Issue #7
August 15, 1997
Commercial fishing, seafood consumers and the media

The cover story and an accompanying article in the current issue of TIME magazine are the latest variations on a theme that has become part of the standard repertoire of print and broadcast journalists covering environmental issues; using specific - and often misunderstood or misreported - instances of commercial harvesting to indict the entire commercial fishing industry. With phrases like “...computerized ships as large as football fields” wielding nets “...wide enough to swallow a dozen Boeing 747s” (Link to 747 quotesfor more comparisons of fishing vessels, gear, etc. to 747s). These and similar articles leave the casual reader with the impression that fisheries worldwide have been pushed to the brink of disaster by uncontrolled and rapacious commercial harvesting.

While it’s true that commercial overharvesting has been and still is responsible for declines in some fisheries, other factors which are usually ignored can be equally or more significant in influencing fish and shellfish populations. Unfortunately, as these TIME articles illustrate so well, fisheries facts and figures can be wielded in such a convincing manner that it’s virtually impossible for the casual reader to not buy into the “blame it on overfishing” arguments. While “as large as football fields” might be a somewhat dimensionally inelegant term, it sure feels like it’s bigger than any fishing vessel ought to be. Yet in the Alaskan and other fisheries that these 300’ vessels are a part of, as large as a football field might well be the optimum size - for the owners, for the crew, and for the consumer. Then consider the seemingly pejorative use of “computerized.” In these days of $20,000 computerized automobiles, $400 computerized washing machines and $23 computerized cyberpets, should we expect a fishing vessel that costs millions of dollars and is the only thing separating several dozen crew members from hundreds of miles of very cold, very inhospitable water to not be computerized? Evidently we should, because that’s the feeling we’re left with after finishing the paragraph.

“In these days of $20,000 computerized automobiles, $400 computerized washing machines and $23 computerized cyberpets, should we expect a fishing vessel that costs millions of dollars and is the only thing separating several dozen crew members from hundreds of miles of very cold, very inhospitable water to not be computerized?” 

A little farther on in the article we find “In 1993...shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico caught and threw away an estimated 34 million red snappers, including many juveniles.” Thirty-four million is a lot of fish. It’s a lot of anything. But let’s look at it from a slightly different perspective. Assuming the author is referring to the bycatch of the U.S. shrimp fleet in state and federal Gulf waters, and assuming those vessels are fishing in waters extending from shore out to ten miles, those 34 million fish were taken from about 9 million acres of water. This is less than four red snapper from each acre of water fished. This doesn’t seem like quite as many fish, nor does it seem like a level of removal likely to do serious harm to the fishery.
[Link to Gulf of Mexoco quotes for other Gulf of Mexico information].

The obvious assumption is that those 34 million fish, if they hadn’t been discarded as bycatch, would have matured into commercially marketable or recreationally catchable fish, significantly increasing the Gulf’s annual harvest of 3 million red snapper. As any somewhat advanced biology student will attest, that isn’t quite how it works.

Most of the fish and shellfish utilized by seafood consumers and sports fishermen, including red snapper, produce eggs far in excess of those that would be needed under ideal (high-survival) circumstances to keep the species going. This is because the mortality levels in the estuarine/ocean environments for the eggs, the larvae, the fry and the juveniles of those fish and shellfish are truly staggering. While a large codfish might release several millions of eggs each year, if everything works the way it should on the average just two of those eggs will become mature cod. Ditto for oysters, ditto for starfish and ditto for red snapper. While it is a gross ecological oversimplification, it’s not too far off to say the Gulf of Mexico is going to produce just about as many mature red snapper as it is able to support biologically. The rest, the excess production, are going to get eaten, get killed by the toxins from a red tide, get chewed up by the impellers of personal watercraft, get caught by other fisherman, or become bycatch in a shrimp trawl.

