Number 9
September 14, 1997
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Fishing impacts: How much is too much?

An increasing amount of attention is being directed towards the effects of various seafood harvesting techniques on the estuarine and oceanic environments. In the capture fisheries the primary focus is on the impacts of mobile gear - trawls or dredges that are pulled behind the fishing boats - on the bottom. Responding to this growing interest, a one day workshop “Effects of Fishing Gear on the Sea Floor” was organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant College Program and the Conservation Law Foundation. The workshop was well attended by commercial fishing industry representatives, researchers. fisheries managers and members of the environmental community.

Interestingly, one of the early presentations at the workshop included a transparency that illustrated the prevailing Japanese perspective on producing fish and shellfish in coastal and ocean waters. In Japan, engineered structures and biological manipulations are routinely used to maximize the production of particular species in selected areas. Cage culture of fish, raft and rope culture of shellfish and algae, fish aggregating devices on the surface, and poured concrete habitats on the bottom are all employed to exceed natural limitations on production and harvest.

This perspective represents one end of the “food from the sea” spectrum: an integrated seafood production system that yields a greater economic return, but does so at the expense of the “natural” ecosystem.

Building reefs or disposing trash?

When it comes to enhancing the productivity of the ocean bottom we in the United States are somewhat behind the Japanese. To date the only materials that have been used widely for such purposes in our coastal waters are discarded wastes like demolition rubble, worn-out tires and surplus weaponry “donated” by the Pentagon to create what are somewhat euphemistically called artificial reefs. 
The other end of the spectrum was illustrated by the views of some of the participants in the MIT Sea Grant/CLF conference. From their comments, it was obvious they felt that any significant disturbance caused by bottom tending commercial fishing gear or other commercial fishing activities was unacceptable, regardless of the effect it had on increasing the harvest or improving the efficiency of harvest of the targeted species.

There are always individuals and organizations that will staunchly defend what they see as the natural order and oppose any activities that interfere with it. Dealing with them has become a part of doing business for many industries and often we are better off because of their efforts. In the case of fisheries, however, their ideal of “no impact” fishing seems to be increasingly — and possibly purposefully — confused with the popular though somewhat vague concept of “sustainable” fishing. Anything even hinting at further development or increased efficiency in the world’s fisheries is automatically and strenuously opposed.

Image of otter trawl net reel
A net reel on a 75' dragger in Point Pleasant
Impacts unavoidable

Since that time in history that fishing moved beyond the subsistence level unintended mortalities, bottom disturbance, and interference with the behavior of non-targeted species have been the norm. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any cost-effective commercial fishing methods — those allowing a harvest much beyond the personal needs of those doing the fishing — that wouldn’t involve some sort of ecological disturbance. Commercial fishing, after all, is about removing fish from their natural habitat, and that is bound to have some effect on the assemblage of organisms left behind.

Is this inherently wrong? One of the characteristics that differentiates Homo sapiens from the rest of the animal world is our ability to manipulate our environment. This ability, coupled with several millions of years of evolution and several thousands of years of agricultural development, is what allows us to produce enough food in the US to support several hundreds of millions of people. Particularly to the point, considering the present situation in Korea, where would we be without it?

Agricultural parallels

But how much of a parallel can we, or should we, draw between food production on the land and food production in the sea? The movement to high-intensity agriculture that began with the so-called “green revolution” a few decades back has had some dramatic and originally unforeseen consequences that we would probably have been better off without.

But without getting involved in a “chicken or egg” discussion of modern agriculture and overpopulation, because of our ability to modify and manipulate the terrestrial ecosystem for food production we have been able to keep up with a too rapidly expanding population in many - but tragically not all - of the countries where an adequate diet isn’t taken for granted. While there have been occasional and sometimes dramatic missteps, overall this surely can’t be considered in a negative light by any but a small handful of environmental zealots.

Viewing the ocean

In view of our growing worldwide protein requirements, should this same philosophy apply to the three quarters of the earth that is covered by water? Should we be looking at our coastal waters or the open ocean as a potential source of far greater amounts of much needed protein than they are supplying today, given “proper” management and development? Or should we be devoting even more effort to maintaining what we decide is the natural balance at the cost of decreased total production?

While it is possible to harvest fish or shellfish with no or minimal impacts on the ocean ecosystem, doing so would be a lot closer to subsistence fishing than to carrying out economically viable business operations. From a global or even national perspective, is this the wisest and best use of our coastal and oceanic resources?

There aren’t any clear-cut answers, or even the beginnings of any, here. First off, we don’t know nearly enough about the particular impacts of fishing activities — let alone the indirect effects of those impacts on the ocean ecosystem — to begin to predict what we might be doing. This was made abundantly clear at the “Effects of Fishing Gear on the Sea Floor” workshop and the organizers should be complemented on their conclusion that more research is sorely needed.

Secondly, we don’t have a public policy-making framework in place that would allow a rational consideration of the benefits to be gained or the costs incurred by major, or even minor, alterations of selected portions of the ocean ecosystem.

Today narrowly-focused political pressure is driving the decision making process that will determine the future direction of the utilization of our oceans for protein production. This is obviously not the way to force the objective consideration of what are exceedingly complex yet increasingly important issues by representatives of all of the involved stakeholders.

Rather, we need an ambitious research program that is designed to evaluate fishing and production enhancement techniques not only in terms of their capacity to alter the ocean environment, but also in terms of their ability to efficiently provide fish or shellfish. We need the ability to model the direct and the indirect impacts of these alterations, and we need a political process that allows balanced decisions to be made accordingly. If the predictions of coming protein shortages are close to accurate, we can’t afford to do anything less.

In the meantime, our public policies should reflect a much needed conservatism from a food production as well as an environmental perspective. They should also acknowledge the fact that many of the world’s coastal nations might be coming at this issue from a direction more closely aligned with the Japanese perspective. Being committed to fuller utilization rather than preservation in their own waters, they can probably be expected to exert increasing geopolitical pressure to establish international policies reflecting their philosophy.

For all intents and purposes, our ability to control fish and shellfish production and harvesting begins at our coastline and ends at an artificial boundary two hundred miles farther out. This boundary doesn’t have much of an impact on those fish and shellfish, and what goes on in waters adjacent to or offshore of our EEZ (or on the other side of the ocean) could affect them. We shouldn’t be putting our fishing industry, our consumers, our balance of trade or our fisheries resources in jeopardy because we assume the world’s oceans begin and end with our EEZ. Until now, far too much of our fisheries policy has done just that.

(This was modified from an article originally published in the July, 1997 issue of Commercial Fisheries News and is used here with the permission of the editor)

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