19 Feb 2019 - Mark Kurlansky - We have arrived at a point where a fishery that could be saved simply by good management would be extremely fortunate. The abused ocean is having difficulty sustaining life.
Sustainable is an ever more complicated word. In the mid-1960s, when I was a kid working on commercial fishing boats in New England, the fishermen were constantly talking about the problem of over fishing. They were among the first to raise the issue. But they were primarily complaining about foreigners in their waters, especially Russians and Japanese. After 200-mile exclusions zones were declared by most countries in the 1970s, the problem of overfishing foreigners was solved. Then came a worse problem of overfishing local fishermen.
To be clear, the problem of overfishing is not a failure of fishermen, it is a failure of government. Fishermen fish and governments regulate. Management has been so faulty that fishermen have been talking about regulating themselves, which is an interesting possibility, but oversight would still be needed.
In 1994 when the most historically important fishery in the world collapsed, the northern cod stock on the Canadian Grand Banks, government started taking fishery management seriously, at least in the northern hemisphere. Exploitation of southern countries and the devastation of those previously only slightly fished waters became a major classically colonialist problem.
But in the north, particularly in North America and Europe, fishing became tightly regulated. One would imagine the fish coming back. But this has not happened. It’s turned out to be far more complicated than originally thought. To simply order fisherman to take fewer fish became a wasteful policy forcing fishermen to throw away their catch. Then came reduced efforts, limiting the number of days at sea, the size of nets, the power of engines. Closing down certain grounds for a number of years. Sometimes using a combination of these proved most successful.
There have been a few victories and a few improvements. Cod, we are told, has become once again abundant on the banks in the North Sea. But when the actual numbers are looked at, while they have increased, they are still at levels once considered disastrous, nowhere near the levels once considered natural. It is a problem that biologists call ‘shifting baselines’. We become accustomed to such low numbers that improvements that are far below what was once considered healthy are hailed as success. We are getting to a point where few people remember what it once was, and so the goals become obscured.
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