This isn’t to say that unnecessary bycatch is acceptable in the shrimp fishery or in any other. It isn’t, and a lot of research is going into the development of devices that will reduce bycatch while still allowing the fishermen to produce competitively priced seafood to meet an ever-increasing worldwide demand. But when bycatch is considered, it seems reasonable to consider it in the context of it’s actual biological and/or economic impacts. What proportion of the 34 million Gulf red snapper would otherwise reach maturity? Would a decrease in the amount of shrimp bycatch result in an increase in the recreational or commercial red snapper harvest? The answers to these questions are critical to the health of the Gulf ecosystem, to the survival of the thousands of families that depend on the shrimp fishery and to the gustatory pleasures of millions of seafood consumers. But they aren’t getting asked, let alone answered.

In a similar vein, the August 13 Philadelphia Inquirer ran on the op-ed page an article titled “Swordfish technique depletes the swordfish population” written by Joshua Reichert, Environment Program Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts (similar articles by Mr. Reichert have appeared in other publications as well). [Link to NJ FishNet 15 for a NJ FishNet focusing on the anti-swordfish campaign of the Pew Trusta and the Natural Resources Defense Council] A trip to your local fish market will show how important swordfish, which are harvested primarily by longline-equipped vessels, have become to the seafood consuming public.

Mr. Reichert reviews the various swordfish management measures imposed by both the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the National Marine Fisheries Service here in the U.S. These measures include minimum fish sizes, closed seasons, strict quotas and limits on the number of vessels allowed in the fishery. He continues “The root problem is not only the size of the quota, the length of the season, or the number of vessels involved. It is how the fish are caught” followed by what is becoming a standard litany of anti-longlining arguments. He then finishes with the statement “Use of long-lines must be barred” and calls for a swordfish fishery limited to rod-and-reel fishing and harpooning.

One of Pew’s other ventures into the world of fish and fishing is SeaWeb. In its own words “SeaWeb is a multmedia public education project designed to raise awareness of the world ocean and the life within it. We aim to provide information and opinion from a broad spectrum of sources to help us all become more connected and involved in the life of the sea. SeaWeb's approach is objective but not neutral - our bias is to protect the living ocean.” Sylvia Earle is currently the "voice for the oceans" for SeaWeb. Ms. Earle, in a New York Times Magazine profile back on June 23, 1991, referred to fish as “our fellow citizens with scales and fins” and was quoted as saying during dinner at a seafood restaurant “I never eat anyone I know personally,…I wouldn’t eat a grouper any more than I’d eat a cocker spaniel. They’re so good-natured, so curious. You know, fish are sensitive, they have personalities, they hurt when they’re wounded….” 

A response to a previous print assault of Mr. Reichert’s on longlining was written by Niels Moore, National Coordinator for Seafood for America, and Nelson Beideman, Executive Director of Blue Water Fishermen’s Association. Among the points they make:

• “Pew also misses the mark when it claims that the root problem is HOW the fish are caught rather than how MANY are caught! In fact, fishery conservation is about the number of fish harvested, not about by whom, or how, they are harvested.”
• The allowable U.S. catch of swordfish has been cut by more than 50 percent since 1989.
• Swordfish migrate throughout the Atlantic and are harvested in the waters of many nations. Many of the key nations in the fishery have agreed to the catch quotas of ICCAT, which has recommended that member nations like the United States stop importing swordfish from those nations that don’t abide by the quotas. “The American fishermen who make their living catching swordfish....have asked U.S. officials to implement ICCAT’s recommendations and prevent swordfish imports from those nations violating international catch limits. Pew’s failure to help in this effort, or even mention the international aspect of the fishery in its column, is disappointing.”

We have been grossly neglecting our coastal and ocean ecosystems for the greatest part of this century, and for most of that time the voices of commercial fishermen have been among the few raised in protest. Now that the results of that neglect are becoming obvious to the rest of the world, it seems tragically ironic that members of the mainstream media and the environmental community have decided to make those same fishermen scapegoats.

New Jersey FishNet is supported by the Cape May Seafood Producer’s Association, The Family and Friends of Commercial Fishermen, the Fishermen’s Dock Cooperative, Lund’s Fishery, the National Fisheries Institute and Viking Village Dock