BIG FISH EAT LITTLE FISH

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1997:

The cynical might believe fisheries
negotiations are about who gets to kill the last
fish––after starving, bludgeoning, shooting,
or drowning marine mammals and sea birds to
extinction––on purpose if their remains can be
sold or they are considered competitors, by
accident if not.
Scientists repeatedly warn governments
and international rule-makers that as
former National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration science chief Sylvia Earle puts
it, “The ocean cannot sustain the massive
removal of wildlife needed to keep nations
supplied with the present levels of food taken
from the sea.”
Caught between the bedeviling verity
that cancelling fishing jobs costs elections,
and the biological fact of a depleted deep,
public officials tend to acknowledge harm
done by other nations, denying harm done by
their own. Thus the object of fish treaties,
time and again, becomes not conservation but
rather grabbing the most of what fish are left.


The World Conservation Union now
includes a record 120 marine fish as “threatened,”
including 100 commercially sought
species added just last year at Earle’s insistence,
as a WCU board member.
Oregon State University ecologist
Jane Lubchenco told the American Association
for the Advancement of Science in February
that saving such species requires putting 20%
of the world’s oceans into natural marine
reserves within the next 25 years. More than
30% of major fish stocks are overfished,
Lubshenco said, while 69% show signs of
serious depletion.
Following Captain Paul Watson of
the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who
commenced confronting high seas driftnetters
on behalf of fish in 1987, after 15 years of
undertaking similar actions for whales, many
major conservation groups now prominently
talk about saving fish, including the World
Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and the Cousteau
Society––still headed by Jacques Cousteau,
who pushed oceans as a boundless food
resource in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We have to reduce the catches substantially,”
agrees Carl Safina, director of the
National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans
Program, stating a now conservative position.
Alternatives are to either do nothing, or campaign
against eating fish.
Why no boycott
Earle and Watson don’t eat fish, but
most conservation group heads do––and know
an anti-fish-eating crusade would throw them
into conflict with coastal politicians, sport
fishers, and fishing associations long wooed
as allies against inshore polluters. The Pacific
Northwest environmental struggle, for
instance, pits fishers who want clean salmon
streams against silt-producing loggers.
Pushing the two resource-based traditional
industries together would seem politically suicidal,
as wise-users avidly court both, in
opposition to endangered species protection
and other environmental safeguards.
The Pacific Northwest situation is
paralleled wherever fisheries are in trouble.
Constants are the crunch caused by the collapse
of fish stocks and a dearth of other jobs
for people of little education. Governments
have already set aside 1,200 protected marine
habitats around the world, but together they
encompass less than one quarter of one percent
of the ocean surface. At that, fishers are striving
to dismantle protections, such as they are,
from the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary to the Great Australian Bight.
The results were clear last December
when a week-long United Nations debate on
the state of the oceans brought only token resolutions
that WWF coordinator for international
treaties Joy Hyvarienen called “some of the
worst examples I’ve seen of decision-making
by the lowest common denominator.”
The 185-nation U.N. took no action
to pressure members to comply with the 1995
U.N. Fish Stocks Agreement, which has not
been signed by 10 of the 20 nations that bring
in 80% of the global oceanic catch. Among
the holdouts are Chile, Mexico, Peru,
Thailand, and Vietnam. Britain and the U.S.
haven’t ratified the predecessor Convention on
the Law of the Sea, either, because of
Parliamentary and Congressional opposition to
accepting U.N. regulation of the oceans.
Such agreements can be risky, not
because the U.N. or any other body has
enforcement powers, but because they establish
a legal framework that domestic organizations
might use to sue the governments of their
own nations. The U.N. debate convened shortly
after the Commission for Environmental
Cooperation, formed under the North
American Free Trade Agreement, commenced
a probe of Canadian compliance with its
Fisheries Act and Environmental Assassment
Act, in response to a complaint from the
Alberta group Friends of the Old Man River.
The failure of the U.N. to act mirrored
the outcome of the second World
Fisheries Congress, held in August 1996.
There, WWF distributed documentation that
the Australian Fisheries Management
Authority hadn’t done impact studies on even
one of its 21 regulated marine fisheries.
Australian live fish exports to Japan and China
from the Great Barrier Reef meanwhile rose
from zero in 1993 to 409 metric tons last year.
Similar reef fishing has successively devastated
reefs off Hong Kong, the Philippines,
Palau, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the
Maldives, and the Solomon Islands, and also
recently commenced in the Marshall Islands.
The Australian response was to open
16 of 500 protected and previously unfished
reef sections to “experimental” line fishing for
one year to see what might happen. About
2,200 reef sections are already fished.
North Sea cod crash
Disappointment also came in
October from the European Fisheries
Commission, whose members dumped a proposal
to cut fleet catch capacity by 40% over
the next six years. Fisheries Commissioner
Emma Bonino asked a month later for a 15%
cut, to be achieved mainly by better enforcement
of existing regulations. She didn’t get
that, either, and on January 1 saw the
European Union gavel pass to The Netherlands.
The Dutch are committed to slowing
the phase-in of catch reductions.
Scientists from the Robert Gordon,
Aberdeen, and Warwick Universities meanwhile
warned that the North Sea has suffered a
30% drop in the amount of sand eels and pout
in the North Sea cod, haddock, and whiting
