The Fishing Industry's Big Catch

Consumers' taste for seafood is depleting fish stocks, endangering species, and putting fishermen and environmentalists on a collision course

Rick Moonen, the chef and owner of Oceana, a high-end seafood restaurant in New York City, doesn't need to be told that overfishing has affected some of the most popular items on his menu. He has seen it with his own eyes. Over the past few years, he has noticed a marked decline in the quality, freshness, and size of certain species of fish supplied to him. Recently, he simply gave up on Chilean sea bass, his top-selling dish, removing it from the menu. About three years ago, he did the same with swordfish.

"I'm not a fish-hugger," says Moonen, who says customers are asking more questions than ever about where fish comes from. "But this is the ingredient I use every day of my life, and I am concerned about sustainability. The bottom line is that this is how I make my living."


  Moonen's alarm should serve as a wake-up call worldwide. The problem of overfishing first attracted attention in the mid-1990s, when populations of several prominent species, such as Atlantic cod and haddock, started to collapse, and the worldwide supply of fish began to decline for the first time. As a result, tough new fisheries-management laws went into effect in 1996 for the U.S. fishing industry, and the United Nations declared 1998 "the International Year of the Ocean" to encourage countries to implement better fisheries-management policies.

Today, fresh and affordable fish is plentiful in the markets and on restaurant menus. U.S. consumers are eating more fish -- around 15.6 pounds per person in 2000, up from 12.5 in 1980, according to a recent report of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Recreational fishing is booming -- dwarfing the commercial-fishing industry in economic impact, especially given its close ties to tourism. (See "No Time to Let Anglers Off the Hook") But just because an abundance of fish is available to consumers doesn't mean the overfishing problem has been solved.

Far from it. The already highly regulated fishing industry may be heading into even stormier seas. According to the most recent data, the worldwide supply of fish slipped in 1998. In 1999, the U.S. commercial catch of seafood declined for the sixth straight time, says seafood market-research firm H.M. Johnson & Associates.


  Efforts to better manage the world's fisheries and bring back depleted fish stocks have met with mixed results. In the U.S.-- where, on an annual basis, commercial and recreational fishing is a $50 billion industry -- there have been some successes following expensive efforts to restore damaged stocks (sea scallops in New England are one recent example). But the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the Commerce Dept., which aims to maintain fishing at sustainable levels, still lists 92 species as overfished, and has long-term plans in place to rebuild 75 of them.

Internationally, the overall situation continues to deteriorate. True, new international agreements on fisheries management could help lead to some improvements. But in its 2000 report, "The State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture," the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that the environmental distress caused by the fishing industry is still on the rise. The number of so-called "overexploited species" is increasing -- they now total 15% to 18% of major marine fish stocks -- and those populations are likely to decline further if action isn't taken, the report says. Somewhat pessimistically, it notes that remedial action "can be a major undertaking and usually implies the adoption of drastic management measures."

In cases where major remedial action has been taken -- for instance, with striped bass in the Northeast Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay -- it's usually because of pressure from the recreational fishing industry, notes Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. To help make his case, he's creating a database of the economic value of all the industries that use the ocean, and estimates that "hundreds of millions a year" could be gained if overexploited stocks were allowed to recover and were fished in sustainable ways.

A boom and bust cycle must be avoided

One concern is that even when stocks start to bounce back, there is immediate pressure from the fishing industry to increase the catch. The National Marine Fisheries Service has increased quotas for summer flounder on the East Coast but, despite gains in populations, hasn't increased the number of fishing days allowed for most New England ground fish (like cod and haddock) in order to give those stocks more time to rebuild, says William Hogarth, that agency's director. Still, with fishermen calling for increases, "there may be a boom-and-bust cycle developing," warns Kite-Powell.

Meantime, there are troubling new signs that ocean fish stocks may not rebound as easily as hoped. Although the industry points out that no fish has become extinct due to overfishing, a November, 2000, report by the American Fisheries Society, a group of scientists, listed 82 species as being at some risk of extinction in North America, with the biggest risk to species -- such as sharks, sturgeons, and groupers -- that reproduce slowly.

So where is our abundance of seafood coming from? It's a product of the growing global business of fish farming, or aquaculture, (See "...On That Farm He Had Some Fish") which now supplies nearly one-third of the world's seafood supply. In the U.S. (which imports more than half of its seafood), five of the top seafoods are farmed, including about 95% of all catfish and half of all salmon, according to H.M. Johnson & Associates.

