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Something Fishy Going On

From Mainstream, Volume 29, Number 1, Spring 1998

Something Fishy Going On

By Barry Kent MacKay and Fran Stricker

There are 30 million species of animal in the world, and 99% of them live in the world's oceans. Yet close to 99% of animal protectionists' attention, compassion, and protective endeavor is paid to the l% that live on land. The few exceptions are marine mammals -- whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and others -- warm-blooded, demonstrably intelligent, forming social bonds. Despite the horrid abuses we heap on them, they are enough like us fellow mammals to attract efforts to cherish and protect them.

However, of the remainder of marine life -- even if we delete the huge majority who have rather poorly developed nervous systems and subsequent intellectual capability, or who simply lack central nervous systems altogether so perhaps we need not worry that they suffer -- we are certainly left with one group that receives very little attention from the animal protection movement.


Fish feel pain. Whatever their intellectual limitations, they are most certainly capable of suffering. And they do so by the multi-billions in the interest of producing profits for humans.

Most fish species produce huge numbers of young to offset correspondingly high natural mortality rates. Species with such high "recruitment rates" -- of millions of eggs, only a handful will produce fish that survive to sexual maturity -- are noted for their ability to "bounce back" from extremely low numbers. Put simply, the more you remove from the population, the greater the survival potential for those that survive, thus "overfishing" is unlikely to be a problem. Indeed, some species, such as the herring, have been considered by fishery biologists to be immune to endangerment through overfishing.

But they are not. At least 60% of the world's 200 most commercially valuable fish species are either overfished or fished to the limit. Fish stock after fish stock has plummeted into precipitous decline. Our insatiable appetite for neatly packaged fish sticks at the supermarket, for salmon sandwiches, fish and chips, swordfish steaks, tunafish catfood, pizza with anchovies, and genuine sushi has taken a fearful and continuing toll. Tempers grow thin as, far too late, governments seek to implement protective measures. As countries compete for dwindling international stocks on the open seas, each blames the other for the declines.

Thank Cod for Boston

Origins of the problems are complex, and perhaps best illustrated by the plight of the northern cod stocks of the Northwest Atlantic fishery. "King Cod," the fish that "built" Boston, was unimaginably abundant when Europeans first reached our Atlantic coast, about 1,000 years ago. In 1497, John Cabot described the seas over the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland, as so "swarming with fish [that theyl could be taken not only with a net but in baskets let down [and weighted] with stone."

Closing the cod fishery throughout most of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1992 delivered a severe economic blow to a remote and harsh area of chronic low employment opportunity (see "Blood and Retribution on Ice," Mainstream, Fall 1996). After such abundance, how could this come about?

The Canadian government has blamed seals, Spanish fishermen, and climate changes, but the simple answer is greed.

In New Scientist, September 16, 1995, Deborah MacKenzie summarized "the disaster of the Grand Banks" as "a compendium of the mistakes being made by fisheries all over the world." In blunt detail she related that "when scientists began to manage the Banks in the 1950s, they promised to assign 'safe' quotas to Canadian and foreign fleets. They failed."

They failed because the scientists' data were inaccurate -- taken from random samplings, whereas the commercial fleets went directly to where they knew the cod would congregate -- and they would not abandon the basis of their theories on how quickly the cod would recover their populations. The cod catch continued to fall, from 810,000 tonnes in 1968 (in the United States, a "ton"is 2,000 pounds; in most of the rest of the world, a "tonne" is l million grams, or 1,000 kilograms, and is equivalent to 1.1 U.S. tons) to 150,000 tonnes by 1977. The "total allowable catch" (TAC), which scientific theory said should allow fish stocks to increase, and which was set by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) at about 16% of the fish population, never seemed to work. Despite enormous pressure from the big fishing companies to raise the TAC, DFO kept lowering the TAC, then in June 1992 "recommended banning fishing altogether," wrote MacKenzie. "Suddenly, the scientists realized there were no cod old enough to spawn left.

"By now the fishermen were worried too, and agreed to a fishing moratorium on the Bank and adjacent fisheries. In 1993, it was extended indefinitely."

Playing Politics

Since then media attention has belatedly focused on the role polities played in the disastrous decisions made by DFO. The politicians who ran DFO, intent on pleasing the powerful multinational corporate players in the fishing industry, ignored their scientists' decade-old warnings of over-fishing.

This destruction of one of the world's richest fisheries is not an isolated incident. It's the same the world over. Greed and increased use of sophisticated technology are the root of the problem. The oceans, which once seemed limitless, can no longer sustain the demands placed on them by market forces to provide fish, other marine life, and other resources.

Even when conservation is recognized, fisheries are impossible to manage. Fishermen have dumped numbers over quotas, or catches of protected species, rather than face fines for illegal catches. Catch sizes have been under-reported, or not reported at all in a high seas free-for-all.

