Through 1989, when the annual global fish catch peaked at 86.1 million metric tons - a nearly fivefold increase over the recorded haul in 1950 - the notion of unlimited bounty prevailed. Since then, we've witnessed a precipitous decline, especially in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. Canada's Grand Banks and New England's Georges Banks - once among the most plentiful fishing grounds anywhere - have undergone complete collapse. With the virtual disappearance of haddock, cod and yellowtail flounder, an emergency federal closure of more than 6000 square miles off the Massachusetts coast was ordered in late 1994, shutting down a $200-million-a-year industry.

And that's only part of the problem. The population of the majestic Atlantic bluefin tuna stands at less than 20 percent of its 1970 abundance. Large swordfish are so depleted that many restaurant steaks are likely to have been filleted from a juvenile that hasn't yet had a chance to spawn. Several salmon species are on the brink of commercial extinction. Pollock in Russia, redfish in the Caribbean, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico - the list of troubled waters goes on and on.

At the top of the food chain, sharks play a pivotal role, affecting every marine creature below them. When overfishing depleted sharks in Tasmania some years back, their main prey - octopus - boomed and devoured so many spiny lobsters that it caused the fishery to crash. A recent marked increase in the numbers of stingrays and jellyfish along the Florida Panhandle has been attributed to a dearth of sharks, which between 1985 and 1990 became the state's fourth largest commercial fishing industry.

Industries have capitalised on lucrative new markets for shark meat, and fins exported to the Orient for shark-fin soup. And shark cartilage is being put into pill form and touted in health-food stores as a possible "cancer preventative." The cartilage trade has taken a heavy toll, notes Dr Robert Hueter of Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory. "In Costa Rica, they are harvesting more sharks in one area in a single month than are allowed under the quota for the US East Coast fishery in a year - literally hundreds of thousands. It's a real slash-and-burn mentality of the worst kind."

The result of all this? Large coastal sharks like the sandbar that migrate along the Atlantic coast are down to only 15 to 20 percent of their numbers of only 15 years ago; pelagic species aren't faring much better. Things are so bad that Dr Jack Musick of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science believes that many large shark varieties ought to be classified as "threatened" or "endangered" species. But the warnings of Musick and other scientists are still being given short shrift by the federal managers.

While fish can become scarce, species have seldom disappeared entirely. The exact populations of many fish, from minnows to sharks, remains somewhat mysterious, and therefore out of the glare of publicity given to the fading tiger, rhinoceros and whale. But if we continue to vacuum the seas with nets that scoop up everything in their path, the oceans will soon be as empty as a college campus in August.

Vacuuming the Seas

At sea 200 miles southwest of Iceland, the crew of a supertrawler big enough to contain a dozen Boeing 747 jumbo jets unloaded a staggering 50 tons of oceanic redfish into flash-freezers down below, as the Icelandic ship's captain began manuevering against nearby Russian and Japanese vessels for the next set. Emotions were running high, as there was a lot at stake. Each ship was trawling nets with opening circumferences of almost two miles; that's the equivalent of 10 New York City blocks wide by two Empire State Buildings high. Soon the Russian boat steamed over the Icelander's net, and the Japanese trawler ripped loose the Russian's lines.

Such conflicts are now commonplace on the high seas, says Dan Middlemiss, a professor of military and strategic studies at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University. "An important food source is being decimated [and] fish have become something seen as worth fighting for," he says. The global industrial fishing fleet has doubled in size since 1970, now comprising about one million large-scale vessels. Fisheries scientists consider this number to be twice the capacity that can maintain future fish populations.

"About 70 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are heavily exploited, overexploited, depleted or slowly recovering," according to a 1995 report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). "This situation is globally non-sustainable and major ecological and economic damage is already visible." Indeed, nine of the world's 17 major fishing grounds are in serious decline, and four have been commercially "fished out". If this trend continues, the FAO foresees a shortfall of some 30 million tons of fish for human diets by the year 2000 - at a time when the planet's population is rising by about 100 million people annually.

