In “Fishing Gear Is Altered to Ease Collateral Costs to Marine Life” (NYT, August 22), the author leads with the happy-times palliative that “the hope [of environmental regulation] is to write rules that both industry and science can live with.” But it says nothing about what marine species can live with—which, in the end, is really the mission of responsible environmental stewardship. Ensuring fisheries and fishing practice that are sustainable in perpetuity—and thereby providing for both healthy ocean ecosystems and the livelihoods of those who harvest the marine bounty—is a policy that reasonable people on opposite sides of the issue of heavily-mechanized industrial fishing can agree upon. It’s just one that hasn’t been achieved.
Reaching this goal is incrementally more difficult when the fishing industry and the bureaucrats who regulate it haven’t properly framed the debate. Protection of endangered species such as sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and sea birds from the violence of by-kill is a laudable objective, but it misses the essential point: fisheries around the globe are collapsing at catastrophic rates. So the question isn’t one of developing rules that, in the detached and antiseptic language of industrial fishing spin-masters, “reduce incidental take of non-target species.” It is one of responsible ecosystem management of ocean resources.
This means moving to a public policy response beyond Advil strategies that mask the pain of a pernicious malady, but do nothing to treat its underlying cause. Technology—even effective measures such as circle hooks, weak hooks, net pingers and excluder devices—is not a panacea. When applied against the hard truths of endangered species predation, these efforts are a drop in the bucket of what is needed to first protect and then restore dwindling marine populations. For example, a ten-year study (1999-2008, Whoriskey et al ) of the Costa Rica’s Pacific mahi-mahi fishery found that circle hooks had a take rate for olive ridley sea turtles of “only” .9% (9 for every 1,000 hooks)…but the long-line industry sets over two billion hooks per annum. On a global basis, the estimated by-catch of endangered sea turtles alone is measured at as many as eight million animals (Wallace et at ). That's one dead or critically injured sea turtle for each person in New York City. Every year. For species whose individual populations are only tallied in the tens of millions to begin with, the unsustainability of technology-enabled longline fishing practices becomes as starkly evident as the answer. It isn’t better hooks. It’s fewer hooks.
As scientists and ocean activists, we support effective programs that reduce by-kill, especially of species of special concern (such as sea turtles and dolphins) as part of a broader policy framework. We join with many other scientists across numerous disciplines in calling for ecosystem management to protect marine biodiversity and use of the oceans. This call is on behalf of both current and future generations of humans who depend on the oceans, and all the animals who live in them.
Such a full-system response starts with understanding the marine ecosystem as an integrated whole. Destructive practices in one part of the ocean cannot be totally isolated from the rest of the system. The atrocities of over-fishing ripple out to other ocean zones as fleets move on from exhausted fisheries to more fecund waters, and cascade across to other species as the food chain collapses around a depleted keystone population. In this context, the best scientific data suggest that an all-ocean ecosystem management approach is the only effective response. Policy-makers and other stakeholders must commit to significant reductions in fishing, vast increases in no-fishing marine protected areas, strict international laws that govern the high-seas, and adequate at-sea enforcement.
We call on the New York Times to investigate the national failure to develop environmental policy that ensures responsible ecosystem management of ocean resources. We also call on the paper to publish both its findings related to the current crisis of oceans management, and the actions necessary to restore these essential marine resources to the health needed to support supplies of food fish for humans and the critically endangered species that play a vital role in the integrated marine ecosystem. Doing so won’t undo decades of reckless, all-kill fishing practices, restore depleted fishing stocks or reverse the near vertical crash trajectory of endangered species populations. Perhaps, however, it will re-frame the discussion in a way that accurately identifies the root problem, and lays the foundation for a collaborative solution--among all stakeholders--to stabilize ocean eco-systems and chart a path to recovery.