On emptying seas, a vanishing way of life

Overfishing on the Mediterranean is threatening artisanal fishermen and endangering more than 100 marine species.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
A fading way of life: Italian Gianni Pisanu has been fishing off the coast of Sardinia since he was 16. But his catch is now down by 80 percent – a depletion he blames largely on illegal trawlers.
Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff
A Day's Catch: Fishermen on the Italian island of Sardinia sort through their precious cargo after seven hours at sea on the Crazy Horse.
Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff
Worth only $60, the catch is a fraction of what they caught daily in the 1980s.
Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff
In Cabras, the Nuovo Consorzio Cooperative Pontis also has a restaurant that serves fresh mullet.
Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
Repackaging the product: As artisanal fishermen struggle to make a living amid dwindling fish stocks, they’re turning to alternative sources of income. In Cabras, the Nuovo Consorzio Cooperative Pontis sells dried fish eggs from a fish farm, which dates to the 1400s.

Seven hours after setting out into the inky 3 a.m. blackness, the Crazy Horse's two-man crew pulls back into port with the fruits of their morning's labor: just a few small buckets of fish, worth maybe $60.

"That's the average now," sighs Gianni Pisanu, whose boat is docked nearby, as he helps his neighbors tie up. "The sea is impoverished now."

For more than 50 years, the nearly two dozen countries bordering the Mediterranean have struggled to jointly manage the shared bounty of the sea, whose uniqueness makes managing this crisis both unusually difficult and extremely important.

But their efforts have stalled often amid the conflicting political and economic interests in this diverse region, which contains everything from the heavily subsidized Italian fleet – one of the biggest in the sea with more than 14,000 boats – to thousands of subsistence fishermen in Morocco.

The benefits of preservation are manifold, however, in this marine ecosystem, whose share of global biodiversity is eight times greater than its size.

Now, that diversity is threatened. According to the United Nations, 85 percent of species in the sea are already being fished at or above sustainable levels. Some are near commercial extinction.

Other species, like turtles, dolphins, and sharks, often caught accidentally in fishermen's nets, are also being driven toward extinction. A recent report by the World Conservation Union, which monitors endangered species, found that 42 percent of the sea's 71 shark and ray species are threatened or endangered – a global high. Fishing is the most serious threat, the report found.

As his friends untangle the last fish from their nets, Mr. Pisanu watches a large vessel with a giant metal apparatus on its stern chug out to sea. "A bottom trawler," he explains, describing a kind of boat that arrived here two decades ago, dragging weighted nets. "Before trawling, the catches would have been 80 percent bigger."

Double the catch levels of 1950

Twice as many fish are caught in the Mediterranean today than in 1950. The Mediterranean alone cannot provide enough fish to meet local needs. Southern Europeans eat significantly more fish than the global average of 35 pounds per person annually. Spaniards consume 90 pounds a year, while Italians, French, and Greeks, eat almost 45 pounds – much of which is imported. Though catches are down from their mid-1980s peak, the fact that fishermen expend greater effort to catch fewer fish indicates that stocks are overexploited. Trawling has been identified as the most environmentally destructive type of fishing here.

"The fundamental problem is that the sea is not managed with the objective of conservation, or rational management of the resource, but mostly in the short-term interest of those few fishermen who take as much as they can," says Alessandro Gianni, a fisheries campaigner with Greenpeace, whom Pisanu contacted for help. "The more economically profitable ... [push] out the smaller artisanal fishermen."

Gianni Usai, regional director of Legapesca, the largest local fisherman's cooperative in Cabras, was one of the first locals to recognize that there was a problem. Twenty years ago, he began to notice that lobster catches were declining, from 10 tons a year in the mid-1980s to between 3 and 4 tons in the early 1990s. Today, local fishermen catch less than half a ton. But for years, his warnings were ignored.

"When there's a fire in the woods ... everyone is upset and goes and stops it. In the sea, it's like there's been a fire forever, but no one does a thing," says Mr. Usai.

A solution: marine parks

One solution to overfishing that is increasingly being considered by environmental groups and even fishing groups like Legapesca is the creation of marine parks. Those would ban or severely limit fishing. A pilot project near Cabras to create a protected area for lobsters to breed has had some success, says Usai.

But while there's general agreement that Mediterranean fishing needs to be curtailed, attempts to do so have sputtered in the region's unique political and biological environment. In part because of the sea's rich biodiversity, the vast majority of fishing here does not target specific species. With the exception of a few boats that focus on high-value fish, like bluefin tuna and swordfish, most fishermen scoop up whatever their nets happen to catch. This makes conservation techniques used elsewhere, such as catch quotas, largely ineffective.

And with 21 countries, plus the Palestinian territories, bordering the sea and sharing its resources, political agreements can be hard to arrive at.

"The particular thing about the Mediterranean is that most of the waters are international waters," says Susanna St. Trappa, a fisheries expert with World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "Every solution must come with consensus and to reach consensus with 21 countries is a very big task."

International efforts to curtail overfishing

The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, established under the United Nations, serves as a forum for cooperation on fisheries issues. Environmental groups credit it with becoming more aggressive in recent years about brokering agreements – such as a 2005 ban on bottom trawling in waters deeper than 3,000 feet. In addition, the European Union now bans the practice close to shore in waters less than 150 feet deep.

And there is a general consensus about what the root of the problem is: overcapacity. Although there are fierce debates about how to measure it, the EU estimates that its fishing capacity in all its waters, including the Mediterranean, is 40 percent higher than is sustainable.

But efforts to reduce capacity have failed, or in some cases backfired. On the northern shore – there's little data from the south – the total number of European boats fishing the Mediterranean has decreased. But environmental groups say that EU subsidies intended to help fishermen modernize their fleet enabled many to upgrade from small boats like Pisanu's 33-ft. Nina, which he inherited from his father, to bigger, more environmentally damaging vessels. In Cabras, for example, local fishing organizations say subsidies helped fishermen purchase many of the devastatingly efficient trawlers based there.

In Italy – which has the largest fishing industry in the Mediterranean – trawlers make up only a small percentage of the fishing fleet, but account for more than half of catches. But bottom trawling churns up the sea floor, destroying vital habitat for many bottom-dwelling species, and is among the most wasteful forms of fishing. Although estimates vary widely, up to 70 percent of the fish caught by bottom trawlers are thrown back because they are the wrong type.

Legally, trawlers shouldn't be fishing the same waters as Pisanu. Artisanal fishermen still own and operate two-thirds of the region's boats but are rapidly being outfished by bigger, more technologically advanced boats.

But Usai says enforcement is difficult because few fishermen, even environmentally conscious ones, are completely compliant with current laws. It's hard, he admits, to ask authorities to enforce regulations only against big boats.

But if nothing changes, small fishermen like Pisanu say their life on the sea is threatened. "It's my passion," he says. "But I can't really say if I'll be fishing in 20 years."

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