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Ocean crisis caused by destructive fishing

By Cat Lazaroff (ENS)
DENVER, Colorado
18th February 2003

Some of the most productive marine fishing methods are
also the most damaging, and should be restricted or banned,
scientists argued at a scientific meeting this week.
Today, more than 400 leading scientists called today for the
United Nations to issue a moratorium on longline and gillnet
fishing, methods they say are wiping out populations of fish,
turtles, marine mammals and other species in the Pacific
In a full page ad which ran in today's "New York Times," the
researchers urged a ban on industrial fishing techniques
including longlining and gillnetting, which they blamed for
the plight of the endangered Pacific leatherback turtle and
other rare species.

Many sea birds fall victim to longline fishing methods.
© American Bird Conservancy)

The call to halt these wasteful fishing methods was made at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference being held in Denver, and in advance of the international Food and Agriculture Organization Committee on Fisheries meeting next week in Rome.
A total of 405 scientists from 47 nations - along with 100 conservation, animal welfare and other nonprofit groups - signed open letters to the United Nations, urging governments and fisheries managers in the United States and abroad to heed the worsening crisis of global fisheries.

"In recent decades the impact of commercial fishing on ocean ecosystems has dramatically increased, and we are confronted with the unprecedented reality that we are rapidly depleting the oceans' resources," states the letter printed today in the "New York Times." "The oceans, once mistakenly thought to be inexhaustible, clearly are not."

The letter points out that more than 70 percent of global fish populations are now considered overfished or on the brink of being overfished, according to United Nations figures. Not just fish are at risk: "indiscriminate commercial fishing practices wastefully harm and kill millions of non-targeted animals per year, causing unsustainable mortality to sea turtles, sea birds, bluefin tuna, swordfish and sharks," the letter states.

Leatherback Turtle May Face Extinction

Among the marine species most threatened by
longlining and gill netting is the Pacific leatherback
sea turtle, the scientists wrote.
"Tragic declines of leatherback and loggerhead sea
turtles have been well documented in the Pacific," said
Dr. Larry Crowder, Duke University Marine Laboratory
researcher, "and the impact of longline fishing on these
and other marine species can't be understated."

The scientists would like to see longliners like this one banned from the Pacific Ocean.
(Photo courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service)

This year's return of nesting leatherbacks to Pacific beaches was the worst on record, biologists report. Scientists estimate that there are now less than 5,000 nesting female leatherbacks left in the Pacific Ocean - down from 91,000 in 1980, a decline of 95 percent.

"The decline of the leatherback in the last five years is nothing short of catastrophic, and it is imperative that the global community come together to eliminate the use of the most destructive forms of industrial fishing before it is too late." said Dr. Sylvia Earle, a marine expert and explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society.

A recent report to the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that there are almost two billion hooks set per year by the longline fishing fleet. Longline fishing in all the world's
deep oceans kills some 40,000 sea turtles each year, along
with 300,000 seabirds and millions of sharks.

"The United Nations and Kofi Annan must recognize
that in order to save the endangered leatherbacks, as
well as imperiled sharks, seabirds and dolphins, we must
stop these weapons of mass destruction from destroying
our oceans," said Todd Steiner, director of the
Turtle Island Restoration Network. "There are just too
many hooks adrift in the Pacific to give the leatherback
a fighting chance for survival."

A leatherback sea turtle hooked by a longliner.
(Photo by Roberto Vargas,
© Sea Turtle Restoration Project)

Next week, fisheries managers from around the world will gather in Rome, Italy for the 25th session of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization's Committee on Fisheries meeting. Scientists and environmental organizations are pressing these officials to place a moratorium on both longlining and gillnetting in the Pacific, just as the United Nations passed a comprehensive global ban of driftnet fishing in the early 1990s.
The United States has already taken some steps to protect embattled marine species by closing the West Coast to longlining altogether and restricting the Hawaii longlining fleet from fishing for swordfish. After a legal challenge by the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the National Marine Fisheries Service applied time and area closures for gillnet fishing fleets off the West Coast.

