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.

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.

Bluefin tuna sells for $400,000, a record times two

For a variety of reasons –primarily overfishing and hoarding — I’ve been predicting for the past couple years that within the next decade we will see a bluefin tuna sold in Japan for $500,000, even $1 million.

Looks like we won’t have to wait that long.

At the annual first-day of the new year sale at Tokyo’s monstrous Tsukiji Central Fish Market a new record for a single fish was set: $396,000 for a 754 pound bluefin.

The fish, caught off the Japanese island of Hokkaido has no special ju-ju. It won’t taste any better than any of the other 538 bluefin sold at the market on the same day, at one of its two daily morning auctions. The record price equates to $527 per pound of meat.

It is special only because it was the first sold in 2011. The first day the market is open in the New Year is known as the “celebratory market.” In a nation that lives for seafood – the Japanese consume 80 percent of the Atlantic and Bluefins caught each year – being first clearly counts for a lot.

A pair of restaurant owners from Tokyo and Hong Kong bought this big fish. They are trusting that their biggest clients and strangers alike will wait in long lines outside their stylish Tokyo sushi bar or one of several Hong Kong-based chain sushi restaurants for a taste of the first-of-the-year-fish and be willing to be upwards of $100 per bite for the chance.
“What a relief I was able to buy this fish,” Ricky Cheng, owner of the Itamae Sushi chain, part of Hong Kong’s Taste of Japan group, told reporters gathered at the market for the spectacle. “We wanted to get it for good luck, even if we lose money.” His partner in the purchase owns a high-end sushi bar in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district.

Ironically the World Wildlife Fund has been pressuring the chain to stop serving all bluefin at Cheng’s restaurants and demanding it not participate in the “symbolic bidding.”

Several coordinated governmental efforts were made in 2010 to slow the catch of bluefin. They largely failed, leaving the big, speedy fish closer to extinction, in large part due to Japan’s voracious appetite and keen lobbying skills.

Watching all this activity from the sidelines is the Mitsubishi Company, which controls an estimated forty percent of all sales of bluefin in Japan. Some is put on the market, some it goes straight into giant freezers. The company is counting on the day when bluefin will no longer be available in the wild and the only stocks remaining will be frozen.

That’s when I predict we’ll see the $1 million bluefin.