Overview - Commercial Fisheries

For many centuries commercial fishing has been a valuable and tradition-rich industry. There is no reason why it cannot continue to be. However, in the absence of foresight and reasonable restraint on the part of many in the industry, and the various national and international government agencies which oversee them, it now overharvests most global fisheries and threatens the very survival of many fish stocks—and many commercial fishermen, politicians, and industry representatives have been stridently unwilling to acknowledge these threats. Commercial fishing often has impacts that go far beyond the mere harvesting of targeted fish. In addition to bycatch, fishing methods such as otter trawling frequently inflict lasting damage on marine habitats that can impact their fecundity and threaten the existence of the species they support. Overharvest, driven by short-term economic considerations is also a major factor in declining fish populations.

Despite shrill protests to the contrary by commercial fishing interests (and a few sportsmen's groups who want their own harvest quotas protected), general overharvesting is still the largest factor in fisheries declines worldwide. This is particularly true of groundfish populations. I have personally witnessed entire stocks of Puget Sound rockfish wiped out, never to return, right here in my home state of Washington. In at least one case near my childhood summer cabin, I observed this to happen literally in one single afternoon. In the mid to late 70's, just about the time I finished high school, a fishing boat came into a bay in Saratoga Passage near my home on the west side of Camano Island and netted a rockfish hole I had been fishing since early childhood. The entire population was taken in one afternoon. To this day, as far as I can determine even after 25 years, that hole never again produced another rockfish for me or anyone else.

Thoughtless overharvesting like this raises many questions—of values as well as science. Fisheries suffer in large part because of the differing values of those who use the resource. No doubt, the individuals who cleaned out the rockfish hole near my childhood home were happy with the short-term profits they made the following week. If challenged, they would undoubtedly say they were "just doing my job" or "just trying to feed my family". But while no one would fault them for doing either, the question of their responsibility for the impacts of their actions on others still remains, as does the future of the very profession by which they claim to feed their families.

Indeed, since the day of that overharvest, many others just like it have been practiced around the world by others with many of the same rationalizations, and today fisheries worldwide and the economies that depend on them are suffering. Including the groundfish fishery in Washington State and the rockfish hole these thoughtless people cleaned out. And we haven't even mentioned yet the loss to humanity of the gift of bountiful fisheries, the lessons they have to teach, and all the joy they bring to those who seek them—my best childhood memories are of time on the water with my dad catching salmon and steelhead... and rockfish! Whether commercial, and some sportfishermen are willing to admit it our not, there are consequences for short-term greed, self-centeredness, and a defiant unwillingness to assume responsibility for conservation—consequences for all of us.

Bottom trawling is a case in point. It is common for the public to think that careless commercial fishing activity only impacts fish populations through direct takes, which can be adequately controlled through seasons and limits. Such attitudes ignore the impacts of by-catch (incidental catches of non-targeted species which can be, and often are, as important or more important for conservation that the targeted species) and the severe damage that is done by fishing methods like otter trawling. This type of fishing targets bottomfish by dragging commercial nets near to, or directly on ocean floor habitats, tearing away oceanic fauna and flora, destroying fish habitat, and severely damaging benthic organism colonies that are a key component of the food chains of ocean floor ecosystems.

Dragging nets over the ocean floor also excavates sediment leaving it re-suspended in the water column at higher than natural levels. This has important implications for ocean floor nutrient budgets in terms of the input of sedimentary nitrogen and silica into the water column. Sediment mixing and frequent bottom disturbance from trawling activity may also produce changes in the successional organization of soft-sediment infaunal communities. And this is just the beginning.

Bottom trawling (or otter trawling) of the ocean floor is, quite literally, like clear-cutting a forest—an analogy that is explored in depth in one of the papers linked in this section. Unless this type of fishing is restricted it will eventually destroy many rich ocean floor fisheries and the food chains they support—food chains that in turn support many other fisheries as well. In essence, a chain reaction of death that spreads much further than most people realize.

Another area of contention that is plagued by much public misunderstanding is the management of harvests by area as well as quota. Conservation efforts of all kinds frequently run afoul of recreational and commercial user groups who do not understand (or don't want to understand) how their activities are impacting the natural areas they use and are unwilling to make any concessions to conservation. From those snowmobile users who want to tear through lynx habitat at high speed, to hunters and fishermen who dispute bag limits and seasons, there are people who consider any and all restrictions on their activities to be an infringement on "freedom" rather than responsible stewardship. The latest such controversy revolves around National Marine Sanctuaries or Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) as they are often called. These sanctuaries set aside regions of ocean and/or shoreline as no-take zones where fishing and other harvest activities are forbidden. Some commercial and sport fishermen have viewed these regions as unnecessary infringements on their vocations and/or recreation and have circled the wagons in an attempt to block them.

To some extent, sport fishermen have a valid complaint in that certain fisheries could be allowed in these areas that would have a negligible impact at most For instance, catch-and-release fishing for pelagic open water) species like sailfish that are transient would leave the most sensitive parts of MPA ecosystems virtually untouched. Another example is inshore catch-and-release bonefish, permit, and tarpon fisheries. Provided that there are appropriate restrictions on transportation (e.g. shallow water outboard motor operation and jet-skis) these fisheries can be, and in fact have been maintained for years with very little impact. Concessions like these might be conducive to environmental and sporting groups working together for their common interest in protecting fish and game, yet seldom happen. In any event, the need for protected areas is scientifically beyond dispute. But there will always be special interests, particularly commercial ones who couldn't care less as long as they get the biggest and most responsibility-free piece of pie today.


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