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Still Waters: The Global Fish Crisis

Photo: Shark in a net

Photo: Shark in a net (View larger version)

Photograph by Brian Skerry

By Fen Montaigne

Published

No more magnificent fish swims the world's oceans than the giant bluefin tuna, which can grow to 12 feet (3.7 meters) in length, weigh 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms), and live for 30 years. Once, giant bluefin migrated by the millions throughout the Atlantic Basin and the Mediterranean Sea, their flesh so important to the people of the ancient world that they painted the tuna's likeness on cave walls and minted its image on coins.

The giant, or Atlantic, bluefin possesses another extraordinary attribute, one that may prove to be its undoing: Its buttery belly meat, liberally layered with fat, is considered the finest sushi in the world. Over the past decade, a high-tech armada, often guided by spotter planes, has pursued giant bluefin from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, annually netting tens of thousands of fish, many of them illegally. The bluefin are fattened offshore in sea cages before being shot and butchered for the sushi and steak markets in Japan, America, and Europe. So many giant bluefin have been hauled out of the Mediterranean that the population is in danger of collapse. Meanwhile, European and North African officials have done little to stop the slaughter.

"My big fear is that it may be too late," said Sergi Tudela, a Spanish marine biologist with the World Wildlife Fund, which has led the struggle to rein in the bluefin fishery. "I have a very graphic image in my mind. It is of the migration of so many buffalo in the American West in the early 19th century. It was the same with bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, a migration of a massive number of animals. And now we are witnessing the same phenomenon happening to giant bluefin tuna that we saw happen with America's buffalo. We are witnessing this, right now, right before our eyes."

The decimation of giant bluefin is emblematic of everything wrong with global fisheries today: the vastly increased killing power of new fishing technology, the shadowy network of international companies making huge profits from the trade, negligent fisheries management and enforcement, and consumers' indifference to the fate of the fish they choose to buy.

The world's oceans are a shadow of what they once were. With a few notable exceptions, such as well-managed fisheries in Alaska, Iceland, and New Zealand, the number of fish swimming the seas is a fraction of what it was a century ago. Marine biologists differ on the extent of the decline. Some argue that stocks of many large oceangoing fish have fallen by 80 to 90 percent, while others say the declines have been less steep. But all agree that, in most places, too many boats are chasing too few fish.

Popular species such as cod have plummeted from the North Sea to Georges Bank off New England. In the Mediterranean, 12 species of shark are commercially extinct, and swordfish there, which should grow as thick as a telephone pole, are now caught as juveniles and eaten when no bigger than a baseball bat. With many Northern Hemisphere waters fished out, commercial fleets have steamed south, overexploiting once teeming fishing grounds. Off West Africa, poorly regulated fleets, both local and foreign, are wiping out fish stocks from the productive waters of the continental shelf, depriving subsistence fishermen in Senegal, Ghana, Angola, and other countries of their families' main source of protein. In Asia, so many boats have fished the waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the Java Sea that stocks are close to exhaustion. "The oceans are suffering from a lot of things, but the one that overshadows everything else is fishing," said Joshua S. Reichert of the Pew Charitable Trusts. "And unless we get a handle on the extraction of fish and marine resources, we will lose much of the list that remains in the seas.

"Cruel" may seem a harsh indictment of the age-old profession of fishing—and certainly does not apply to all who practice the trade—but how else to portray the world's shark fishermen, who kill tens of millions of sharks a year, large numbers finned alive for shark-fin soup and allowed to sink to the bottom to die? How else to characterize the incalculable number of fish and other sea creatures scooped up in nets, allowed to suffocate, and dumped overboard as useless bycatch? Or the longline fisheries, whose miles and miles of baited hooks attract—and drown—creatures such as the loggerhead turtle and wandering albatross?

Do we countenance such loss because fish live in a world we cannot see? Would it be different if, as one conservationist fantasized, the fish wailed as we lifted them out of the water in nets? If the giant bluefin lived on land, its size, speed, and epic migrations would ensure its legendary status, with tourists flocking to photograph it in national parks. But because it lives in the sea, its majesty—comparable to that of a lion—lies largely beyond comprehension.

