Fish are Mostly Gone
Most fish stocks throughout the ocean are over fished
despite fisheries regulations. Over fishing has reduced the populations
of fish, turtles, sharks, and whales to 0.1 – 40 percent of
their values 50 to 100 or more years ago. Some popular fish, such as
blue-fin tuna, are approaching extinction.
very important article by Jeremy Jackson and colleagues on
Over fishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems from Science
(2001), Volume 293, pages 629 to 638, in which they show that "Historical
abundances of large consumer species were fantastically large in comparison
with recent observations."
George Rose of Memorial University in Newfoundland
has reconstructed the population size of cod back to 1505 when Europeans
first dipped their hooks and nets in North American waters ... His
best guess is that there were 7 million tonnes of cod swarming the
banks and coasts of Canada in 1505, made up of several billion fish.
By the time the cod moratorium was announced in 1992, there were
just 22,000 tonnes left, one-third of 1 percent [0.3%] of the original
population ... Andy Rosenberg and colleagues from the University
of New Hampshire have taken a different approach to estimate the
abundance of cod in grounds further south. They examined logbook
records from the 1850s .... with 326 logbooks available for boats
fishing all or part of time in the area ... Their best guess is that
there were 1.26 million tonnes of cod on the shelf. The figure is
in the same range as Rose's, given that the Scotian Shelf covers
a smaller area and that by the 1850s, fishing had almost certainly
significantly reduced the size of stocks from their pristine levels.
The estimated stock size in 2002 was just 3,000 tonnes, one-third
of 1 percent [0.3%] of the 1850s level.
From The Unnatural History of the Sea (2007).
The estimated combined weight of the adult cod
population in 1992
was a mere 1.1 percent of its historic levels of the early 1960s. In
1992 the government finally closed the Banks altogether to allow the
stock to recover. But by then it was far too late. Even if left alone,
the northern cod may never recover. Industrial technology and human
greed may have so decimated these hardy fish that they can no longer
hold onto their ecological niche. The crash could be irreversible.
E Magazine A Run On The
Cod stocks on Canada's East Coast have failed to
rebound more than
a decade after the fishery was closed. Orange roughy stocks in the
southwest Indian Ocean were fished to depletion in three years by 40
vessels while negotiations to create a regional fisheries management
organization (RFMO) were underway. Catches by European Union (EU) countries
dropped 20 per cent between 1990 and 2002.
From the Canadian governments Over fishing and
Fishing Governance web
site on State
of the Global Fishery.
The surging popularity of sushi and sashimi
has devastated the bluefin tuna. Overfishing has slashed populations
in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, pushing the species
toward extinction. Regulatory bodies have failed to set sufficiently
strict catch quotas, and illegal fishing is rampant.
American The Blue Fin In Peril.
Today the whole bay [Chesapeake Bay] yields
only 80,000 bushels a year [of oysters], down from a peak of 15 million
in the nineteenth century. [Down to 0.5% of the peak].
From The Unnatural History of the Sea (2007).
Jackson (2001) estimated green turtle populations in the Caribbean Sea
dropped from 33 million in the time of Columbus to1 million in 2000
[down to 3% of the peak]. He estimated that white abalone populations
went from 2,000/hectare in 1970 to 1/hectare in 2000, down to 0.05% of
the peak. 1 hectare = 10,000 square meters = 2.47
The decimation of fish stocks continues as seen in these plots of recent
fish landings (catch) from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service
What Was It Like Before Fish Were Exploited?
It was almost like a hallucination.
Immediate. A sense of dislocation. Something was awry... I had
flopped overboard from a dinghy on a glassy Caribbean sea in the
summer of the year 2000 and in an instant, apparently, slipped
backward nearly half a century into an underwater realm that had
not existed, so far as I knew, since the 1950s... Residents swarmed
over me, welcoming me to the neighborhood, animals in numbers and
diversity I hadn't seen in decades, not since Lyndon Johnson was
president. Schools of yellowtail snappers and blue creole wrasses
darted about in a frenzy. A squadron of glittering tarpon passed
regally by, ... Green moray eels slid part way out of their crevice
From National Geographic:
Reefs: A Last Caribbean Refuge, February 2002.
When I came to Texas in 1910, I could blindfold
myself, get in a rowboat with no oars–just a push pole–push
my way to the fishing grounds, and catch a hundred pounds or more
of trout and redfish in a few hours using a twenty-foot cane pole,
line, leader, and float for tackle.
From Fishing Yesterday's Gulf Coast by Barney Farley.
The abundance of sea fish are almost beyond
of New England.]
Francis Higgenson in 1629, in Kurlansky, Cod, page 70
There are two versions of an unexploited fishery, the one that existed
before we began fishing.
- An ecosystem dominated by great numbers of fish of all sizes, from
small fry to large, top predators. This is the traditional pyramid
with many small fish, fewer mid-sized fish, and still fewer top predators.
Large numbers of fish at Palmyra Island, an un-exploited ecosystem
in the Pacific. The photo shows a school of convict surgeonfish
swimming around dead coral off Palmyra Atoll. The plant-eating fish are
known for keeping algae in check in coral reef ecosystems. This is the
common view of a tropical paradise.
From Explorations: Magazine
of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
- An ecosystem dominated by top predators with very few other fish.
