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How greed is killing the oceans

Thanks to Panos London, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace International and the Australian Conservation Foundation for providing information for this article.
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Life in the world's oceans is under siege from commercial interests obsessed with short-term profits regardless of the long-term costs. Unsustainable and wasteful fishing practices, pollution, poaching, unrestrained and irresponsible bio-prospecting, ill-conceived forms of aquaculture, global warming and quick-fix solutions have imperiled one the planet's most essential food sources, especially for billions of people in the Third World. Governments throughout the world refuse to act meaningfully to stop this unsustainable exploitation. NORM DIXON surveys the crisis facing the world's oceans and explains why is so little being done to avert it.

Around 70% of the Earth's surface is ocean. It has an average depth of 3700 metres, compared to the average height of land of only 800 metres. Such figures indicate the vastness and importance of the world's marine environment.

The sheer immensity of the oceans allowed the false view to develop that their resources are limitless and that the human impact cannot seriously damage them. Sadly, as has become all too obvious, the oceans are much more fragile than imagined.

Greenpeace International fisheries campaigner Mike Hagler points out, ``We probably know more about outer space than we know about how the oceans work. In the light of that, we need to tread lightly.''

But in the search for profits, ``treading lightly'' has been the last thing on the minds of the owners of the many industries which make an impact on this vast and vital part of the planet. Greed and ignorance have reduced huge populations of marine life to extremely low levels - some to extinction - and destabilised coastal and sea ecosystems. Fishing communities have been impoverished and the food security of Third World countries threatened.

The main, but by no means the only, culprit is the commercial fishing industry. Since the 1950s, operations have expanded without a thought to sustainability. Wild fish regenerate at limits determined by nature, and these limits have been ignored in the quest for greater and greater catches.

Declining catches

Total global fish catches increased five-fold between 1950 and 1989, peaking at 90 million tonnes, and then declined slightly. In 1993, the catch hit a record 101 million tonnes, where it has since stagnated.

Seen as totals, these figures can be deceptive. The proportion of fish caught in the open seas is significantly down; the total figures are boosted by fish from aquaculture. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, 13 of the world's 17 key ocean fishing grounds are in serious decline. Some areas peaked as early as the 1970s.

The Gulf of Thailand, the seas around south-east Asia, the southern North Sea and the northern Mediterranean are heavily overfished. Four fisheries, including the Great Banks and Georges Bank off the Atlantic coast of North America, are considered ``commercially extinct''.

Tens of thousands of Canadian fishers were thrown out of work in 1992, when the Canadian government banned fishing on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland after decades of setting allowable catches far in excess of scientists' recommendations. There were almost no adult Grand Banks cod left.

The quality of the fish catch - in terms of both value and nutrition - has declined with drastic catch reductions of species such as Indian Ocean prawns, Atlantic cod, Cape hake, silver hake, bluefish tuna and halibut. By 1989, six relatively low quality species accounted for over 30% of the 77 million tonnes of fish caught at sea. These species are usually lower in the marine food chain, and their loss deprives larger fishes, mammals and birds of food.

Australian waters are also depleted. The federal Bureau of Resource Sciences reported in 1993 that only nine of 100 commercial species studied could withstand greater exploitation. It found that 23 were fully or heavily exploited. The southern bluefin tuna, southern shark (better known as flake) and gemfish were over-exploited, prawns and pearl oyster fully exploited and the orange roughy nearing full exploitation. The loss of 85% of the seagrass in Victoria's Westernport Bay, amounting to 18,000 hectares, has massively reduced the number of King George whiting.

The US National Academy of Sciences in April 1994 warned that unbridled commercial fishing is endangering marine ecosystems. The Manila-based International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources reports that virtually all of the world's narrow continental shelves have been seriously damaged.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), after long promoting large-scale industrial fishing, recently announced that fishing at current rates cannot be sustained. In March 1995, it said that 70% of world fish stocks are now either ``fully exploited, overfished, depleted or rebuilding from previous overfishing''.

Huge waste

Modern industrial fishing methods are incredibly wasteful and destructive. One in four animals taken from the sea are unwanted ``bycatch'' - species without commercial value or too small to sell.

It is not unusual for the bycatch to be greater than the target catch. In the Bering Sea, 16 million red crabs are discarded to find the 3 million that make it to market.

The most wasteful are trawlers catching prawns: unwanted animals can outnumber prawns by 125 to 830%. In northern Australia, the bycatch is eight times the number of prawns. Sharks and sea turtles are some of the major victims. It is estimated that 6 million sharks, half of all sharks caught, are discarded worldwide, while in US waters alone some 55,000 adult sea turtles are killed. Trawling for orange roughy off Tasmania results in large quantities of protected black coral also being landed.