One of the ironies—and tragedies—of the Mediterranean bluefin hunt is that the very act of procreation now puts the fish at the mercy of the fleets. In the spring and summer, as the water warms, schools of bluefin rise to the surface to spawn. Slashing through the sea, planing on their sides and exposing their massive silver-colored flanks, the large females each expel tens of millions of eggs, and the males emit clouds of milt. From the air, on a calm day, this turmoil of reproduction—the flashing fish, the disturbed sea, the slick of spawn and sperm—can be seen from miles away by spotter plans, which call in the fleet.

On a warm July morning, in the sapphire-colored waters west of the Spanish Island of Ibiza, six purse-seine boats from three competing companies searched for giant bluefin tuna. The purse seiners—named for their conical, purse-like nets, which are drawn closed from the bottom—were guided by three spotter aircraft that crisscrossed the sky like vultures.

In the center of the action was Txema Galaz Ugalde, a Basque marine biologist, diver, and fisherman who helps run Ecolofish, one of 69 tuna ranching, or fattening, operations that have sprung up through the Mediterranean. A small company, Ecolofish owns five purse-seiners. Its main rival that morning was the tuna baron of the Mediterranean, Francisco Fuentes of Ricardo Fuentes and Sons, whose industrial scale operations have been chewing up giant bluefin stocks.

I was with Galaz on La Viveta Segunda—a 72-foot (22-meter) support vessel that was part of the fleet of dive boats and cage-towing tugs following the purse seiners. Around 11 a.m., the spotter planes spied a school, setting the purse seiners on a 19-knot dash. The stakes were high. Even a small school of 200 bluefin can fetch more than half a million dollars on the Japanese market. Galaz watched through binoculars as an Ecolofish seiner reached the school first and began encircling it with a mile-long net.

"He's fishing!" Galaz shouted. "He's shooting the net!"

It was not an unalloyed victory. Before Ecolofish's boat could complete its circle, a Fuentes seiner rushed forward and stopped just short of the unfurling net. Under one of the few rules that exist in the free-for-all for Mediterranean bluefin, this symbolic touch entitled the competing boat to split the catch fifty-fifty.

Over the next several hours, Galaz and his divers transferred the fish—163 bluefin, averaging about 300 pounds (135 kilograms)—from the purse-seine net into the sea cage, a large holding pen about 160 feet (50 meters) in diameter, with a sturdy plastic frame supporting a heavy mesh net. As the pen, already brimming with a thousand bluefish caught in the days before, was aligned with the purse-seine net, Galaz invited me into the water.

Swimming with the tuna was mesmerizing but unsettling. Giant bluefin are, as Galaz put it, "like missiles, prepared for speed and power." Their backs were battleship gray topped with a saw-toothed line of small yellow dorsal fins. Their sides had the look of battered chrome and steel; some bore the streak of an electric blue line. The larger fish, weighing more than 500 pounds (225 kilograms), were at least eight feet long (2.4 meters).

One giant bluefin—some 300 pounds (135 kilograms) heavier and two feet (.6 meter) longer than most of the others—caught my eye. It was not swimming endlessly with the school in a clockwise gyre. Instead, it darted in different directions, sullen and aggressive, nearly brushing against me as it scanned me with large, black, disk-shaped eyes. There was something else: a stainless-steel hook embedded in its mouth, trailing a long strand of monofilament line. In recent weeks, this fish had lunged at one of the thousands of baited hooks set by a longline vessel. Somehow, it had broken free.

After untying the large mesh gates on the pen, Galaz and his divers began herding fish. Peeling off from their gyre, the bluefin whizzed into the cage like torpedoes. The fish with the hook in its mouth was one of the last to leave, but eventually it shot up from the depths and into the cage, dragging a diver who had hitched a ride on the line.

