Habits and a new path towards sustainable fishing

Old habits die hard, especially when it comes to fishermen and their daily catch. With many species of fish around the globe hammered by overfishing, laws are being written and enforced to protect them, which sometimes means convincing indigenous fishermen to alter centuries-old traditions.

But changing fishing patterns that go back multiple generations can be a hard sell when it is the legends and skills of a great-grandfather, for example, that still drive traditional hunts for green turtles or whales, dolphins, manta rays, sharks and other now-threatened species.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not family tradition that propels the illegal hunting by indigenous fishermen, but greed and willful ignorance of modern-day laws.

A recent story in the New York Times highlights the dilemma of pink river dolphins in Brazil’s Amazon River. The subject of legend (it is thought they are magical creatures that can turn into men and impregnate women), they are also endangered. But that’s not stopping locals from hunting them and using them as bait for catfish (attracted by the strong smell of dolphin meat) or simply killing them to eliminate them as competitors for catches. From the river fishermen’s perspective there are too many dolphins, they’re a nuisance and hardly need protection.

“We don’t like him; we are his enemy,” one fisherman told the Times. “I killed one when I was waiting for the fish to bite. He kept coming closer and the fish were leaving, so I harpooned the dolphin. I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Experts in the region suggest thousands are killed every year – out of a population of just 30,000 – though they are supposed to be protected by law.

Though they risk prison sentences, fishermen know enforcers are spread thin around the vast Brazilian Amazon. Evidence of the hunt is hardly hidden, with the genitals of river dolphins sold at open-air markets as aphrodisiacs, alongside oil from anacondas and crocodiles.

1. Certain island groups in the Pacific, from Hawaii to Tahiti, are still home to endangered green turtles. The biggest hard-shell turtle in the sea they can weigh over 400 pounds. Despite laws prohibiting taking them, it is still common to find turtle soup and turtle meat on tables, especially at ceremonies. A few years ago I was on the remote French Polynesian atoll of Raritea (where Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon Tiki” had washed up in 1947) and locals were preparing a feast to celebrate the opening of the island’s new airport. The president was flying in to cut the ribbon. In his honor local fishermen had brought back three giant green turtles for the feast, each weighing more than 400 pounds. Finding the endangered turtles was not hard and the fishermen knew what they were doing was illegal — they took me to see them where they’d hidden them beneath palm fronds — but that didn’t stop them.

2. Despite a variety of international laws on the books since 1931 – a moratorium against whaling was established in 1982 — whaling by indigenous communities continues around the globe. Japan is of course the most prolific and renowned, hunting whales off its own shores but also venturing far into the Southern Ocean near Antarctica every year. But the Japanese are hardly alone: Inuit groups across Canada continue to hunt and harvest whale meat, which the government admits it allows more out of political expediency than good conservation; in the Faroe Islands around 950 long-finned pilot whale are killed every summer by locals who claim the hunt is an important part of their culture and history while animal-rights groups protest it as cruel and unnecessary; Greenlandic hunters take 175 whales per year, making them the third largest hunters after Norway and Japan, and have recently gotten a concession from the International Whaling Commission to take two big bowhead whales each year until 2012; indigenous whaling communities also continue to hunt in Iceland, Indonesia and Russia. In the United States whaling is still done by nine different indigenous communities in Alaska, taking about 50 bowhead whales a year from a population of 10,500 and one or two gray whales each year; conservationists don’t believe these numbers are sustainable.

3. In the Philippines the reef fish Mameng (also known as Maori or Humphead Wrasse) is considered one of the world’s most valuable fish and can be found in high-end restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia. In particular, its lips are regarded an expensive delicacy. The Mameng is also endangered, thus fished illegally. Big, colorful fish (six feet long, more than 400 pounds), the Mameng have long been classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “at risk,” meaning they may soon be extinct. Still divers take them daily with compressors who fish the shallow reefs of the southern Philippines, usually capturing them by the highly illegal method of cyanide poisoning (the fish are stunned by a squirted mixture of sodium cyanide, which of course kills everything in the area, including corals, sponges and other fish). The captured fish are then fed in pens and fattened for traders, mostly from mainland China. Philippine fishermen are also known to hunt both devil rays and manta rays – both on the IUCN’s “near threatened” list – usually taking them at night using strobe lights and nets.

4. While illegal shark finning gets most of the attention in the waters off the highly protected Galapagos National Park and marine reserve, the illegal taking of sea cucumbers in the surrounding seas has essentially stalled future growth. While quotas are in place, allowing up to 2 million sea cucumbers to be taken each year legally, recent annual catches have been coming in at just over a million. “That’s not because the fishermen are taking any less,” says Sea Shepherd’s Galapagos director Alex Cornelissen, “it’s because the other one million are being taken illegally and not reported.” Giant bags of sea cucumbers, headed for ports across the Pacific in China and Japan, are confiscated each year in mainland Peru. “But it’s a mafia-like organization that transports them,” says Cornellisen, “which is very hard to stop.” The last time a Sea Shepherd activist uncovered a cucumber smuggling ring a hit was put out for his life. The pay off? $40. “Life is cheap in Peru,” says Cornellisen.

[flickr image via visualpanic]