Bottom Trawling Called Worst of All

Another damaging fishing method which conservation groups
hope to see restricted is bottom trawling, a common method to
catch shrimp, fish, and other bottom dwelling sea life. Research
presented Sunday at the AAAS meeting shows that despite
frequent conflict over fisheries issues, many fishers,
conservationists and academics agree that bottom trawling is
the most ecologically damaging fishing gear.

The scientists presented findings that, for the first time,
document and rank the full suite of ecological impacts
associated with all commercial fishing gears used in the
United States.

Trawlers can catch massive net-loads of fish
(Photo by Allen Shimada, courtesy NMFS)

Scientists urged managers, fishers and environmentalists to recognize that how fishing is carried out may be as important to the future of marine resources as how many fish are caught.
Though scientific data now demonstrates the collapse of fisheries around the world, many destructive fishing practices are still carried out, largely out of sight of the public and, hence, out of mind. Almost one quarter of the world's catch is thrown back into the sea dead or dying each year because the fishing gear cannot discriminate between target catch and other animals that are undersized, unmarketable, or not worth the price of bringing to shore.

About 2.3 billion pounds of sea life were discarded in the U.S. in 2000 alone, and thousands of the ocean's most charismatic species - including sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and seabirds - are killed each year by fishing nets, lines and hooks. These deaths have implications for both marine populations and marine food webs.

"Considering the documented decline in global fisheries, this kind of waste is unacceptable. But because this travesty is unseen by most people, it continues," said Dr. Crowder.

Sea floor before a bottom trawler passed through.
(Two photos Keith Sainsbury
courtesy Marine Conservation Biology Institute)

Experts agree that bottom trawls are one of the worst offenders, entrapping vast numbers of non-targeted animals.
"The first time I was on a trawler, I was appalled to see that for every pound of shrimp caught there were 20 pounds of sharks, rays, crabs, and starfish killed. The shrimpers called this bycatch 'trawl trash' - I call it 'biodiversity'," noted Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. "Of course I recognize in some trawls it could be only one pound - in others 100 pounds for every pound of shrimp."

This bycatch is not the only collateral damage associated with fishing. Many experts agreed that habitat destruction that some fishing gears cause is even more ecologically damaging than the harm caused by bycatch.

"On land we can see how animals rely on structure, how the trees of a forest are important breeding, feeding, and hiding places - but in the ocean we have to prove it from afar," explained James Lindholm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "We now know that structures on the seafloor are critical for the future of cod, rockfish, and other commercially important species. But it's only in the last 15 years that we've had the technology to see these habitats, to see that the seafloor is not just an endless flat expanse, and to begin to understand how we are altering deep sea marine habitats - and fisheries - across the globe."

Same section of sea floor after being trawled

In many cases, fishing is destroying undersea habitats before scientists even have a chance to study them.
"The way we fish is like hanging a huge net dragged from an blimp across a forest, knocking down the trees and scooping up the plants and animals, and then throwing away everything except the deer," says Norse.

The destruction of deep sea, coldwater corals off the east and west coasts of the U.S. is one example. Hundreds or thousands of years old, these living corals can be destroyed with a single pass of a bottom trawl, and may take decades to recover, if they ever do.

"The damage to our ocean floors is more extensive and perhaps even worse than tropical deforestation," Norse said. "We must bring these issues to the forefront of fisheries management before it is too late."

Gear Changes Could Save Species

New work presented by Lance Morgan of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute synthesized data on the ecological impacts of the 10 major commercial fishing gears used in the United States and provides an expert ranking for each gear type. The overall ecological impacts associated with bottom trawls, bottom gillnets, dredges and midwater or drift gillnets ranked relatively high, with bottom trawling topping the list as the most ecologically harmful gear type.