Deep sea trawlers are particularly destructive. Huge nets are dragged across the sea floor, destroying breeding habitats and feeding grounds while sweeping up every living thing in their paths. This "mining of the oceans" damages ocean communities and disrupts complex food chains.

Factory ships process the catches at sea, with no need to interrupt the continuing slaughter. Sophisticated devices remove the guesswork. The fish have little opportunity to escape detection and subsequent destruction. Long floating nets, the notorious "drift nets" -- sometimes stretching 30 miles or more -- also catch and kill all species, indiscriminately.

The Price of a Shrimp Cocktail

The history of fishing is a history of waste. For example, in the North Atlantic a small fish called the capelin, one of several species that is a significant part of the food chain, eaten by whales, seabirds, and various larger fish species, occurs by the billions. Its numbers seem indestructible, such that fishermen used to simply dump them, or possibly use them as fertilizer. But with declines in other, more profitable fish stocks, markets have opened for this small but vitally important fish. Japan, a fish-eating nation with endlessly accelerating demands for seafood, expressed willingness to buy the roe (eggs) of the capelin. Fishermen complied, harvesting only the eggs, and discarding the rest of the females' bodies, plus, of course, all of the males.

Some researchers attribute recent epidemics of starvation of Atlantic puffins and other North Atlantic seabirds on a decline in capelin. The great schools of capelin, once thought to be inexhaustible, are no longer a dependable occurrence.

In far warmer waters, in the Gulf of Mexico, the red snapper population has been reduced not only by overfishing, but by the "incidental" catch of shrimp fishermen who kill and waste about 12 million young red snappers annually. It's been estimated that, for each pound of shrimp, shrimp fishermen catch about ten pounds of fish, most killed and discarded. Enjoy your shrimp cocktail -- it came at a formidable price.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 12 to 20 billion pounds of marine wildlife is caught and dumped each year as a "bycatch." In that vast volume of waste are numerous dolphins, sea turtles, albatrosses, shearwaters, sea lions, and other non-fish species. The wasted bycatch is equivalent to 10 pounds of food for every person on Earth. The bycatch is not limited to fish. In the Bering Sea, the area with the world's highest bykill (9 million tonnes), in 1992 a discarded 16 million red king crabs exceeded the target catch of about 3 million.

The Plight of Tuna

Supply and demand has reduced by some 95% the population of one of the biggest and most valuable of all fish in the North Atlantic, the bluefin tuna. But as the fish become ever less common, the value per pound increases. In 1992, API was one of a group of organizations supporting a proposal to provide protection for the Atlantic bluefin under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Japanese were paying as much as $350 a pound. A single fish may weigh 1,500 pounds, so that a fisherman who hunts for a week or more where he once found many tuna each day, is paid enough by the high value of the kill. Tuna populations were reduced by more than 90%.

A Sweden-proposed restriction on blue fin tuna was brought to CITES, but the Conference of the Parties at which the proposal was to be considered was held in Kyoto, Japan -- the major market. Under intense behind-the-scenes pressure from Japan, as the main consumer, and the United States and Canada, as the producing companies, the proposal was withdrawn without the international debate that many of us felt was essential if the plight of the tuna was to be understood. In return the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) promised further restrictions on take, but the jury is out on whether this huge warm-blooded and spectacular fish will ever recover a semblance of its former abundance.

In 1994 the FAO's surveys showed that of the world's 17 leading fishing grounds, 13 were depleted or in severe decline. Shortly afterward Norway and Iceland fell into bitter dispute over access to fisheries around the Arctic archipelago of Svlaboard. Norway fired warning shots and cut the nets of Icelandic trawlers, who eventually were forced to leave. And it was reported from the vast inland Black Sea of Asia Minor, that of the 26 fish species historically caught in the Black Sea, only 5 remained. In less than a decade fish catch had gone from 700,000 tons per year to 100,000. Here it was not just overfishing, but massive pollution generated by the 160 million people living in the Black Sea drainage that had contributed to the destruction.

In the fall of 1996 at the Conservation Congress in Montreal, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that the bluefin tuna was in the same category of risk as the great whales and the rhinos, and included the Atlantic cod and the haddock as species at risk of extinction. The southern bluefin tuna was listed as "critically" endangered, while the northern bluefin tuna was listed as endangered. Other species from the eastern Atlantic listed as endangered included the basking shark, the porbeagle, and the swordfish. Cod and haddock were listed as "vulnerable," the lowest category of endangerment used by the IUCN, on the basis of sharp declines that the fishing industry insists on considering to be of no long term consequence.

Salmon in Decline

Among the most famous North American fish declines are the losses in west coast salmonids. Overfishing is again a culprit, but not the only one. The salt water salmon breed in fresh water streams and the newly hatched baby salmon make their way downstream to the sea, where they spend several years growing to sexual maturity. In a final act the mature fish then make the perilous trip back upstream to the place of their birth, to reproduce and die.

