In late 2006, as the fight over the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management
Act was heating up, a "bombshell" was dropped on news media around the country: We were in danger of fishing the oceans empty.
The headlines screamed the oceans would be empty by 2048 if we didn't severely curtail fishing. And they screamed from every media imaginable: papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Television.
And even stately scientific journals picked up the sky-is-falling story and ran with it like they were being chased by a bear.
"Overfishing Could Take Seafood Off the Menu by 2048," read the headline in Scientific American on the article on the Boris Worm "study" that declared fishermen guilty without so much as an examination of his evidence against us.
The "study" was an "analysis" of data on catch rates — one later rebuked by his fellow scientists for its shoddy approach to choosing and abusing data (a classic case of you can make numbers mean whatever you want them to mean). But the damage was done. Fishermen were effectively painted in one big swath as greedy, uncaring, and selfishly pursuing a pastime that would leave future generations with nothing to see, and nothing to catch.
Ray Hilborn, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington went to great pains to explain the flimsiness of the arguments put forth by Worm. But the short attention spans of those who got sucked in by the screaming headlines had long moved past them to other things, and were no longer interested in the realities and complexities of fisheries science.
The result, of course, is that the inflamed public opinion and inflamed response by Congress led to the tightening of the collar on fishermen to the point where many simply gave up — especially those on the recreational side. Restrictions so tight that it made no sense to fish for certain species and others that left anglers so frustrated they began staying away has led fewer people to stand up for our fishing pasttime.
Hilborn has debunked the various myths that have led to the handcuffing of our industry on his blog, rayhblog.wordpress.com/myths/, but nearly 10 years later, we continue to see a push to close off access to fisheries and an insistence that overfishing is so pervasive and that our fisheries are in such trouble that these extreme measures are needed.
"Fisheries science has been the unfortunate victim of a number of myths that have become widely accepted but are patently untrue. These myths include: we are fishing down food chains; all large fish in the oceans are depleted by 90 percent; most of the worlds fisheries are overfished; all fish stocks will be collapsed by 2048," Hilborn wrote on his blog.
And he's right: A continued push by Pew Environment Trust-backed organizations led to the massive expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, an area of ocean around some minor islands held by the U.S. where fishing of all kinds is banned. The area to be protected is 490,000 square miles — three times the size of California.
The U.S. is "committed to protecting more of the world's ocean," Secretary of State John Kerry said when he announced the expansion of the marine protected zone.
"We need to put an end to overfishing by ensuring that every fish that makes it to market is caught legally in a way that’s reported and traceable," Kerry said in remarks in late September in a followup to the Oceans – Our Ocean summit. "And we need to do a better job of protecting our ocean’s fish stocks, which play a critical role in economic security for millions of families and in food security for millions more."
There is no argument that some of the stocks have taken a significant hit.
Bluefin tuna remain on everyone's radar as a problem area.
But Kerry's remarks belie a belief that the words of Boris Worm are gospel: that the world's fisheries continue to trend toward collapse — and they are simply insane in the context of the statement released at the beginning of October by Eileen Sobeck, Head of NOAA Fisheries, full of self-praise for NOAA's "science-based management process (that) is delivering results benefiting both the environment and the economy."
If putting people out of jobs is the way you benefit the economy, I suppose she has a point. But she shouldn't fool herself into believing that NOAA has been the savior of fisheries, especially when the sabre-rattling about cutbacks has begun again ... just as the newest reauthorization of Magnuson really starts to heat up.
Fishing groups believe they have made inroads this time on getting some changes that will swing the pendulum back toward center some. Perhaps they have. For now.
If the past is any judge, we ought to be due for another doom-and-gloom report telling us we're killing all the fish. And then it's just a matter of time before Pew and its ilk finally get what they want — unfettered access to do whatever it is they want to the ocean ... with us none the wiser because we won't be there to keep watch.
Karen Wall Subscribe