The World Wakes Up

Yet the out-of-control, high-tech slaughter occuring in every ocean and sea has only recently begun receiving widespread attention from politicians, the media and environmental organisations. Last December, a United Nations treaty calling for fisheries to be managed under an enforceable framework of international law was finally signed by the United States and 27 other countries and territories. In a reversal of the Republican-controlled Congress' efforts to undermine nearly every other environmental law, the House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to stengthen existing US fisheries regulations and the Senate is expected to follow suit. Somewhat belatedly, groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace, the National Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) have put the devastation of the oceans high on their agendas - and were heavily involved in lobbying for both mandates.

With strict controls on fishing pressure, a research study published last year in the prestigious journal Science indicates that nearly all of the depleted commercial species could, in fact, bounce back. The scientists' goal was to ascertain whether fish populations that have been reduced to very low levels become significantly less successful at reproduction. Of 128 fish stocks evaluated, only three were determined to have been overfished to permanent commercial extinction. There are numerous examples of recoveries once strong management was put in place, including the striped bass along America's eastern seaboard, Atlantic herring in Iceland and Norwegian cod.

The question is whether the will exists to turn around a looming catastrophe, for solving the fishing crisis is going to require unprecedented cooperation among fishers, and within and between nations. It will also demand far more attention to the escalating loss of vital fish habitat (wetlands, mangrove forests, sea grasses and coral reefs) resulting from coastal development and pollution. When you add in the unknown factors, such as the potential effects of global climate change on fish migration and breeding, clearly the oceans are in a state of emergency.

Early Warnings

The first big clue that something might be amiss was the collapse of the world's largest anchovy fishery in Peru during the early 1970s. At that time, a competitive fishing free-for-all between countries was at full throttle. In 1974, for example, New England fishermen were harvesting only 12 percent of the fish caught in their waters - the rest were taken by boats from the Soviet Union, Poland and elsewhere. In the face of this, many countries (including the US) began imposing what are known as Exclusive Economic Zones extending up to 200 miles from their territorial limits. This kept the foreigners out, but was accompanied here and in Europe by large government subsidies to encourage development of home-grown fleets.

"Few controls, and unrestricted access in most fisheries, ultimately led to overcapitalisation," recalls Gerry Studds, former Chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. For example, the Arctic Alaska Fisheries Corporation (since produced by the world's largest chicken producer, Tyson Foods) received about $100 million in federal loan guarantees. The European Union increased its fisheries subsidies from $80 million in 1983 to $580 million by 1990, one-fifth of that money going to build new boats or improve old ones.

Simultaneously, fishing proficiency was booming beyond anyone's wildest expectations. Not only in vessel size, but with automatic trawl nets that electronically detect the approaches of fish schools; navigation aids including satellite positioning systems, and the use of "spotter" planes as fish-finders. Floating fish factories became commonplace, with 80 miles of submerged longlines containing thousands of baited hooks or 40-mile-long driftnets corraling everything in their path. In 1995, the Russians even announced the creation of an "Acoustic Fish Concentrator," a small torpedo-like object that snares fish in a trawler's net by using technology first developed for anti-submarine warfare.

Bad Habits Die Hard

Despite increased awareness of the situation, practises such as "pulse fishing" (fishing area species until they dry up, then moving on to target a different species) persist. Between 1986 and 1992, distant water fleets fishing in international waters off the Grand Banks removed 16 times the quotas of cod, flounder and redfish permitted by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation. Little wonder that the Canadians, in a celebrated high-seas incident in 1995, were outraged enough to sieze a Spanish ship - one whose illegal small-mesh nets had captured 350 metric tons on juvenile halibut before the fish had reached reproductive age, and which maintained two sets of logbooks (one true and one false.)