Before 1990, up to 400,000 dolphins died each year in Pacific tuna nets. Between 1960 and 1990, the eastern spinner dolphin population fell by 80% and the spotted dolphin by 50%. The introduction of ``dolphin-safe'' practices reduced the deaths to 4000 in 1993, but in the process the deaths of immature tuna, sea turtles and sharks skyrocketed. Turtle deaths have increased by 1000%.

In 1990, drift nets captured 42 million non-target animals. A 1991 UN ban on drift nets longer than 2.5 kilometres is widely ignored by vessels from Britain, Italy, France, Ireland and Taiwan, which are active in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and the northern Mediterranean. In coastal areas, fishing nets dragged along the sea floors catch dolphins and turtles and seriously damage coral reefs and sea grass fields vital for fish breeding.

According to the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service, more than 40,000 albatross are hooked and drowned after attempting to take squid used as bait on longlines set for tuna. Six of the 14 species of albatross are endangered.

Drug companies have joined in the plunder. ``Bioprospectors'' searching for new drugs have targeted marine species which contain exotic chemicals.

The quantities involved are incredible. The November 25, 1995, New Scientist reports that a bioprospecting team from the US collected 450 kg of acorn worm to isolate just 1 milligram of a compound. The same group collected 1600 kg of sea hare to obtain 13 milligrams of a chemical. In other cases, researchers took 2400 kg of sponge to get just 10 milligrams of a peptide, while 847 kg of moray eel liver resulted in a mere 0.35 milligrams of toxin for study.

Rewarding exploitation

How did this calamity occur? Jacques Diouf, FAO director general, told the world's fisheries ministers in 1995 that the cause was the ``fundamental contradiction'' between finite marine resources and ``prevailing rules that reward the impulse to exploit them as much as possible''. Translation: government-endorsed capitalist greed.

During the '60s, commercial fishing fleets adapted military technologies to their war on fish, technologies that have become more effective by the year. Radar allowed operations in fog and at night, sonar enabled schools to be detected deep beneath the surface. Electronic navigation aids and satellite positioning systems have turned the once-mysterious sea into one where schools can be located by a precise system of 15-metre grids. Ships download satellite weather maps showing water-temperature fronts that allow predictions to be made about fish movements.

Modern industrial fishing fleets are floating factories that deploy mind-boggling tackle: 130-kilometre longlines with thousands of baited hooks; huge pouch-shaped trawl nets big enough to swallow 48 double-decker buses; 64-kilometre-long, 15-metre-deep drift nets able to haul in 18,000 kilograms.

Between 1970 and 1990, the world's industrial fishing fleet doubled both in numbers (1.2 million) and total tonnage. It is estimated that a fleet just half this size could fish to the limits of sustainability. To big capitalists, wild fish are simply another commodity. But if they are fished beyond their capacity to reproduce, they disappear.

As the industry's capacity ballooned and fish stocks plummeted, profitability suffered. The market value of the high-tech ships consequently also dropped. Unable to sell these expensive goliaths without making substantial losses, ship owners continue to fish rapaciously to pay off loans, and a cycle of unsustainability sets in.

Having fished out the seas around their own coasts, European and North American fleets began to head south into the waters of the Third World, making deals with debt-trapped governments or simply poaching, comfortable in the knowledge that poor nations do not have the resources to monitor or police their waters. It is estimated that US$250 million worth of fish was stolen from the waters of Sierra Leone in 1990. Illegal fishing there was reduced sharply after a patrol boat caught a French ship in its waters with almost $500,000 worth of tuna aboard.

The European Union now catches 25% of its fish outside its waters. This has potentially devastating consequences for the Third World. Unsustainable fishing and the plunder of the Third World's waters have been encouraged by the First World governments. According to FAO figures, in 1989 US$54 billion was paid in subsidies, tax exemptions, low-interest loans and grants to the industrial fishing industry to catch $70 billion worth of fish.

Robbing the Third World

``Greed in the north is robbing the south of the means to meet its needs'', points out the Coalition for Fair Fishing Agreements, which brings together 15 Europe-based NGOs. Around 150 million people in the Third World rely directly on fishing for their livelihoods. Tens of thousands of jobs in small-scale and traditional fishing are lost every year due to fishing grounds being affected by fleets overfishing offshore feeding and spawning grounds, which drastically reduces the number and quality of fish inshore.

The catch of one large fishing vessel off the coast of Kerala in India was found to be 1800 tonnes, equivalent to the combined catch of 1500 boats of local fishers. In the Philippines, the collapse of major fishing grounds costs 40,000 fishers' jobs each year.

