We're killing the oceans

By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 18, 2009

"You take a net, and you scrape it along the bottom to catch shrimp. In the process, everything else — all the little stuff that lives on the bottom, the sponges and the coral and all the habitat for baby animals — you wipe all that out. To catch one pound of shrimp, we might kill 12 pounds of other animals that get thrown back into the sea [dead] as by-catch.

"If we did that on land — to catch a single deer you go through the forest and kill all the raccoons and squirrels and skunks and everything that lives there — people would be outraged. Yet you can do it in the ocean and nobody cares."

The issue, says Skerry, "that people have never really wrapped their heads around, is that seafood is wildlife. There are animals like giant bluefin tuna that used to be very plentiful here in New England. These are animals that have no terrestrial counterpart: they continue to grow their entire life. If we weren't so good at catching them, there would be 30-year-old bluefin that weigh a ton."

Instead, "we're way too good at catching them. So their stocks have plummeted over 90 percent [globally] in just the last 30 years. They're on the verge of extinction. These are animals that cavemen painted on their walls, that Plato wrote about, wondering about their travels through the Earth's oceans. Yet we're wiping them out. We would never be allowed to kill all the lions and tigers and grizzly bears."

Globally, locally
Bluefin are in trouble all over the world, most notably in the European Union, but here in the northwestern Atlantic, too, where the Gulf of Maine bluefin has declined markedly in both quantity and condition. Luckily, there are a few success stories to offset those losses.

Often called "New England's own ocean," the Gulf of Maine is "widely regarded as being one of the 10 or 12 most productive marine ecosystems in the world," says John Annala, chief scientific officer at Portland's Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI). "Because of the currents, the freshwater runoff, and relatively high nutrient loading, because the contrast in the water temperature is so great between winter and summer, then we get these really good phytoplankton blooms in the spring and the autumn that really drive the productivity."

Commercial fleets started taking full advantage of that fecundity in the mid-20th century, with advanced automated trawlers, radar, sonar, and GPS fish finders. Moreover, the waters were open to all comers. "When foreign boats were allowed to fish in US waters, through about 1976," says Annala, "... a number [of stocks] were severely depleted."

As such, the industry has been struggling in recent years to come to grips with a problem that festered for too long— severely curtailing fishing quotas and limiting time at sea in order to help replenish those decimated species.

Some have been rebuilt, says Annala. "Hake, monkfish, mackerel, herring, bluefish. There have been quite a few success stories." That said, "some of the slower-growing species are not scheduled to be rebuilt until 2025 or sometimes as late as 2050."

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