Over Fishing

December 19, 2011

While diving in the Red Sea a number of years ago, I noticed a beautifully huge school of Emperor Breams that probably numbered in the thousands.  When I asked the captain about these fish, he explained that at that time of year, the Bream congregated in that area of the Red Sea for reproductive purposes.  He continued to tell me that the schools of Bream used to number in the tens of thousands and more, but because of over-fishing the reproductive stock, these numbers have dwindled.

It seems as though Egyptian fishermen look forward to this time of year each year because they usually make 90-95% of their annual income in a 2-3 week timeframe by netting these reproductive schools.  There were no catch limits in place and no one pursued an educational approach to explaining sustainability to these fishermen who were removing the adult, reproductive stock from their waters.  It was a sad piece of information for me to learn and I wonder if anything has been done about it in the Red Sea so that they can preserve the awesome dive sites there.

Good news for U.S. ocean waters is that on June 5, 2008, NOAA Fisheries Service released an outline plan to help preserve and restore fish stocks around our coasts.  Catch limits have been in place since 2007 amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  This act also calls for enforcement of these limits according to scientific recommendations made by fishery management council’s scientific committees.

It should be noted that each year, pound limits are re-evaluated according to the previous year’s catch and adjusted accordingly.  Catch sizes per tow will help determine the total biomass of a species available and when that total falls below studied numbers, quotas are lowered.

Recent years have seen tremendous steps taken by NOAA’s Fisheries Service, various regional fishery management councils, and fishing communities to end over-fishing and rebuilding fish stocks.  A year ago, seven fish species were removed from the over-fishing list.  But 41 other species are still being fished at unsustainable levels.

NOAA hopes to have their final guidelines in place by the end of this year.  These guidelines will set annual catch limits for commercial and recreational fishing for the endangered species by 2010.  All other fish stocks will have annual catch limits by 2011.

These annual catch limits will obviously help sustain fish stocks, maintain a better ecological balance in our oceans, and serve to rebuild valuable resources.  NOAA estimates that $35 billion is contributed to the economy by fisheries services and another $20 billion is added by recreational fishing activities.  Besides the importance of sustainability, maintaining these monetary contributions to our economy is more crucial than ever, given the state of the economy today.

An example of successes in rebuilding fish stocks can be seen with the Atlantic Summer Flounder.  During the 1980’s total coastal catch of this species declined dramatically.  It reached a low of just over 9 million pounds by 1990.

Since 1989, the Atlantic Summer Flounder has been managed, with catch limits in place by 1993.  In 2002, catch limits were able to be raised 36% over the 2001 quota, with 60% (approximately 14.6 million pounds) allocated to commercial fishing, and 40% (approximately 9.7 million pounds) to recreational angling.

Each coastal state is allocated a percentage of the above figures.  If and when any state exceeds its quota, they are prohibited from landing that species the following year.  An example of this is when Maine and Delaware exceeded their quotas of Summer Flounder in 2001, thus ordered to stay away from this species in 2002.

Other managed species of fish include Atlantic Sturgeon, Black Sea Bass, Atlantic Herring, Red Drum, Spanish Mackerel and more.  Managed species of critters besides fish include the American Lobster, American Eel, Horseshoe Crab, and Northern Shrimp.  Even the Spiny Dogfish shark is included as a managed species.

The Atlantic Sturgeon has been popularly fished since Colonial times, being the primary “cash crop” of Jamestown, Virginia even before tobacco.  Before the turn of the century catch was estimated to be 7 million pounds per year, but from 1950 to the mid 90’s, landings ranged between 100,000 to 250,000 pounds per year.  Because of these numbers, Sturgeon have been given extreme catch limits for at least the next 20 years with re-evaluation due then to ascertain whether reproductive-aged stock have increased enough to sustain higher limits.

Because of catch limits on Spanish Mackerel, estimated stock abundance has increased since 1995 and currently this species is not classified as over-fished.  The same is true of the Striped Bass, Atlantic Herring, and the Red Drum with the next population assessment for the drum due in 2009.  The Black Sea Bass numbers are not as promising with recreational landings in 1986 at a high of 12.5 million pounds to less than 2 million pounds in 2006.

The Spiny Dogfish Shark doesn’t have much of a market here in the U.S., however the European market uses the Dogfish for fish & chips and pickled beer garden snacks.  This industry has grown tremendously in the last ten years, causing an “over-fished” status, even though over-fishing is now no longer occurring.  The problem here lies in the fact that the Dogfish is a late maturing shark (approximately 12 years) and has a long gestation period of about two years, as well.

A 2005 assessment of the American Lobster shows mixed results as far as population numbers are concerned in different areas.  Some coastal areas show very small numbers where other areas show acceptable populations.  Because of this, catch limits are imposed in the areas of lower populations.

As divers, we usually understand and pay more attention to various plights of ocean ecosystems ranging from shark-finning to over-fishing.  This leads to our sharing of knowledge with others not as keen on conservation principles in order to get them up to speed and then recruit their energy towards ocean ecosystem preservation.  Many older divers are often heard talking about how fish school numbers aren’t what they used to be.  Hopefully we’ll be able to tell our grandchildren how we watched those numbers increase.  Sea Ya!

Critter corner: The Horseshoe Crab has a unique characteristic in its blood that allows the biomedical industry to produce an important tool in the detection of contaminants in patients, drugs, and other medical supplies.

copyright © Roger Roth, 2002 – 2011

Roger Roth is a roofer by trade and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. But his passion is underwater vidiography and after several decades of learning how to shoot and edit he has evolved into a teacher and a photographic philanthropist. Roger is the founder of the annual international Underwater Images Photo and Video Competition. You may contact Roger at rroth2@cinci.rr.com.

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