We're killing the oceans

By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 18, 2009

But he does tell a story with depressing implications. He remembers 30 or so years ago, when Maine's fish cutters went on strike. Consequently, his boat was grounded for about a week. "When we went back out, after just that one week off, some of the worst catches that day were like 10,000 pounds," he says. "Just massive, massive amounts of fish. Just a week off caused that to happen."

These days, he says, "the fleet is just a shadow of what it was, and has been for quite some time. Yet we're still not seeing any real recovery [in stocks]. So I don't know. Maybe there is some other factor involved?"

0911_oceans_main3
SCHOOL DAZED; Once prominent in New England waters, bluefin tuna stocks have plummeted more than 90 percent globally in the last 30 years, and have declined locally in both quality and quantity. They are now on the verge of extinction.

Watershed moment?
These are difficult issues facing the planet's waters. We're talking about three quarters of the Earth's surface — some corners of which still aren't well-explored. "All of these things are going on in varying degrees in varying places in the world's oceans," says Rothschild, "and they all have a different flavor to them."

And this part of the world, where the ocean is filled with so many species, and worth so much to so many, is especially tricky. "New England is the most difficult area in American fisheries," says Vanasse. "I think most everyone will tell you that."

Despite all this layered complexity, and the hard realities of climate change and overfishing, Rothschild says he's "optimistic" that a way forward can be found that strikes a sustainable balance between environmental and economic necessities.

Part of what's needed, he says, is a better grasp of climate change, and more finely tuned science "to help us understand why stocks go up and down, either in connection with fishing, which they do sometimes, and independent of fishing, which they do sometimes."

(Some scientists, he adds by way of example, are "coming to believe that the collapse of the northern cod has an important environmental component.")

Annala, too, is hopeful — at least when it comes to the Gulf of Maine. "Federal and state agencies are moving toward a much more holistic, ecosystem-based approach," he says. "This region is likely to be held up as the model area in the US as far as managing marine resources."

The question, then, is whether other parts of the country and the world will follow suit.

Skerry favors sweeping protections that, in truth, probably won't find much support. He's been allowed to photograph marine reserves in New Zealand that are completely off-limits: no commercial or sport fishing, no collecting by scientists. He'd like to see many more like them — perhaps covering 30 percent of the oceans.

Even without drastic protections like those, Skerry says the Obama administration's gestures and rhetoric so far have been encouraging. "They get it," he says. "They understand. But the unfortunate reality is there's so much on their plate right now. People's retirement money is vanished and they're losing their jobs and we're gonna send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan and there's terrorism . . . where do fish fall on that level of importance?"

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