sunfish caught in drift net being freed by Greenpeace diver

Okay, before you start reading this section, I have to warn you: this is an issue about which I feel very strongly. The statements and opinions expressed below are based on personal experience and my knowledge of the issues. To me, the evidence is overwhelming. But that doesn't make me right. If you feel that something stated here merits further discussion or another perspective, please, by all means, e-mail me. I am very happy to learn more about this subject with you.  That said, read on...

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, fish are the most important source of protein for humans on our planet. They report:

Worldwide men, women and children eat more fish than any other type of animal protein. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of all animal proteins come from aquatic animals. Fish is highly nutritious and serves as a valuable supplement in diets lacking essential vitamins and minerals.

The world's oceans, lakes and rivers are harvested by artisanal fishers who provide vital nourishment for poor communities, not only in Africa and Asia, but also in many parts of Latin America and islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Of the 30 countries most dependent on fish as a protein source, all but four are in the developing world.

Not only is fish a vital food, it is also a source of work and money for millions of people around the globe. In 1996, an estimated 30 million men and women were deriving an income from fisheries. An overwhelming majority of them - some 95 percent - were in developing countries.

The developing countries are also taking a growing share of the international trade in fish and fishery products. This may have both benefits and drawbacks. While the exports earn them valuable foreign exchange, the diversion of fish and fish products from local communities and developing regions can deprive needy people, including children, of a traditionally cheap, but highly nutritious food.

Despite their importance, we are decimating fish populations on historic scales. Never before in their 400-million-year history have fish been threatened to the degree that they are now threatened. Not even the most vicious aquatic dinosaurs in the ancient seas wreaked the havoc on fishes that humans have now wrought.

Fish populations are in a state of decline worldwide. When one population becomes commercially extinct, another species is found. The end result is that humans are fishing for an eating fishes that in the not-so-distant past were considered inedible. Some fisheries have resorted to gathering krill (small shrimp-like animals on which whales, sharks and many other organisms depend) as a food source because not enough fish are not available.

Scientists, politicians, fishermen, farmers, loggers, developers, environmentalists, concerned citizens, etc. etc. cite a multitude of reasons for the declines in fish stocks. It is true that there are multiple causes for the worldwide decline of fish stocks but I'm hear to tell you that there is one cause that surpasses all: overfishing. You, me, fisherpeople on the beaches, fisherpeople on  piers, drift boats, charter boats, commercial boats, factory ships, anyone who fishes is responsible for the commercial extinction of perhaps hundreds of species of fish.

Let me explain why I have come to this very strongly voiced opinion.

As a young boy growing up in southern Florida, fishing was a large part of my life. There was a lot of adventure, a lot of excitement, a lot of intrigue and a lot solace in fishing. I fished from piers, from bridges, from causeways, from docks, in marinas, from jetties, from inlets, from beaches, from boats, as a skin diver and scuba diver, in shell pits, ponds, lakes, canals, rivers, streams and creeks. Fish I didn't catch to eat went into my saltwater aquarium. Among the myriad of fish I ate were bluefish, Spanish mackerel, red snapper, grunts, dolphin (the fish!), grouper, jewfish, drumfish and who knows what else. Fish I kept in my aquarium included queen angels, french angels, sergeant majors, blue tangs, cardinal fish, beau gregorys, sea horses, pipefish, Sargassum fish and lots of others. The best day in my fishing life was fighting a tarpon off a seawall in the Florida keys for an hour and a half and losing it; my worst day was cleaning 120 snapper, not a one of which I caught, after a day fishing in the Keys with my family. You might say a fair bit of my early life was spent around fish, a natural result of my boyhood passion for the sea.

As I grew older and entered my teens, a very dramatic shift in fishing and fish availability occurred. The same fishing spots were yielding far fewer fish; my favorite collecting spots held fewer and fewer tropical beauties; fishermen began to complain about the lack of fish in the Florida Keys; the price of fish in the fish markets doubled and tripled. It became more expensive to buy fish than meat. 

Fish were disappearing in Florida as early as the late 60s. Everyone saw it coming. Even fishermen admitted there were fewer fish. There weren't any factory ships fishing in the coastal waters of Florida and drift nets hadn't been invented. There were quite a few commercial fishermen but the simple fact of the matter was that there were too many recreational fishermen. It is certain that water quality problems in southern Florida in the 60s and 70s also had an impact on fish populations in Florida but my experience tells me that the biggest impact was from fishermen like me.

Let me give you another example. While scuba diving within the many wrecks and reefs off the coast of Florida, it was common to see large groupers and jewfish (part of the grouper family) weighing more than 100 pounds. These were magnificent creatures, majestic and beautiful in their size and grace. As scuba diving and spearfishing increased in popularity, these animals disappeared one by one. I remember a day when a friend of my older sister's brought home a grouper that he had shot with a spear gun. It was more than six feet tall and he hung it from a branch of the Ficus tree in our front yard. he described how it dragged him along the rocks for nearly a half an hour before it weakened to the point that he could subdue it. I remember the deep cuts and scratches he bore. Nonetheless, he was proud of it. It was a trophy for my sister! As it turned out, she was horrified at the spectacle of it.

It is extremely rare to see these large animals anymore. The award-winning documentary, The Living Sea, talks about the disappearance of the large groupers among the reefs of Palau. Fishing has taken them away. Very well-meaning individuals have fished out--hunted out--the stocks of these magnificent creatures.

So what's my point in all this? My point is to alert you that overfishing is not a new problem and that it is not some wild-minded environmentalist scheme to stir up trouble. The Grand Banks, the pride of New England for centuries, are closed to fishing. No pollution there: fishermen fished it out. At least six species of salmon are on the threatened or endangered species list in the Pacific Northwest. At the turn of the century you could practically walk across the backs of salmon in the river. Factory ships? Not in Puget Sound.

All of us can do something right now to stop the worldwide decimation of fish stocks. We can educate ourselves on the issues, the problems and the solutions to this problem. Factory ships, drift nets, bottom trawling, habitat destruction, logging, development, eutrophication, sedimentation of the water column, marine pollution and many other factors all have had a negative effect on fish populations. But the real responsibility lies with us as individuals.

Since I started teaching this course more than three years ago and became aware of these issues, I have made it a practice not to eat any seafood. Although during those years I have three or four times eaten some kind of seafood, I still believe that not eating seafood, by refusing to feed seafood to our animals and by talking to grocers and restaurant owners can have an effect.

You, too, can make a difference by making yourself aware of which species of fish are imperiled and by refusing to support restaurants, grocery stores and markets that serve these fish. You can begin to educate yourself on the merits and problems with aquaculture. You can support farm-raised seafood and urge restaurants and grocery stores to do the same.

Please take time to go through the following links and make yourself aware of the many issues surrounding the world fisheries. And while you read these materials, ask yourself throughout what you can do to help.

REQUIRED: Read Oceans in Peril: Fishing Issues:

Oceans in Peril

Fishing Issues
Fishing Issues (overview)

Useful links for more information:

If you are interested, the full U.N. report can be found here.

State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture 1998

Fishery Management Council Sites:

Nearshore Marine Fish Research Program (NMFRP) at CSU Northridge, Dr. Larry G. Allen, Director

Saving the Bluefin, from Hewlett-Packard Story Archives- Absolute must read! especially tagging

Tuna Research and Conservation Center

New England Fishery Management Council

NOAA Fisheries Headquarters (National Marine Fisheries Service)

Challenging the Global Fish Grab: Greenpeace

United Nations 1998 Year of the Ocean Web Site