The following op-ed by Carl Safina appeared in Newsday, July 9, 2009. For a full version, click here.
Will there always be another fish in the sea?
Carl Safina, a MacArthur fellow who lives in Setauket, is the president of Blue Ocean Institute. His most recent book is “Voyage of the Turtle.”
I grew up along the shores of Long Island and have wonderful childhood memories of standing in the shallow water of Jones Beach, holding my father’s hand and a butterfly net, catching minnows and putting them in buckets. From these local beginnings, my love of the sea and its creatures led me into scientific studies of fish and seabirds around the world.
The ocean, however, is changing. Everything humans do affect the waters of our world. From my research and a lifetime of recreational angling, I’ve witnessed the disturbingly rapid declines in tunas, sharks, marlin and other sea life. It’s an underwater version of the last buffalo hunt.
That’s why I’m so surprised that one of New York’s senators – and one with a reputation for conservation – would introduce a bill that’s bad for our oceans, the fish that live in them, and our coastal economies that depend on these fish.
In the United States, nearly a quarter of our commercially important ocean fish populations – such as cod, flounder, snapper and grouper – are severely depleted. This means that we’ve been taking these fish from the ocean much faster than they can reproduce. In some cases, they are nearing commercial extinction.
To help restore America’s ocean fisheries, in 2006 Congress reauthorized the law that governs our ocean fisheries – the Magnuson-Stevens Act – with requirements to end overfishing and strengthen directives to rebuild depleted fish populations within 10 years, if biologically possible.
Unfortunately, a bill sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2009, would allow fishery managers to delay rebuilding deadlines if they can point to a “positive rebuilding trend” or attribute declining fish populations to causes other than overfishing.
In other words, fishery managers could theoretically extend rebuilding deadlines indefinitely for dozens of fish populations, if the population grew by only one fish, or if they could point to an additional cause for a decline.
To put it bluntly, they could use just about any excuse to avoid letting fish populations recover. And that’s bad for everyone with an interest in fish and fishing.
While some fishermen and politicians claim that the 10-year rebuilding deadline is arbitrary, there was critical need behind the provision. From 1976 to 1996, fishery managers had the power – but not the requirement – to maintain and rebuild fish populations. But because of exactly the kinds of pressures now behind Schumer’s bill, managers presided over the overfishing and collapse that made the current requirements necessary. Schumer’s bill would take us back to this era of depletion.
In 1996, Congress utilized the input of fishery scientists who noted that most depleted fish populations could be rebuilt in five years. To minimize economic hardship, Congress gave fishery managers the flexibility to choose a 10-year rebuilding deadline, with further exceptions for populations biologically unable to rebuild in that time frame, or if an international agreement dictated otherwise.
In a study published in the journal Science in 2005, several co-authors and I found that the vast majority of depleted U.S. fish populations could be rebuilt within 10 years. Additionally, we found that continued overfishing and delaying rebuilding undermines diversity, risks ecosystem structure, reduces chances of recovery and increases economic costs. We’ve certainly learned the mistake of deregulating banking, and for similar reasons, now’s not the time to deregulate fishing.
The first time my dad took me fishing, I learned the most important lesson ever about fisheries management – you throw back the little ones to leave some for tomorrow. When fishery managers have focused on the main goal of allowing a depleted species to rebuild, we have indeed seen recovery in such important species as striped bass and bluefish in the Atlantic and king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico.
During decades of service, Schumer has championed numerous efforts to protect wildlife and wild places. But, this bill would unravel a decade and a half of hard-won progress in fisheries management.
Senator, please throw back this bill.