Fighting for the fish

More than 2,000 maritime experts plan to attend The Summit of the Sea from Sep 1-6, 1997, in St. John’s, Newfoundland. One of the most important issues on the agenda is the problem of overfishing. The UN estimates that almost 50% of the world’s fish stocks have been ‘heavily exploited.’
Once and perhaps twice this week, between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, Bill Broderick, his son and his brother will board their fishing boat and sail into the blackness of the North Atlantic. By 6 a.m. and the dawn’s early light, they will be 65 km out. There, the boat rising and falling in the ocean swell, they will winch aboard and empty 50 crab traps lashed at intervals to a line more than a kilometre long. Twenty-four hours later, the catch from the sea-bottom harvested and the line replaced, the 11 m Cape Hayward and her bone-weary crew will return to the eastern Newfoundland fishing village of St. Brendan’s. To the Brodericks and millions of other fishermen from Spain to Samoa, the sea is an irresistible and centuries-old lure. But to a sizable chunk of the world’s marine scientists, it is an abused and plundered resource caught up in a deep and worsening crisis.

In one of the most ambitious attempts ever undertaken to identify the threats to the oceans and offer solutions, more than 2,000 experts from around the world will gather in St. John’s next week. The so-called Summit of the Sea from Sept. 1 to 6, together with eight subsidiary conferences, will explore questions related to maritime law, climate changes, pollution and marine tech- nology. But the principal preoccupation will be the global perils facing fish populations as the result of unlawful, excessive and destructive fishing. If that challenge is not met, says Ches Blackwood of St. John’s, the chairman of the conference board of trustees, “the price we will pay is that in the not-distant future we will simply not have a sustainable resource at all.”

That resource is already in deep trouble. In 1992, Canada clamped a moratorium on East Coast salmon fishing to give the remaining stocks a chance to recover, and closed the cod fishery in mid-1993. But the picture elsewhere is even more sobering. In the United States, says the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, fisheries for Atlantic haddock, cod and flounder, and Pacific salmon have “virtually collapsed.” In a recently published UN review, the FAO says that the world’s fishing fleet increased between 1970 and 1990 at twice the rate of the increase in the volume of fish caught. Nearly half the world’s fish stocks, adds the FAO, are being “heavily exploited.”

The FAO’s assessment finds support among those planning to attend the summit. But simple overfishing, says Sylvia Earle, the chairwoman of an ocean explora- tion and research firm in Oakland, Calif., is not the only factor. “We con- tinue to sanction the use of gear that is horribly destructive and indiscriminate,” Earle says. “Some of it is to the ocean floor what bulldozers are to the land.” That analogy is difficult to grasp for those who live far from the sea, she says. “But we can see the consequences of strip-mining and clear-cutting our forests and even though that doesn’t inhibit us, at least there are people who say, ‘Hey, this is terrible and must stop.'”

The comparison would appear to be justified. The United Nations says there are nets in use around the globe large enough to hold 12 jumbo jets and capable of catching 200,000 lb. of fish at a time. The salmon fishing boats called seiners used by Pacific coast fishermen can vacuum the ocean of 60,000 fish an hour. “Right, left and centre,” says Earle, “we’ve been killing whole flocks of golden geese.” And, she adds, killing without profit: “Worldwide, the price fish bring on the market is $70 billion (U.S.), but because of $54 billion in government fisheries subsidies, they really cost the consumers $124 billion.” As for the debilitated systems beneath the sea, Earle says: “We have been accelerating certain kinds of change and turning things in directions over which we really have no control. We can never put it back the way it was.” Adds Earle, a marine biologist and a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington: “To those who say why should I care about the ocean, I say, well, just wipe it out and what have you got? You’ve got a place that probably would look a whole lot like Mars where there once was an ocean.”

The issues surrounding the troubled international fishery are both historical and emotional. For example, in 1982–after a series of near-violent confronta- tions among British, French and Spanish fishermen–the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Law of the Sea. This gave maritime nations, among other things, jurisdiction over fishing within 200 nautical miles (370 km) of their shores. But fish are migratory, and Canada and other countries were soon com- plaining that foreign high-seas fleets operating just outside the 200-mile limit were depleting domestic catches. Coastal states began harassing and even shooting at alien fishermen beyond the 200-mile limit. Then on March 9, 1995, Canada seized and confiscated a Spanish trawler outside the limit. That same year, UN member states signed a new declaration to conserve migratory fish stocks. However, says the UN Development and Human Rights Section, “little has been done to implement its provisions,” and the FAO, it added, “has sounded a new alarm over the state of the world’s fishing.”

Harmful fishing practices are “a universal problem,” says Arthur W. May, president of Newfoundland’s Memorial University and the summit’s chairman, and Canadian fishermen had indulged in them. “But what had been going on with some of the European fleets was simply organized pillage–and pillage is not too strong a word.” As for Newfoundland, he says, “the collapse of the fishery is such a devastating thing.” Forty thousand people, equally divided between fishermen and fish-plant workers, were put out of work and survive “on [federal and provincial] programs that pay you not to fish.”

However, says May, “we had really built up over time something artificial that was going to crash of its own weight inevitably, because there were far, far too many people trying to make a living from a limited resource.” Some studies, he said, suggested that there were twice as many as could be sup- ported, “but it may have been three times as many.” Because literally thousands of people became economically redundant, May says, “means that the communities in which they lived don’t have a base any more, which means they become ghost towns and dry up and die away. Then, an economy, a culture, a history all disappear.”

Blackwood, a food scientist and former federal deputy fisheries minister, echoes May’s sentiments. The “catastrophe” that overtook the northwest Atlantic fishery, he says, “could happen in other parts of the world because there are none of them that are not under severe attack by being overfished.” Blackwood believes that management and enforcement can revive the fishery. What worries him, he says, is that once the fishery has been restored, “political pressure will again lead to the licensing of too many fishermen and too many fish plants.” The answer? “Take politics out of the equation and create some independent body to make those decisions.”

In this debate, 47-year-old Bill Broderick has an enormous stake because the sea is not only a livelihood for him, his son Warren, 22, and brother Daniel, 52. It is their life as well–and fortunately the crab and other creatures, such as shrimp and scallop, are thriving. He grosses perhaps $60,000 a year, but is left with less than half that after sharing with the others and paying the cost of fuel, bait and numerous fees. Since the moratoriums were placed on salmon and cod, Broderick says, “we really haven’t talked about the com- munities where we’ve boarded up the houses and shipped the people off. It’s phenomenal the number of people who are crossing the Gulf [of St. Lawrence] and not returning. If fishing is not in anybody’s blood any more, well then it’s over.”

But it has stayed in the Broderick blood. “My father, who had grown up and been forced into the boat when he was nine years of age to take a set of oars and row, talked about it as if it was a bad life and we should go get educa- tion and get out of it,” Broderick says. “Well, we did that. The family went off and got education, but something kept luring us back. I don’t know what it is but when I look at his life, he had an opportunity to change, too, but he didn’t. My kids are out there now with me and I’ll be out there as long as there’s a bit of breath in me.” Which is why, between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, two or three days next week and the week after and the week after that–long after the summit has come and gone–the Cape Hayward will cast off from the wharf at St. Brendan’s and head into the blackness of the North Atlantic.

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