Casting Blame for the World's Overfishing

By J.R. Pegg

June 13, 2003 (ENS) - The rising tide of debate over the world's fishing practices hit the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday and although there was widespread agreement that overfishing is a global problem, disagreement raged over the state of fishing in U.S. waters.

"There is a disaster globally, but I do think witnesses are bringing the domestic scene into that disaster area and we do not belong there," said Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican. "Why can we not take credit for what we are doing?"

"I would urge you who are concerned with the world to give us credit for what we have done," Stevens said. "How can we sell to the world the success we have if it is criticized at home?"

Stevens pointed to recent numbers by the National Marines Fisheries Service (NMFS) that the agency said reflects "steady, incremental improvement in the status of America's fisheries."

"The problem tends to be more of an international problem than one domestically," added Dr. Rebecca Lent, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees NMFS. net2

Some 25 percent of the total annual amount of fish and marine species caught by global fishers is unintentional bycatch. (Photo courtesy World Wildlife Federation)
Scientists and environmentalists testifying in front of the Commerce Committee agreed that the United States has made progress, but said that it is far too soon to declare victory.

"While there have been very promising signs of rebuilding in place, the overall picture remains troublesome," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Speer noted that the NMFS survey found that of the 932 federally managed stocks, the agency only knows the status of 237 - and of these, 88 are overfished, being fished unsustainably, or both.

"The United States needs to lead by example," Speer said. "If we are to assert leadership internationally, we need to make sure our own house is in order."

The Senate Commerce Committee held the hearing the wake of several studies and reports that have highlighted increasing scientific evidence that the world's oceans are being fished in an unsustainable manner. Beyond the debate over the condition of U.S. fisheries, the hearing illustrated the immense challenge of reversing global fishing trends that plague the world's oceans.

Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, outlined a list of daunting statistics at the start of the hearing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that some 47 percent of the world's major marine fish stocks are fully exploited, with another 18 percent overexploited and some 10 percent depleted or recovering from depletion. net

Many scientists believe there are too many boats are chasing too few fish. (Photo courtesy National Marine Sanctuaries)
McCain noted that the FAO predicts worldwide demand for fisheries products will increase from some 35.2 pounds (16 kilograms) today to some 41.8 to 46.2 pounds (19 to 21 kilograms) by 2030.

"The United States needs to think about where we are going to get the fish necessary to meet this growing demand," McCain said.

He outlined the challenges of forging effective international agreements to limit fishing in order to rebuild depleted species, along with the need for strong, enforceable measures to address destructive fishing practices that harm the ocean ecology and result in massive bycatch.

The FAO estimates that some 25 percent of the global catch is discarded bycatch, including sensitive species such as sea turtles, sharks and cetaceans.

Despite a slew of international agreements designed to address overfishing, bycatch and illegal fishing, "the international community must do more than pay lip service to applying a greater conservation ethic to the regulation of ocean fisheries," said John Turner, assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

"The commitments contained in recent fisheries agreements are the right commitments, but they cannot remain mere words on paper," Turner said.

The Bush administration officials at the hearing joined a representative from the commercial fishing industry in singling out the European Union for not fully complying or implementing international fisheries agreements.

Richard Ruais, executive director of the East Coast Tuna Association, praised U.S. leadership within the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICATT) but pressed Congress to do more to address noncompliance by the EU and other nations.

Fish that are illegally caught by rogue nations or by EU fishers in excess of ICCAT quotas are frequently sold in the United States, Ruais said, and the "U.S. government has not been sufficiently aggressive with its current authority or with its fiscal resources to stop this black market."

Addressing the problem of illegal fishing at the market is only one part of the solution - the challenge of stopping illegal fishing before it happens could prove equally, if not more, difficult.

"It is a huge challenge given the vastness and far reach of some of these major fishing nations, many of which have not signed international agreements," said Admiral Thomas Collins, who is the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. leopardshark

There is growing concern about the impact of industrial fishing on sensitive species, such as the leopard shark. (Photo by Kip Evans courtesy National Marine Sanctuaries)
Collins told the committee that his agency relies on one boat to enforce the 1,700 mile EEZ along the Bering Sea.

"What we ought to do, is to find some way to come up with an international registry of vessels and put transponders on them to see who they are and where they are and what they are landing," Stevens said.

If industrial fishing is not reined in soon, the consequences will be severe, testified marine biologist Dr. Ransom Myers.

Myers is coauthor of the recent study published in Nature that found only 10 percent of all large fish - both open ocean species such as tuna, swordfish and marlin, and large groundfish such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder - remain.

It is not just these species that are suffering from modern fishing techniques, Myers told the committee.

"Present fishing practices will eventually drive sensitive species such as sharks, some of the turtles, and other long lived species like blue fin tuna and blue marlin extinct simply because they are being caught at rates that are simply unsustainable," he said.

Myers testimony - and his study - drew sharp criticism from Ruais, illustrating the passionate nature of the debate over the state of the world's ocean species.

Ruais said the findings are "fundamentally flawed" and "irrelevant" to the critical business before international and domestic fish mangers today.

"The committee needs to know that Dr. Myers' paper was funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and is part of a continuing campaign to create an atmosphere of false crisis in the public mind over the status of our shared high seas and coastal fisheries resources," Ruais said.

The Pew Charitable Trust, which also funded the Pew Oceans Commission that released a report last week highly critical of the state of both U.S. and global fisheries, provides "money to various researchers to produce fisheries studies that predict doom and gloom and scare the public away from our fishery resources," Ruais testified.

"The underlying objective appears to be to further excessively harm commercial and recreational fisheries and the worldwide fish eating public," Ruais said.

Ruais' allegation was greeted with outrage by McCain.

"That is a remarkable indictment of a very fine organization," the Arizona Republican said.

"I hope you have evidence to back that up," McCain said. "I do not think you do because I have had a lot to do with the Pew Charitable Trust and I know that is not the way that they do business." seafood

Seafood choices have health, environmental and economic consequences. (Photo courtesy Clemson Catering)
Dr. Patrick Sullivan, assistant professor at Cornell University, cautioned that the study published in Nature is a broad view, and said it would be misleading to draw conclusions about individual species from it.

There is a lot that scientists do not know about the state of the oceans, Sullivan said, but there is ample evidence that the world is on an unsustainable course and that difficult decisions must be made if that course is to be reversed.

"Right now in fisheries management for many fisheries I believe we are at high speed on the turnpike in the fog using cruise control," Sullivan said. "Asking scientists to remove all the fog so we can drive at top speed is unrealistic."

"We are working with complex ecosystems here and our objective should be to fit into it.," Sullivan said. "The balance that results may not be optimal for all stakeholders, and so perhaps we should better define what opportunities we wish to create and what risks we wish to avoid."