In an attempt to redress the imbalance, Third World governments have themselves contributed to overfishing and the destruction of marine habitats. Taiwan no longer issues licences to fishing boats under 900 tonnes, while Malaysia is boosting its large vessel fleets, with a resulting cut in the number of fishers from 100,000 to 60,

In the Indian state of Orissa, four new fishing quays are being constructed for more than 500, primarily foreign, fishing boats which fish for prawns for export to Japan, the US and Europe. The quays threaten to destroy the world's largest nesting ground for olive ridley sea turtles.

The destruction of traditional fishing drives people to desperate measures. One of the most ecologically destructive is the trade in live reef fish. Poverty-stricken fishers have turned to stunning with deadly cyanide the brightly coloured reef fish that find their way into fish tanks in some of Asia's swishest restaurants. Dealers annually buy 25,000 tonnes of live fish to be consumed by Asia's wealthy elite. The trade is estimated to be worth US$1 billion a year.

Cyanide devastates coral polyps - killing whole reefs - and small and immature fish, and other animals. The trade has cut a swathe through the reefs of the Philippines and the Maldives. Indonesia's reefs will be devoid of the precious fish by 2000. The dealers have set their sights on the reefs of PNG, the Solomons and other Pacific island countries. The Hong Kong administration, where most of the fish end up, does nothing to control the trade.

The FAO estimates that fish provide 29% of the total animal protein consumed in Asia, 19% in Africa, and 8% in Latin America. In the Pacific islands, the figure is well above 50%. Marine fisheries add more to the world's supply of protein than beef, poultry or any other animal source.

With declining fish stocks and traditional fishers being squeezed out by high-tech industrial fleets, per capita fish consumption in the south is dropping, carrying serious health and economic implications for the poor. In 1985, 19% of the Third World's fish catch was exported. By 1990, it was 28%. Increasingly, only the poorest quality fish reach local people.

An FAO report in March 1995 proposed that poor countries should ``subsidise production and hinder exports'' of fish. The FAO acknowledged that such policies were contrary to the demands of western donors, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Avoiding action

Just about every government in the world recognises there is a crisis approaching catastrophic proportions. The solution seems obvious. WWF's fisheries officer, Indrani Lutchman, explains: ``Global solutions require global agreements. If the right decisions are not taken, serious environmental problems are inevitable. It's not just laws that are needed; they have to be enforced.''

Some hard decisions need to be taken that cut across accepted capitalist economic wisdom. The first and most obvious is the removal of the subsidies from the highly mechanised big business fishing operations that make an unsustainable industry so lucrative. To return fisheries to sustainability requires a massive reduction in the capacity of the commercial fishing industry and increased support for small-scale, primarily Third World-based, fishers. Controls and limits on the most ``efficient'' technologies would guard against overfishing and massively reduce the bycatch.

Such a shift could result in a big increase in jobs in fishing, especially in the Third World. For each $1 million invested in industrial fishing, only one to five jobs are created, while the same amount directed towards small-scale fishing creates up to 3000.

The resulting return to sustainability would in itself create jobs, according to a study by the US National Marine Fisheries Service which estimates that if depleted species were allowed to return to their pre-'60s levels, sustainable use thereafter would create 300,000 jobs in the US and add about 20 million tonnes to the world's annual catch.

Tragically, governments - especially in the advanced capitalist countries - have shown themselves to be incapable of seriously acting to halt the pillage of the oceans. In the era of the cult of international competitiveness, governments are not prepared to enforce international agreements that will disadvantage domestic corporate interests.

Between 1986 and 1992, quotas on disappearing cod, flounder and redfish off the coast of Canada set by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation were systematically breached by many countries' fleets, resulting in fish numbering 16 times the quotas being taken. When a Spanish ship was seized by Canadian authorities, they found two sets of books.

In 1991, when it was agreed that catches of swordfish would be reduced by 15%, Japan's catch increased 70%, Portugal's 129% and Canada's 300%. Norway and Japan have unilaterally resumed hunting minke whales in breach of an international moratorium.

The first serious global treaty to address overfishing was not signed until August 1995. It deals only with those species that cross the 200-mile territorial limits of the world's states. It proposes to give governments the power to board and inspect fishing vessels in international waters suspected of illegal fishing and requires fisheries authorities in each country to set limits based on the lowest estimates of a species' numbers.

But as Greenpeace points out, it remains ``too weak to save plummeting fish stocks'' because no action was taken to reduce the size of industrial fishing fleets or to control technology. The treaty will not come into effect until 30 countries formally ratify it. That could take a long time - the UN Law of the Sea took 12 years before enough states signed for it to become international law.