"If we're going to meet growing demand, we're going to have to learn how to farm," says Dick Gutting, executive director of the fishing industry's main trade group, the National Fisheries Institute. He notes that although some aquaculture practices have sparked environmental concerns in the past, overall the industry has been good for both seafood purveyors and consumers in that it supplies affordable, fresh fish all year.


  One unintended downside, however, is that aquaculture relieves pressure on the industry to do more to curtail overfishing. "At a very crude level you could say there's no reason why people should care about overfishing," says Kite-Powell. "And it turns out that they haven't really cared. We have allowed our fish stocks to be overexploited in ways that would never be allowed to happen with a resource that really mattered to people."

Environmental groups, emboldened by the public perception that the Bush Administration is rolling back environmental protections, hope to change that. They're emphasizing fishing-related problems that resonate with the public, such as the gross waste of marine life when fishermen accidentally catch and discard other marine species, including sea turtles. Such groups are also drawing attention to "shark-finning," which is common in the South Pacific, where fishermen catch sharks, cut off the fins, which are in demand in Asia for soup, and throw the shark back in the sea to die.

Environmental groups are also calling on consumers, who suddenly seem to be paying more attention, to think about the fish they eat. Several groups have compiled lists of overfished species for their members to avoid. They point out that fishing fleets often harvest juveniles that haven't reached their full reproductive capacity. They also point out that humans, through overfishing, have removed many of the larger predators in the ocean and are now eating fish that are lower down the food chain. For example, the frozen fish most people buy in the market today is mostly Alaskan pollack -- a fish that is widely hunted by whales. Commercial fisherman, having depleted cod populations, fish pollack heavily. Such practices could harm the ecology of the ocean, says Kimberly Davis, director of fish-conservation programs at The Ocean Conservancy.


  Another target: The use of bottom-dragging fishing gear, which destroys seabeds. "How we do things in the short term is threatening the long-term economics," says Davis. "You can ignore the ecological impacts in the short term, but eventually they're going to come around and get you." Groups such as the Ocean Conservancy are calling for the creation of more marine sanctuaries, similar to national parks on land, to preserve wilderness areas in the ocean. Marine sanctuaries have been created in recent years in Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and Florida.

These twin efforts -- to ban fishing in certain areas and to get consumers to stop eating overfished species -- have raised the ire of the fishing industry. It argues that the status of fish stocks, which varies widely depending on the species and the region, is too complex for consumers to make decisions about which fish are O.K. to eat and which ones aren't. "There's a lot of hype and overstating of the problems facing fisheries," says Gutting. For example, some people think salmon is endangered, but Alaskan salmon is plentiful and Atlantic salmon is produced on farms. "These groups are putting out a tremendous amount of information and it is in their interest to present problems and crisis," he says.

The industry claims that environmental groups sound the alarm prematurely

Gutting says efforts to stop fishing -- by creating marine sanctuaries or filing lawsuits that close some fishing areas temporarily -- are disrupting fisheries management by using up public funds and making it harder for government surveys to judge the impact of fishing. He cites a growing number of suits, especially related to the Endangered Species Act. One federal judge ordered the closure of the North Pacific pollack fishery last year, putting fishermen out of business and wreaking havoc on fishing communities, says Gutting. "No fisherman likes to be told he can't go out and fish," says seafood-industry analyst Howard Johnson. "It has become a real bone of contention."

Hogarth says one of his goals is to build more trust between regulators and fishermen, who often doubt the government's statistics on fish populations. But he notes that his constituency is broader than just commercial fishermen. "There are a lot of different types of enjoyment that come out of this public resource that we're trying to manage," says Hogarth. "Everyone has a stake."


  One thing all sides can agree on is the need for improved science and technology, both of which should lead to better management of marine fisheries. "We need better records on which to make decisions, and better economic data," says Hogarth, who thinks that would also help improve his agency's relationship with commercial fishermen.

Technology will help fisheries managers do a better job with oversight and also increase the industry's productivity, for example, by letting food processors fillet a fish more efficiently. It should also improve fishing methods, so more of the target species, and less of other fish and marine animals, get caught in nets and fishing lines. "There is no doubt that we can get more usable fish out of what we're taking from the ocean," says Hogarth.

More information should also help head off some of the animosity that is building. After all, everyone has the same basic goal -- preserving the population of fish in the ocean. Gutting, who represents the industry, puts it this way: "Fisheries really are wonderful things. We really don't have to do any other thing than be sure we don't take too much." And who knows? Instead of taking fish off his menu, Moonan may one day be putting some fish back on.

By Amey Stone in New York

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