"The Spanish," says WWF's fisheries expert Michael Sutton, "are well known as an outlaw fishing nation and one of the most overcapitalised fleets in the world." One Spanish multinational corporation now owns a global network of some 30 companies in 18 nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. And cash-starved underdeveloped countries, which long depended on local small-scale fisheries, are now selling permits to foreign boats to fish their waters, or cutting deals with outside investors to expand their own fleets.

Indonesia revealed its intention in 1994 to procure over 81,000 new vessels within the next five years, with most of the $4 billion investment coming from foreign sources. Spain and the US are sharing a $200 million order to deliver 50 longline boats to Indonesia in kit form for deep-freezing tuna and swordfish. While the European Union officially says that it is planning to decommission 40 percent of its fishing capacity, at the same time it is providing "exit grants" to companies for relocating boats away from European waters. According to the WWF's Sutton, "Japanese money also goes to a lot of underdeveloped countries for developing fisheries, partly to buy their votes for the International Whaling Commission." (Japan is one of a few nations that still pursues whaling.)

The deep-water regions, those beyond the 200-mile sovereign national limits, are domainted by six countries - Japan, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan and Poland - which account for 90 percent of the world's high-seas catch. It is their practices that the new United Nations treaty seeks to address, in a landmark agreement that NDRC scientist Lisa Speer hopes "marks the end of untrammeled plundering of ocean fisheries." The treaty's most crucial provision is its "precautionary, risk-averse" approach, meaning basically that nations must err on the side of the resource if marine scientists are unsure whether fishing pressure is damaging a particular stock's sustainability. The accord also calls for improved enforcement, monitoring and scientific assessments, as well as protection of marine biodiversity by minimising pollution and the needless destruction of non-target fish, also known as "bycatch".

In US waters, where the National Marine Fisheries Service has classified over 82 percent of the commercial stocks as being overfished, the amended version of the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act will require managers to reduce fishing volumes and meet specific timelines. Under the Act, first passed by Congress in 1976, eight regional councils acquired the authority to set annual catch limits within the US 200-mile jurisdiction. But, explains Bill Mott of the Marine Fish Conservation Network (an alliance of 100 sportsmen's and environmental groups whose intensive lobbying to improve the Act prodded Congress), the domination of these councils by representatives of the fishing industry "is like letting the fox guard the henhouse."

The Gulf of Mexico Council, for instance, permitted red snapper to be fished down to five million pounds per year, where they'd once been so abundant as to yield 30-million-pound annual catches. The New England Council refused to put a lid on the groundfishery at Georges Banks, even after the Commerce Department declared several species at or near commercial extinction. At long last, though, the Council's attitude appears to be changing. A newly-amended New England groundfishing plan, approved in late January, aims to reduce fishing levels by 80 percent through severely limiting the number of days a boat can be at sea. The plan also specifies several closures in the Gulf of Maine to protect juvenile fish. While many fishermen complain that these measures will put them out of business, council chairman and commercial fisherman Joseph Branceleone says simply, "Without fish, there will be no fishermen."

The latest groundfish protection effort, however, does not address the effects of towed gear being dragged across the ocean bottom - which scientists are increasingly viewing as gravely damaging to the fragile habitat where juvenile fish feed on smaller organisms. Mike Leach, head of a Cape Cod commercial fishing group, believes that, in order to rebuild the stocks, "Dragging should be banned and draggermen should be given assistance to switch to a more appropriate gear type." Funds to achieve this, however, are scarce. The federal government has already committed $25 million to a program for buying out a relatively small number of fishing boats and an additional $62 million in loans, grants and matching funds to the beleaguered New England fishing industry.

Making the Regulations Work

Certainly, better enforcement is one key to improving the situation and, in April, federal regulators sent a strong message in seeking a record $5.8 million fine against two Massachusetts brothers and their 12 employees. Their five boats were charged with illegally taking millions of scallops, cod and other groundfish in 1995, breaking the law 300 times and filing false reports to cover up their violations.

