by Carrie Brownstein
The Situation Today
Most of us find the oceans enthralling. What lurks below the surface is a mystery. Staring into the seemingly deep and empty abyss some imagine enormous sharks or the legendary giant squid. Beach-going children squeal, anticipating toe-pinching crabs. For surfers, sailors, divers, and recreational fishers worldwide, the ocean is the planet’s biggest playground. And even for the seafood lovers who remain land-bound, the ocean draws them in pursuit of gastronomical delight.
Worldwide, one billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein. Two hundred million people depend on fish for their livelihoods. Some people eat fish because they have to, others because they want to. In the United States seafood is more popular than ever, with per capita annual consumption averaging 16 pounds in 2000. America’s appetite for fish makes the U.S. the third largest seafood consumer, following only China and Japan.
Seafood is no longer made up of only quaint local industries, as it was just decades ago. Like other industries today, seafood is part of a global economy, dependent on large-scale international trade. For example, in 2000 the United States imported one billion pounds of shrimp from over 20 countries. And in an extreme case, one 444-pound Atlantic bluefin tuna bound for the Japanese sushi market sold at auction for $173,000 in 2001. That’s $390 per pound.
Once perceived as inexhaustible, the oceans have revealed that, like rainforests, they too are susceptible to the unrelenting pressures of international markets for natural resources. Such pressure creates what economists call “limits to growth,” a ceiling on the amount of resources that can be consumed due to overuse and depletion. The trends in global catches show that this is true. Since the late 1980s global catches of fish have been declining slowly, by 0.7 million tonnes per year. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the peak in world seafood supply was largely due to production from aquaculture, or fish farming. Some scientists, however, argue that aquaculture may not be able to meet the growing demand for seafood. Some fish farming practices have pollution and disease problems, and many farmed species such as salmon and shrimp must be fed wild fish. Removing wild fish from the ocean to feed farmed fish does not help solve overall shortages of fish.
In the waters off the U.S., the statistics are also worrisome. About one-half of the marine fish populations that we know enough about are now classified as being overfished. Included in the list of species that are being overfished are seafood favorites such as monkfish, Atlantic swordfish, Atlantic bigeye tuna (ahi), grouper, Atlantic flounders, Atlantic cod, and red snapper.
How Did We Get Here?
Prior to the 1950s fishing looked nothing like it does today. Due to technological limits of vessels themselves, access to remote parts of the ocean was denied. These areas became places that some fish could remain untouched. And the methods for catching fish were also different. Species like swordfish were caught with harpoons, which naturally limited the number of fish that could be caught. The military’s development of WWII battle technology, however, changed the face of fishing. Fishers were able to easily transform SONAR, once used by the military to detect enemies, into the perfect fish-finding device. And synthetic materials such as nylon became the perfect nets because they did not rot like cotton and hemp. These fish-finding and fish-catching devices meant that fish could be caught almost anywhere, no matter how far or how deep.
Today the idea of too far and too deep no longer exists. Fishing nets reach into canyons as deep as 500 to 1,500 meters to catch orange roughy (also called “slimehead”), a fish that—in the absence of fishing—can live more than one hundred years and doesn’t sexually mature until it’s 20 years old. And in pursuit of world-traveling tunas and swordfish, pelagic longlines are deployed. Longlines consist of a mainline suspended by floats, with hooks hanging down below. Longlines may stretch 25 to 80 miles and hold thousands of hooks. As the world’s most widespread method of catching fish, each day 5 million hooks are set on 100,000 miles of line across the globe. But in addition to the swordfish and tunas that longline fishers are intending to catch, many other species are caught unintentionally in the process, including endangered sea turtles, seabirds, and depleted species of sharks. This unintended catch is called “bycatch” or “bykill.” Global estimates of bycatch worldwide are as high as one-fourth of the total catch. And because much of this bycatch is discarded dead or dying, waste is a major factor affecting marine ecosystems.
The advances and excesses in fisheries have been made possible because the industry has developed faster than government agencies’ ability, resources, or commitment to managing the fisheries. In the United States, for example, a federal fisheries management system was developed in the mid 1970s. The motivating goal was to restrict foreign fishers from catching fish in U.S. waters and to help domestic fisheries grow, but not to protect against overfishing. To do this, fishing and seafood industry representatives were given critical voice in the establishment of fishing regulations. Today, management continues to be largely made up of fishing and industry representatives, creating substantial obstacles to conserving fish. In fact, on all of the eight original fishery management councils combined, only one environmentalist holds a seat. This has resulted in conflicts of interest, much like the fox guarding the henhouse. Consequently, ocean conservation groups have had to turn to litigation to motivate managers to implement effective fisheries regulations.
In most countries, fishing regulations are non-existent, or existing regulations are routinely ignored. The level of unreported, illegal, and unregulated catch has been increasing since the 1990s. Management of highly migratory species such as tunas and swordfish requires management at the regional and international level, yet management that is in place has failed to end the overfishing of these magnificent ocean giants. For example, the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is charged with the scientific study and management of tunas and swordfish in the Atlantic. But more often than not, ICCAT fails to implement measures such as quota cuts and closed areas that are needed to bring these fish back. As a result Atlantic bluefin tuna are at approximately 20 percent of their healthy population levels and one groups has proposed white marlin for listing under the Endangered Species Act because its population has declined so substantially.
What are the Solutions?
In the 1970s, images of whale populations being brutally hunted, hundreds of thousands of dolphins getting caught in tuna nets, and the slaughtering of baby harp seals for the fur trade, brought ocean creatures into the spotlight for the first time. Outraged, the American public (including thousands of school children) urged Congress to protect our most charismatic wildlife. Congress listened and in 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. Yet it wasn’t until the early 1990s that mainstream environmental groups began to speak out about the plight of marine fish. Responding to major depletions of marine fish populations and other wildlife killed in the process of fishing, marine conservation groups became a force in national and international environmental policy.
