In the last decade or so we’ve become adept at managing fishing effort, at least commercial fishing effort. As we’ve discussed in previous editions of FishNet, commercial fishermen are told in which fisheries they can fish, when they can fish, how they can fish, what gear they can use, how many fish of what size they can catch, what they can’t catch, and where and in what form they can sell what they do catch. Disregarding these management measures results in fines commonly amounting to tens of thousands and ranging up to millions of dollars and may even result in permanent expulsion from commercial fishing. Needless to say, industry members take management imposed restrictions very seriously and total landings in virtually every commercial fishery have dropped significantly in recent years.
However, in spite of increasingly restrictive
commercial regulations and in the face of severely reduced commercial harvest
levels, the conventional wisdom is that in most of our fisheries things
are getting worse and that in the remainder improvement isn’t happening
rapidly enough. According to the “blame it on overfishing” philosophy clung
to by the management establishment and generally embraced by the mass media
and the environmental community, as we are getting better at managing fishing
we are getting worse at managing fisheries. Predictably, this results in
pressure for even more stringent regulations. But is this the appropriate
response? If fishing mortality is among the dominant factors influencing
the abundance of a particular species then it definitely is. But what if
fishing mortality is insignificant in comparison to other factors impacting
on a fishery? Consider the following:
• “....Over 75% of commercial fish depend on the habitat of estuaries....Chesapeake Bay - 90% of sea grass meadows were destroyed by 1990; in 30 years (1959-89), oyster harvest fell from 32 million pounds to 4 million....Hudson-Raritan Estuary - 75% of original tidal marshes are destroyed in both New York and New Jersey....North Carolina Estuaries - North Carolina lost more wetlands than any other state from 1973 to 1983, and most of the loss continues to be in the coastal plain....” [From the Restore America’s Estuaries website 1]
• “Imagine a city as big as New York suddenly grafted onto North Carolina's Coastal Plain. Double it. Now imagine that this city has no sewage treatment plants. All the wastes from 15 million inhabitants are simply flushed into open pits and sprayed onto fields. Turn those humans into hogs, and you don't have to imagine at all. It's already here. A vast city of swine has risen practically overnight in the counties east of Interstate 95. It's a megalopolis of 7 million animals that live in metal confinement barns and produce two to four times as much waste, per hog, as the average human.” [From a series in the Raleigh News & Observer on the North Carolina hog industry 2]
• “The two-stroke motor, found on 75% of all
boats and personal watercraft, causes 1.1 billion pounds of hydrocarbon
emissions per year. These high emissions are attributed to the design inefficiency
of the two-stroke motor....Twenty-five percent of the fuel and required
oil that conventional two-strokes use, most of it unburned, is emitted
directly into the water and air.* (According to the USFWS 34 million gallons
of fuel were used by recreational boaters in New Jersey waters in 19913)In
the US, approximately 75% of all motorized boats and personal watercraft
(or 14 million units) are powered by two-stroke engines.** Every year marine
two-stroke motors spill 15 times more oil and fuel into waterways than
did the Exxon Valdez.*** The EPA estimates that one hour of operation by
a 70-horsepower two-stroke motor emits the same amount of hydrocarbon pollution
as driving 5,000miles in a modern automobile.****
Sources * National Marine Manufacturers Association. ** Andre Mele, Polluting for Pleasure, Norton, New York, 1993; also, EPA, ibid. *** Eric Nelson, "Polluting for Pleasure?", Sail Magazine, November 1994, 26. **** From conversations with William Charmley, Technical Specialist, EPA Office of Non-Road Emmissions, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.” [From the Bluewater Network website 4]
In The Evolution of National Wildlife Law6 Michael Bean goes back to feudal Europe. Drawing from Blackstone’s Commentaries, Mr. Bean makes the point early in his report that the purpose of game regulation in feudal Europe was to keep the kings and barons in their castles and the peasants (Blackstone’s “rustici”) in their hovels. The focus was obviously on controlling fishing and hunting activities and the objective was to manage the fishermen and hunters, not the fish, not the game and not the habitat that supported them. Since then, while we’ve gotten away from the concept of maintaining the political status quo by restricting hunting or fishing privileges, we still heartily embrace the tradition of managing fishermen and hunters. Maybe we embrace it too heartily.
There is a full spectrum of factors, both anthropogenic and natural, that interact to determine the abundance of particular species of fish or shellfish in particular areas at particular times. Among the most obvious are water quality, habitat availability, predation mortality, fishing mortality, prey availability, spawning success, water temperature, currents, competition from other species, diseases and parasites. The only one of these capable of control by fisheries managers is fishing. It shouldn’t be any surprise, therefore, to see the almost total reliance by today’s fisheries managers on controlling fishing. There isn’t really much else they can control. But what is the overall impact of their understandably constrained focus on fishing mortality?
Fisheries in which fishing mortality is a critical or a major factor unquestionably need some level of fishing control. The fish, the harvesters and, ultimately, the consumers will benefit from an investment in sustainably managing these fisheries. In fisheries in which fishing mortality plays a minor or insignificant part, however, controlling fishing will be at best an exercise in futility and at worst an expensive diversion, drawing much-needed attention away from the actual causes of stock declines.
If we accept the fact that at this point (recent
amendments to the Magnuson - Stevens Act should give greater prominence
to critical habitat issues in the future) our management system can only
deal effectively with controlling fishing mortality, what should we be
doing differently? Determining the relative impact of both recreational
and commercial fishing on each fishery being managed would be a logical
starting point. This would allow us to commit our limited management resources
to those fisheries where they would do the most good. It would also focus
some much needed attention on those non-fishing impacts, only a few of
which are detailed above, that have almost completely escaped public scrutiny
up until now.
1 Restore America's Estuaries site.
2 Joby Warrick and Pat Stith, Boss Hog 1, February 19, 1995.
3 Price Waterhouse, National Recreational Boating Survey - Final Report, June 30, 1992
4 Blue Water Network site.
5 Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Mysterious New Diseases Devastate Coral Reefs, August 19, 1997.
6 by the Environmental Law Institute for the Council on Environmental Quality, GPO Stock# 041-011-00033-5, 1977