Ocean fish, and independent fishermen, are threatened by overfishing.
By Carol Clark
Fishing for a living is tough, dangerous work. It’s easy to stereotype the rugged individuals who do it as callous exploiters of wildlife. But in the course of her research into New Zealand fisheries, Emory environmental studies professor Tracy Yandle has gotten a different picture.
“Most of the fisherman I've interviewed are wonderful guys who care about their resources and the sea,” Yandle says.
One told her about setting a net halfway across an inlet, only to return and find the net missing. His first thought was that someone had stolen it. “Then he looked across the harbor and saw a whale struggling, trying to make it out to sea with a net wrapped around its tail,” Yandle says. “The fisherman took off in a tiny boat with an outboard motor, caught up to the whale and managed to hack off the net. He described it as the greatest day in his life, to rescue this huge whale.”
But independent fishermen, like many of their catches, are becoming endangered. Both are the victims of overfishing, as the world appetite for fish keeps growing, and the technology to do mass harvests from the sea keeps improving.
“Fish is a vital food source, and fishing is an important way of life for many poor, rural communities,” Yandle says. “As we lose fisheries, there is going to be a lot of human suffering.”
She cites the collapse of the Atlantic cod industry in Newfoundland during the 1990s as one example of how large-scale fishing techniques can decimate a local way of life.
In the 1980s, New Zealand’s orange roughy stocks came close to crashing, as large trawlers and massive nets replaced smaller-scale fishing methods. “I interviewed some guys who said they were hauling in so much fish, the engines were having trouble getting the nets up onto the boats,” Yandle says.
The New Zealand government moved quickly to limit catches and prevent a collapse, but the orange roughy populations have yet to fully recover.
Yandle is analyzing data going back to 1986 from New Zealand, to track how changes in regulatory policies are affecting fisheries there. New Zealand is one of the only systems in the world that privatized to allow fishermen to buy and sell the rights to catch a certain amount.
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At the global level, the problem of overfishing, much like climate change, is at a tipping point, Yandle says. Large predator fish are particularly at risk, according to a panel of experts during the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“Think of it like the Serengeti, with lions and the antelopes they feed on,” panelist Villy Christensen of the University of British Columba was quoted by the Washington Post. “When all the lions are gone, there will be antelopes everywhere. Our oceans are losing their lions and pretty soon will have nothing but antelopes.”
Consumers can help by choosing sustainable fish from supermarkets and menus. Yandle recommends this link to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which gives a pocket guide to ocean-friendly seafood choices, and also lists the ones to avoid.
“I think awareness of the problem is growing,” Yandle says. “People used to ask me which fish they should avoid because of high mercury levels. Now they more often ask about fish they should avoid due to ethical concerns.”
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