America's fisheries are not in good shape. By some accounts, more than two-thirds of all commercially important fish populations are now classified as "fully fished" or "overexploited," which means they are in decline or heading there.
There are many reasons for this, including bloated fishing fleets, the absence of strong international regulations and the pollution of wetlands, coral reefs and other important breeding grounds. Another destructive force, and perhaps the most pointless, is "bycatch" -- fish that are inadvertently caught and thrown back, usually dead, because the fleets do not intend to bring them to market. About 20 million tons of fish, one-quarter of the annual worldwide catch, are wasted in this way.
The task of minimizing bycatch, and otherwise insuring the recovery of overfished species in American waters, now rests with the National Maritime Fisheries Service, which is writing regulations to carry out the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act. Approved despite opposition from commercial fishing interests, the act finally tilted the rules in favor of the fish. It required the nation's eight regional fishing councils to adopt restoration plans, including quotas where necessary, and it told the Fisheries Service to figure out how to reduce bycatch.
For some species, adjustments in fishing methods could do wonders. Requiring shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico to modify their nets could cut by half the number of red snapper unintentionally caught and killed. Other changes will be more controversial. Fishing with "long lines," for example, is the main method of catching tuna, swordfish and other species in the open seas. Long lines consist of high-strength fishing lines baited with as many as 3,000 hooks. These hooks kill many juvenile fish that are essential to the recovery of any species, as well as fish that now receive some legal protection, like marlin, giant bluefin tuna and sharks.
In 1991 the United Nations placed a moratorium on huge drift nets. Tough restrictions on long lines would be the next logical step. Even the fishing industry cannot much longer ignore the obvious. As one leading conservation group noted last year, "We are no longer living off the income of our fisheries, but eating deeply into the capital."
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