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The Toll of Industrial Fishing Our Endangered Ocean

Our Endangered Ocean

by TODD STEINER

Last month another major warning flag on the state of our oceans was hoisted when Canadian scientists reported that 90 percent of the world’s big fish have disappeared from the seas. Their study found that the largest and some of the most economically important species of fish had been wiped out in the past 50 years by industrialized fishing, in particular, by a fishing method known as longlining.

This study follows another that was presented in February at the U.S.’s most prestigious scientific meeting, the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Duke University professor Dr. Larry Crowder. Crowder reported that industrialized longlining was driving many non-target species toward extinction as well, including the Pacific leatherback sea turtles and some species of seabirds. Collectively, all these marine species are critical to ecosystem dynamics, but are viewed as expendable by an international fishing industry that seeks to maximize short-term profits without taking into account the tremendous environmental costs of their practices.

For example, the pelagic longline industry sets over 5 million baited hooks every day (almost 2 billion annually). The lines used in longlining can be up to 60 miles long with more than 2,000 hooks on each line. These lines catch anything that bites or is unfortunate enough to get hooked while swimming in its path. Not coincidentally, in the past two decades, as longlining has increased, the number of Pacific leatherback sea turtle females that have safely returned from the oceans to their nesting sites has dropped dramatically by over 90%. The international community came together to ban destructive industrial fishing in the past, and it now needs to push for similar action. In 1993, the U.N. banned drift-net fishing on the high seas. The nets had caused a similar crisis at sea, drowning hundreds of thousands of dolphins and other marine species. Unfortunately, after the U.N. ban on this practice, many of these vessels replaced their drift nets with longlines and gill nets.

The endangerment of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle will be just the first in a host of crises if unsustainable fishing practices are not addressed. If we allow the commercial fishing industry to pursue short-term profit without concern for the long-term costs to society, we will see a greater decline in fishery stocks and biodiversity. For that reason, we urge the U.N. to fend off efforts to derail environmental agreements, and institute an international moratorium on pelagic longline and gill-net fishing in the Pacific that harm or kill endangered or threatened marine species.

Hundreds of prominent marine scientists and nongovernmental organizations from more than 50 nations have joined the effort to ban this type of fishing by signing a letter calling for the U.N. moratorium. Broad support from marine experts should send a clear signal to the Bush administration that it needs to rise to the challenge of creating more sustainable global marine policies.

To be sure, promoting a greater level of responsibility and accountability in the world’s fisheries requires determined international leadership, but the consumer has a role as well. Many of the big fish being wiped out by industrial longlining, such as swordfish, sharks and tuna are top-of-the-food-chain predators that have bioaccumulated poisonous mercury in their flesh. The mercury levels in these fish are so high that the FDA and EPA have recommended that women of child-bearing age and children simply not eat these species to protect their health. In California, supermarkets and restaurants are obligated to post warnings about eating these species under Prop 65 Toxics Right to Know Law.

By taking swordfish, tuna and shark off our menus, and demanding that seafood restaurants and retailers provide sustainable seafood choices, we can save the leatherback sea turtle and other marine species from the jaws of industrial fishing fleets. Our choices will reduce demand and send the message to the Bush Administration and the fishing industry that we demand protection of the health of our oceans and of the people who inhabit this planet.

TODD STEINER is director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network; an environmental organization working to protect endangered marine wildlife and the ocean ecosystems on which we all depend.