Ocean Crisis Caused by Destructive Fishing
By Cat Lazaroff

DENVER, Colorado, February 18, 2003 (ENS) - Some of the most productive
marine fishing methods are also the most damaging, and should be
restricted or banned, scientists argued at a scientific meeting this
week. Today, more than 400 leading scientists called today for the
United Nations to issue a moratorium on longline and gillnet fishing,
methods they say are wiping out populations of fish, turtles, marine
mammals and other species in the Pacific Ocean.

In a full page ad which ran in today’s “New York Times,” the researchers
urged a ban on industrial fishing techniques including longlining and
gillnetting, which they blamed for the plight of the endangered Pacific
leatherback turtle and other rare species. Many sea birds fall victim to
longline fishing methods.
The call to halt these wasteful fishing methods was made at the annual
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference
being held in Denver, and in advance of the international Food and
Agriculture Organization Committee on Fisheries meeting next week in

A total of 405 scientists from 47 nations - along with 100 conservation,
animal welfare and other nonprofi groups - signed open letters to the
United Nations, urging governments and fisheries managers in the United
States and abroad to heed the worsening crisis of global fisheries.

“In recent decades the impact of commercial fishing on ocean ecosystems
has dramatically increased, and we are confronted with the unprecedented
reality that we are rapidly depleting the oceans’ resources,” states the
letter printed today in the “New York Times.” “The oceans, once
mistakenly thought to be inexhaustible, clearly are not.”

The letter points out that more than 70 percent of global fish
populations are now considered overfished or on the brink of being
overfished, according to United Nations figures. Not just fish are at
risk: “indiscriminate commercial fishing practices wastefully harm and
kill millions of non-targeted animals per year, causing unsustainable
mortality to sea turtles, sea birds, bluefin tuna, swordfish and
sharks,” the letter states.
Leatherback Turtle May Face Extinction

Among the marine species most threatened by longlining and gill netting
is the Pacific leatherback sea turtle, the scientists wrote. The
scientists would like to see longliners banned from the Pacific Ocean.
“Tragic declines of leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles have been
well documented in the Pacific,” said Dr. Larry Crowder, Duke University
Marine Laboratory researcher, “and the impact of longline fishing on
these and other marine species can’t be understated.”

This year’s return of nesting leatherbacks to Pacific beaches was the
worst on record, biologists report. Scientists estimate that there are
now less than 5,000 nesting female leatherbacks left in the Pacific
Ocean - down from 91,000 in 1980, a decline of 95 percent.

“The decline of the leatherback in the last five years is nothing short
of catastrophic, and it is imperative that the global community come
together to eliminate the use of the most destructive forms of
industrial fishing before it is too late.” said Dr. Sylvia Earle, a
marine expert and explorer in residence at the National Geographic

A recent report to the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that there are
almost two billion hooks set per year by the longline fishing fleet.
Longline fishing in all the world’s deep oceans kills some 40,000 sea
turtles each year, along with 300,000 seabirds and millions of sharks.

“The United Nations and Kofi Annan must recognize that in order to save
the endangered leatherbacks, as well as imperiled sharks, seabirds and
dolphins, we must stop these weapons of mass destruction from destroying
our oceans,” said Todd Steiner, director of the Turtle Island
Restoration Network. “There are just too many hooks adrift in the
Pacific to give the leatherback a fighting chance for survival.”
Next week, fisheries managers from around the world will gather in Rome,
Italy for the 25th session of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural
Organization’s Committee on Fisheries meeting. Scientists and
environmental organizations are pressing these officials to place a
moratorium on both longlining and gillnetting in the Pacific, just as
the United Nations passed a comprehensive global ban of driftnet fishing
in the early 1990s.

The United States has already taken some steps to protect embattled
marine species by closing the West Coast to longlining altogether and
restricting the Hawaii longlining fleet from fishing for swordfish.
After a legal challenge by the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the
National Marine Fisheries Service applied time and area closures for
gillnet fishing fleets off the West Coast.
Bottom Trawling Called Worst of All

Another damaging fishing method which conservation groups hope to see
restricted is bottom trawling, a common method to catch shrimp, fish,
and other bottom dwelling sea life. Research presented Sunday at the
AAAS meeting shows that despite frequent conflict over fisheries issues,
many fishers, conservationists and academics agree that bottom trawling
is the most ecologically damaging fishing gear.

The scientists presented findings that, for the first time, document and
rank the full suite of ecological impacts associated with all commercial
fishing gears used in the United States. Scientists urged managers,
fishers and environmentalists to recognize that how fishing is carried
out may be as important to the future of marine resources as how many
fish are caught.

Though scientific data now demonstrates the collapse of fisheries around
the world, many destructive fishing practices are still carried out,
largely out of sight of the public and, hence, out of mind. Almost one
quarter of the world’s catch is thrown back into the sea dead or dying
each year because the fishing gear cannot discriminate between target
catch and other animals that are undersized, unmarketable, or not worth
the price of bringing to shore.

About 2.3 billion pounds of sea life were discarded in the U.S. in 2000
alone, and thousands of the ocean’s most charismatic species - including
sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and seabirds - are killed each year
by fishing nets, lines and hooks. These deaths have implications for
both marine populations and marine food webs.

“Considering the documented decline in global fisheries, this kind of
waste is unacceptable. But because this travesty is unseen by most
people, it continues,” said Dr. Crowder.

Experts agree that bottom trawls are one of the worst offenders,
entrapping vast numbers of non-targeted animals.

