When prominent chefs in Washington and New York self-imposed a moratorium on swordfish recently, they captured attention in the news media. It was a nice story - fitting in well with the Clinton administration's declaration that 1998 is the "US Year of the Ocean." But for all the good intentions, the focus on upscale restaurant clientele giving up a tasty meal could send the wrong message.
The plight of swordfish is no different from that of bluefin tuna, grouper, haddock, mako, marlin, redfish, snapper, or virtually any other seafood on the menu. And the reasons for the declines go beyond overharvesting certain species. To ignore the broader message implies that redirected consumer demand is the solution. It can be part of it, but more needs to be done.
While the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that nearly three-quarters of the world's commercially important fish stocks are overfished, the crisis also stems from how we harvest them.
Fishing methods commonly used to catch swordfish, as well as other overfished species, selectively destroy other species - sea turtles, sea birds, porpoises. These constitute a higher percentage of catch than the targeted fish - in some cases, nearly 30 times more by weight.
Scientists evaluating the effect of wasteful fishing practices no longer consider the methods that replaced the vilified giant drift nets to be less harmful. Bottom trawling, used to harvest shrimp, scallops, and flounder, is perhaps more devastating to marine ecosystems than long-lining (implicated in the swordfish declines) or drift-netting. Bottom-trawling rakes the bottom, kills plants and animals, and interrupts ecological processes.
To be fully aware of the extent of the fisheries crisis, we must appraise how much and in what manner we remove fish from the seas. We also must consider which fish are being taken and how their removal affects ecosystem health and productivity.
By concentrating our harvesting on predator species that sit atop the food chain, our fishing practices dramatically affect biological communities. Interestingly, moving down the food chain and concentrating fishing around the base of the food web also has significant effects. Such altered ecosystems are unable to function normally and replenish lost resources. So whether it is swordfish or herring we're after, our fishing is damaging to nature and to future fisheries.
Few, if any, large-scale commercial fisheries can be sustained over time given current management practices. This is not the fault of fishermen. An insatiable demand for seafood creates such impetus in the largely unregulated arena of offshore fishing that competitive fishing frenzies result. With ineffective policies in place, management agencies are unable to control the carnage.
This doesn't mean we have to give up seafood. Rather, we should use consumer awareness to prompt the political will to take responsibility for the oceans and use them intelligently. If the United States were to couple consumer purchasing power with strong and effective management, we could alleviate pressure on many marine species and allow their subsequent recovery.
An important prerequisite would be a commitment from state and federal agencies to protect areas needed for fish spawning, feeding, and migration. We also should enter into enforceable international agreements to protect shared or common resources.
In doing so, the US could ensure that its demand for fish won't continue to degrade the seas - and will provide a needed good example to others. Not only is 1998 the "US Year of the Ocean," it has been designated by the UN as the "International Year of the Ocean" as well.
In most parts of the world, the fate of global fisheries is more than a crisis of conscience for diners at posh restaurants. It is a matter of survival. Burgeoning populations in developing countries increasingly rely on fish as their primary source of protein. Moreover, many developing countries' economies are intricately and irrevocably tied to healthy fisheries and ecosystems.
Without governments taking better responsibility for fisheries management and habitat protection, species like the swordfish will inevitably share the doomed list with other marine resources.
* Tundi Agardy is senior director for marine conservation programs at Conservation International in Washington.