No Fish Story

Monday, November 20, 2006

FOR YEARS, scientists, environmentalists, responsible fishermen and others who care about the health of marine ecosystems have been warning about overfishing and other practices that destroy oceanic biodiversity. The message has been clear to anyone who cared to listen: Reform fishing rules or the oceans will die -- and sooner than you think. How soon? A new paper by a team of respected scientists estimates that unless policymakers take substantial steps to preserve marine biodiversity, the world will face "the global collapse of all taxa currently fished by the mid-21st century." Given how variably fisheries are managed, that may be too dire. Then again, it may not; in many countries, fisheries management is a disaster. And in many parts of this country, it's little better. A lot of fisheries have already collapsed. And destructive fishing practices continue as though the oceans represent a limitless supply, rather than a series of delicate ecosystems more easily destroyed than repaired.

The only good news in the new study, published in the journal Science, is that with most species, humans have not yet reached the point of no return and that sound fisheries management really does make a difference in preserving the sort of diversity that allows stocks to recover. There is no great mystery here. Fisheries managers who are disciplined about limiting the catch to what responsible science says an ecosystem can sustain marry environmentalism with the long-term economic health for fishing communities. It is no accident that Alaska's farsighted fisheries management council is both a leader in environmental stewardship and oversees the country's largest and most profitable fishing industry. These are ultimately the same thing, after all -- extinct fish being hard to catch. The challenge domestically is to get other regions to follow Alaska's lead and internationally to get countries bent on destructive fishing practices to adopt more sustainable models.

On the domestic front, Congress needs to reauthorize and improve the law that governs fisheries management. Both houses of Congress have bills that would do this; the Senate's is generally stronger. It is critical that the legislature quickly send a tough bill to President Bush that would bind fisheries managers to the best available science and provide strictly enforceable limits on the amount of fish taken from the seas. Internationally the Bush administration has been pushing for a ban on unregulated bottom trawling on the high seas. Bottom trawling, in which giant nets get raked along the sea floor, destroying ancient corals and other life forms in their paths, is one of the most ecologically destructive forms of fishing. Getting such a ban -- as well as international limitations on other destructive fishing practices -- would be a significant coup environmentally and would burnish the record of oceanic protection Mr. Bush established this year with his creation of a mammoth marine protected area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Responsible fisheries management is an issue that bends ideology. But it is one of the most pressing ecological concerns of our time. If policymakers fail to address it seriously, the oceans will become giant dead zones, and seafood will be a thing of the past.

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