“The first time I was on a trawler, I was appalled to see that for every
pound of shrimp caught there were 20 pounds of sharks, rays, crabs, and
starfish killed. The shrimpers called this bycatch ‘trawl trash’ - I
call it ‘biodiversity’,” noted Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation
Biology Institute. “Of course I recognize in some trawls it could be
only one pound - in others 100 pounds for every pound of shrimp.”

This bycatch is not the only collateral damage associated with fishing.
Many experts agreed that habitat destruction that some fishing gears
cause is even more ecologically damaging than the harm caused by

“On land we can see how animals rely on structure, how the trees of a
forest are important breeding, feeding, and hiding places - but in the
ocean we have to prove it from afar,” explained James Lindholm of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We now know
that structures on the seafloor are critical for the future of cod,
rockfish, and other commercially important species. But it’s only in the
last 15 years that we’ve had the technology to see these habitats, to
see that the seafloor is not just an endless flat expanse, and to begin
to understand how we are altering deep sea marine habitats - and
fisheries - across the globe.”

In many cases, fishing is destroying undersea habitats before scientists
even have a chance to study them.
“The way we fish is like hanging a huge net dragged from an blimp across
a forest, knocking down the trees and scooping up the plants and
animals, and then throwing away everything except the deer,” says Norse.

The destruction of deep sea, coldwater corals off the east and west
coasts of the U.S. is one example. Hundreds or thousands of years old,
these living corals can be destroyed with a single pass of a bottom
trawl, and may take decades to recover, if they ever do.
“The damage to our ocean floors is more extensive and perhaps even worse
than tropical deforestation,” Norse said. “We must bring these issues to
the forefront of fisheries management before it is too late.”
Gear Changes Could Save Species

New work presented by Lance Morgan of the Marine Conservation Biology
Institute synthesized data on the ecological impacts of the 10 major
commercial fishing gears used in the United States and provides an
expert ranking for each gear type. The overall ecological impacts
associated with bottom trawls, bottom gillnets, dredges and midwater or
drift gillnets ranked relatively high, with bottom trawling topping the
list as the most ecologically harmful gear type.
The impacts from hook and line fishing, purse seines and midwater trawls
ranked relatively low on the scale, though these methods are also known
to snag unintended species including dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds.

“This is the first study to synthesize the science on these issues, but
also to use social science methods to incorporate expert judgments. It
gives managers a place to start in their deliberations concerning the
relative levels of bycatch and habitat impacts from different fishing
methods,” said coauthor Ratana Chuenpagdee of the Virginia Institute of
Marine Science.

“When you present knowledgeable experts - fishermen, conservationists,
and academics - with science based information about gear impacts, and
ask them to compare these collateral damages without knowing the names
of the gear involved, they give surprisingly consistent answers,”
Chuenpagdee added. “It’s unusual to find such uniform agreement about
anything, much less fishing practices. But when you take out personal
bias linked to particular gears, there is surprising consensus across
these different communities.”

The authors hope that their findings will stimulate local, regional,
national and international conversations about how to reduce the
collateral impacts of fishing.
“Too often this problem has been overlooked or ignored because of the
lack of comparative measures. Our results indicate that there is more
common starting ground on these issues than people have thought,” said

The scientists stressed that in many cases, there are ways to reduce the
impacts of fishing, but noted that change will require political will
and action. They suggest that managers and fishers consider “shifting
gears” - phasing out or modifying destructive gears, and moving
fisheries toward more environmentally friendly options.

Gear innovations, such as turtle exclude devices (TEDs) and streamers on
longlines to scare away seabirds, have reduced bycatch in some
fisheries, but propagation of these “gear fixes,” through the global
fishery has been slow, and in some cases governments have failed to
fully implement or enforce the use of even proven technologies.

“Often the best solutions stem from fishermen themselves, but without
political or financial incentive to promote
development and use of ‘gear fixes’ or new operatingprocedures,
destructive practices will continue,” said Morgan.

Spatial management, where the use of certain gears is prohibited in
sensitive habitats or popular breeding or feeding grounds of at risk
species, is another option. But in the end, some gears may have to go.

“We need to think about restructuring fisheries around not using
trawlers. Trawling has to be curtailed and phased out as a way of
interacting with the environment - it is just too destructive,” argued
Daniel Pauly, University of British Columbia, a fisheries biologist. “As
a society, we make these types of judgments all the time - we don’t have
to do everything that we can do, in fact we have rules of restraint to
prevent damage - we don’t allow people to drive over the speed limit
just to get somewhere faster, we don’t allow machine guns to hunt deer,
and we need not allow wasteful destruction of our marine resources.”

Several U.S. states, including California, Alaska, Florida and Virginia,
already have regulations limiting the use of bottom trawls. The
scientists hope that this innovative approach to evaluating fishing
gears and incorporating judgments by various interest groups will be
applied in all areas, catalyzing new attention and action to reduce the
bycatch and habitat destruction across fishing gear types.

“I eat fish that commercial fishers catch, I favor a strong fishing
industry. But I also know that the way people fish is destructive and
undermines the future of fisheries and fishermen alike,” said Norse.

“If we are going to have fish and sea turtles and seabirds and marine
mammals in the future, we have to fish in way that dramatically reduces
the collateral impact of commercial fishing operations. With all the
knowledge and creativity of fishermen and scientists, we can fish
better. We can, and we must - for the future of the oceans and the
sustainability of fisheries,” Norse concluded.
To learn more about different fishing gear types, visit the Monterey Bay
Aquarium website at:

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved.