A number of things happened this month to make me more aware of what's going on in the mad, mad world of fisheries management. For starters, both the National Geographic and the Scientific American came out with lead stories on the sad state of fish stocks around the world (see "Diminishing Returns: Exploiting the Ocean's Bounty in the Geographic, and "The World's Imperiled Fish in SA).
The message you get from these two articles is gripping and tragic. Annual harvests worldwide have increased four-fold since 1950. But investment in new equipment has been at twice the rate of catch increase, so that higher and higher technology vessels are seeking fewer and fewer fish. Overall, world catch peaked in 1989, and has steadily declined. The biggest losers have been the traditional and artisanal fisheries that supply local markets in the Third World, and their losses to the highly capitalized commercial fleets began long before the peak was reached.
At this point, the Indian Ocean is the only major ocean fishery where catches are on the increase. In the Atlantic, the peak was reached in the '70s and '80s, and from then until 1992 the catch has dropped between 12 percent and 52 percent, depending on the sub-region. In the Mediterranean, the peak was reached in 1988, and fell 25 percent from then until 1992. In the Pacific, catches topped out in the '80s and early '90s, and have since dropped between 3 percent and 32 percent. What's interesting is how recently this phenomenon has occurred. I can remember the warnings being sounded 15 and 20 years ago; it isn't as though folks didn't know this was going to happen. We didn't have the institutional means or the political will to take steps.
Two common elements are government subsidies and overinvestment in boats, equipment and technology. Just this week, NOAA put out a press release about how previously classified maps of the ocean floor were now available to help ocean-going trawlers find the best locations for fish is just what we don't need! There's pretty good consensus that what is needed now are ways to cut back on the numbers of boats and fishermen in the international trade (interestingly, the only example given in the Scientific American article of a way to limit the abuses of new technologies was our own Chesapeake Bay oyster skipjack fishery). One cited study noted that to catch $70 billion of fish worldwide in a recent year actually cost $124 billion, with most of the $54 billion difference being subsidies of different types.
One interesting result of the downturn has been the growth of the aqua culture industry. Close to half of salmon, half of shrimp and more than half of freshwater fish consumption in the world is already farmed fish. But this has brought its own problems. Mangrove destruction to build ponds in tropical areas has depleted habitat for wild species, left the cultured species susceptible to viruses and removed the basis for local subsistence fisheries.
The return of world fish stocks will be a long-term effort, even assuming there is a will to begin the job. But the benefits could be considerable. One study of the United States shows that if all stocks under our control were allowed to rebuild to their full fishery potential, it would add $8 billion and 300,000 jobs to our economy.
A related piece of good news this month was the passage by the House of the reauthorization of the basic U.S. fisheries law, the Magnuson Act. The new provisions encourage nationwide a number of things we are trying to do here in the Chesapeake with our own Baywide management plans. There is added emphasis on habitat protection. This is a difficult concept to write into the federal fishery management plans, which generally take effect only beyond three miles. But here in the Bay our habitat and our fisheries are intertwined, and because our management plans are signed by the appropriate governors, they can bring into play a variety of authorities that go beyond traditional fisheries management.
Particularly gratifying was the enactment by a vote of 304-113 of an amendment proposed by the Bay's own Rep. Wayne Gilchrest. This prevents the Federal Regional Fishery Management Councils from approving plans that delay efforts to return depleted fisheries to healthy levels in the name of social, economic or ecological needs. As laudatory as such needs may seem, they have been invoked time and again to prevent the very actions that would allow them to be attained.
Finally, this month also saw emergency action by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on shad. The Commission handles those species, such as shad, that move between the waters of two or more states or into federal waters. Many were hopeful that steps would be taken to start rebuilding shad, which are currently under a fishing moratorium in the Bay and are subject to an ocean intercept fishery by Maryland, Virginia and many other states. While Bay shad numbers are up, they seem to be heavily related to stocking, and not self-sustaining, populations.
An advisory panel had urged ocean and in-river curtailments until a revised plan is adopted, but the Commission made the less-than-bold decision to equire states to leave existing or more restrictive shad regulations in place.
This must be a first emergency regulation to do nothing; unless, of course, you can figure out how you leave in place a regulation more restrictive than the current one. What is sad about this for those of us in the Chesapeake is that the Bay Program is funding the development of the revised plan in order to speed it up; and the folks who were working on that had to be taken off it to prepare the options that were rejected when the Commission took this one-foot-on-the-boat-and-one-on-the-dock stance.
All of this makes the folks from Maryland and Virginia who are trying to deal with the blue crab situation in the Bay look like gentlemen and ladies, geniuses and scholars. When we look at how fisheries are going elsewhere, we should be proud of our accomplishments. We should also realize that if we don't get the job done, there are damn few out there who can help us.