But other recent "solutions" to the crisis - such as the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) encouragement to fishermen to begin focussing on so-called "under-utilised species" - can have unanticipated consequences for marine ecosystems. Take the little squid, for example, which as a food source is crucial to the survival of tuna, billfish and sharks, as well as marine mammals and many smaller fish. From a "trash fish" of scant interest to the American consumer a decade ago, squid have become popular as pan-fried calamari. With advances in refigeration technology, their value (and their harvesting) has skyrocketed. Back in 1964, less than 1,000 metric tons of the Atlantic long-finned and short-finned squid were being caught. By 1994, that figure had soared to more than 40,000 tons.

At the same time, marine experts have noted an alarming trend. With far fewer schools of squid as bait in coastal waters, according to Robert Pride of the Atlantic Coast Conservation Association of Virginia, "many species of game fish are caught, even in late summer and in the fall, with empty bellies and a gaunt appearance." Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Centre in New Jersey, has similarly observed increasing numbers of emaciated harbour porpoises and seals ending up beached or entangled in near-shore nets. "We are seeing another canary in the mine, which could be the starvation of many marine species," Schoelkopf says.

An idea favoured by many in government, with the ostensible aim of reducing the number of fisheries participants and thereby curbing overfishing, is known as Individual Transferrable Quotas (ITQs). Under this scheme, and elsewhere, quota "shares" are allotted based on catch records and fishermen then buy, sell or lease these shares on the open market. That way, the thinking goes, you weed out the inefficient fishermen and replace them with professionals.

But turning fish resources into "private property" has come under fire from Greenpeace, which has forged alliances with many smaller-scale commercial fishermen. The fundamental problems with ITQs, as Russell Cleary of The Massachusetts' Commercial Anglers Association puts it, is that they "presage a corporate takeover" and threaten the very existence of fisheries-based coastal communities. The notion has merit. Since New Zealand introduced ITQs in 1986, its three largest fishing corporations have snapped up half the awarded quotas. Two of the largest holders in America's ITQ-based Atlantic surf clam/ocean quahog fishery are now the National Westminster Bank of New Jersey and a US subsidiary of the world's biggest accounting firm, Holland-based KPMG. Another big ITQ purchaser is the Caterpillar Corporation.

None of this bodes well for the environment, since ITQs encourage the overexploitation of "higher yield" fishing grounds. Enough pressure has been generated - Greenpeace activists seized a factory trawler in a Washington port last summer to dramatise the situation - that the Senate Commerce Committee voted in March for a five-year moratorium on such privatisation while the effects on coastal communities and small-boat fleets are studied.

Making it Sustainable

What then are the best approaches to the fisheries crisis? Last February, Greenpeace released a preliminary series of "Principles for Ecologically Responsible Fisheries", which the organisation is urging fish buyers to use as benchmarks for seafood purchases. These include a shift from large-scale intensive fisheries to smaller, community-based ones with sound practices. Fishing gear and methods damaging to fish populations or habitats should be phased out. No fishery ought to open or expand until "a verifiable, scientifically-based, dynamic management procedure has been established."

At a recent conference, fisheries economist Francis Christy urged a "limited entry" policy on managers, pointing out that restrictions on the number of licenses issued to fish have proven effective in revitalising the Maryland blue crab industry.

Fishermen themselves can and should play a greater role in ensuring their own survival. A 1995 survey by a British magazine, The Ecologist, cites numerous examples of coastal communities around the world evolving often-unwritten rules to regulate their fisheries. The Cocamilla people in the Peruvian Amazon, observing that their lake was being overfished by commercials from other regions, ruled that only subsistence fishermen be allowed to fish there. In Newfoundland and Japan, some communities hold annual lotteries for the best fishing areas. Among the Cree people of St. James Bay, Canada, and in Donegal, Ireland, fishermen competing for particularly good spots agree to fish in turns. The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation is currently working with fishermen in "developing economic structures for them to take on greater responsibility as ecosystem managers," says its program director Peter Shelley.

