Follow-up: News about world fisheries

Congress hits shark ‘finning’ practice; fleet subsidies cut would be ‘historic’; whales don’t compete with humans for fish, studies show.

AP Photo/Nick Ut/FILE
Shark fins are seen on display in a refrigerated case in a Monterey Park, Calif., store.

On June 11, the House Natural Resources Committee approved the Shark Conserva­tion Act of 2008. The bill attempts to curb the practice of shark finning by US-based fishing boats and limit trade with shark-finning fleets abroad.

Between 26 million and 73 million sharks are caught yearly, according to a 2006 study in Ecology Letters, a French science journal. The shark’s fins may be cut off and the carcass thrown overboard to make room for more valuable fins, which are used in dishes like shark fin soup, a delicacy throughout East Asia. Scientists say the targeting of sharks, along with sharks being incidental bycatch, have led to their dramatic decline. Some popula­tions are down by as much as 90 percent in the past 50 years. The nonprofit International Union for Conservation of Nature says that more than half of mid-ocean sharks are in danger of extinction.

The bill does not target all fishing, but stipu­lates that sharks be landed with fins still attached. This will help limit finning at sea, viewed widely as a great waste. Nonfishing vessels will no longer be permitted to ship and transfer fins, a measure aimed at limiting the fin trade. It also lays out a process to ban shark products from countries with poor shark-preservation programs. The bill still has to pass votes in the House and Senate.

WTO may cut fishing subsidies

Economists say sub­sidies boost world fishing fleet capacity far above what the oceans can sustain. By one count, subsidies – including low-interest loans to fishermen, artificially cheap fuel, and more – amount to one-quarter of an estimated $80 billion industry. The overcapacity that results is bad news for the more than 1 billion people who depend on fish as a major source of protein. One-quarter of the world’s fishing stocks are said to be overfished; another 50 percent are exploited to full capacity.

A working document outlining a ban on fishing subsidies for large fishing operations has been introduced at the World Trade Or­gani­­zation. Some WTO members, notably Japan and the European Union, are resisting. Others, including Brazil, Iceland, and the US, have expressed support.

Courtney Sakai, senior campaign director for the nonprofit Oceana, calls the proposal “historic.” Reducing fishing subsidies, she says, is “probably the single biggest thing you could do to protect the ocean.”

Don’t blame the whales

Whaling nations like Japan and Norway have long said that culling whales boosts fish stocks. That as­sumes whales eat the same fish humans do. But at the International Whaling Com­mis­sion’s 60th annual meeting in Santiago, Chile, scientists released three reports saying whales don’t meaningfully affect human fisheries. The largest baleen whales eat the smallest zooplankton. And, at least in the tropics, toothed whales may actually improve fisheries by hunting organisms that prey on the same fish humans target.

Good news for US fisheries

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmo­spheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service released its report on the status of US fish stocks. The Magnuson-Stevens Act states that over­fishing must end by 2010. Progress was made on that front.

Seven stocks are no longer “subject to overfishing,” according to NOAA Fisheries, lowering the grand total to 41. Of the seven, four have increased in biomass and are no longer considered overfished. Three stocks have fully recov­ered since 2006, and no new stocks became subject to overfishing in 2007. Two stocks (winter skate, summer flounder) fell and are now officially “over­fished.” That’s 45 overfished stocks out of the 244 for which NOAA has data. Overall, it’s the biggest one-year improvement since these reports began 30 years ago.

But others point out that the report is still full of holes. First, NOAA has very little progress to report on rebuilding overfished stocks. And Tony DeFalco, director of regional operations for the Marine Conservation Network in Portland, Ore., points out that NOAA still knows very little about half the 530 stocks in its purview. “The magnitude of the problem is even more significant than the report portrays,” he says. “We don’t know the status of the majority of the stocks, and we need to know.”

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