The Exhausted Sea
Good fish managers, like good parents, eventually learn that one of the kindest words they can utter is "no."
Audubon July/Sept. 2003
"The New England states wouldn't even vote for their own ompromise. It was the worst day for marine fish management I can remember. What an embarrassment! The U.S. blew it at a time when we're running around to international meetings and telling the world how vulnerable sharks are and how we need to protect them." No sooner had the Atlantic states more than doubled their dogfish quota than Canadian fishermen, who had been leaning toward responsible management, announced that they wanted to double theirs as well.
In the Northeast and elsewhere in U.S. marine waters, at least 40 percent of the species that managers have information on are overfished (meaning the population is too low to produce maximum sustainable yield) or are experiencing overfishing (meaning they're being caught at a rate that exceeds maximum sustainable yield). Such is American marine fisheries management in action.
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are vital management tools—sanctuaries where marine ecosystems are safe from, say, oil and gas exploration, mining, and mobile net gear that kills fish as it clear-cuts their habitat. Recent studies of "no-take" MPAs worldwide showed that, on average, they nearly triple biomass (above). As of late July 2003, the Department of Commerce had inventoried only 328 federally managed MPAs and was predicting a final tally of fewer than 400. We are in desperate need of more. The MPA known as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has benefited recreational anglers by zoning jetskis out of bonefish flats. MPAs don't necessarily (or even usually) forbid recreational fishing. But occasionally, where species are depleted, total fishing bans are prudent.
Audubon hasn't made recommendations about MPAs, but other environmental groups have, and they've gotten a crash course in sportsmen paranoia. There was little outreach and apparently no recognition that some recreational fishing—such as catch-and-release for shallow-water species—doesn't affect populations. Some of the proposed MPAs banned all fishing in vast areas of the continental shelf—everyone's favorite fishing hole. "Environmental extremists are conspiring with federal bureaucrats to take away our freedom to fish," shrieked the otherwise low-key and thoughtful Coastal Conservation Association.
"I think the whole MPA issue was handled very poorly,"comments Audubon's Merry Camhi. "The work was not done to bring the recreational guys around." This was a major oversight, because whenever environmentalists enlist the help of the 50 million Americans who hunt or fish, they blow through all political opposition.
Chastened by the hook-and-bullet press, MPA proponents are trying to do better. On April 2, 2003, recreational fishing and environmental groups exchanged ideas during a daylong, professionally facilitated meeting at the New York office of the Norcross Wildlife Foundation. Representing both sides, I came away convinced that limited fish recovery via MPAs is now at least politically possible.
Chart by Knickerbocker