Volume 14, Issue 45 ~ November 9 - November 15, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

We’re Fishing the Oceans Dry

Soon, there’ll be no more fish in the sea

I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are — beyond anything we suspected.

—Boris Worm, lead author of a report on the status of global fisheries published in the journal Science.

That ought to get your attention. It sure got mine. Worm, an assistant professor of marine conservation biology at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, was commenting last week on the conclusions of his international team after a four-year analysis of worldwide fisheries.

If you don’t read the daily press, the gist of their conclusions is that if current trends of overcatching and pollution are not turned around, global fisheries will collapse by 2048.

Scientists consider a 90 percent drop in historic high catches to be a collapse. At this time, 29 percent of global finfish and shellfish species fit that classification. Hey, this comes not from a bunch of ill-informed environmental extremists but from 14 respected marine scientists. Surely, we should take heed.

Methinks this was to be expected in the oceans and bays (including our Chesapeake) worldwide — though certainly not this soon. But once a snowball starts rolling down a hill … well, you know.

The only tidbit of reassuring news is that Worm figures it is not too late to turn things around. “But it must be done soon.” That’s a mighty big but, seeing that around this planet of ours everyone appears to choose brinkmanship above rolling up the sleeves to face problems ranging from hunger, disease and war to global warming, other environmental woes and overpopulation.

If anyone today cries out that something must be done immediately to remedy a calamity brought on by human neglect in our aggressiveness for economic gain, the sentinel is accused of crying wolf. This time, the wolf could be at the door.

If we don’t listen, the door will be open; no need for huffing and puffing. Figuratively, we make our houses of straw. We here along Chesapeake Bay need not go to China to lay blame for fossil fuel emissions impacting the atmosphere, to India for its rampant birth rate, to Japan for whaling, to Russia for reckless nuclear power development.

Practically from our backyards, we can see evidence of the ills that have brought about this worldwide crisis.

There’s Always Later

Ecological brinkmanship is everywhere, in Chesapeake Country, the USA or even Timbuktu.

Let’s look around, here and there:

• Flounder, a very important food and game fish, have come upon hard times. They’re recovering, but not yet there. Yet sportsfishermen, spearheaded by the 90,000-member Recreational Fishing Alliance, cry for more lenient regulations now while fisheries managers want to wait for recovery.

• Mum is the byword among commercial and charterboat interests and more than a few tackle dealers about diseased rockfish: It hurts business. What silence accomplishes in the long run is lack of public awareness and outcry for a prompt remedy.

• Here and in many other states, natural resources departments are carved at the bottom of the budgetary totem poles; they get the scraps and are forced to fire scientists. More often than not, their programs play second fiddle to business and development interest.

• In our neighboring state of Virginia, fears of a loss of a couple of hundred jobs in Reedville have kept up the relentless pressure on threatened menhaden, an exceptionally important food fish for larger and more edible species. Is there no awareness that a disaster in a niche of the food chain can have serious repercussions far beyond the site (and species) of the original calamity?

• The ink wasn’t dry on newspapers spreading the news of the plight of fish stocks before the National Fisheries Institute cried foul: Fishermen and government already have acted; federal data “show more than 80 percent of fish stocks are sustainable and will provide seafood now and for future generations.” Does that sound like concern?

• Consider also, worldwide we continue to use the oceans as dumping grounds, the fleets of many nations continue to ignore international laws regarding fisheries —- and already evident are appreciable changes in the lives of many sea creatures due to changes in temperatures and currents via the early stages of global warming.

Playing with Fire

Governments decline to implement decisive action for fear that to do so will impact the economy, costing the jobs and comforts of its people. Business and industry ignore calls to clean things up: It’s bad for business and for stockholders. We little guys don’t want to hear what we should do, or equally if not more important, what we must give up.

We live for the moment. In the more advanced and growing countries from which most of the environmental woes originate, life has never been so good; why should it change? It’s the job of the scientific community to come up with more convenient solutions. Wishful thinking.

International politics play a significant role; the haves decline to give up their dominance; the have-nots who witnessed the gains and environmental woes racked up by the haves, proclaim, Now it’s our turn, how dare you insist we can’t do what you’ve done — what you are still doing?

Such thinking might have had a thread of validity in the past, but times have changed. Within the past decade, we have learned of the chilling consequences of our consumption of fossil fuels that have severely impacted the protective ozone layer.

In the past year have come strong hints that what we figured would be thousands of years before payback time could be hundreds — or possibly generations. The snowball is gaining momentum. And no one needs reminding what havoc melting ice caps can bring to oceans inhabited by vulnerable fish populations.

Consider the subsequent impact in countries where fish are more than targets to try and catch for sport, or a nutritious and tasty meal, but the staple of life. But are we listening?

What does it take to awaken us? Where are our leaders? Where is our individual sense of responsibility and caution? Must we trust that science can turn things around at the last minute?

Play with fire and eventually you get burned. Enough said.

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