Ecolofish's catch was part of an annual legal take of 32,000 tons (29,000 metric tons) in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. The true quantity, however, is closer to between 50,000 and 60,000 tons (45,000 and 55,000 metric tons). The group charged with managing bluefin tuna stocks, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), has acknowledged that the fleet has been violating quotas egregiously. Scientists estimate that if fishing continues at current levels, stocks are bound to collapse. But despite strong warnings from its own biologists, ICCAT—with 43 member states—refused to reduce quotas significantly last November, over the objections of delegations from the U.S., Canada, and a handful of other nations. Because bluefin sometimes migrate across the Atlantic, American scientists, and bluefin fisherman who abide by small quotas off their coasts, have long been calling for a large reduction in the Mediterranean catch.

"The Mediterranean is at the point that if bluefin stocks are not actually collapsing, they are approaching collapse," said William T. Hogarth, ICCAT's recently appointed chairman who also serves as director of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. "I was really disappointed—when it got to the bluefin, science just seemed to go out the window. The bottom line was that, as chairman, I felt I was sort of presiding over the demise of one of the most magnificent fish that swims the ocean."

The story of giant bluefin tuna began with unfathomable abundance, as they surged through the Straits of Gibraltar each spring, fanning out across the Mediterranean to spawn. Over millennia, fisherman devised a method of extending nets from shore to intercept the fish and funnel them into chambers, where they were slaughtered. By the mid-1800s, a hundred tuna traps—known as tonnara in Italy and almadraba in Spain—harvested up to 15,000 tons (13,600 metric tons) of bluefin annually. The fishery was sustainable, supporting thousands of workers and their families.

Today, all but a dozen or so of the trap fisheries have closed, primarily for lack of fish but also because of coastal development and pollution. One of the few that remains is the renowned tonnara on the island of Favignana off Sicily. In 1864, Favignana's fishermen took a record 14,020 bluefin, averaging 425 pounds (195 kilograms). Last year, so few fish were caught—about 100, averaging 65 pounds (30 kilograms)—that Favignana held only one mattanza, which occurs when the tuna are channeled into a netted chamber and lifted to the surface by fishermen who kill them with gaffs. One sign of the Favignana tonnara's diminishment is that it is run by a Rome marketing executive, Chiara Zarlocco, whose plan for the future is to dress the fishermen in historic costumes as they reenact the mattanza.

The big trouble for Atlantic bluefin began in the mid-1990s. By then, stocks of southern bluefin tuna—which, along with Pacific bluefin and Atlantic bluefin, compose the world's three bluefin species, all treasured for sushi—had been fished to between 6 and 12 percent of the original numbers in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. As the Japanese searched for new sources, they turned to the Mediterranean, where bluefin reserves were still large.

In 1996, Croatians who had developed techniques for fattening southern bluefin in Australia established the first Mediterranean tuna ranch, in the Adriatic. The process is simple. Newly caught bluefin are transferred to coastal sea cages where—for months, even years—they are fed oily fish such as anchovies or sardines to give their flesh the high fat content so prized in Japan.

The prospect of producing a steady—and highly profitable—supply of fatty Mediterranean bluefin set off a cascade of events that has proved disastrous. The Mediterranean fleet has increased its fishing effort threefold, with the bluefin flotilla now totaling 1,700 vessels, including 314 purse seiners. Compounding the problem, the advent of tuna ranching made it difficult for the European Union and national governments to enforce quotas. Bluefin are netted at sea, fattened offshore, killed offshore, and flash-frozen on Japanese ships. As Masanori Miyahara of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, and a former ICCAT chairman, told me: "It's kind of a black box."

The spread of tuna ranching means that bluefin are being wiped out at all stages of their life cycle. In Croatia, for instance, the industry is based almost entirely on fattening juveniles for two to three years, which means fish are killed before they spawn. Elsewhere, in places such as the Balearic Islands, large females, capable of producing 40 million eggs, are being wiped out. In just ten years, bluefin populations have been driven down sharply.