Efforts have paid off. Joining together as the Marine Fish Conservation Network, environmentalists in the U.S. successfully overhauled the law (known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act) that regulates fishing in U.S. federal waters. The new amendment, called The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, required that the government put regulations in place to end overfishing, reduce bycatch, and protect important fish habitat. In the international sphere, major success came in 1992 when the United Nations put a stop to large-scale pelagic driftnet fishing (often referred to as “curtains of death”). Extending for miles, over half of what driftnets had been catching was bycatch, including sea turtles, marine mammals, and seabirds. The ban also helped prevent the further destruction of wildlife and sensitive habitats such as coral reefs that are entangled by driftnets lost at sea. Another major victory occurred last year when the U.S. prohibited shark finning in U.S. waters. Shark finning, the act of slicing off a shark’s fins and dumping its body overboard to die, supplies the key ingredient in the Asian delicacy of shark fin soup and results in 95 percent of the shark being wasted.
Yet despite these successes, traditional fisheries management continues to allow overfishing and ecosystem damage. To make matters worse, the Magnuson-Stevens Act is up for reauthorization this year, and the fishing industry is pushing hard to weaken, rather than strengthen, existing law. If passed, proposed amendments will roll back protections for overfished species and their habitat, as well as allow increased levels of wasteful bycatch. Given the crisis in many of our fisheries, management and protections must be strengthened, and not be driven by short-term economic interests.
One underused tool in the fisheries management toolbox—marine protected areas (MPAs)—has the potential to help heal the oceans. Having seen how land-based nature preserves have allowed species like once-depleted grizzly bears to recover, many conservationists, scientists and regulators are exploring the potential for developing coastal and oceanic MPAs. Similarly to zoning on land for commercial and residential uses, one way to protect marine species is to create zoning in the oceans. Establishing restricted-use areas (only in some cases excluding all fishing) can increase the number and size of fish in an area while providing an oasis for a diverse array of ocean creatures and habitats.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the most well known MPA in the world and is zoned for many different uses. Some no-take marine reserves (one type of MPA) are in place in the U.S.; one such reserve is the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, which maintains one of the most isolated and least-disturbed habitats for endangered and threatened sea turtles in the United States and protects the least disturbed portion of the Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem.
Despite the success of this tool for fish rebuilding in other countries, there is a great deal of contention about the use of no-take marine reserves in U.S. waters. The recreational fishing industry, for example, is actively fighting against no-take marine reserves because it limits open access to fishing. They seek legislation (Freedom to Fish Act) that would make it virtually impossible to establish new MPAs that exclude fishermen in order to give refuge to depleted fish and other ocean wildlife.
Strengthening our national fisheries laws, like the Magnuson-Stevens Act, reforming the fishery management council system to eliminate conflicts of interest, and retaining the option of using no-take marine reserves are keys to ensuring the long-term health of marine fish populations and the fishing communities that depend on them.
New Technique: Activating the Seafood Consumer
With the exception of fishermen and ocean enthusiasts, news of fisheries policy changes and efforts to develop management tools such as marine reserves largely go unnoticed by the public. But news of depletions of once abundant species such as Atlantic swordfish and cod, and the troublesome impacts of farming techniques for species such as farmed salmon has caused people to wonder about the seafood they eat and what choices they should be making.
To that end, Audubon’s Living Oceans Program became the first conservation organization to develop and distribute a science-based, consumer-friendly seafood guide. Since then we have developed a suite of other materials including Seafood Wallet Cards (view online or download now), which offer consumers a quick and easy way to access species recommendations when dining out or shopping. We also created the Seafood Lover’s Almanac, a 120-page in-depth guide to seafood that includes recipes for sustainably caught species. These consumer materials help concerned seafood lovers make a difference by learning how to choose fish and shellfish that are doing well—those whose populations are abundant, fisheries are well-managed, and fishing methods are relatively low impact—with the aim of giving those that aren’t doing well a chance to recover.
The Seafood Lovers Initiative at Audubon’s Living Oceans Program evaluates species according to their life history, abundance, habitat, management, and bycatch. Species are ranked from green (okay to eat, few problems exist) to yellow (some problems exist, use your conscience) to red (major problems exist, better to avoid) using an objective and quantitative ranking system to place species along a color bar. By choosing seafoods in the green and by letting local restaurants know which choices they’d like to see available, consumers can be a positive force in helping to restore abundance to the seas. Seafood guides have become so popular that other environmental groups are employing similar strategies to engage concerned consumers.
Demand for the seafood guide, Seafood Wallet Cards, and the results of recent campaigns such as “Give Swordfish a Break” and dolphin-safe tuna, suggest that once informed, consumers and chefs are motivated to make conservation-minded choices. Clearly we still have a ways to go before oceans and marine wildlife receive the same level of attention afforded to terrestrial ecosystems. While it would likely raise red flags in most peoples’ conscience to see an endangered tiger or whale on a restaurant menu, seriously depleted species such as Chilean seabass (really called “toothfish”) continue to be popular. However, the tide is changing. Thousands of people are beginning to connect seafood with wildlife. Even the creator of Jaws has become a spokesperson for the oceans.
Audubon’s fish scale can be found in the Seafood Lover’s Almanac, on Audubon's regionally tailored Seafood Wallet Cards (click to view or download), and on its website at http://seafood.audubon. org. Other work by the Living Oceans Program to reform fisheries management and protect seabirds can be found or requested at http://oceans.audubon. org, livingoceans@ audubon.org, or 1-888-397-6649.
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