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World Reports

Big fish are mostly gone

Our demand for large amounts of inexpensive fish is emptying the ocean.

It's common knowledge that we are running out of oil. What's not so well known is that we are also running out of big fish.

The harsh realization that catches of big fish – marlin, sharks, swordfish and tuna – are declining rapidly is beginning to sink in. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization considers about 75 percent of all fish fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted.

The crisis can be seen most extremely across the Pacific, the world's largest source of tuna, where catches are shrinking along with the average size of the fish. Today a 70 pound swordfish – which is too young to have even reproduced – is considered "a good sized fish" and can be legally landed in the US. Just a few short decades ago the same fish averaged 300-400 pounds and could be caught close to shore with a harpoon.

In the past two years, the Pacific has seen quotas, restrictions on catches, freezes on effort and even moratoriums. The US longline fleet had to shut down for the second half of 2005 in the Eastern Pacific. Japan and China were not far behind.

Just last December, the new international body with the unwieldy name Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission imposed a freeze on further efforts to catch bigeye and albacore. Throughout the Pacific, it is widely documented that these two species have recently joined the lucrative southern bluefin tuna on the overfished list. In fact, southern bluefin already has a step up on its cousins and is considered an endangered species by the World Conservation Union. Shameful shark finning has also caused numerous shark species to plummet as well and a few sharks such as the great white to be considered vulnerable to extinction.

All told, recent scientific reports document that the biomass of these large fish have declined by about 90 percent in the Pacific since 1950 – about the time that new technologies allowed us to fish further from shore for longer and catch more fish. Since then, technology has eviscerated those last areas of the ocean safe from us only because we were unable to reach them and stay there.

The recent announcement last month by the US government that yellowfin tuna is also being overfished in Pacific will undoubtedly send a shockwave throughout the US and the Pacific.

scientific illustration of a tuna

We are now faced with incontrovertible evidence that the lions and tigers of the sea – the ones we feed our children for lunch – are disappearing fast.

Imagine the day when cans of tuna, a staple food source for millions of Americans, can no longer be found. According to the warning signs that day may already be here.

That's bad news for the dozens of impoverished Pacific island nations that have leased their national waters for pennies on the dollar to foreign industrial longline vessels to catch and export their fish primarily to the US, Japan and the EU. For some of these nations, these meager licensing fees contribute as much as 70 percent of their GDP. When greed and waste finally leads to collapse of these fish, millions of people throughout the Pacific will sink even further into poverty. Canneries are already cutting their hours or even shutting down for want of fish. Stories of crews mutinying or being abandoned in foreign countries by captains who couldn't pay them abound.

The days of three cans of tuna for a $1, a vivid memory from my childhood, are long gone.

The way out of this crisis is to catch less and pay more while staying out of critical areas of the ocean. It only seems fair that the countries with the resources should receive a far larger share of their $2 billion a year resource and still have some of the big fish around to attract far more lucrative game fishing tourism. The US has taken the right step by restricting longline fishing for tuna in the Eastern Pacific and banning it on the West Coast. Now it's time to put the pressure on other countries to do the same.

Otherwise we may start having to add these fish to the endangered species list.

Robert Ovetz, PhD is the Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the US-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

   

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