Scientists demand an end to 'green' longline fishing
By David Harrison, Environment Correspondent
21st November 2004
Catching fish with long lines, which was hailed as the "green" solution for the fishing industry, is responsible for the death of almost 4.5 million fish, dolphins and birds in the Pacific Ocean every year, a study has found.
Sharks, marlin, sea turtles, albatross, whales and dolphins are caught unintentionally on the lines, which are up to 60 miles long and bear thousands of hooks just below the surface.
Some of the species are listed as endangered, and some of those are at critically low numbers.
More than 600 scientists from 54 countries have now signed a petition urging the United Nations to impose a moratorium on longline fishing in the Pacific.
Longline fishing was introduced because it was expected to reduce the number of unnecessary catches produced by the alternative method of dragging large nets through the ocean.
The latest research shows, however, that millions of fish die or are seriously wounded after being caught on the hooks, either when taking the bait or, in the case of many seabirds, when feeding on fish caught on the line.
Many species found in the longline "bycatch" have been seriously depleted and some pushed towards extinction, according to a report by the American Sea Turtle Restoration Trust.
Robert Ovetz, the author of the report, said that an immediate moratorium should be imposed on longline fishing in the Pacific. "Longlines are wiping out the lions and tigers of the ocean - sharks, billfish and tunas, as well as sea turtles. Catches are indiscriminate and therefore uncontrollable," he said.
"Contrary to its reputation as a clean fishing technology, industrial, pelagic longline fishing in the Pacific annually captures and kills about 4.4 million non-targeted marine species."
The report, entitled Pillaging the Pacific, says that 3.3 million sharks, one million marlin, 59,000 sea turtles, up to 76,000 black-footed and laysan albatross and almost 20,000 dolphins, including the bottlenose, spotted and spinner, are captured or killed by longline fishing.
Among the whales killed by longlines are the beaked, humpback and sperm varieties.
The critically endangered leatherback turtle is expected to become extinct within the next few decades if the decline of the adult population is not halted. The number of adult nesting females has fallen by 95 per cent since 1980, the report says.
Bycatch represents about a third of all Pacific hauls. Sharks, seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals are particularly vulnerable to extinction as they have low reproductive rates. Longlining is also having a damaging effect in the Atlantic Ocean where a recent study found that populations of sharks, and some tunas, had declined markedly.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that up to 40 million tons of bycatch and "discards", worth an estimated £2.4 billion, are wasted annually.
"With little control over what is captured and killed, fishery managers can only regulate what fishermen keep and land," the report says. "As a result massive amounts of unwanted or illegal fish (and other species) are thrown back into the sea as overcatch."
The report highlights another disturbing trend: with fish stocks falling, longline companies are turning to "top-of-the-food-chain" bycatch species, such as sharks, to increase their profits.
The fishermen cut off the sharks' fins and these are sold to markets in the Far East, the United States and Europe. The report condemns the practice as a "senseless waste of entire sharks for the fibres of their fins which are an insignificant additive to so-called shark's fin soup, a luxury item with no nutritional value".
Attempts to control longline fishing have failed because commercial operators are now using longer lines and more hooks.
The most commonly caught species in the Pacific, bigeye tuna, and the most valuable commercial species, Southern Bluefish tuna, are listed as "vulnerable" and "critically endangered" respectively.
Sarah Duffy, the oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, called for more marine reserves to control fishing in sensitive areas.
"If industrial fishing continues at this rate then many species will be wiped out," she said.