Commercial Fishing and Fish Populations

There is neither adequate understanding of ocean ecology nor an effective means of regulation to justify restrictions on commercial fishing.

Ponder this:

  • Can we afford to wait for absolute certainty before addressing the issue of depleted fish populations?
  • What s the relationship between “overfishing” and global warming, another “theory” that was long resisted?
  • Can we rely on market forces to push fishermen into aquaculture? Or is government regulation needed?
  • Has the United Nations proved to be an effective body to regulate sovereign nations?

The term “overfishing” implies that the reasons for the reduction in catches by commercial fishermen are known. It ignores other possibilities that may yield the same effect, such as changes in ocean temperatures. If fishing fleets can no longer catch enough fish to make their operations feasible they are likely to stop going to sea or adopt other practices. One such practice is “aquaculture”-raising fish in areas confined by huge nets, similar to raising domesticated cattle inside fenced-in ranches. A rush to regulate fishing needs to wait for a clearer understanding of what is affecting fish populations, and an effective international agency to monitor activities in international waters.

No one is better positioned to understand the issue of overfishing than commercial fishermen. The problem, in short, is that the size of fish catches in some regions of the world’s oceans, notably the North Atlantic, has been dropping for years. By the same token, no one is better positioned to address this problem than the fishermen whose livelihoods and businesses are threatened.

Over-fishing is a term that refers to a reduction in size of the catch of specific fish in parts of the world’s oceans. Insofar as there is no reliable census of how many fish live in the seas, the term may be a bit misleading as it attributes a cause to an observed phenomenon-the use of modern fishing techniques. By the same token, scientists have now discovered a measurable rise in levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans, akin to an increase in atmospheric CO2 levels that could possibly reduce the quantity of fish. A related possible cause of reduced fish population is change in ocean temperatures which, under some circumstances, can cause a rapid increase in the growth of algae. This, in turn, exhausts available nutrients in the sea and could cause a decline in the fish population. In 2007, scientists found a direct link between warmer water temperatures and lower oxygen availability, which causes fish to die and fewer fish to be spawned. In addition, scientists suspect the decreased oxygen may increase the competitiveness of predators, which further deplete the fish population.

Ownership and Regulation

Would limiting or restricting commercial fishermen from plying their trade restore fish populations? Even if the answer is “maybe”, a significant number of people would be forced to pay a huge price for a scientific guess.

There was a time when millions of people lived on the natural productivity of the earth-in the era of hunter-gatherers. That era has been replaced by the era of agriculture-deliberately planting crops, and raising animals for food in defined areas.

We have already seen the beginnings of a similar process at sea, in the new industry of aquaculture. Today, some species of fish-notably salmon-are raised on “farms.” These farms spawn fish in huge underwater enclosures – a system of fine-mesh nets – that form the equivalent of fenced farms on land.

Proposals to bar large nets used by commercial fishing fleets have already raised a fundamental question: Who owns the oceans? Traditional diplomacy says countries control waters 10, or 50, miles from their shores. Some nations have claimed 100-mile territorial limits, at least insofar as fishing is concerned. When entangling nets were banned in Florida, many fishing families were forced to retire from the fishing business and most families were no longer able to earn a living from fishing alone.

Is it likely that major fishing countries will go along with U.N.-sponsored measures? One example of the likely futility of this approach is the North Sea, where catches had fallen to virtually zero. A ban on fishing herring in the North Sea was imposed in 1977; it is still in effect. Nevertheless, in 1990, about 44,000 tons of herring were taken from the North Sea.

Two vital elements must be present before a ban or even strict regulation of fishing will be feasible: First, a better understanding and agreement about the ecology of the oceans. Second, willingness on the part of all fishing nations to observe and enforce restrictions. That day is not likely to arrive anytime in the near future.