All this, of course, supports a small-scale emphasis but does not address the industrialised fleet problem. But what about a tonnage fee imposed by governments on the massive hauls of the big boat operations? The more fish you bring in, the more you pay. And the funds could be earmarked not only for fisheries research and management, but for job retraining. A federal pilot program for the failing Pacific Northwest salmon fishery already funds jobs in the restoration of river habitats. The limited dollars available in the government's Fishing Industry Grants programme are currently going to fishermen with inventive ideas for reducing waste by modifying fishing gear, and to commercial vessels helping conduct surveys of Atlantic herring spawning stocks.

There is no reason why fishing captains and crews couldn't stay on the water and plant shellfish beds, help the Coast Guard with harbour oil spill cleanups, conduct fish counts, aid in public education, take water samples and serve on enforcement teams. But this will take a commitment where commercial lobbying interests like the National Fisheries Institute worry less about allocation and more about Congress' current plans to gut the NMFS budget and to remove from protection almost 70 percent of the remaining American wetlands.

Miraculous Recovery?

When concerned citizens wake up to the ramifications of a dying ocean ecosystem, miracles can happen. It was the outcry of sports fishermen that forced managers to impose drastic sanctions on the commercial striped bass harvest a decade ago - and the fish that enabled the Pilgrims to survive has made an unparalleled comeback. In both Louisiana and Florida, successful ballot referenda spurred by sportsmen's groups have recently brought an end to the indiscriminate use of inshore entanglement gillnets. And in India, protesting fish workers have brought a halt to the registry of any new fishing boats in Indian waters.

There is little time to lose. Without greater mobilisation against the rapaciousness and greed that are devastating the world's oceans, we are looking at a future where the wonders and sustenance of the sea are, if not gone altogether, confined to fish-farming pens. And that would be an unthinkable tragedy.

Contacts: American Oceans Campaign, 201 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington DC 20002/(202)544-3526; American Sportfishing Association, 1033 North Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA 22314/(703)519-9691; Centre for Marine Conservation, 1725 DeSalles Street NW, Washington DC 20036/(202)429-5609; Marine Fish Conservation Netowrk, 408 C Street NE, Washington DC 20002/(202)548-0707; National Coalition for Marine Conservation, 3 West Market Street, Leesburg, VA 22075/(703)777-0037; Ocean Wildlife Campaign, 666 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington DC 20003/(202)547-9009.

Dick Russell is a freelance writer living in Boston.

Waste at Sea: The 'Bycatch' Problem

It's hard to believe, but the United Nations estimates that about 27 million tons of fish each year - a third the volume of the regular commercial catch - are caught and then tossed back (usually dead) because they are the wrong species, too small, damaged in capture or exceed a particular quota. And some estimates peg the real amount at closer to 40 million tons. In the industry, it's known as unwanted "bycatch".

Shrimp and prawn trawlers are the worst culprits; in some fisheries, 15 tons of fish are dumped for every ton of shrimp landed. The US National Marine Fisheries Service reports that 84 percent of the shrimpers' hauls in the Gulf of Mexico are bycathc. This includes some 35 million juvenile red snapper killed annually, in a commercial and recreational fishery that's already on the brink of collapse from overfishing.

Longline vessels setting as many as 80 miles of hooks in pursuit of tuna and swordfish are the biggest source of mortality for billfish such as the marlin, a sports species whose sale is outlawed in the US. Between 1989 and 1992, American longliners reported about 30,000 billfish taken in the Atlantic, half of which were dead when returned to the water.

Nor does the longliners' impact stop with fish. A recent study conducted by Charles Wurster of the Marine Sciences Research Centre at the State University of New York indicated that bycatch mortality on diving birds caused by tuna longlines may be "even more severe than from driftnets." (The UN General Assembly has voted unanimously for a moratorium on large-scale driftnets on the high seas - "walls of death" which, in 1990, entangled 42 million non-targeted animals.)

