Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One Reason Our Oceans Are Empty

Just reading in The Guardian that the European Union is finally trying to deal with the issue of by-catch. By-catch (or "discards" in the article) are the fish discarded by fish boats because the fish are of low commercial demand or the boat has no quota for catching the species. It is one of the unintended consequences of the quota system of fishing: no quota, you don't land the catch.
This is not to say that the fish are in any way no good or inedible. It is simply that if you are fishing, say, halibut, you don't want to land other fish with your catch; you only have quota to catch halibut. Rockfish, ling cod, whatever else gets swept up in your nets gets tossed back overboard.
The volume of by-catch is large--often up to fifty percent of the catch. We might like to think that if you're fishing coho, that coho is all you catch, but it's simply not the case. The problem is particularly difficult with trawlers--the nets tend to sweep up everything they can, leaving the sorting for the men on deck.
European Union commissioner Maria Damanaki brought forward a plan [.pdf] earlier this year to ban discards. Speaking in Brussels 03 May 2011, she said ;
"Legislators must establish a new legal framework that removes all compulsory discarding. We also need clear objectives and time limits. And the fishing industry should devise ways in which the fish they don't want, is simply not caught in the first place. Or if it is caught we can help them to build storage mechanisms, to wait for a better price."

The fishing industry is not onside. Anything that means landing less than the highest-priced catch means difficulty for the industry. The problem is, the public is no longer buying the reasons for by-catch. As Ms. Damanaki says:
"We live in a hungry world and we cannot keep a policy that obliges fishermen to throw away perfectly good food. Just look at the picture behind me showing fishermen throwing away big cod, because they ran out of quota. There is no way that we can explain this to the people on the street."
 In the UK, the arguments against by-catch disposal are being led by chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall , who has signed on over a half-million supporters to change the by-catch rules. And it's having an effect--sales of sustainably-fished varieties are up in the UK.

Here in North America, we too have similar rules about by-catch and also waste enormous amounts of fish.And in a world where the once full oceans are being rapidly converted into deserts--much like farmland is rapidly being converted to desert--we really can't afford this. As Greenpeace pointed out in 2008:
Bycatch also undermines the recovery of protected species. In the North Atlantic trawling is netting huge numbers of juvenile cod, undermining efforts at rebuilding decimated Atlantic cod stocks. For example on the Grand Banks, cod fishing is banned but in 2003 an estimated 90 per cent of the biomass was caught as bycatch in other groundfish fisheries. Our wild king salmon populations in the northeast Pacific are also suffering with about 160,000 fish being caught as bycatch in the Alaskan pollock fishery last year. This mass incidental catch resulted in a collapse of a subsistence fishery because not enough fish returned from the ocean to spawn.

The World Wildlife Fund is also concerned.  The Fisheries Council of Canada seems to think that things are well under control [.pdf], but How We Fish offers a .pdf brochure on all the things we don't know. And with our new government here in Canada, don't expect to see conservation on the agenda--which baffles me. One would think Conservatives would be wanting to conserve resources, it being right there in their name. Instead, look for maximum exploitation to be the order of the day.

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