27 November 2008

More fish tales

As humanity's impact on the environment continues becomes increasingly apparent, more measures are being made to stem the tide of the over-exploitation of the world's fisheries.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) passed a "total allowable catch" limit of 22,000 tons of bluefin for 2009. This number is down from the 29 500 tons allowed in 2008, but well in excess of the 15 000 tons recommended by ICCAT's own scientists. This is the legal allowable catch; illegal fishing will likely drive the total number of fish caught much higher. Environmental groups call the measure a disgrace.

The agreement also includes stricter measures aimed at limiting illegal tuna catches, defines mechanisms for control throughout the marketing chain and closes many outstanding loopholes. The EU apparently played hardball politics to get the higher than recommended quotas passed, threatening to penalize developing nations present at the meeting should they not agree to the higher limits. It seems to me that more and/or stricter laws are unlikely to staunch the flow; the EU has simply chosen to make sure that the national interests of its member nations are met. They're getting theirs while the getting is good, while paying lip service to the idea of sustainable fishing.

The last great US fishery is also looking at a reduced quota next season. Fisheries scientists recommended that next year's catch in the eastern Bering Sea, the main walleye pollack-fishing region for US boats, be cut by 18% to 815,000 tonnes. This continues a series of cuts in recent years that have seen the quota drop from almost 1,500,000 tons in 2005. Many argue that further reductions are needed with a quota to a quota around 500,000 tons in order to give the walleye pollack a chance to recover from years of overfishing. Pollock stocks have declined 20 percent per year since 2003, dipping to their lowest level since the late 1970s.

Will these cuts work? Such limits have been imposed before, with mixed results. In Scotland, stocks of herring and mackerel are on the verge of being (re)declared sustainable, following several years of cooperative conservation efforts. This is being hailed a success by local fishermen. Despite this, the season is limited to about 8 weeks a year to ensure conservation efforts are maintained.

However, the results on the other side of the Atlantic are not as positive. Atlantic cod is a symbol of boom-and-bust commercial fishing. After 50 years of heavy harvesting in the late 20th century, the Canadian cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s. Total bans ensued, and fisheries managers expected to see a recovery. However, after 15 years of little to no fishing, local populations show no sign of rebounding. In fact, some will continue to spiral downward to extinction.

The main problem is that adult cod have been dying at an unusually high rate in recent years. No one knows why, but one cause might be increased predation by seals. The problem may be more widespread: The neighboring Scotian Shelf cod population also took a nosedive in the 1990s. While most other cod populations off Canada appear to be stable, the same could have been said about the southern Gulf population up until a few years ago.

It is not clear what the final outcome of these quota cuts will be. The ecology involved is complex and not fully known. And human actions further complicate matters. Over-fishing is but one of the many environmental disasters caused by human irresponsibility. We have a deleterious effect on the entire globe -- the short-sidedness of Our Way of Life. Strong economic incentives to curb our excesses are needed, while we discover new ways of living and co-existing with the ecosystem at large. A part of the natural world, not apart from it.

Image: Der Spiegel

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