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Commercial Fishing in a State of Collapse

The majority of the world’s fisheries are in a state of collapse.

Too many boats are chasing too few fish. Many of the fish species currently in decline serve as important food sources for sea animals who, unlike humans, have no other food choices. In the Bering Sea, the effects of overfishing on marine animals are obvious. Fur-seal populations have not increased despite a long-standing ban on commercial hunting. The number of Steller’s sea lions, which feed mostly on pollack (the number one ingredient in frozen fish sticks and served by fast food chains), has plunged 80% since the 1970s, and seabirds such as the red-legged kittiwake are also in trouble.1

Modern fishing techniques have enabled humans to catch more fish than ever before, and the once seemingly abundant ocean is now being stripped of life.

In addition to the vast numbers of target fish being caught by today’s fishermen, there are also non-target casualties. “Bycatch” is the name that fisheries have given to sea life that is caught, yet not wanted at the time. Bycatch may include dolphins, sea turtles, sea birds, starfish, or even commercially valuable fish not sought by a particular vessel.

Damaging Fishing Techniques and Their Subsequent Effects:

  • Factory Trawlers
    These are industrial fishing vessels with large-mouthed nets wide enough to encompass three Statues of Liberty lined up end to end. Upon being cast into the ocean, these nets catch just about everything they touch. “Trawling” and “trolling” are sometimes confused, but trolling refers to a vessel towing bait near the surface of the water. With trawling, for every pound of commercial catch, 10 to 20 pounds of bycatch is caught and discarded as waste.2 As the huge nets drag across the sea floor, they not only capture sea creatures, they literally clear-cut the ocean floor, grinding up coral reefs and other habitats. By removing the organisms that provide shelter for little fish, trawling is not only breaking the food chain, but may also be the underlying cause of the recent collapse of many commercial groundfish stocks, which include cod, haddock, pollock and flounder.
  • Longlines
    These are fishing lines up to 80 miles long, which carry several thousand baited hooks at a time. These may catch swordfish, sablefish, and sometimes tuna. Frequently, longlines catch other sea animals including sharks and sea birds. Worldwide, an estimated 180,000 birds die on longline hooks each year. Scientists agree that longline fishing severely impacts at least 13 seabird species, 3 of which are globally threatened with extinction. About 10% of the world’s wandering albatross population is killed each year by longlines.3 Fishermen can minimize conflicts with seabirds by putting extra weight on lines to make bait sink faster, by setting hooks at night, and by using streamer lines that scare birds away.
    Sharks have also been severely impacted by longline fishing. In 1998, 60,857 sharks were killed in Hawaiian longline fisheries, of which 98% were killed just for their fins, which are used in soup.4 Sharks have slow growth and reproductive rates, which makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
  • Purse Seine
    These vessels will surround a school of fish with a large net, which is closed off at the bottom with a cable. This technique can trap an entire school of tuna as well as other fish. In the Eastern Pacific, yellow fin tuna often travel with dolphins (for reasons yet unknown), who are vulnerable to entanglement in purse seines if herded and encircled by the net.

Commercial Fishing and Marine Mammal Conflicts:

Many marine mammals eat the same fish that humans do. In the past, subsistence cultures that fished only to meet the needs of their villages had few conflicts with marine mammals. Today, commercial fisheries strive to profit by catching as many fish as possible, while marine mammals are perceived as competition. The fish that these marine mammals eat to survive is considered lost industry profit. Too often, many marine mammals become scapegoats for declining fish stocks and are harassed or killed. Other times, certain types of fishing gear inadvertently harms non-target marine mammals.

  • Seals and Fishery Conflicts
    Fishermen claim that seals are a costly menace, because they damage nets and eat or wound fish that “belong” to the fishermen. Despite the fact that most of the world’s fisheries are in trouble due to overfishing, fisheries mismanagement, and pollution, fishermen routinely blame seals for reduced catches. Complaints by fishermen often lead to seal slaughters or “culls,” which are crude and cruel attempts to boost fishery yields. However, there is little scientific evidence that seal slaughters help replenish fish stocks. In fact, removing large numbers of seals may actually hurt fish stocks, as other animals usually eaten by seals also eat commercial fish or compete with them for the same food.5 Additionally, fish eaten by seals account for only a small proportion of the fish that are removed from the marine environment. In some cases, fishermen remove 25 times more than seals, while other fish may eat 30 times more.6
  • Otters and Shellfish
    To stay warm in the North Pacific’s cool waters, a 50-pound adult otter will consume a quarter of its body weight each day, which equates to roughly 16 pounds of crab, lobster, urchins, oysters, and clams. The shellfish industry of Southern California owes its success to the near eradication of the sea otter by fur traders almost 100 years ago. As the sea otter population is slowly recovering and has begun to reclaim its native range, the shellfish industry has pushed for the enforcement of “otter-free zones.” These zones are created when otters are removed from their rightful place in the ecosystem, and relocated to less productive areas where fishermen, and subsequently otters, have little interest.7 Sea otter relocation efforts are doomed to fail, as otters cannot recognize the invisible line that surrounds an “otter-free zone.” Once relocated, otters fail to thrive. Relocation not only disrupts the sea otter social structure, but it increases food competition and causes territorial disputes, which ultimately results in more otter deaths.
  • Dolphins and Tuna
    As stated earlier, there are some species of tuna that swim with dolphins. This special relationship has led to the depletion of both species, as fishermen locate tuna by looking for leaping dolphins. Scientists have confirmed that chasing and netting dolphins causes harm to their populations and suppresses their recovery. In 1986, before the original “dolphin safe” law went into effect, 133,000 dolphins were reported killed because of tuna fishing. In 1988, thanks to strict guidelines that prohibited the netting of dolphins, deaths were reported at less than 2,000. But in 1999, dolphin protection took a huge step backward. New guidelines have rendered the label meaningless, as tuna companies that encircle dolphins with huge nets are now allowed to label their tuna as “dolphin safe.” Tuna are also in trouble from commercial fishing. Within the next few decades, blue fin tuna are expected to reduce to 10% of their historic range. Most blue fin on the market today are juveniles, as nearly all of the adults have been caught. Bigeye, yellowfin and albacore tuna populations are also declining.
  • Sea Turtles and Shrimp
    All but one of the eight species of sea turtles are listed on the U.S. Endangered Species List, and all are protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Despite this protection, it is estimated that worldwide, 155,000 sea turtles drown in shrimp nets each year8 — many in U.S. waters. “Turtle-Safe™” shrimp is caught with Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which attach to shrimp nets and allow turtles to escape. While sea turtle drownings are almost entirely eliminated by the use of TEDs and are required in U.S. waters, some fishermen disable them because they mistakenly believe that TEDs reduce shrimp catches.8 Shrimp that is imported to the U.S. is also supposed to be caught with TEDs, however, regulation and compliance of foreign vessels is very questionable.
    And unfortunately, while TEDs may help protect sea turtles, they are unable to remedy the devastating damage that shrimp nets cause as they drag across the sea floor, destroying critical habitat and food sources for sea turtles and other sea life.

