")
where humans are harvesting fish. The new study reveals that the
average trophic level has been steadily declining for 45 years, meaning
that humans are progressively taking fish from lower on the food chain.
The steady decline has been about 0.1 trophic levels per decade.
"Present fishing policy is unsustainable," says Pauly. Of the 220
species studied, at least 60% are being overfished, or fished to the

Pauly believes that the true situation is somewhat worse than his study
indicated, principally because many countries under-report their
fishing harvest.

Even if a fishery does not collapse completely, fishing down the food
chain can have serious consequences. In the north sea, the cod
population has been so depleted that fishermen are now concentrating on
a second-level species called pout, which the cod used to eat. The
pout, in turn, eat tiny organisms called copepods and krill. Krill also
eat copepods. As the pout are removed, the krill population expands and
then the copepod population declines drastically. Because copepods are
the main food of young cod, the cod population cannot recover.[5]

Fish farming might seem like a way out of this problem, but it is not -
- at least not as presently practiced --because farmed fish are fed
fish meal made from unpopular fish such as herring or menhaden.[6] It
would seem to be only a matter of time before the herring and menhaden
too are depleted.

Dr. Pauly believes that in 3 or 4 decades, many oceanic fisheries will
"collapse in on themselves." The result will be a loss of high-quality
protein for humans, even before the fisheries collapse completely.
Humans eat somewhere between trophic levels 2.5 and 4. Lower then that,
there isn't much that people eat. "There is a lower limit for what can
be caught and marketed, and zooplankton [at trophic level 2] is not
going to be reaching our dinner plates in the foreseeable future," Dr.
Pauly wrote in SCIENCE.

Solutions? Government could limit the kinds of fishing technology that
are allowed --to give the fish a chance --but this would put "the
public interest" up against the likes of Don Tyson. In today's
political climate, with private money dominating our elections, Don
Tyson would win because he's wealthy and he supports all the right
politicians. Dr. Pauly believes there is an urgent need to create
protected areas where fishing is simply not allowed. He sees no-fishing
zones as easier to implement and enforce than fishing quotas, limiting
fishing time at sea, restrictions on allowable fishing gear, and
controls on pollution --though these steps, too, are needed, he
believes. No-fishing zones can be created quickly and can be enforced.
In Britain, the fishing industry has begun to accept no-fishing zones
as a way to save the industry in the face of declining fish stocks.[7]

The most important idea, proposed in SCIENCE magazine February 6th,
would be to shift the burden of proof onto the fishing industry.[8]
Those who profit from public resources such as the oceans should have
to demonstrate, before they can begin fishing, that their activities
will not harm the public resource. At present, it is assumed that
fishing will not damage life in the oceans, and the burden is on the
general public to prove otherwise. At this point, abundant evidence has
come to light indicating damage, so it is definitely time to shift the
burden of proof onto the fishing industry. For example, owners of
super- trawlers should have to show that their yield will be
sustainable before their ships can put to sea.

Here again, it seems unlikely that the present Congress --snuffling
around in a trough of filthy lucre, as it is --will act to protect the
public interest. Therefore, it is urgent that we get private money out
of our elections completely. Elected officials need to be answerable to
the people who elected them, not to wealthy benefactors.

Otherwise our children will inherit oceans without fish.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Daniel Pauly and others, "Fishing Down Marine Food Webs," SCIENCE
Vol. 279 (February 6, 1998), pgs. 860-863.

[2] Timothy Egan, "U.S. Fishing Fleet Trawling Coastal Water Without
Fish," NEW YORK TIMES March 7, 1994, pgs. A1, B7.

[3] William J. Broad, "Creatures of the Deep Find Their Way to the
Table," NEW YORK TIMES December 26, 1995, pgs. C1, C5.

[4] Jeffrey St. Clair, "Fishy Business," IN THESE TIMES May 26, 1997,
pgs. 14-16, 36.

[5] William K. Stevens, "Man Moves Down the Marine Food Chain, Creating
Havoc," NEW YORK TIMES February 10, 1998, pg. C3.

[6] Susan Diesenhouse, "In New England, Battle Plans for Survival at
Sea," NEW YORK TIMES April 24, 1994, pg. F7.

[7] Nigel Williams, "Overfishing Disrupts Entire Ecosystems," SCIENCE
Vol. 279 (February 6, 1998), pg. 809.

[8] Paul K. Dayton, "Reversal of the Burden of Proof in Fisheries
Management," SCIENCE Vol. 279 (February 6, 1998), pgs. 821-822.

Descriptor terms: fish; fishing industry; fishing technology; oceans;
grand banks fishery; newfoundland; don tyson; ar; science magazine;
daniel pauly; burden of proof; precautionary principle; atlantic ocean;
orange roughy; new zealand; fao; studies;