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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Blue Frontier

Air Date: Week of

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Host Diane Toomey talks with David Helvarg, author of the book "Blue Frontier: Saving America? Living Seas," about the collapse of fish stocks along America? coastlines.


TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth; I'm Diane Toomey. There are plenty of fish in the sea, or so the old saying goes. But according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 70 percent of the world's major marine fisheries are overfished. A recent study in the journal Science found that overfishing was to blame for the collapse of marine ecosystems in many parts of the world, even more than climate change or pollution.

David Helvarg has been talking with fishermen, fishery managers and scientists. The result of those conversations is a book called "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas." And its chapter on overfishing begins with a view of the catch at New York's Fulton Fish Market.

HELVARG (READING): I look around as we walk into the market. The streets are full of hardworking men and freshly killed fish-boxes, crates, handtrucks, and forklifts full of fish and half the guys carrying wooden handled metal hooks over their shoulders or in loops by their hips. We pass some Australian yellowtail, some octopus and live crabs, sea urchin roe and skate wings, catfish and grunts, whiting and butterfish. Still, the Fulton Fish Market is tiny, compared to others, like Tokyo's Tsukiji. What they all have in common is globalization, the creation of a world market for anything indigenous to the sea. The urchin caught in California, Maine, or Alaska one morning could have its gonads removed and served in a Tokyo nightspot the next evening. A white abalone from California could be the centerpiece of a 450 dollar dinner in Hong Kong, which is why there are only about 2,000 of this extinction-bound species of sea snail left in the ocean. Giant geoduck clams caught in Puget Sound have been smuggled into Canada for shipment to Asia, just as polluted black clams have been smuggled from Mexico into the United States for sale in East L.A. Things from the ocean once considered useless or inedible, like baby eels, skates, dogfish, horseshoe crabs, and sea urchins all now have their market.
TOOMEY: So globalization is to blame for depleted fish stocks?

HELVARG: It's really a combination of markets and technology. It's kind of like the western frontier, where for a hundred years we were out their shooting buffalo. But between 1860 and 1880, you had this coming together of technology and marketing, of the Sharp's repeating rifle and the railheads and the rails that could bring the skins back to eastern markets. Today we have this technology in our fisheries inherited from the military, from the Navy, including sonar and satellite tracking of the fish, stronger engines and nylon for netting, and we're able to target the fish and we're able to market them globally. And that combination is deadly. Basically, we've over-capitalized our fisheries, where we have more capacity for catching the fish than the fish are able to reproduce. And that's why you see the decline.

TOOMEY: Paint a picture for me of how serious the problem is, of depleted fish stocks.

HELVARG: Literally, we're taking so much biological capital out of the sea. I use the analogy with aircraft carriers-we have twelve aircraft carriers in the world today, but every year we take the equivalent in weight of 900 aircraft carriers out of the sea. That's 90 million tons of living bio-mass and it simply can't be sustained. We know what the problems are, but we're not addressing them. Part of the problem is that we created a system here in the United States, within our own 200-mile-zone, where in 1976 we kicked out the factory trawlers that were from overseas, foreign trawlers. And as one fisherman said to me, "With great American ingenuity we've learned to rape the resource better than the foreigners ever did." And at a certain point, the catching capacity simply crashed the resource and that's what we're left with today.

TOOMEY: So, what are the solutions for overfishing?

HELVARG: Well, there are so many acronyms in fisheries that I thought I'd get into it. So, I actually came up with what I call "The Blueplate Special."


HELVARG: The "B" is for "buybacks." We literally have too much gear in the water and we have to make a federal commitment, a state commitment, to buying back some of the fishing boats that are out there.

The "L" is for "limited entry." Once we reduce the size of the fleet we have to limit the people who are out there fishing. We can't allow more fishing power than the fish's ability to reproduce and sustain themselves.

The "U" is for "underwater reserves." Scientists are seriously talking that we need twenty percent of our blue frontier as no-take zones: areas where fish reproduce and propagate and can come back to some of the historic abundance that they've had in the past.

And along with the underwater reserves we mostly need what I call "E"--an "end to the conflict of interest." We've built a system of fishery management with built-in conflict of interest, where industry is telling industry how much it can do, and that doesn't work.
But I think if we combine those different tools that are out there, it's possible that we can have healthy fisheries for many generations down. I mean, I'm a body surfer and a diver. You know, I just think a lot of us feel a spiritual connection to the ocean. And getting so much out of it, we've got to give something back; we've got to give some of our time and our political energy.

TOOMEY: David, do you eat fish?

HELVARG: Yeah. And they're sustainable fish I eat and sometimes, in a guilty moment, I might take a shrimp, but I prefer some of the fish that are being well-harvested, like salmon, like striped bass.

TOOMEY: So, if you return to the Fulton Fish Market in 10 or 20 twenty years time, what do you expect to see?

HELVARG: I really don't know. I expect and I hope with my book to build a political constituency to protect our oceans. If that happens, then we ought to have fish there. We ought to have a bounty of fish; and it ought not to be tuna from Ecuador and Vietnam, or mussels from New Zealand. It ought to be our own fish. We ought to be eating locally and sustainably. I think it's possible, but it won't happen with the system we have now, the system of fisheries mismanagement. If it keeps going the way it's going now, with the seals guarding the salmon pens, then we're going to lose it. And there won't be fish there and we'll all be eating out of aquacultural factory farmed fish. But it's really up to us; we're on the cutting edge right now. And at one level, I consider it very lucky. It's not every nation that gets a second chance on a new frontier like this.

TOOMEY: David Helvarg is author of the book "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas." Thanks for speaking with us today.

HELVARG: Thank you, Diane.



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