Source: MOTHER JONES, Date: July/August 1994, Title: “Special Report: A Farewell To Fish?,” Authors: Peter Steinhart, Hal Bernton, Brad Matsen, Ray Troll, and Deborah Cramer
SYNOPSIS: While the world’s oceans are almost totally fished out and while millions of people starve, the world’s fishing fleets waste about 60 billion pounds of fish and seafood every year-enough for 120 billion meals.
Once upon a time, on a good day in the 1960s, an Atlantic fisherman could harpoon 30 large swordfish. Today, such swordfish are hardly ever seen. And what has happened to swordfish has happened to hundreds of marine species in just the last 15 years. New England cod; haddock, and yellowtail flounder have declined 70 percent; South Atlantic grouper and snapper, 80 percent; Atlantic bluefin tuna, 90 percent. More than 200 separate salmon spawning runs have vanished from the Pacific Northwest. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization determined in April 1994 that roughly 60 percent of the fish populations they monitor are fully exploited or depleted.
As large-scale fishing technologies have taken over the world’s oceans, they have become less and less selective in their catch. Fish too small to be taken and species not legally fished are caught, and then thrown overboard to die. Often the catch is tossed overboard because it is too small or too large to be processed on the factory trawlers, which drag large, bag-like nets that scoop up both wanted and unwanted species.
Ironically, the federal government’s efforts to manage the catch-such as limiting the seasons for different species of fish-has instead led to incredible waste, unsafe fishing practices, and economic chaos for the industry. Under the “derby system,” the fishermen lack the time and financial incentives to try to avoid catching fish that aren’t worth processing or are not legally in season. Last year, the Alaska fleet alone caught 4.2 billion pounds of fish, then dumped a staggering 763 million pounds-seven times more fish than is retained by the entire New England fishing fleet.
The human cost of the disappearing fish harvest is considerable. For many it means hunger, since in some countries more than half of the population’s animal protein comes from the sea. Michael Sutton, of the World Wildlife Fund, says “Unlike rhinos, tigers, and bears, when you deplete fish populations, you’re threatening the survival of humanity.”
For many others, it means the end of a way of life. The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery put 40,000 people out of work; increased risks to the Alaska fleet led to the deaths of more than 165 fishermen off Alaska in the past six years.
And the problem is worldwide. For example, in the Philippines, as traditional fishing by net and spear yields smaller and smaller returns, divers stay down 150 to 200 feet for hours, breathing air pumped through hoses, in hopes of spearing a profitable catch. In some villages, paralysis and brain damage caused by submersion at such depths is now a common affliction.
Environmental author Peter Steinhart warns that by continuing to deplete the ocean’s productivity, we risk hunger, poverty, dislocation, and war. The solution, he suggests, is a set of international agreements binding all nations to a common set of rules that will reduce the size of the world’s fishing fleet, set new limits, and enforce them.
SSU Censored Researcher: Dan Tomerlin
COMMENTS: Sarah Pollock, project editor at Mother Jones, said that the problem addressed in the “Farewell to Fish” special report the serious decline of the world’s fisheries-received a brief flurry of attention in the mainstream media in 1994, much of it after and in response to the Mother Jones coverage. However, she added, “the mainstream media continue to neglect what’s happening in Alaska, where the spoils of one of the remaining great fisheries are being divided by competing and powerful interests.”
Noting that fish are the last of the world’s wild food, Pollock said, “Most people think the ocean is boundless, and few have any idea of the amount of waste involved in the annual fish harvest. If they knew how rapidly we’re depleting the oceans, with little or no regard to a sustainable future, they would be up in arms to demand better controls on commercial fishing and elimination of waste.”
While the short-term interests of some huge food conglomerates are served by the lack of media coverage, Pollock points out, “Sadly, in the long run, no one’s interests will be served if we run out of fish.”
Pollock also explained the efforts the publication made to bring greater attention to its report on the fish crisis. In addition to the 150 key press contacts who regularly receive advance copies of Mother Jones, they sent copies of the story to more than a hundred additional reporters who cover fisheries for major papers, magazines, and trade journals; they sent 50 advance copies to The Marine Fish Conservation Network in time for a focused lobbying effort; they worked closely with the Washington office of Fish Forever which distributed nearly 300 copies of the issue to members of the press, politicians, and activists; and supplied Gerry Studds (D-MA), chair of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, his aides, and members of the committee with copies of the issue.
On December 8, 1994, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. Commerce Department had closed three prime fishing grounds off New England, about 6,600 square miles of ocean, to virtually all commercial fishing. Rollie Schmitten, director of the department’s National Marine Fisheries Service, said the action was taken in an effort to rebuild depleted stocks of cod, haddock and flounder. The closure will be in effect at least until March 12, 1995, when it might be extended. As noted above, the Mother Jones article pointed out that New England cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder had declined 70 percent in the last 15 years.