Moreover, ``straddling stocks'' account for only 20% of the world's fish stocks. The remaining 80% live within the territorial waters of individual countries, and it is here that most overfishing takes place. National governments have failed to manage and conserve these stocks despite UN reports that 70% of the world's edible fish and molluscs are in urgent need of conservation.

Already, the treaty's limited gains have begun to be undermined. A meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development held in Kyoto, Japan, attended by 95 governments, business and NGOs on April 18-May 3, produced a declaration and plan of action which Greenpeace called ``a thinly disguised master plan for increasing exploitation of ... [the] global marine environment''.

The meeting ``substantially diminished the role of precaution as the central determinant in fisheries conservation and management''. The declaration contained no explicit call to eliminate overfishing and excess capacity, using a wording considerably weaker than the treaty while placing greater emphasis on increasing the catch of ``unexploited and underexploited'' species.

Time is running out for our oceans. While mobilising and campaigning to force governments to take meaningful action, environmental activists must remember that this crisis results from a far deeper problem. We must also fight to bring an end to the irrational system of capitalism, together with its immoral exploitation of the Third World, which has brought us to the brink of this catastrophe. [Thanks to Panos London, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace International and the Australian Conservation Foundation for providing information for this article.]

First posted on the Pegasus conference greenleft.news by Green Left Weekly.
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More House Bills For Dolphin Death Act

New Bills before the 105th Congress

Stop Bills HR 408 and S39

Supported by Don Young, Ted Stevens, and Frank Malkoski

New support groups:
Rep America


Dolphin sites:
The Dolphin Project Dolphin Photographs - Beautiful portraits.

(Washington, DC) On July 31st the U.S. House of Representatives voted for legislation (H.R.2823) that would, reverse U.S. dolphin protection laws and allow the slaughter of thousands of dolphins. Commented the author Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD): "5,000 (dead) dolphins a year is biologically insignificant." Representatives Gerry Studds (D-MA), George Miller (D-CA), and many others unsuccessfully fought to amend or defeat H.R.2823.

"This is a death sentence for dolphins," stated David Phillips, Director of Earth Island Institute. "Greedy foreign interests and a runaway Republican Congress are undoing years of work to reduce the slaughter of dolphins by tuna fishermen. Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and the Clinton Administration have achieved a victory for 'free trade,' but dolphins, American consumers, and U.S. tuna processors will be the losers."

Over 7 million dolphins have been drowned in nets over the past three decades by the tuna fishing industry, which deliberately targets schools of dolphins which swim with tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) Ocean. In response, in 1992, Congress imposed an embargo on imports and banned sale of tuna caught by methods that are known to kill dolphins. Reported dolphin mortalities have decreased by over 90% in the ETP. Europe and Canada have joined the U.S. in requiring dolphin-safe tuna.

But Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and the free-trade advocates in the Clinton Department of State have tabled H.R.2823 which lifts the embargoes, once again allowing foreign tuna stained by the blood of dolphins to be sold on U.S. supermarket shelves. The legislation would further gut the federal definition of "Dolphin Safe" tuna to allow chasing, harassing, injuring, and encircling millions of dolphins annually, as long as no dolphins were "observed" to be killed outright.

Critics, which includes over 85 environmental, trade, and animal welfare organizations, including Earth Island Institute, Sierra Club, Humane Society of the U.S., Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, contend that the new "Dolphin Safe" definition constitutes consumer fraud, because many dolphins are known to die from injuries and stress, but are never seen by ship-board observers.

H.R.2823 is authored by Representatives Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), and Don Young (R-AK), known for their anti-environmental views. By contrast, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Representatives Gerry Studds (D-MA) and George Miller (D-CA), the original authors of dolphin protection laws, have introduced legislation (S.1460 and H.R.2856) which retains the current definition of "Dolphin Safe" and encourages foreign fishermen to use "Dolphin Safe" practices. A threatened filibuster by Boxer and Biden in the Senate may halt any action this year on H.R.2823.

"Now, Americans who care about dolphins must look to the Senate to block the destructive action of the House," Phillips noted. "Only the U.S. Senate can prevent Congress from capitulating to Mexico and other foreign countries over America's strong environmental laws and sacrificing dolphins on the altar of 'free trade.'

"Unless the Senate now blocks the Dolphin Death Act, dolphin killing will again increase, and consumers will be given no way to buy tuna without contributing to the slaughter of dolphins," Phillips concluded.

Contact: David Phillips
Mark J. Palmer
USA (415) 788-3666
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