Overfishing and the future generation’s catch

The biggest debate in the ocean world today continues to be, Will we run out of fish, and when?

An intense squabble has been going on for nearly twenty years, since the global catch of seafood peaked in 1994. Predictions since have warned that we’ve taken 90 percent of the fish from the sea and that by 2050 or so all of the fish we currently know would be gone, that jellyfish will rule the seas.

Which is very true … in some places. Globally, despite growing international awareness, fisheries are still being abused, particularly the big fish we most love to eat, including marlins, bluefin tuna, cod and snapper.

But highly-placed members of the U.S. government have been making the rounds in recent months very publicly saying that our fisheries are actually doing quite well, thank you, due largely to laws that are working and a grumbling-but-dutiful bunch of fishermen who are obeying them.

A couple weeks ago Eric Schwaab, administrator of the National Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA, told a crowd at the Boston Seafood Show that overfishing in the U.S. was in many respects and for the moment … over.

He bolstered his argument with statistics suggesting that the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which imposed strict annual catch limits in U.S. waters, is working, that the 528 different fish species it monitors are doing okay. He called it an “enormous milestone.”

How big an area are we talking? Just how big is the U.S. fishing zone? 3.4 million square miles paralleling 90,000 miles of coastline.

Those who agree with those government stats say the good news deserves better publicity, that doom-and-gloom headlines about the “end of fishing” attract more eyes than those that show, in fact, fish in some places are making a comeback.

I admit to having contributed to some of those gloomy reports, based primarily on my own empirical research. During my travels to coastlines around the world the past two decades I am constantly quizzing fishermen on their personal experiences at sea. Are you catching as much fish as you did ten years ago? Do you have to go further out to sea to find a reasonable catch? Are some species you used to depend on gone or lessened?

Virtually everywhere I go outside the U.S. the responses are the same: There are fewer fish, especially big ones, which requiring fleets to venture far out to sea in order to find a reasonable catch.

One important distinction is that there is a difference between a fish species that is “overfished” and the act of “overfishing.”

While the two can exist simultaneously, there are some differences, which can be confusing, especially in a headline-dominated media.

A species that is “overfished” means it is below its healthy population level. An overfished area can recover if it is temporarily placed off-limits or certain catch limits are instituted, which is what’s happened in recent years in many U.S. waters.

“Overfishing” means taking more fish out of the ocean than natural reproduction rates can replace. There are many examples of fish species that have been so badly overfished they will never come back. Bluefin tuna is currently headed that direction.

Michael Conathan, director of Ocean Policy for the Center for American Progress (CAP), explains it this way: “In effect, this is the difference between a household’s budget and debt. Exceeding an annual budget is overspending. Overspending for multiple years will accumulate debt, which can be referred to as being in an ‘overspent’ state. Even when overspending stops, the red ink doesn’t magically turn black. The deficit remains. Many of our fisheries are still overfished (or overspent), but the first step in resolving that dilemma is halting overfishing.”

At a minimum, the current laws regulating fishing in the U.S. have helped the fisheries “make progress” (Schwaab’s words). I am happy to help spread that word. But a worry exists: There are plenty in the commercial fishing business, and politicians whose voters work in the fishing industry, who want to take a glimmer of good news and change the laws and open the fisheries back up to bigger takes. Many believe that would be too much too soon, that the fisheries need more years to fully recover. Grumbling fishermen disagree.

One overriding concern no matter which side of the debate you’re on is that fishing, like all big businesses today, knows no boundaries.

The market for fish is a global one. Eighty-four percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad; half of that is from farms. Much of the fish caught in the U.S. is sent abroad.

Government fishing officials in countries ranging from Vietnam to Indonesia, Japan to the Mediterranean, are not as optimistic as their U.S. counterparts. Many of them report parts of their fisheries that are dead and gone, never to return.

While U.S. enforcement seems to be working for now, the worldwide demand for fish continues to grow and someone’s going to fill it. There are plenty of fishermen out there on the ocean happy to comply, rules and regulations be damned.