Hook, Line, And Extinction

As fish stocks plunge, will the industry change its ways?

The cod off the New England and eastern Canadian coasts were once so abundant that, it was said, a man could walk across the seas on their backs. In these fertile depths, they grew into six-foot-long, 200-pound giants. But in a watery echo of the fate of the buffalo, the fish were practically wiped out by decades of overfishing. Now, the typical cod landed by Chatham (Mass.) fisherman Ed Rohmer tips the scales at 20 pounds--when he can manage to find the fish at all. "This year has been pretty bad," he laments.

The near disappearance of the cod after decades of overfishing is costing New England $350 million per year in vanished income and the loss of 14,000 jobs, compared to what a properly managed fishery could sustain. Worldwide, 30% of fish stocks, from orange roughy and shark to swordfish and tuna, are declining because of overexploitation--and an additional 44% are on the edge, according to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences. That's putting at risk a $100 billion-per-year global industry that provides 200 million jobs. The crisis is so acute that member nations of the U.N.'s Food & Agriculture Organization agreed at a meeting in late October to begin the painful task of reducing the size of fishing fleets. "It's remarkable that so many countries have recognized the problem--and have realized that it's in everyone's economic self-interest to deal with it," says Terry D. Garcia, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Commerce Dept. and chief U.S. negotiator at the FAO meeting in Rome.

LONG LIST. The potential benefits of such action are huge. The current world catch stands at about 84 million metric tons of fish, plus about 27 million tons of wasted "by-catch." If today's fleet of 3.5 million fishing boats--including 450,000 sizable ones from China--continue to ply the seas unchecked, biologists predict, today's catch probably cannot be "continued on a sustainable basis," says the NAS report. But if species are allowed to rebound and fishing is then set at a reasonable level, the haul could actually be boosted by 10% to 20%.

In U.S. waters, more than 80% of commercial fish stocks--the basis of a $20 billion industry--were disappearing by the mid-1990s or were on the brink of being overfished. The long list of threatened species includes Atlantic halibut, dogfish, red snapper, and Pacific ocean perch. So in 1996, the Republican-led Congress bucked its usual anti-environment stance and quietly passed a strong pro-conservation bill. The legislation requires the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and eight regional fishing councils around the country to eliminate overfishing, minimize the catch of species not being fished for (such as red snapper snared in shrimp nets), and reduce the loss of key marine habitats, such as sea-bottom areas crucial to the survival of young fish that can be damaged by trawling and dredging gear. The new law "was one of the best things we've done for fisheries," says biologist John Musick of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

OVERKILL? The crucial question, however, is whether the steps taken under the law are adequate. Conservationists praise the intent of the Pacific Fishery Management Council's plan for protecting such fish as lingcod, rockfish, and bocaccio off the West Coast, for instance. The plan requires reductions in fishing once the population of a given species drops below 40% of the estimated levels before fishermen arrived on the scene--and it closes the fishery entirely when stocks drop to 10% of the pre-fishing level. But the council is not abiding by its own plan, and the actual fishing reductions "are too little and too late," says fisheries biologist Joshua Sladek-Nowlis of the Center for Marine Conservation, a Washington-based environmental organization. He believes the lingcod and bocaccio may not recover.

Fishermen retort that stricter restrictions may be overkill. "We don't have definitive answers on what the proper harvest should be," argues Ralph Brown, the owner of two trawlers operating out of Brookings, Ore. "We don't want to hurt businesses and communities that rely on lingcod when we don't know enough about the fish."

Similarly, environmentalists argue that fishing for spiny dogfish in New England must be halted. "Any delay could be the death knell of the species," says D. Douglas Hopkins, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. The council, however, favors a delay, and it has not imposed strict enough limits on cod and other species, biologists warn--in part because of intense pressure from fishermen and from politicians such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Representative Barney Frank, both from Massachusetts.

Conservationists and biologists are lobbying hard to create the political will needed to take strong steps. They are also pressuring the National Marine Fisheries Service to make the regional plans tougher. Meanwhile, fishermen themselves are realizing that many species of fish do need help--and that their business will be better if stocks can recover. On the Pacific Coast, for example, Brown is working to cut the number of trawlers from 250 to below 200. "The idea is to tax ourselves to buy out people" who want to get out of fishing, he explains.

But even more radical changes may be needed. The most controversial recommendation of the NAS panel is that governments should assign individual fisherman or communities the rights to certain amounts of fish or to specific fishing grounds. That would give fishermen the incentive to preserve the value of their share or right over the long haul, explains Michael Sissenwine, director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass. The transition "won't be easy," he warns, since it would put some fishermen out of business. But unless such stern measures are taken around the world, the ocean's bounteous fisheries may become a distant memory.