"What's happening is a bit like what happened to cod," said Jean-Marc Fromentin, a marine biologist and bluefin expert with IFREMER, the French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Seas. "You don't see the decrease right away because you have had a huge accumulation of biomass. But it's like having a bank account, and you keep taking much more out than you're putting in."

At the heart of the fishing activity is Francisco Fuentes and his Cartegena-based company, Ricardo Fuentes & Sons, which, according to industry experts, controls 60 percent of the giant bluefin ranching business in the Mediterranean, generating revenues of more than 220 million dollars a year, according to industry sources. (A Fuentes spokesman said revenues are roughly half that.) In partnership with the Japanese giants Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Maruha, the Fuentes Group—with the help of EU and Spanish subsidies—has bought sea cages, tugs, and support boats needed for large-scale fattening operations. Fuentes & Sons also formed partnerships with French and Spanish companies that owned 20 purse seiners—five-million-dollar vessels equipped with powerful sonar systems and nets that can encircle 3,000 adult bluefin.

With the Fuentes Group and its partners leading the way, the bluefin fleet methodically targets fish in the spawning grounds close to Europe, then turned its attention to untouched areas. The richest of these de facto reserves was Libya's Gulf of Sidra. "It was the tuna aquarium of the Mediterranean," recalled Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, a tuna ranching consultant who first visited the Gulf of Sidra six years ago. "I've never seen anything like it. The average size of bluefin was over 600 pounds (270 kilograms). It was one of the last tuna Shangri-Las."

Mielgo Bregazzi, a dapper Spaniard and former professional diver who heads Advanced Tuna Ranching Technologies, has been on a mission to expose IUU—illegal, unreported, and unregulated—bluefin fishing. Drawing on a wide network of inside sources, as well as published information, he was written lengthy reports detailing the IUU bluefin business. Using arcane data such as the capacity and schedules of Japanese freezer vessels, he has shown that the Mediterranean tuna fleet has been seizing almost double its annual legal quota.

Mielgo Bregazzi said Ricardo Fuentes & Sons and a French partner have worked with a Libyan company, Ras el Hillal, to catch giant bluefin in Libyan waters. Mielgo Bregazzi said that Seif al Islam Qaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammer Qaddafi, has a financial interest in Ras el Hillal and has earned millions of dollars from the bluefin fishery. Mielgo Bregazzi calculates that, for the past four years, bluefin fleets netted more than 10,000 tons (9,000 metric tons) of bluefin annually in Libyan waters. Some of the catch is legal under quotas for Libyan, Spanish, and French boats, but much of it appears to be caught illegally.

David Martinez Cañabate, assistant manager of the Fuentes Group, said the company has "absolutely" no connection to the Qaddafi family and that all bluefin tuna it catches, buys, or ranches have been legally caught and properly documented with ICCAT and Spanish authorities. He conceded that bluefin have been overfished, mainly by companies that do not ranch tuna but sell the fish soon after netting them. Fleets from other countries also catch bluefin without an ICCA quota and ranch them illegally, Martinez said. He said much of Mielgo Bregazzi's information is "incorrect or, worse, bad intentioned" and that the Fuentes group has supported stricter conservation measures. "We are more interested than anyone in the future of the tuna," Martinez said. "We live off this resource."

Actually, Libyan and other Mediterranean bluefin have so flooded the market that Japanese companies have stockpiled 20,000 tons (18,000 metric tons) in giant freezers. The glut halved prices for fishermen in the past few years, to between three and four dollars a pound. Still, the value of the bluefin caught annually in Libya, then fattened for several months, is roughly 400 million dollars on the Japanese market.

"They're slaughtering everything," Mielgo Bregazzi said. "The fish don't stand a chance."

The extent to which giant bluefin fleets flout regulations became evident during a visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily. To give the tuna a reprieve during peak spawning season, EU and ICCAT rules prohibit spotter aircraft from flying in June. The regulation is often ignored.

