Fish need time to recover

January 13, 2006
Recently, I wrote about a sea change I feel I’ve seen in our understanding of humanity’s relationship to the environment. I said I thought society might have turned a corner. That we’re beginning to understand how critical our relationship is to the natural world because we are a part of that world and very much dependent on its resources.
Perhaps I spoke too soon.

Just before Christmas, the European Union Fisheries Council caved in to pressure to continue to allow a sizeable cod fishery in Europe’s North Atlantic. The fisheries ministers made their decision in spite of a recommendation from scientists with the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas to ban all cod fishing in the North Sea so stocks can recover.
Scientists say cod stocks are so low only a complete ban will save them. Reduced fishing quotas have not been effective and fish numbers are at levels less than one third the size necessary to keep the species healthy and provide a small buffer against others pressures, such as warming ocean waters. It was the fourth year in a row that scientists had recommended a ban. And the forth year in a row they were ignored.
Commercial fishing is now so efficient that it may only take a few years of exploiting a particular stock for levels to plummet. According to a new study published in the journal Nature, for example, five species of deepwater fish found in Canadian waters are now critically endangered, even though they were not even fished until the late 1970s. In fact, it took only between five and 15 years for the fish to lose up to 98 per cent of their initial abundance.
The deepwater fish studied, including the roundnose grenadier, the blue hake, the spiny eel and the spinytail skate are long lived, but slow to reproduce. As a result, they are especially vulnerable to overfishing. Some, like the spinytail skate, have never even been targeted by a commercial fishery. Rather, they were taken as bycatch while fishermen sought other species. And yet they were still decimated.
Clearly there is a tremendous gap between the way scientists say fisheries should be managed and how fisheries are actually being managed. Yet studies have shown that good management pays off in the long term. One study, reported last week in the journal Science, revealed marine reserves in the Caribbean (areas where fishing is prohibited) were actually more successful than anticipated at allowing ecosystems to recover. Fish stocks can indeed rebound if poor practices are caught in time and stocks are protected with sound management.
Coastal communities that rely on fishing are understandably concerned about reduced fishing quotas and fishing bans. But if the choice is between a few more years of poor fishing seasons leading to the total loss of the resource, or a temporary ban that gives stocks time to recover, the choice should be fairly clear.
Canada made the wrong choice with our cod stocks. Once plentiful, these fish provided Canadians with a vital source of protein and thousands of jobs. Today stocks are decimated and show no signs of recovery, in spite of having had a moratorium on fishing since 1992.
Canada failed to listen to warnings that the cod were in trouble. Instead, we put on our blinkers, continued to fish, and hoped for the best. But wishful thinking does not make for good fisheries management. We must hope our European friends learn that lesson before it is too late.

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