Big Catch

Some years ago I went to Newfoundland, where the local economy, built on fishing, had all but collapsed, and a shaken fisherman told a psychologist what he thought was the reason.

"My God," the therapist quoted him as saying.  "We've caught them all."

Catching all the fish in the sea may not be literally possible, but the environmental group Oceana is out with a report today that adds a new wrinkle to the debate over how we deal with the oceans.

It says larger ocean animals -- whales, dolphins, bluefin tuna -- are put at risk because fishing fleets are catching the much smaller sea life on which they feed.  People aren't catching whales -- but they are catching sardines, anchovies, squid and krill, so that larger animals have less to eat.

Oceana, an advocacy group whose leadership includes several scientists, as well as the actors Ted Danson and Sam Waterston, said, "the impacts of fishing activity over the past decades has been so great that the nearly all prey fisheries now cannot withstand increased fishing pressure."

Oceana's report is HERE (it's a fairly large pdf file).  It's timed to coincide with a biennial "State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture" report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which is HERE.  The FAO points out that "aquaculture" -- fish farms and the like -- is becoming the source for half the fish consumed by people worldwide.  Oceana says many of the small prey species are being caught to supply those fish farms.

Oceana says so-called hotspots, where key species have their young, should be closed off more often.

The National Fisheries Institute, which represents the U.S. fishing industry, can be found HERE.  I asked them for their comment, and got this in reply from Gavin Gibbons of their staff: "Oceana’s latest seafood sustainability report is unfortunately quintessential Oceana; a dash of outdated facts mixed with wild exaggerations. Oceana touches on some serious and important sustainability stories in its report -— like the plight of the bluefin tuna -- but its overstated tales of scrawny species and emaciated whales work to marginalize its efforts. "And even when it does touch on a fish stock with real sustainability challenges it never puts it in perceptive. Oceana fails to mention that despite the commercial appeal of the blue fin’s story, it makes up only about 2% of the more than 4 million metric tons of tuna caught each year, with 50% of that number coming from skipjack -— a  well maintained abundant fishery."

(Photo: a sand tiger shark, surrounded by a school of small prey fish.  Picture credit: Gordon Stroupe via Oceana)

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