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Are the Oceans of the World Overfished? - 2003-07-12

At the busy Washington, DC fish market, a buyer can choose from a variety of selections. A fish seller says "there is croaker that's coming out of the Chesapeake Bay…snappers coming out of the Carolinas…white bass coming out of the Carolinas…grouper from Carolina...flounders from Chesapeake Bay...and rockfish coming up from the Chesapeake Bay."

While consumers might cheer this selection many environmentalists don't. Syliva Earle is Executive Director of Global Marine Programs at the US based non-profit environmental group Conservation International. She says the abundance is a sign of overfishing. "Fish taken from the Atlantic go half a world away to the Tokyo fish market. Actually fish from all over the world wind up in the Tokyo fish market but they also wind up at the Fulton fish market in New York or in Washington or Chicago. Places that are not naturally close to the source of what comes out of the ocean are now receiving huge quantities because we have the transport means in the last half-century to get things from one place to another, but it's not sustainable."

On the West Coast of the United States, overfishing of the southern rockfish has wiped out a valuable fishery but the problem isn't unique to the United States. Countries around the world are facing severe drops in fishing stocks. Earlier this year, Canada's government closed its cod fishery, while overfishing of the southern Hake has crippled Argentina's fish stocks and the local fishing industry.

Conservation International's Ms. Earle says the vastness of the ocean makes protecting the world's fish stocks more difficult. "Sixty percent of the ocean is outside of any nation's jurisdiction. It's a free for all. It's the Wild West out there. Nations can more or less take whatever they find without concern that anybody is going to be able to take them to task for it."

But the remaining 40% of the oceans lie within individual country's jurisdiction. Ms. Earle says that's why it's important that individual countries take steps to protect their fish stocks and marine habitat.

In June of this year the Pew Charitable Trusts released its evaluation of US ocean policy. The report details a variety of problems related to coastal development, pollution and overfishing.

Eileen Claussen, a member of the Pew Oceans Commission, says "the report gets to a very basic set of issues. We really need a new ethic of stewardship here in the United States. We can't any longer go on exploiting the oceans without regard to the environmental consequences. So we have a whole set of recommendations which start with the need for a new Ocean Act that actually puts things into context and sets the boundaries for what we can and can't do."

The last congressionally authorized review of US ocean policy was over thirty years ago. However, in 2000 Congress approved a second US Commission on Ocean Policy. Its mandate is to establish findings and make recommendations to the President and Congress for a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy. The Commission is scheduled to release its report later this year.

Andrew Rosenberg is a member of the US Commission on Ocean Policy. He thinks the Pew Commission raises some valid concerns. "I used to be the deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, so I've worked in fisheries for quite a while and I was responsible along with other people for implementing recovery plans for fisheries around the US and internationally. But I still think there are a lot of problems. So I think they are correct in that. I'm not sure I agree with every aspect of every recommendation they made, but I think fundamentally the issues they raise are correct."

Mr. Rosenberg says he expects the US Commission to issue similar findings to the Pew Commission. "We can do a lot of damage in a very short period of time and just hoping for the best has not been a very successful strategy, particularly for high seas fisheries. So we have to take some very strong actions. I think that's what the Pew Commission report called for and I believe that we're going in that direction with the National Commission report saying, "Yeah, we need to do some additional things." That doesn't mean that everything is in dire straights, but it means that it's not enough to just say, "Well, we made a little progress that should do it."

Other scientists and industry representatives say the problem is much less severe and that major gains in fishery management have been overlooked.

Rebecca Lent, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- or NOAA, says that "NOAA Fisheries monitors the health of living marine resources found primarily within our own waters, but in many cases we're also accessing stocks that are trans-boundary or highly migratory so we share them with other countries. For the most part, the stocks that are within our jurisdiction are either in good shape or on the road to recovery. We still have progress to be made both in terms of the science and the regulations. As for the shared stocks, some of the Atlantic highly migratory species such as Marlins are indeed in pretty dire shape and still need rebuilding, which we're working on. We have to work with about 30 other countries on that. We know that in case of shared stocks such as Atlantic swordfish, if we work with other countries and take tough decisions for rebuilding we will have success. Atlantic swordfish is almost rebuilt."

Much of the improvement has been in the technology used by US fisherman. Linda Candler, Vice President of Communications at the National Fisheries Institute, an industry trade association, feels the Pew Commission neglected these gains. "One of the most important steps has been the reduction in over capacity. And over capacity means too many boats fishing too few fish. What we're trying to do worldwide and governments are trying to do worldwide is decrease the number of boats that are going after the fish. In addition, throughout fisheries over the whole world there have been quota reductions, different kinds of quota systems that ensure that over fishing doesn't occur, reductions in take overall, gear modifications that help reduce by-catch and make sure that juvenile fish get away, and other things like that. As the science is better developed, so are the fishing practices."

She adds that common sense business practices mean fishermen have a vested interest in protecting the world's oceans. "The fishing industry, or the seafood industry in general, wants to be able to pass this legacy on to their children and grandchildren so they understand the importance of conserving the resource for future generations."

The Pew Commission report emphasizes the social and economic importance of vibrant fishing communities in the United States. The Commission and the fishing industry agree that one way to secure future generations' livelihood is to make sure we aren't taking so much fish from the sea today that there are none to be caught in the future.