Not `So Many Fish In The Sea'

In April, Canadian officials charged into international waters off Newfoundland and impounded the Portuguese-owned trawler Kristina Logos. In its hold they found more than 50 tons of young cod--a violation of an international fishing agreement. Canada has banned catching cod and most other "groundfish" within its own 200-mile limit, hoping to save its once-rich Grand Banks fishing ground. The April seizure expanded that effort, and Brian Tobin, Canada's Fisheries & Oceans Minister, promises more vigilance. "We have to put aside our lust for more and understand that [the fish] are disappearing," says Tobin. "It would be irresponsible not to act."

Today, fully one-third of the 200 fisheries worldwide monitored by the U.N.'s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) are depleted or being overfished. Some 40% of species the U.S. monitors are too, while an additional 42% have lower populations than needed to produce the best catches. "We need to rebuild depleted stocks to provide long-term, healthy economic conditions for fishing communities," says Rolland A. Schmitten, director of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

HIGH STAKES. This view is prompting action on two fronts. Short-term, six countries agreed last year to stop pollack fishing for two years in the "donut hole," international waters in the Bering Sea. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has cut 1995 quotas for Atlantic tuna 50% from 1993 levels. Salmon fishing is banned this year off the Pacific Northwest. And in May, rules to stop overfishing off New England took effect.

Meantime, governments are working to lay the foundation for better long-term management. In August, delegates from 80 nations will meet at the U.N. in New York to forge an agreement for harvesting the high seas. This summer, Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Magnuson Act, the law that regulates fishing in U.S. waters. Environmentalists, the Clinton Administration, and some in industry will press for measures to strengthen conservation.

The stakes are high. Worldwide, the FAO estimates, overfishing and poor management lower the optimum revenues from fishing by at least $15 billion a year. Since 1989, too many boats chasing too few fish have kept the world fleet operating at a loss, despite $54 billion in annual subsidies. In jeopardy in the U.S. are a fishing and processing industry that added $18.5 billion to the gross domestic product in 1992. Fish are also a key source of protein for nearly 20% of the world's people, and essential for maintaining ocean ecosystems.

A variety of factors has created the current crisis. Since 1960, the total catch of ocean fish and shellfish has risen 66%, to 82 million metric tons in 1992. To reach that level, fleets fish for more species and catch younger fish, which cuts the number of adults of spawning age. Meanwhile, the explosion of people living near seacoasts has damaged critical fish habitats and spawning grounds in estuaries. Sophisticated technology, such as sonar, and the use of factory ships continue to make fishing more efficient. Larger, more effective nets have increased bycatch--the hauling of unintended species that are thrown back dead. In the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic, shrimpers' bycatch helps explain an 85% decline in snappers and groupers in those waters over the past 20 years.

The most serious problem may be the surplus of boats. Overcapitalization has created a "crazy race for fish," says Joseph R. Blum, executive director of the American Factory Trawler Assn. Fueled by subsidies, the world fleet now totals 1.2 million boats; since 1975, the number of trawlers on the high seas has risen 30%. With more boats, the catch per vessel falls, as do profits--even though prices soar (charts). In Alaska, it now takes the 5,000 or so boats that fish for halibut just 36 hours to catch the limit--vs. 120 days in the mid-1970s.

To make matters worse, quotas are hard to enforce, often set too high, and come too late. Although NMFS scientists started advising the New England Fisheries Management Council--one of eight set up under the Magnuson Act--to cut catches of groundfish such as cod and haddock in the late 1970s, the council refused. Throughout the 1980s, it tried stopgap measures that Vaughn Anthony, NMFS chief scientific adviser in New England, calls "window dressing." Sure enough, catches of groundfish plunged 39% from 1990 to 1993.

Even then, it took a lawsuit from environmentalists and pressure from Commerce officials to force the council to act. The May 1 plan includes a moratorium on boat licenses. It also cuts the number of allowed days at sea by as much as 50% over five years, with the goal of reducing the number of fish taken each year, now 70% of the population, to 30%. To ease the pain for 20,000 fishers, some of whom are sure to go broke, the Commerce Dept. has committed $30 million in aid, some of which will pay for low-interest loans to help restructure debt. It also plans to mount a boat-buyout program. Even so, "the plan just gets rid of overfishing, it doesn't rebuild stocks," says Anthony.

Other initiatives are aimed at that. In the Gulf Coast this summer, the shrimp industry is testing nets that may cut the bycatch of finfish 50%. More fisheries are experimenting with individual transferable quotas, or ITQs, to limit entry. ITQ systems allocate a share of an allowable catch to ITQ holders, who then can use or trade the rights. Next year, Alaska will try ITQs in its halibut and sable fisheries. But ITQs are controversial, in part because overfishing is still a danger. Without strong enforcement and limits on catches that are low enough to maintain fish populations, they don't work.

DICEY WATERS. In the meantime, the Clinton Administration is pushing for changes in the Magnuson Act: They would require the Commerce Dept. to annually report overfished stocks, then give the management councils one year to design a plan to stop overfishing and rebuild stocks. If they didn't, Commerce could. The changes would also mandate efforts to reduce bycatch, preserve critical fish habitats, and allow fisheries managers to charge user fees to help finance better management. There will certainly be debate over these proposals, but Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown foresees a "positive climate for reauthorization."

Forging a U.N. agreement on high- seas fishing will be dicier. Fish from international waters are about 10% of the world catch. Although some agreements exist, they are violated with impunity, and some 20% of high-seas vessels are registered in countries that haven't signed. Canada, Chile, environmentalists, and some U.S. industry groups want a deal that includes quotas to conserve fishing stocks and "enforcement mechanisms so that no nations can escape them," says Tobin. So far, though, countries with large fleets--Taiwan, Japan--and the European Union have balked. Success, says Tobin, depends on whether the European Union and the U.S. back quotas and enforcement. By late June, the EU's opposition seemed to be softening, but the U.S. government hadn't tipped its hand.

In the meantime, waiting for action can be frustrating for scientists who track the fish. Says NMFS biologist Anthony: "I hope we've learned our lesson, so that we'll manage ocean ecosystems for future generations of fish and fishermen."

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