I flew one June morning with Eduardo Domaniewicz, an Argentine-American pilot who has spotted for tuna for French and Italian purse seiners since 2003. Riding shotgun was Domaniewicz's spotter, Alfonso Consiglio. They were combing the waters between Lampedusa and Tunisia, and they were not alone: Three other spotter aircraft were prowling illegally, relaying tuna sightings to some of the 20 purse seiners in the water below. (After two hours, high winds and choppy seas, which make it difficult both to see and net the first, forced the planes to return to Lampedusa and Malta.

Domaniewicz was conflicted. He loved to fly and was well paid. He believed his June flights were legal, because Italy never agreed to the ban. But after three years of spotting for the bluefin fleet, he was fed up with the uncontrolled fishing. Just before I arrived on Lampedusa, he had watched two purse-seine fleets net 835,000 pounds (380,000 kilograms) of bluefin, sharing more than two million dollars.

"There is no way for the fish to escape—everything is high-tech," Domaniewicz said. Speaking of the French purse-seine fishermen he worked for in Libya, he said, "I am an environmentalist, and I couldn't stand the way they fished with no care for the quotas. I saw these people taking everything. They catch whatever they want. They just see money on the sea. They don't think what will be there in ten years."

Alfonso Consiglio, whose family owns a fleet of purse seiners, also is torn. "The price is cheap because more and more tuna are being caught," he said. "My only weapon is to catch more fish. It's a vicious circle. If I catch my quota of a thousand tuna, I can't live because the price is very cheap. I want to respect the quota, but I can't because I need to live. If boats of all countries respect the rules, tuna will not be fished. If only few countries respect the rules, and others don't respect the rules, the fisherman who respects rules is finished."

How can this endless cycle of overfishing be stopped? How can the world's fleets be prevented from committing ecological and economic suicide by depleting the oceans of bluefish tuna, shark, cod, haddock, sea bass, hake, red snapper, orange roughy, grouper, grenadier, sturgeon, plaice, rockfish, skate, and other species?

Experts agree that, first, the world's oceans must be managed as ecosystems, not simply as larders from which the fishing industry can extract protein at will. Second, the management councils that oversee fisheries, such as ICCAT, long dominated by commercial fishing interests, must share power with scientists and conservationists.

Further, governments must cut back the world's four million fishing vessels—nearly double what is needed to fish the ocean sustainably—and slash the estimated 25 billion dollars in government subsidies bestowed annually on the fishing industry.

In addition, fisheries agencies will have to set tough quotas and enforce them. For giant bluefin in the Mediterranean, that may mean shutting down the fishery during the spawning season and substantially increasing the minimum catch weight. ICCAT recently failed to decrease quotas significantly or close the fishery at peaks spawn, although it did to increase the minimum catch weight in most areas to 66 pounds (30 kilograms) and ban spotter aircraft. But without inspection and enforcement, the commission's new rules will, like the old ones, mean little.

Another crucial step, both in the Mediterranean and around the world, would be the creation of large marine protected areas. Also important are campaigns by such groups as the Marine Stewardship Council, which is working with consumers as well as retail giants to promote trade in sustainably caught fish.

The news from the fisheries front is not unremittingly grim. Indeed, where sound fisheries management exists, fish populations—and the fishing industry—are healthy. A prime example is Alaska, where stocks of Pacific salmon and pollock are bountiful. Iceland's cod fishery is thriving, because it, too, follows a cardinal conservation rule: Limit the number of boats that can pursue fish.

But all agree that the fundamental reform that must precede all others is not a change in regulations but a change in people's minds. The world must begin viewing the creatures that inhabit the sea much as it looks at wildlife on land. Only when fish are seen as wild things deserving of protection, only when the Mediterranean bluefin is thought to be as magnificent as the Alaska grizzly or the African leopard, will depletion of the world's oceans come to an end.

1 comments
Karen Charlton
Karen Charlton

how is it we continue to allow the OVER fishing? why isn't this regulated? It's so sad now we humans are DESTROYING our Planet.