But dams block the spawning salmon, and logging practices fill those streams with pollution and debris hazardous to the fish or leave fragile eggs exposed to harmful levels of sunlight. Agricultural runoff invariably makes its way to inland river systems. And, of course, there are the fishermen. Salmon numbers are in serious decline.

The collapse of the chinook salmon fishery in Georgia Strait, where Canadian and U.S. fishing zones overlap in disputed territory, was predicted by DFO ten years before it actually happened. Between 1970 and 1989, American fishermen saw significant declines in yellow croaker, Pacific perch, mackerel, herring, and redfish, in those same years, the overall catch of Cape hake, silver hake, haddock, and northern cod dropped by one half.

While Alaskan and Canadian fishermen squabble, scientists document severe decline in Pacific pollock, which somewhat resembles a scaled-down version of the cod. This decline in a major source of food for other wildlife is considered largely responsible for a serious decline in Steller's sea lions and various northern Pacific seabird species.

California's sardine industry collapsed in the 1940s, followed by salmon in the 1970s and '80s. Unless drastic steps are taken, the state will lose its last great marine fishery -- rockfish. A collective term for 83 species of groundfish (they tend to be found along the ocean bottom), rockfish represent 50-60% of the total value of California's annual commercial fish harvest. To prevent further declines, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed in January 1998 that fishermen reduce their catches by up to 65%. Even then it may take 30 to 40 years for some of the most hard-hit species to rebound to healthy levels.

Attacks on Sharks

In the late 1980s, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported that sharks in U.S. Atlantic waters were being caught 40% faster than they could reproduce. About 90% of the sharks caught by fishermen seeking swordfish, tuna, shrimp, or squid were wasted. Recently sharks have become not merely a "bycatch," but the target of new markets for shark cartilage as a health food supplement. Even with the growing value of shark products, the waste of commercial fishing means about 6 million sharks are discarded each year, approximately half the total catch.

Unlike many other fish, sharks have slow growth and low reproductive rates, despite their importance to the integrity of marine ecosystems as top predators. And there has been an explosive growth in demand for shark products. Sharkfin soup is a delicacy in Asian cuisine. Spiny dogfish are widely used in biological research and have long been a mainstay in teaching shark anatomy. But sharks inhabit a threatened environment and sometimes are faced with dwindling food stocks, and the situation is critical. On top of all that, sharks are actively disliked by many people, even though most species are harmless to humans.

The Asian taste for fish is also blamed on a worldwide decline in seahorse and pipefish. These delicate creatures, so charming to observe, are sought for medicinal purposes and sold in volume as dried bodies in shops catering to the trade in such products not only throughout Asia, but in major cities around the world.

Water Fresh and Foul

Not only are sea fish at risk. The Great Lakes, collectively the largest body of fresh water in the world, have a disastrous record of fish depletion and industrial pollution. Several fish species have become extinct, such as the beautiful blue walleye, which was found only in the lower Great Lakes until one day fishermen noticed that there were none left.

Even the yellow perch, long a mainstay of the Great Lakes fishery, is rapidly disappearing, with fishermen, of course, sometimes blaming cormorants. In 1996 the only commercial fisherman with a boat in service at Erie, Pennsylvania, reported his total catch of white fish at 1. The same fisherman had once netted 150,000 pounds of whitefish in a year.

Erie once was port to 140 fishing boats. In 1994, far too late as usual, Pennsylvania banned gill nets in Lake Erie. One fisherman pointed out that it took 234 years to kill Erie's fishing industry. How many fish Erie's fishing industry killed in those 234 years was not mentioned, but "too many" is certainly an obvious answer.

Indifferent Cruelty

Fish rarely prompt welfare concerns. Indeed, the purpose of sport fishing is, in large measure, to torture an animal by putting a hook through her mouth, fighting her to exhaustion, and then killing her by asphyxiation, neck-breaking, a blow to the head, or by evisceration. Spear fishing, as the name implies, produces entertainment by impaling an animal through the body. No less than bullfighting, in sport angling the animal is first abused and then killed. It may be argued that the suffering of the fish is mitigated if she is caught to be eaten, but then the fish is not only tormented, but killed. On the other hand, in the increasingly popular "catch-and-release" form of sport angling, the sole purpose of the exercise is the abuse of the fish. Many anglers knowingly catch fish rendered inedible by virtue of toxins that have built up in their bodies.