This is the inverted pyramid recently discovered by Scripps scientists
in remote coral islands in the Pacific.
The inverted pyramid ecosystem, dominated by top predators, a gray reef
shark in this photo, and very few other fish. The photo was taken at
Kingman Reef, an uninhabited, virtually undisturbed ecosystem. This too
is a tropical paradise, but not one that was expected.
From Explorations: Magazine of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
How Important Are Fisheries to the Economy of
Fisheries are not very valuable. For the entire United States, the total
value of fish landed was only about 4% of the total value of livestock
and poultry raised on land. For Texas, the total value of fish landed
was $0.19B in 1999 according to
the Texas Almanac (page 124) while total cash receipts for livestock
and products was $8.4B in 1999 (same, page 603). Thus for Texas the value
of fish from the ocean was about 2.3% of the value of livestock from
In 2006, the total weight of all fish caught in US waters was 4,308,523
metric tons, worth $4.0 billion dollars. In Texas, the values were 53,130
metric tons worth $0.2 billion dollars. The NOAA Fisheries
Statistics Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
has automated data summary programs that anyone can use to rapidly and
easily summarize U.S. commercial fisheries landings.
Recreational fisheries are far more important. Recreational fishers
caught 100,925 metric tons of fish in 2006. While this is only 2.3% of
the commercial harvest, the large number of fishers,
their use of hotels and restaurants in coastal areas, and their purchase
of gear, make important contributions to the coastal economy. 13 million
saltwater fishers made 89 million fishing trips and caught 475 million
fish in 2006.
Every year, more than 12 million Americans
enjoy wetting a line in our oceans and along our coasts. More than
just a traditional American pastime and contributor to conservation,
saltwater recreational fishing is a major economic driver generating
more than $30 billion in economic impact and supporting nearly 350,000
Marine Fisheries Service.
How Many Can Now Be Caught?
The basic question is: How many fish can be harvested from the
sea? The answer is not simple. Some fish stocks are declining. Is the
decline due to over fishing? Is it due indirectly to fishing for other
types of fish? Or is it due to the natural variability of the stock?
If it is due to over fishing, what can be done? Reduce the number of
ships? Limit the fishing season?
Because the answers are somewhat fuzzy, fishery regulatory bodies always
err on the side of over fishing. In most instances, the regulatory
bodies have ignored scientific advice.
Who Regulates Fishing?
In the United States, states regulate fishing from the coast out to
3 nautical miles, except Texas and West Florida, who regulate fishing
to 9 nautical miles. The federal government regulates fishing from 3
nautical (or 9 nautical miles) to the outer limit of the Exclusive Economic
Zone, 200 nautical miles. See the web page on the Coastal
Unfortunately, no one is in charge.
Over 20 federal agencies operating under
dozens of laws regulate activities, support ocean-based commerce,
and protect marine species and habitats in the territorial sea and
EEZ. These agencies separately manage parts of marine ecosystems,
without any systematic effort to coordinate their actions for the
From Turnipseed et al (2009).
A cacophony of activities, most regulated
by separate federal agencies, crowd ocean waters in the Gulf of Maine.
A federal public trust doctrine extended to all U.S. ocean waters would
identify these agencies as trustees of the U.S. ocean public trust,
unifying them for the first time under a common mandate to manage marine
resources sustainably. LNG, liquified natural gas; OPAREAs, Operating
From Turnipseed et al (2009).
In international waters, beyond 200 nautical miles, some fisheries are
regulated by international treaty organizations such as the International
Commission for the
Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which has attempted, with little
to regulate the bluefin tuna catch in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
The Inter American Tropical
Tuna Commission has been almost as unsuccessful regulating tuna fishing
in the eastern Pacific, from the American coast to 150°W and from
50°S to 50°N.
Unfortunately, illegal fishing is very common, and many fish stocks
are not regulated.
On a standard 5-7 week fishing trip these poachers might expect to
take anything from 500 to 800 tonnes . You're talking about several
million dollars worth of fish for a month's fishing, which means that
you can pay off a boat in a week or two.
From Television Trust for the Environment Earth
The rogue fishing vessel Viarsa 1 fleeing
the Australian Fisheries and Customs patrol vessel Southern
Supporter after it was found fishing
illegally in Australia's sub-Antarctic waters. The ship was captured
after a 20-day chase through high seas as the ship tried to return
at maximum speed to Uruguay. The chase was documented in the best-selling
book Hooked: Pirates,
Poaching and the Perfect Fish by Bruce Knecht.
Photo from Coalition
of Legal Toothfish Operators.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and its adverse impacts
national and regional efforts to manage fisheries in a long-term sustainable
manner, is one of the main problems facing capture fisheries.
From State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006, Food and Agriculture
Benchley, P. (2002). Cuba reefs: a last Caribbean refuge. National
Geographic Magazine. 201: 44–65.
Jackson, J. B. C., M. X. Kirby, et al. (2001). Historical Overfishing
and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems. Science 293
Kurlansky, M. (1997). Cod: A Biography of the
Fish That Changed the World. New York, Penguin Books.
Turnipseed, M., L. B. Crowder, et al. (2009). OCEANS:
Legal Bedrock for Rebuilding America's Ocean Ecosystems. Science 324
16 April, 2009