Volume XI, Issue 21 ~ May 22-28, 2003

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Burton on the Bay | Chesapeake Outdoors | Sky Watch | Tidelog
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Burton on the Bay

For Lack of a Fish
The loss of our world’s big fish is a bigger problem
than you might think.

The fluttering of the wing of a butterfly can bring climatic consequence many thousands of miles away.

Those words came to mind the other day, when on the front page of The New York Times was an article telling of a 10-year study that indicates commercial fishing fleets have slashed stocks of big ocean fish by 90 percent in the past 50 years.

The crux of the report is that long-line fleets with vessels capable of fishing lines of up to 60 miles, yes 60 miles, on the floors of the oceans have put on the verge of collapse important fishes of Davy Jones’ Locker. Going, going and almost gone, Canadian researchers say are the biggest of such fishes as tuna, swordfish, marlin, halibut and cod. Repercussions impact a vital food chain, an entire ecosystem.

Such news as this, reported from a study of ocean scientists not associated with the seafood industry, must be taken seriously. Especially when oceanographers also not associated with industry say, as reported in The Times, “it provides the best evidence yet that recent fish harvests have been sustained at high levels only because fleets have sought and highly exploited ever more distant fish populations.”

Which prompts the question: Is this butterfly to be ignored?

We Feel the Ripples
Like a far-distant butterfly’s wings, the deep seas might seem far from us. Yet consequences of indiscriminate harvesting can impact other fisheries, say in the Chesapeake. Not just a few of our favorite food and sports fishes hail from the ocean, at least on a seasonal basis.

Though they come and go, they play an important role in the overall ecosystem of the Bay. That ecosystem goes beyond the availability of such migrants as bluefish, sea trout, rockfish, hardheads, Norfolk spot, cobia, red and black drum, eels and who knows what else. The food chain of nature could become out of whack, which conceivably could impact other marine life in our Bay and many other like waters around the world that historically serve as nursery for deep-sea fishes as well as a vacation choice in warmer months.

The balance of nature dictates a place for the big fish, the top predators of their kind. But since World War II, with bigger and more efficient commercial fleets on the oceans, the populations of large predatory fish have been reduced to 10 percent of what they were a half century ago.

Not only does this disrupt the food chain of nature. Human nature plays an equally important and ominous role. The more the bigger fish of a species disappear, the more the worldwide fleet turns to the next biggest and on down the chain. It turns with increasingly sophisticated and efficient gear and electronics — and in new areas to spread the calamity.

Not as critical but surely worrisome is an example you’ll find right here in our Chesapeake Bay. When clams become scarce, catching goes to oysters. When oysters diminish, the commercial fleet turns to crabs. On and on it goes, to rockfish, hardheads, shad, sea trout and so many other species. More pressure is exerted on what’s left. No end to it.

Look around today, (and let’s stay with just our edible water resources, though it goes far beyond this), and you’ll see we are laying waste to not just the top of the ocean food chain, but also the middle and the bottom. Whether the aquatic creatures be small like the menhaden or even tiny like the silversides; in the middle like the fabled cod and pollock; or huge like the tuna and billfishes, we are harvesting too much. Some species are at a precarious low ebb in numbers and size. Some are virtually gone.

Just where and what is that straw with the potential to cripple the back of the camel — if not break it? The Chicken Littles might proclaim this is it. Others with more faith in the restorative powers of the earth and its seas might be concerned, though not yet alarmed.

Methinks an appropriate assessment lies between the two. Surely, the point has not yet been reached that the food chain of the seas is doomed to total collapse. But there is no cause for confidence that day can’t or won’t come. The $64,000 question is this: Will the shepherds of the ocean, of earth itself, rise to the challenge?

An answer to that question is as elusive as is the solution to the problem. Within all of this, there are considerations that go beyond the virtual shutting down of a fishery. That, of course, would be the most effective remedy — though chances of its effective implementation are beyond hope. Not in this world of today will we see that. Not yet, or for a long time to come.

This globe is made up of diverse nations and peoples, each naturally more aware and interested in its own. There are so many complexities involving the multitude of nations and governmental jurisdictions on our planet that it is virtually impossible to reach an agreement on anything — whether it be cleaning the air we breath, protecting citizens from hunger and servitude, saving forests that play so vital a role in ecological balances. The same with waters, whether they be rivers and lakes that go beyond national boundaries or the seas themselves.

In much of the world, fish and other seafood is important though not absolutely essential; other foods from the soil, aquaculture and animals are available to tide us over during intensive curtailments. But in not an insignificant portion of the globe there are peoples whose very lives, not just economic livelihoods, depend on fishes and other aquatic life. Without them, there would be chaotic malnutrition, even starvation.

Think of the potential consequences if actual hunger, even starvation, were the bottom line. How, in heaven’s name, can one tell those who are hungry they must wait a decade or more before there is restoration of the resources? Only then they can feed their bellies.

The basic problem is, of course, there are too many people. But until Armageddon that will remain so whether or not we like it. Alas, when the human race evolved or if you prefer, was created, there was no master plan to control numbers of inhabitants — or policies to share or conserve natural resources.

There really was no worldwide need until more recent centuries; resources were abundant and relatively speaking, human inhabitants weren’t. But as we witness increasing overpopulation, as well as new technologies to harvest and alter the earth’s resources, we wonder if it is too late for a master plan of agreement among the many diverse peoples.

Can We Set Back this Clock?
In world fishing, some nations are aware of the problem and beginning to face up to it — though their rogue fleets remain relentless. Other nations have a basic understanding but have hungry people and/or an economy based in large part on their fishing fleets. And there are some who don’t care or are not yet convinced that there is a serious problem.

But it is increasingly obvious that somewhere could well be that straw capable of breaking the camel’s burdened back. I share the frustration of so many who want to see not just a remedy, but one implemented effectively and in a timely manner.

At present, it appears we can do little more than hope for compliance of all nations in honoring a declaration intended to restore stocks by 2015. But recent history raises doubts whether that will come about. And as the clock ticks, more big fish are taken from the seas.

Enough said …



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Last updated May 22, 2003 @ 1:43am