Still Waters: The Global Fish Crisis 3 (continued)

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By Fen Montaigne Photographs by Randy Olson and Brian Skerry


The extent to which giant bluefin fleets flout regulations became evident during a visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily. To give the tuna a reprieve during peak spawning season, EU and ICCAT rules prohibit spotter aircraft from flying in June. The regulation is often ignored.

I flew one June morning with Eduardo Domaniewicz, an Argentine-American pilot who has spotted tuna for French and Italian purse seiners since 2003. Riding shotgun was Domaniewicz’s spotter, Alfonso Consiglio. They were combing the waters between Lampedusa and Tunisia, and they were not alone: Three other spotter aircraft were prowling illegally, relaying tuna sightings to some of the 20 purse seiners in the water below. (After two hours, high winds and choppy seas, which make it difficult both to see and net the bluefin, forced the planes to return to Lampedusa and Malta.)

Domaniewicz was conflicted. He loved to fly and was well paid. He believed his June flights were legal, because Italy never agreed to the ban. But after three years of spotting for the bluefin fleet, he was fed up with the uncontrolled fishing. Just before I arrived on Lampedusa, he had watched two purse-seine fleets net 835,000 pounds (380,000 kilograms) of bluefin, sharing more than two million dollars.

“There is no way for the fish to escape—everything is high-tech,” Domaniewicz said. Speaking of the French purse-seine fishermen he worked for in Libya, he said, “I am an environmentalist, and I couldn’t stand the way they fished with no care for the quotas. I saw these people taking everything. They catch whatever they want. They just see money on the sea. They don’t think what will be there in ten years.”

Alfonso Consiglio, whose family owns a fleet of purse seiners, also is torn. “The price is cheap because more and more tuna are being caught,” he said. “My only weapon is to catch more fish. It’s a vicious circle. If I catch my quota of a thousand tuna, I can’t live because the price is very cheap. I want to respect the quota, but I can’t because I need to live. If boats of all countries respect the rules, tuna will not be finished. If only few countries respect the rules, and others don’t respect the rules, the fisherman who respects rules is finished.”

How can this endless cycle of overfishing be stopped? How can the world’s fleets be prevented from committing ecological and economic suicide by depleting the oceans of bluefin tuna, shark, cod, haddock, sea bass, hake, red snapper, orange roughy, grouper, grenadier, sturgeon, plaice, rockfish, skate, and other species?

Experts agree that, first, the world’s oceans must be managed as ecosystems, not simply as larders from which the fishing industry can extract protein at will. Second, the management councils that oversee fisheries, such as ICCAT, long dominated by commercial fishing interests, must share power with scientists and conservationists.

Further, governments must cut back the world’s four million fishing vessels—nearly double what is needed to fish the ocean sustainably—and slash the estimated 25 billion dollars in government subsidies bestowed annually on the fishing industry.

In addition, fisheries agencies will have to set tough quotas and enforce them. For giant bluefin in the Mediterranean, that may mean shutting down the fishery during the spawning season and substantially increasing the minimum catch weight. ICCAT recently failed to decrease quotas significantly or close the fishery at peak spawn, although it did increase the minimum catch weight in most areas to 66 pounds (30 kilograms) and ban spotter aircraft. But without inspection and enforcement, the commission’s new rules will, like the old ones, mean little.

Another crucial step, both in the Mediterranean and around the world, would be the creation of large marine protected areas. Also important are campaigns by such groups as the Marine Stewardship Council, which is working with consumers as well as retail giants to promote trade in sustainably caught fish.

The news from the fisheries front is not unremittingly grim. Indeed, where sound fisheries management exists, fish populations—and the fishing industry—are healthy. A prime example is Alaska, where stocks of Pacific salmon and pollock are bountiful. Iceland’s cod fishery is thriving, because it, too, follows a cardinal conservation rule: Limit the number of boats that can pursue fish.

But all agree that the fundamental reform that must precede all others is not a change in regulations but a change in people’s minds. The world must begin viewing the creatures that inhabit the sea much as it looks at wildlife on land. Only when fish are seen as wild things deserving of protection, only when the Mediterranean bluefin is thought to be as magnificent as the Alaska grizzly or the African leopard, will depletion of the world’s oceans come to an end.



Taken from :ngm-APRIL 2007


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