With the tragedy of the oil spill and now the massive flooding from the Mississippi river both having an affect on commercial seafood production in the northern Gulf of Mexico we might want to ask ourselves where do we go from here?
If you’ve lived on the Gulf Coast for more than a few years you’ve seen both commercial and recreational fishing under go some significant changes. For various species and types of fishing there have been increases in length limits, decreases in number allowed, changes in gear types, area restrictions, seasonal closures, turtle and fish excluder devices and closed areas. Every Summer the oyster beds are closed due to sewage pollution, mercury in our fish, the price of seafood going up, imported seafood under cutting our commercial fleet and we charter a boat for half a month’s rent only to throw back nearly all the fish we catch because their too small to keep.
If you have experienced some or all of this then you have probably realized that the ocean’s fishery resources are not infinite. The Gulf Coast isn’t alone in its resource related problems. The cod fishery in the north Atlantic was closed over 15 years ago and will be closed for another 15 years due to over-fishing. Alaskan salmon runs are down 40% to 60% over the last 20 years. The red snapper season in the Gulf seems close earlier each year. The fish we see in our markets are smaller and aren’t available for long. Will there be seafood in 20 years, what kind and where will it come from?
A little history: fishing changed rapidly in the twentieth century especially after WWII. During that war fishing was curtailed all over the globe especially in the Atlantic. When the war ended recreational and commercial fishing expanded quickly. Nations like the Japan and Russia developed large trans-global distant water fleets of trawlers, long liners, deep-water crabbers and purse seine vessels. Japan, which spent decades collecting oceanographic data, developed new and innovative fishing methods and equipment that greatly increased their catch.
There is no planet wide agency that manages and enforces international fishing regulations with any great effect. The United Nations and organizations like the International Committee for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) make motions in that direction but nothing is being done that has any real and enforceable effect on the stocks of fish. The United States has its fishery management councils with their regulations and 200-mile limits but it’s a big planet. The bottom line is that a constantly expanding human race is taking more than a finite resource can provide.
Aquaculture has and is being touted as a way to fill the gap between the fish that we want and the fish our oceans can provide. Farmers know it is easier and more profitable to “raise deer than wolves” – which are animals that are lower on the food chain and require less intensive care. Fish like mullet, tilapia and the carps (which have been cultured for centuries) will start to fill this gap over the next few years. When and if the stocks now under increasingly strict regulation recover there will never be enough fish to supply our markets like they did in the past without risking a protracted collapse. Factors like the potential for oil spills and flooding from climate change are exogenous factors that we can’t control and they will tend to destabilize reliable and predictable production of seafood.
Think Global – Act Local!