Overfishing must end or sport will

Bill Burton

July 26, 1991|By Bill Burton

The fish were so thick I figured there would never be an end to them. Nets bulged; so did the holds below deck.

That was a memorable winter during my college days in the mid-1940s when I served briefly with the commercial fleet out of New Bedford, Mass. The boats were old, of wood, and with no sophisticated electronics.

Catches depended on the ability of the skipper to make the right sets, the weather, and, of course, some luck. We loaded up with cod, pollock, haddock and yellowtail, steamed back to port, got paid, spent a day or two on the town, then steamed off for another several days at sea to make another haul of fish worth pennies a pound.

The fish were always waiting, but it was tough work, winds and temperatures were biting cold, seas were often tumultuous, boats were small by today's standards, sleep came in catnaps. However, all this was forgotten when nets crammed with squirming fish came over the side.

Yes, netters enjoy seeing the fish come in -- and not just for the nights on the town they finance. It's not unlike the pleasure a rod and reel angler enjoys.

Today, hook and liners have trouble catching fish of the ocean, and so do the men with nets. Overfishing prompted by the incredible accuracy of sophisticated electronics, pollution and other changes in the ocean we don't fully understand have taken their toll.

Prices are high -- and for most species, catches are low. High seas trawlers once selling for less than $50,000 now cost millions, and can be paid for only by more and more catches.

While ocean fish decline, pressure mounts to catch more to pay for boats, electronics and other gear -- it's diminishing returns, all targeted at catching more to feed a hungry world, to pay for more and bigger boats, and satisfy a domestic market in which per capita consumption in the past 20 years has increased 40 percent.

Thus it really wasn't surprising when two recent national reports warned us that our coastal fish are disappearing at alarming rates- and that unless tighter regulations and strict conservation measures are implemented many species could be wiped out in a decade.

This isn't just a commercial fisheries problem; we sportsmen fish for many of these same species. And those who cater to us, earn their living from the water through our spending.

All fisheries managers, and those who do the catching and otherwise depend on the fisheries know something must be done. Curiously, there agreement ends. We have an example in the Chesapeake: Let the other guy make the sacrifices.

We all better make sacrifices and fast. Yesterday, John Bryson, director of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council at Dover, Del., warned in 20 years things will be a total disaster.

"We're overfishing; the U.S. fishery is developing so rapidly -- while other problems persist -- we must understand the only thing controllable is man's effort. It has to be reduced."

Consider the surf clam, which once required four or five days a week for watermen to catch their quota. So sophisticated has electronics and gear become a crew now catches its quota in six hours every two weeks.

So, they turn to other creatures of the sea.

Fish not wanted 25 years ago are now in demand, especially by fleets of other nations. The 200-Mile Limit designed to curb the intrusion of foreign fleets succeeded, but the vacuum was filled by domestic fleets, which now find markets here or elsewhere for fish no one once wanted.

At Ocean City, we rarely see porgies any more, cod are virtually gone, kingfish are scarce, blues diminishing, sea trout in serious trouble, keeping-size flounder rare, and sea bass are hooked from wrecks as soon as they arrive -- if commercial bass pots don't catch them first.

Yet, said Bryson, our main marine fisheries manager of the Mid-Atlantic, this is only the beginning. All fishing interests must agree that enough is enough, and we'd all better start making sacrifices -- or there won't be much left for our kids to catch by hook or net.

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