Because fish have long been considered an important source of food, the fisheries were the first renewable resource to receive public attention in the United States. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has existed as such since 1970, but the original Office of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries was created over 100 years ago, signed into law in 1871 by President Ulysses S. Grant. This office was charged with the study of "the decrease of the food fishes of the seacoasts and lakes of the United States, and to suggest remedial measures." From the beginning, the federal fishery agency has been granted broad powers to study aquatic resources ranging from coastal shallow waters to offshore deep-water habitats.
Worldwide, humans get an average of 16% of their dietary animal protein from fish and shellfish. With human populations ever increasing, the demand for and marketing of seafood has steadily increased, rising over the last half of the twentieth century to a peak in 1994 of about 100 million tons (91 billion kg) per year. The current annual marine fish catch has fallen slightly to around 70 million tons (64 billion kg). The per capita world fish catch has been steadily declining since 1970 as human population growth outdistances fish harvests. Scientists have projected that, by 2020, the per capita consumption of ocean fish will be half of what it was in 1988.
To meet the demand for fish, the commercial fishing industry has expanded as well. There are currently about 13 million commercial fishermen in the world. About half of the fish are caught by the vast majority of fishers who use traditional methods. The remainder is harvested by industrial fishing crews, manning about 37,000 vessels that deploy highly innovative methods ranging from enormous nets to sonar and spotting planes. As a result, wild fish populations have been decimated.
In recent decades, the size of the industrial fishing fleet grew at twice the rate of the worldwide catch. The expansion in fishing may be coming to an end, however, as environmental, biological, and economic problems beset the fishing industry. As fish harvests decline, the numbers of jobs also decline. Governments have attempted to prop up the failing fisheries industry: in 1994, fishers worldwide spent $124 billion to catch fish valued at $70 billion, and the shortfall was covered by government subsidies. In recent decades, fishery imports have been one of the top five sources of the United States' trade deficit.
The commercial fisheries industry has contributed to its own problems by overfishing certain species to the point where those species' populations are too low to reproduce at a rate sufficient to replace the portion of their numbers lost to harvesting. Cod and haddock in the Atlantic Ocean, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and salmon and tuna in the Pacific Ocean have all fallen victim to overfishing. The case of the Peruvian anchovy represents a specific example of how several factors may work together to contribute to species decline. Fishing for anchovies began off the coast of Peru in the early 1950s, and, by the late 1960s, as their fishing fleet had grown exponentially, the catch of Peruvian anchovies made up about 20% of the world's annual commercial fish harvest. The Peruvian fishermen were already over-fishing the anchovies when meteorological conditions contributed to the problem: in 1972, a strong El Ni ño struck. This phenomenon is a natural but unpredictable warming of the normally cool waters that flow along Peru's coast. The entire food web of the region was altered as a result, and the Peruvian anchovy population plummeted, leading to the demise of Peru's anchovy fishing industry. Peru has made some economic recovery since then by harvesting other species.
Many of the world's major fishing areas have already been fished beyond their natural limits. Different approaches to the problem of overfishing are under consideration to help prevent the collapse of the world's fisheries. Georges Bank , once one of the most fertile fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, is now closed and is considered commercially extinct. This area underwent strict controls for scallop fishing in 1996, which proved to be a viable remedy for that species in that locale. The scallop population recovered within five years, reaching levels in excess of the original population, and parts of the bay could be re-opened for scallop fishing. But other species in Georges Bank continue to decline. Rapid and direct replenishment is not possible for slow-growing species that take years to reach maturity. For example, the black sea bass (Stereolepis gigas ), has a life span comparable to that of humans and adults typically grow to 500 lb (227 kg). The success of a 1982 ban on fishing the black sea bass off the coast of California became evident early this century when significant numbers of these young fish, already weighing as much as 200 lb (91 kg), appeared off the shores of Santa Barbara. Yet, full replenishment of the population remains years away.
Environmental problems also plague commercial fishing. Near-shore pollution has altered ecosystems, taking a heavy toll on all populations of fish and shellfish, not only those valued commercially. The collective actions of commercial fishermen also create some major environmental problems. The world's commercial fishermen annually catch and then discard about 20 billion lb (9 billion kg) of non-target species of sea life. In addition to fish and shellfish, each year about one million seabirds are caught and killed in fishermen's nets. On average more than 6,000 seals and sea lions , about 20,000 dolphins and other aquatic mammals, and thousands of sea turtles meet the same fate. It is estimated that the amount of fish discarded annually is about 25% of the reported catch, or about 20 million metric tons per year. Ecologically, two major problems arise from this massive disposal of organisms. One is the disruption of predator-prey ratios, and the other is the addition of a tremendous overload of organic waste to be dealt with in this ecosystem .
In 2001, a $1.6 billion gas pipeline that was proposed to be routed through neighboring waters from Nova Scotia to New Jersey, to be implemented as early as 2005, posed a new environmental threat to the Georges Bank area. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have lobbied the United States government to establish a marine habitat protection designation similar to wilderness areas and natural parks on land, to provide for the preservation of reefs, marine life, and underwater vegetation. In 2001, less than 1% of water resources worldwide had the protection of formal legislation to prevent exploitation.
Habitat destruction is serious environmental concern. Fish and other aquatic wildlife rely on the existence of high quality habitat for their survival, and loss of habitat is one of the most pressing environmental threats to shorelines, wetlands , and other aquatic habitats. Approaches to the protection of essential fish habitat include efforts to strengthen and vigorously enforce the Clean Water Act and other protective legislation for aquatic habitats, to develop and implement restoration plans for target regions, to make improved policy decisions based on technical knowledge about shoreline habitats, and to better educate the public on the importance of protecting and restoring habitat. A relatively new approach to habitat recovery is the habitat conservation plan (HCP), in which a multi-species ecosystem approach to habitat management is preferred over a reactive species-by-species plan. Strategies for fish recovery are complex, and, instead of numbers of fish of a given species, the HCP uses quality of habitat to measure the success of restoration and conservation efforts. Long-term situations such as the restoration of black sea bass serve to re-emphasize the importance of resisting the temptation to manage overfishing of single species while failing to address the survival of the ecosystem as a whole.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was passed in 1976 to regulate fisheries resources and fishing activities in Federal waters, those waters extending to the 200-mi (322-km) limit. The act recognizes that commercial fishing contributes to the food supply and is a major source of employment, contributing significantly to the economy of the Nation. However, it also recognizes that overfishing and habitat loss has led to the decline of certain species of fish to the point where their survival is threatened, resulting in a diminished capacity to support existing fishing levels. Further, international fishery agreements have not been effective in ending or preventing overfishing. Fishery resources are limited but renewable and can be conserved and maintained to continue to provide good yields. Also, the act supports the development of underused fisheries, such as bottom-dwelling fish near Alaska.
Another resource to sustain increases in seafood consumption is aquaculture , where commercial food-fish species are grown on fish farms. It is estimated that the amount of farm-raised fish has doubled in the past decade and that about 20% of the fish consumed worldwide is raised in captivity.
In the United States, as well as other nations, the commercial fisheries industry faces potential collapse. Severe restrictions and tight controls imposed by the international community may be the only means of salvaging even a portion of this valuable industry. It will be necessary for partnerships to be forged between scientists, fisherman, and the regulatory community to develop and implement measures toward maintaining a sustainable fishery.
[Eugene C Beckham ]
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