100 species of ocean fish are put on 'red list' of those facing extinction Experts scoff at adding tuna, other species, saying sea is too vast for all to die

September 17, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

For the first time, scientists are saying that some species of ocean fish and invertebrates are reaching low levels where extinction becomes a real possibility.

Their contention is prompting a fierce scientific debate, which could intensify with the addition next month of more than 100 species of ocean fish to the World Conservation Union's influential "red list" of creatures whose existence is endangered.

But until now, only a handful of marine organisms have been placed on the list along with thousands of terrestrial and freshwater creatures.

The oceans have had their share of trouble, of course. The plight of whales, other marine mammals and sea turtles is a familiar tale of ecological woe.

Alarms have also been raised about the rapid depletion of many commercial stocks of ocean fish. But depletion is not endangerment, and it has long been assumed that the sea is so vast that marine fish and invertebrates are generally in no danger.

Not necessarily so, say the marine biologists who cite growing evidence that many ocean species may be just as imperiled as their terrestrial counterparts, and largely for the same two reasons: the over-exploitation of long-lived species that cannot reproduce fast enough and the disruption or destruction of narrow habitats.

Ten years ago, or even five, "it was inconceivable that endangerment could occur in the ocean," said Gene Huntsman, a longtime fisheries biologist who recently retired from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The roster of imperilment would grow, biologists say, if marine invertebrates not yet considered for the list were to be added. That expanded roster includes:

The white abalone of California, its population so depleted by fishing that little or no reproduction is taking place.

Florida sea slugs, apparently on the ropes because of coastal development.

A whole family of groupers that are sitting ducks for fishermen because they never leave their coral reefs in shallow water.

Sea horses, confined to grass beds where they are easy prey for suppliers of the trade in Asian traditional medicines.

The great white shark, no match for human hunters.

All these creatures are said to be vulnerable because they bear few young or are found in only a few restricted habitats, or both.

Even some species and populations that reproduce in large numbers or roam widely or both, like the bluefin tuna, the North Atlantic swordfish, the Atlantic cod and the haddock, are also being added to the red list, and this is the source of controversy.

Many fisheries experts scoff at fears of extinction in the case of the super-fertile bony fishes like tuna.

John A. Musick, a vertebrate ecologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said: "They're severely overfished, and they should be protected, [but] an animal that lays millions and millions of eggs is not as likely to go extinct" as species with low reproductive rates.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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