Time to suspend all deep-ocean commercial fishing?

Fisheries scientists around the world are divided about whether enough is being done to protect the health and sustainability of global fish populations; inequitable national regulations only confuse the matter. Experts debate whether we should haul in our nets and call it a day.

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Fish on ice at Japan's Tsukiji fish market.

Fisheries scientists around the world are divided about whether enough is being done to protect the health and sustainability of global fish populations; inequitable national regulations only confuse the matter. Experts debate whether we should haul in our nets and call it a day.

Is the ocean half full or half empty? Of fish, that is. (If you believe in global warming and its corollary, polar melting, then you can assume the ocean will be fuller and fuller of water.) That depends on where you focus — and whom you ask.

At the beginning of September, a group of marine scientists urged an end to commercial fishing in the deep ocean. Their report cited the destruction of long-lived species such as the orange roughy and the incidental damage to deep-sea coral. The report's lead author, Elliott Norse of the Bellevue-based Marine Conservation Institute, said, "The deep sea is the world's worst place to catch fish."

A week later, on September 15, heavy equipment started demolishing the first of the Elwha River dams, which have kept five species of salmon from spawning in the pristine habitat of what is now Olympic National Park for almost a century.

A month earlier, U.S. district judge James Redden rejected the government's biological opinion for operating its Columbia River dam system, the fourth judicial smackdown of a federal BiOp since the first Columbia River system fish population was listed, 20 years ago. Redden found that the feds hadn't shown their planned mitigation efforts would restore the river system's 13 threatened or endangerd salmon populations (much less other wild salmon populations that have declined or gone extinct).

"Because [the current biological opinion] is based on unidentified mitigation measures that are not reasonably likely to occur," he wrote, "I find NOAA Fisheries' 'no jeopardy' conclusion arbitrary and capricious, at least as it extends beyond 2013." The feds were attributing specific survival benefits to habitat improvements that had not even been identified. "Although the court may be required to defer to NOAA Fisheries' technical and scientific 'expertise' in predicting the benefits of habitat mitigation," Redden observed rather caustically, "the court is not required to defer to uncertain survival predictions that are based upon unidentified mitigation plans." 

So should we be worried or not? At about the time the report on deep-sea fishing came out, I stopped by the American Fisheries Society's 141st annual conference at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to ask a couple of experts: University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences Ray Hilborn, and the associate director of the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre, Villy Christensen. The two painted very different pictures of what's happening beneath the waves.

Christensen is a half empty guy. Maybe more than half. Overall, he told me, "the predatory species have declined by two-thirds to three-fourths" while "the prey species have doubled." The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has observed that most major ocean fish stocks seem stable, but how reassuring is FAO's estimate? Maybe those populations are "stable" at levels that are lower than they should be, Christensen suggested. For example, north Atlantic cod are stable now, but they're still very depleted. By focusing on stability, maybe we have "reset the baseline."

So what should the goal be? "Maybe we don't want stability," Christensen said. "Maybe we want rebuilding."

In contrast, Hilborn found Christensen's formal talk "very disappointing." Why base analysis on modeling, as Christensen did, when you have biological surveys and catch data, Hilborn asked. With some clear exceptions, he argued, the oceans are largely being fished sustainably.

But with salmon populations throughout the Pacific Northwest threatened, endangered, or already extinct, and the near-deserted "outport" communities of Newfoundland bearing witness to the disappearance of Atlantic cod from the Grand Banks, how can anyone suggest that the fish aren't in trouble?

Hilborn says that the marquee fishery depletions don't tell the whole story. The cod off Newfoundland aren't coming back, he says, but those off New England are. The more northerly cod stock seems to have lost its productivity, but with less fishing pressure, the New England cod have rebounded. In the North Pacific, too, it all depends on where you look. Salmon populations may be on the brink in the Pacific Northwest (where removal of the Elwha dams may restore pink salmon runs of more than a quarter million fish), but salmon in Alaska (where this year's pink salmon run topped 100 million) and Siberia are doing just fine. In fact, he says, "there are probably more salmon in the North Pacific than at any time in the past 10,000 years."

Nevertheless, he says, plans for mining and other development projects in Alaska and Siberia could disrupt currently stable and rebounding fish populations in New England and Alaska in a hurry. (The partnership that wants to build the Pebble gold and copper mine, which critics say would endanger the huge salmon runs of Bristol Bay, was a sponsor of the Fisheries Society conference, by the way.)

Of course there is no ignoring the fact that human beings have altered fish populations around the globe. An ocean ecosystem in which people fish is inevitably different than it would be if they didn't. But Hilborn says that that's a price we have to pay for capture fisheries — the term given to uncontrolled populations of wild fish. He says that environmental impact of capture fisheries on the ocean is much less than the impact of agriculture — including animal husbandry — on land. In that light, maybe it's not such a bad bargain.

But Hilborn also doesn't think the ocean can be fished much harder. It's pretty well maxed out. People will eat more seafood, but they'll get it from aquaculture. It may be just about impossible to get a permit for a shellfish farm in Puget Sound, he says, but in China, officials think nothing of putting in an aquaculture operation that covers 10 or even 20 square kilometers. He expects more and more coastal nations to put in more and more pens. In many places, he predicts, aquaculture will transform the intertidal zone, much as agriculture has transformed the land.

Still, while it may not be possible to harvest a lot more big fish from the sea, it would — at least in theory — be possible to use a whole lot of little fish more efficiently. Many tons of fish that could be used as protein for human beings are, in fact, harvested as protein for livestock — or for other fish.

