COASTAL FISHERIES MAY BE MORE FRAGILE THAN YOU THINK

by Whit Gibbons

January 24, 2016

Some people like scary stories. I'm not sure why, but apparently they enjoy being scared out of their wits by zombies, maniacal chainsaw-wielding murderers and other monsters.

Such fantastical creatures, however, are not the only way to frighten readers. "Our Fragile Coastal Fisheries: Can They Survive Man's Relentless Growth?" has none of those kinds of characters but it might be the most spine-chilling story you've read this century.

The book (2004, Trafford Publishing, Victoria, Canada) by Don Phillips is available on Amazon for $24.95.

The doomsday plot is a common one in environmental books and documentaries. In this one the protagonists are fish. The bad guys are us. Many ocean fishes are besieged by three threats: pollution, habitat destruction and overharvesting.

An alarming statement in the book's preface sets the stage regarding marine fishes inhabiting coastal areas: "Population growth coupled with increasing affluence and expectations will require extraordinary changes in our way of life to avoid a worldwide fisheries disaster."

The author has a lifetime of fishing experience and a base of scientific facts to support his claims.

The first of the book's 10 chapters is an overview of physical, chemical and biological factors that affect natural resources in the ocean.

Chapters on the diversity of marine life, water quality, climate and weather follow. There is also a chapter on aquatic habitats that are critical to the health of coastal fisheries.

In a telling statement about that chapter, the author says, "Unfortunately, I'll also have to document the extent to which man has destroyed these habitats and the resultant impacts upon marine life." The facts are indeed frightening, but recognizing a problem is always the first step in solving it. Being aware of human-caused environmental devastation allows us to identify unfettered profiteers who cause the problems.

One chapter targets the common denominator of most environmental problems: human population growth. As with many other areas plagued by too many people, the stresses on coastal fishes and their habitats are apparent.

A chapter each on commercial and recreational sport fishing compares the impacts of the two. In the last few pages of the book are graphs showing the annual commercial and recreational harvest levels over several decades for more than 100 species of coastal Atlantic and Pacific fishes.

To put the impact in perspective, the numbers shown are in millions of pounds, with many reaching their peak at more than 30 million pounds in some years. Not surprisingly, the highest numbers and most dramatic declines are for commercial fisheries.

The last chapter, titled "The Road to Recovery," offers a note of cautious optimism that the recovery of coastal fisheries is possible. As with most other forms of wildlife, the problems for marine fishes are human induced, either directly or indirectly. Which means we also hold the key to possible solutions.

The author focuses on a variety of factors and attitudes that need to change, including fisheries management. He uses as an example of poor management practices, the collapse of New England fisheries in the late 1900s when the Atlantic cod became commercially extinct.

The problem, according to Phillips, was that government fisheries managers were "not listening to their own scientists and [were instead] capitulating to the relentless demands of a very powerful commercial fishing lobby."

Ocean fishing, whether commercial or recreational, must be a sustainable activity. The concept is quite simple: if we are going to exploit any living commodity it must be able to replenish itself at the same or a faster rate than we are removing it.

Science-based government regulations that some people like to complain about are often necessary to ensure such sustainability. And sustainable harvesting is in everyone's best interest.

"Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Shining" are examples of classic horror novels. But for really scary reading try "Our Fragile Coastal Fisheries." You may not be able to sleep thinking about what will happen if we don't take action.

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