An estimated 100 million longline hooks are set (mostly by the Japanese) in the Southern oceans each year, resulting in the death of about 180,000 albatross and petrels that hit the bouyed lines as they feed into the water. That total cannot account for the offspring that subsequently starve; and it doesn't do much for the fishermen either, since about half the birds that dive for the bait get away with it.

Marine mammals are equally vulnerable. Despite the UN-imposed global ban on high seas driftnets, some 600 Italian vessels continue to utilise them in the Mediterranean Sea, where sperm whales wrapped in these netted curtains have washed up dead along beaches. After the Humane Society of the US filed suit, a federal judge last February ordered the State Department to either work out a compromise or impose an embargo against Italy.

Dolphins often swim with schools of tuna and, in the Eastern tropical Pacific, an estimated seven million dolphins have been killed in the US tuna fleet's encircling purse nets since 1959. A public outcry, spearheaded by the Earth Island Institute, forced precautionary dolphin methods to be implemented in 1990. That same year, major canneries including Bumble Bee, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea refused to sell tuna caught by foreign purse-seiners that kept entrapping dolphins. By last year, the wanton slaughter of dolphins dropped to below 5,000 - down from nearly 500,000 annually before measures were taken. Still, Congress is now debating lifting a ban on tuna imports from Mexican ships that persist in setting where dolphins swim, claiming this creates a problem with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which encourages tariff-free trading between the US, Canada and Mexico.

US shrimpers are now obliged to install Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which shunt the turtles out a trapdoor of their trawls, and will go a long way toward saving the estimated 55,000 adult turtles that were dying in them previously. Other technologies are also being developed by fishermen themselves - including acoustic net alarms to warn dolphins away from swordfish driftnets, and lobster pots with biodegradable vents.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, a 60 percent reduction in bycatch could be achieved quickly by improving the selectivity of fishing gear, developing greater cooperative research between scientists, industry and managers; and the application of new technologies. Unfortunately, the final version of the landmark United Nations high-seas treaty last December weakened a provision that would have forced nations to use selective gear to cut bycatch. The US, under pressure from its own fishing industry, succeeded in amending the treaty language to require countries to do so only "to the extent practicable."

Turning Seals into Scapegoats

Twillingate, Newfoundland - Kill seals, save cod. That's the rule followed by the Canadian government, which this year authorised the killing of a quarter-million harp seals, whose burgeoning population could be having an effect on depleted stocks of Atlantic cod, their favourite food. By early May, the hunters were mopping up, shooting the seals bobbing along Newfoundland's northern shore.

Fishermen in Canada's Maritime Provinces cringe at the mention of seals, which are multiplying while the cod boats are idled at the pier. Last year, the Canadian government released counts showing the harp seal population in Atlantic Canada had reached 4.8 million, twice its size 15 years ago, and is increasing by 287,000 seals a year.

Scientists have found that seals feed primarily on small first- and second-year fish, which increases their impact on the species' recovery. But scientists like W. Donald Bowen of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax, Nova Scotia say the idea that reducing seal populations would cause cod to rebound is "unfounded." He adds, "We don't know what all the causes of the decline are; it's very difficult to generalise and blame it on the seals." Seals have been harvested for clothing, food and income in Canada for five centuries; they have few other predators. Most seals today are killed by rifles. There is no sport hunting, and killing young harp or hooded seals is prohibited. Killing an animal for "parts" - the penis is an aphrodisiac in Asia - is also illegal.

There are some surprising critics of the hunt, including Garry Troake, a professional sealer and fisherman since 1977. Troake is worried that too many seal carcasses will create a glut on the market and generate massive bad publicity. "I say, let's develop this industry like anything else, timber or mining," Troake says. "It shouldn't have anything to do with cod."

Source: E: Environmental Magazine, July/August 1996.