diet over the past decade––but still make up
60% of their diet. If unable to find sand eels
and pout, cod and similar species resort to
cannibalism. Overall, the British scientists
found, fishers take about 60% of all the fishable
cod from the North Sea each year, reducing
the potential spawning stock from an estimated
350,000 metric tons 30 years ago to perhaps
75,000 metric tons now.
The Britons also reported that about
one third of the total North Sea catch is landed
illegally––two-thirds in certain areas. The
European Commission acknowledged on
March 25 that Spanish fishers may underreport
their catches by up to 1,000%, after Ireland
intercepted seven Spanish vessels in 10 days to
inspect their logs. The interceptions came
after a Spanish stern trawler rammed the
British gillnetter Holly Jane off Fastnet Rock,
five days after an Irish fisher drowned when a
British-registered Spanish steel-hulled trawler
ran over his much smaller wooden boat 10
miles off Dursey Island, County Cork. But
Spaniards are not the only offenders. In
November 1996, Ireland fined the owners of
two Japanese longline tuna vessels $500,000
for alleged poaching last August.
The Norwegian Fishing Vessel
Owners Association meanwhile in January
accused Irish boats of overfishing mackerel
quotas by 100%, by misreporting mackerel as
horse mackerel, a similar species not under
quota. Norway, a non-EU nation, shares
North Sea mackerel with EU nations by treaty,
and has sought to increase its share by 30%.
Norway unilaterally imposed relatively stiff
catch quotas in coastal waters in 1988, cutting
fulltime fishing industry employment by 25%,
and as other North Sea stocks drop, anticipated
its biggest cod catch in 20 years this year.
Bonino tried again for stricter fishing
quotas in March, refusing to commit the EU
to accept the recommendations of the environment
and fisheries ministers of the North Sea
nations, who earlier agreed that the best way
to cut the catch of vulnerable species would be
to chase out the fleets of Spain, France,
Denmark, and The Netherlands. This time
she won a weak agreement to ban dragnetting
and other environmentally destructive fishing
methods within sight of salmon rivers and
major bird colonies along the British coast.
“The text is as slippery as a fish,”
warned Greenpeace campaigner Malcolm
MacGarvin. “Experience shows it will mean
nothing.”
As ANIMAL PEOPLE went to
press, most EU fisheries ministers were
reportedly ready to accept fishing quota cuts of
up to 30% at a mid-April meeting––but British
fisheries minister Tony Baldry, on the eve of a
Parliamentary election, said his government
wouldn’t accept any cuts until the EU moves
to prevent about 160 foreign-owned vessels
from registering “British” so as to take British
fish quota to Spain and The Netherlands.
Baldry spoke the same day that
salmon researchers announced the 1996 North
Sea salmon catch was only 25% of the catch
landed 20 years earlier. Irish minister of state
for marine affairs Eamon Gilmore argued in
December 1996 for the repeal of an “unenforceable”
ban on nylon filament salmon nets,
and instead sought a shorter salmon season,
with no night fishing and no driftnetting more
than six miles from shore. Gilmore also unilaterally
reduced the number of driftnet permits
from 847 to 773.
Bluefin hoax
The strongest-sounding yet perhaps
most misleading recent international fisheries
action came at the November 1996 meeting of
the International Commission for the Conservation
of Atlantic Tunas, in San Sebastian,
Spain, where 24 nations led by the U.S.
agreed to ban bluefin tuna imports from
Belize, Honduras, and Panama. But Japan
buys about 90% of world bluefin catch, paying
up to $40,000 per tuna. The penalty in
effect punished the prostitutes but not the
patron. ICCAT also agreed to penalize members
who exceed tuna quotas by subtracting the
excess from their next annual quotas––but
increased the allowable catch for western
bluefin by 150 metric tons, including a 33-
metric-ton increase for the U.S., where politicians
heard for months about the August 1996
cancellation of recreational bluefin fishing
from Maine to New Jersey because southern
fishers had already caught the U.S. limit.
U.S. ICCAT commissioner Will
Martin said the actions showed “ICCAT is
adding teeth to its conservation programs.”
ICCAT did impose slight reductions
in swordfish quotas over the next three years,
obliging the U.S. to close the winter Atlantic
swordfishing season six weeks early––the second
early closure in six months. The National
Marine Fisheries Service reports that the North
Atlantic swordfish population is at 58% of
optimum. The average weight of swordfish
landed is down from 266 pounds in the 1960s
to 90 pounds today.
Fishery regulation at the national
level hasn’t been any braver, nor more successful.
The 104th Congress reauthorized the
1976 Magnuson Conservation and
Management Act, which was billed as conserving
U.S. waters by extending the territorial
limits 200 miles out to sea. Foreign fleets took
an estimated 77% of the 5.4 billion pound
1977 catch within the 200 mile limit, but now
get none. The total catch, however, rose to
6.32 billion pounds by 1993.
The reauthorization requires the
regional fishery councils formed by the
Magnuson Act to protect “essential fish habitat.”
Among the first actions of the councils
since the reauthorization, however, was the
Western Pacific Fisheries Management
Council decision to allow the catch of eggbearing
female lobsters off Hawaii.
Canadian federal fisheries minister
Fred Mifflin in October 1996 proposed the
first major revision of Canadian fisheries law
since 1868. Mifflin described it as emphasizing
“self-regulation and self-reliance,” by delegating
some management responsibilities
over freshwater fish to the provinces, and
some responsibilities concerning regional fisheries
to interprovincial industry groups.
Already Canada relies heavily on industrygathered
data to regulate fisheries, as the federal
budget for fish research has been cut 30%
in six years. Much of the recent cod-counting
has been done by unemployed cod fishers.
Arthur Bogason, chair of the
Icelandic National Association of Small Boat
Owners, said a similar system used in Iceland
“is destructive for the coastal fleet, inshore
fisherman, and coastal communities,” and has
encouraged rather than restrained overfishing.

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