A Word about Recreational Fishing:

While recreational fishing does not have the same devastating environmental effects as commercial fishing, it does contribute to the depletion of fish populations, as well as to conflicts with other wild animals.

Like all animals, fish have a complex nervous system. They are able to experience pain, fear and stress. Many anglers assume that if they “catch and release,” no harm is done. However, fish released after being caught can suffer from loss of their protective outer coating, dangerous build-up of lactic acid in their muscles, oxygen depletion, damage to their delicate fins and mouths, pain, distress and death. A study by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, found that up to 43% of released fish died within 6 days.9 Another study from Texas Tech found that 62% of fish caught during a tournament died with in 6 days, while no fish from the control group died.10 Clearly catch and release is no fun for the fish, as one angler explains, “I’ve had more and more trouble with catch and release fishing as time goes on. I haven’t stopped completely ... But I’ve concluded that it’s [speciesist] to tell ourselves that it’s a game to the fish. It’s deadly mortal serious to them.”11

Fishing waste, including lost hooks, line, and other trash often litters areas where recreational fishing takes place, and poses a threat to all types of wildlife. Many wildlife rehabilitators say that fishing litter is one of the single greatest causes of injuries to aquatic animals, and many aquatic and land-roaming animals may accidentally ingest hooks or get tangled in fishing line. In 1999, littered fishing line and tackle killed two eaglets, and was found in two-thirds of all the eagle nests in Arizona.12

What You Can Do:

  • Eliminate or decrease fish from your diet. If you are going to eat fish, be sure to eat only those species that are not depleted and that are not caught using methods that result in high bycatch or destruction of sea habitats.
  • Support legislation that sets strict standards for commercial fishing.
  • Urge National Parks, National Marine Sanctuaries, and National Wildlife Refuges to prohibit commercial and recreational fishing within their boundaries.
  • If you witness a marine mammal being harassed by fishermen or injured by fishing gear, contact the National Marine Fisheries Service. The toll-free, national phone number for the enforcement division is 1-800-853-1964.
  • If you witness any other wild animals (ducks, geese, raccoons, etc.) being harassed by fishermen or injured by fishing gear, call your state Fish and Wildlife or Fish and “Game” department listed in the Government section of your local phone book.
  • When visiting a beach, lake or river, pick up any discarded fishing gear that you see and dispose of it properly.

Notes

  1. Eugene Linden. “An Ill Tide up North.” Time, August 16, 1999, pp. 53-54.
  2. Janet Raloff. “Fishing for Answers.” Science News Online, October 26, 1996 (at sciencenews.org/Sn_arch/10_26_96/Bob1.htm).
  3. Defenders of Wildlife. “IUCN Urges Greater Protection For Seabirds In Longline Fisheries.” October 23, 1996 press release (and at www.defenders.org/pr102396.html).
  4. National Audubon Society. “Sharks on the Line” at www.Audubon.org/campaign/lo/shark9910.html.
  5. Steven Pearlstein. “Sealing the Seal’s Fate.” Washington Post Foreign Service, September 19, 1999, p. A27.
  6. Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. “Seals and Fisheries — the facts.” at www.users.dircon.co.uk/~ufaw3/seals.htm.
  7. Michael McCabe. “Otter Frustration.” San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 1999.
  8. Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “Turtle Safe Shrimp Fact Sheet” at www.seaturtles.org/pdf/ACF321.pdf.
  9. Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “Final Report: Evaluation of Procedures to Reduce Delayed Mortality of Black Bass Following Summer Tournaments.” Federal Aid Grant No. F-50-R, Fish Research for Oklahoma Waters, Project No. 8, March 1, 1996 through February 28, 1997.
  10. Steve Bowman. “Off the beaten path: There’s a catch to releasing after weigh-in.” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, September 13, 1998.
  11. Paula Moore. “National Parks should be off-limits to anglers.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (and at www.sistersonline.com/articles/98June-PETA.htm).
  12. Arizona Department of Game and Fish. Fishing Regulations 1999, p. 8.

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