But as callous as sport fishing may be, the accumulative effect pales in comparison to commercial fishing. "Shark-finning" is the name given to the all too common practice of catching live sharks, cutting off their fins, and then dumping the animal back into the sea, to die from asphyxiation and stress, unable to swim and thus allow water to flow past the gills. Routinely fish are killed in uncounted billions by compression, as they are slowly squeezed to death in ever-tightening nets; by very slow asphyxiation, as they are held motionless in nets so that water does not flow past their gills or as they are simply pulled by the sea and dumped onto decks or into ship holds, their flopping quite ignored; by decompression, as they are pulled up from the pressures of the depths faster than their bodies can adjust to, or by being gutted alive. This is done to fish in volumes measured in metric tonnes, with no thought of the suffering imposed.

On average most bony fish -- the group to which most species belong in distinction to sharks and rays -- have high natural mortalities associated with high recruitment rates, but obviously the imposition of human demand has far exceeded even the natural rates of mortality. Yes, the fish will die anyway, an argument that seems no more justified when applied to the abuse of fish than when applied to other species.

In the Depths of Misery

Because they are unseen, hidden from our awareness by the reflective surface of their aquatic home, we spend little time thinking about our effects on fish. Approximately 3.6 billion people, more than half the world's human population, lives within 100 miles of the coast. And nearly all of the 5 billion-plus of us now living depend on technologies that generate voluminous waste, much of it toxic and most of which ultimately makes its way down to the waterways and the seas. The rivers, lakes, and oceans are vast dumping grounds fed by rivers that have become sewers for our civilization. Dr JoAnn Burkholder of North Carolina State University said, "It's hard to imagine that farming on land and building in cities could harm the marine environment and fishermen, but it does. The tons of sewage produced by millions of people don't just go away when we flush ... a lot of it winds up in our coastal waters. And construction, agriculture and logging send clouds of choking sediments and excess nutrients into marine waters, smothering sensitive habitats. What we do on land profoundly affects life in the sea."

Food chains fundamental to fish survival often originate in complex shoreline marshes, mangrove swamps, and other habitats continually degraded and destroyed in the interest of short-term economic gain. Coral reefs, also fundamental as homes to numerous marine organisms and nurseries harboring the beginnings of various elaborate food chains that support so many more forms of wildlife, and humans, are being destroyed by siltation, pollution, and destruction for harbors and marinas. Indeed, corals are being lost directly to the aquarium trade in response to market demand for "living rock." The fresh water that flows from the land becomes ever less as demands for irrigation siphon it off, altering salinity levels in the nearshore waters. The mighty Colorado River, carver of the Grand Canyon, is just about entirely used up by the time it reaches the Sea of Cortez.

Fish die by the millions as a direct result of agricultural runoff, one form of food production destroying another. Non-native species are often intentionally or accidentally introduced, to compete with and often destroy the specialized native species and fracture delicately balanced interrelationships forming unique ecosystems.

It has been estimated that about half the species of fish in some drainages in North America are not native. Certainly in the Great Lakes the demise of our local fish is disguised by government agencies dumping in endless quantities of non-native fish. The steelhead salmon, brown trout, collo salmon, and other species may amuse fishermen and generate revenue in highly touted fishing derbies, but they do not represent self-sustaining populations and they do compete with reduced numbers of native species, such as the lake trout. The latter is already hard hit by overfishing, and by the unintended introduction of the sea lamprey, which made its way into the Great Lakes when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened a direct and easily navigated path to its native ocean home. The sea lamprey attaches to the trout and lives off the larger fish's bodily fluids, until the trout dies. Lamprey control involves uses of poisons and electric shocking.

Many non-native fish introductions derive from escaped bait fish species. Some apparently reach foreign waters by way of water stored as ballast in large ships.

Is It Growing Warmer?

While tropical waters produce the greatest biodiversity, colder water contains more oxygen and thus, on average, far more fish. Global warming, with its ability to change currents and water patterns and to melt polar ice, which will raise water levels and decrease salinity, poses an overwhelming threat to fish stocks already hammered in so many other ways. We don't know what effect reduction in the ozone layer may have, but we do know that many ocean food chains begin with the phytoplankton that spends part of the day near the sea's surface, and that there is a risk that increased ultraviolet solar radiation could seriously affect these tiny organisms. Already there are reports from the higher latitudes of the southern hemisphere of whales suffering sunburn, presumably because of increased solar radiation. We can warn humans to wear sunblock and sunglasses, but we can't do that for the rest of the world's species.

These huge risks may seem beyond our ability to even understand, let alone control. But we can safely say that we are stressing both freshwater and marine environments beyond anything that makes sense either from the standpoint of the animals thus victimized, or our own self interests. We are ultimately no less dependent upon a healthy, viable environment than any other species. But still we continue, and something has to give. The fish, like so many other species, are what is giving ... what we are losing, as we so callously, and thoughtlessly, destroy them.

Space restrictions required that 3,000 words of the original draft of this article be cut. To read the original uncut version of this article, click here.

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