Christensen says the Peruvian anchoveta fishery is the largest in the world (sometimes the Alaskan pollock catch exceeds it, but not usually), with an annual catch off 5 to 10 million tons each year. Until recently, only 5,000 tons were used fresh for human consumption. Most of the little fish are processed into fish meal and fish oil, the largest consumer of which is Chinese aquaculture, which feeds it to tilapia and other pond-raised fish that are naturally vegetarian. This obviously makes economic sense, or else no one would do it. But it's inefficient — it takes several pounds of ocean-caught fish to make a pound of pond-raised fish — and there's no reason why people can't eat those anchovies and other small fish directly. Or is there?

What are the chances that large numbers of human beings would willingly bypass the whole process of conversion and chow down on the smaller species — not just as, say, anchovies on pizza but as a main course?

As of late, Christensen explains, the tonnage of anchovetas destined for people's tables, rather than for fish meal plants, has increased more than 30-fold, to 160,000 — still a paltry percentage of the whole catch, but a pretty big jump. The increase all reflects the work of one woman, who pursuaded the president of Peru to hold a state dinner at which all the main dishes featured anchovetas, and has since pursuaded the chefs at leading Lima restaurants to hold anchoveta weeks. The payoff, according to Christensen, is that now, occupants of small towns in the Andes can buy a kilo of frozen anchoveta for a buck.

Still, there are barriers to using more of the catch to feed human beings. One of which, Christensen says, is that fishermen have to handle the anchovetas a lot more carefully to sell them for fresh consumption than to sell them for fish meal. That involves keeping the fish cool after they're onboard boats, many of which are old European boats without insulated hulls. In those cases, keeping the fish in good condition isn't likely.

And Hilborn doubts that many people will want to eat anchovetas, however they're handled. He certainly won't — they're not a very attractive product. But he does concede that Spanish and other Mediterranean restaurants get away with cooking a whole lot of small fish. They have to, he says; virtually all the big fish in the Mediterranean were caught long ago.

But maybe we shouldn't look directly at the fish, large or small.  As Edward Wenk, who served as the first science advisor to Congress and subsequently as a professor of engineering and public policy at the University of Washington, put it in his 1972 book, The Politics of the Ocean, "people don't go to sea to fish for fish, they go to sea to fish for money."

The director of the UBC Fisheries Centre, Rashid Sumaila, whom I spoke with after the conference, tends to agree. "If you want to know how fish are doing," says Sumaila, who also directs UBC's Fisheries Economics Research Unit, "forget about stock assesssments. Follow the money!"

Sumaila and his colleagues have done just that. After looking at the reported finances of the world's 1,000 largest fishing companies, Sumaila's team found an average reported before-tax profit of just .5 percent, which suggests that fish populations are barely worth the trouble of pursuing — at least with big boats. And if governments didn't subsidize some fisheries, he says, those populations wouldn't be worth pursuing at all.

According to Sumaila, this is particularly true of deep sea fisheries — exactly the ones mentioned in the early-September report. The deepwater fish grow slowly, the populations' productivity is low, and, he says, "you have to burn a lot of fuel to get there." In fact last year Sumaila published a paper that found subsidies to some deep sea fisheries equaled about 25% of the landed value of their catch, even though most of the fishing companies don't make more than 10% of landed value. In other words, without the outside revenue, they'd be losing 15 percent of the gross value. And as fuel costs rise, the economics look worse, which means there's a lot of political pressure from the fisheries to increase subsidies. "We saw this big-time in the EU," Sumaila explained.

Still, when it comes down to it, everyone agrees that the United States, Canada, and certain other countries — Norway, Iceland, New Zealand — do a pretty good job of regulating fisheries and have made a start on rebuilding stocks. But that still leaves a whole lot of other fishing nations unaccounted for. What about them? Christensen, who worked in the developing world for a decade before taking his current job in BC, says there's a big difference. The U.S., Canada and Norway are doing a lot to rebuild stocks, but most of the rest of the world isn't.

As it is, the incentives are all wrong. A developing country sees its catch going down, so it jacks up subsidies to increase the fishing intensity. But we don't need more fishing power, Christensen explains. We need more fish. If these same nations instead limited their fishing efforts, they'd wind up with larger catches.

Unfortunately, regulating fisheries in the United States or Canada is very different from regulating them in the developing world. And what happens in the developing world is critical. Sumaila has written that, "increasingly, the flow of trade in fish and fish products is from the developing-South to the developed-North, that is, from fisheries that lack the resources required to manage their fisheries effectively, with the consequence that increasing trade results in unsustainable fisheries management." In poor coastal countries, fishing is the employment of last resort, Christensen explains: "If you can't get a job anywhere else, you can fish." So you can't really expect people to stop fishing, unless you offer them something else to do.

Hilborn's suggestion: Community-based regulation. If you can give a whole coastal community a stake in the health of its local fish population, that community will take care of the fish. But, of course, that doesn't help if a big industrial fleet from some richer country — or from some big city down the coast — just swoops in and takes the fish anyway. According to Sumaila, developing countries justify their own national fishing subsidies as a way to protect small family fishers — although, of course, the money somehow never gets to them.

No one really doubts that the U.S. and some other developed countries are leading the way toward rebuilding fish stocks. But that's where the agreement ends. "Clearly," Sumaila says, "The U.S. is doing better than South America or Asia. . . . But is that good enough?"


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.