A Call to Arms: Responsible Marine Wildlife Conservation and Fishery Management

“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to Earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”

-Jacques Yves Costeau


Earth is comprised of approximately 71% water and 29% land. While the tallest peak, Mount Everest reaches to a height of just over 29,000 feet, the deepest oceanic trench, the Mariana Trench, extends to almost 36,000 feet. Given the sheer magnitude of Earth’s oceans and the vital role they play in everyday life, it is disturbing that only about 5% of Earth’s oceans have been explored and even less, about 2%, is protected. In fact, as a human race, we know more about and spend around 150 times more on outer space than we do our own oceans. However, if the current way of viewing our oceans continues, the vital role they play may soon come to a screeching halt. In particular, the ways fishery management and oceanic wildlife conservation are handled must be dramatically altered.

One aspect of oceanic wildlife conservation that needs addressed is that of corals- shallow water reefs as well as deep-sea corals. Deep-sea corals, unlike their recognizable tropical reef relatives, are adapted to cold, dark depths.  Most deep-sea corals are centuries old and some are even Earth’s oldest known living animals. Similar to the shallow, warm water type, deep-sea corals grow slowly, and are extremely fragile, yet provide an important habitat for thousands of marine species. Fishing gear, especially through trawling, frequently and easily gets caught on coral structures, breaking, and toppling them. Once contacted, the corals are killed and the habitats they provide are destroyed for centuries.

Map of Protected Marine Areas

Responsible fishing, including restricting certain fishing gear and practices that are known or likely to cause damage to coral structures, has slowly begun to get the recognition it deserves. Just this year, a patch of the Atlantic Ocean about the size of Virginia (39,000 square miles) was deemed protected waters where harmful fishing activities were prohibited. But that patch of water represents a very small fraction of the world’s oceans and the same protections need to be expanded to cover all  of the world’s seas.

At the same time, irresponsible fishery management is currently causing a major controversy in the State of Florida, and demonstrates the need for stronger fishery management controls. Recently, NOAA’s National Marine Fishery Service rescheduled the opening date for the Commercial Shark Fishing Season in the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of beginning in July, the season will begin on January 1, 2016. While affecting the entire portions of the Atlantic Ocean under the United States’ jurisdiction, NOAA’s decision will have the most profound effect off a small section of the Florida Coast, from Stuart to West Palm Beach, where the continental shelf is narrower than anywhere else along North America’s east coast at only 3 miles wide. From December through April, huge numbers of sharks (including Hammerhead, Tiger, Lemon, Bull and Sandbar Sharks, among others) migrate down the east coast to escape colder northern waters. The narrow continental shelf and the large number of sharks create a bottleneck-like effect leaving a very large concentration of sharks highly vulnerable to commercial exploitation. When the commercial season begins in July the sharks are not nearly as vulnerable to overfishing: the concentration of sharks is a lot lower for they begin to disperse and return north in April.

The sharks that migrate to Florida are a favorite among divers, especially the Lemon Sharks which have a highly mild-mannered behavior. They also happen to be extremely vulnerable to overfishing, and in 2010, the State of Florida passed a law granting complete protective status to Lemon Sharks in state waters. Despite the ban, in 2013, the first year NOAA moved the commercial season from July to January, Lemon Shark populations were devastated, as most large sharks caught were labeled “Bull Sharks,” irrespective of their actual species, to expedite business.

While NOAA established a catch limit of 45 sharks per vessel per trip, the number of sharks caught can easily multiply exponentially just based on the number of vessels that participate. Allowing commercial exploitation of the sharks gathered off Florida’s coast to begin in January will dramatically reduce, and perhaps eliminate entirely, shark populations. If one doubts the likelihood of commercial overfishing pushing various shark species towards extinction, one only has to look at the world’s Cod numbers to realize that not only is it a possibility, but likely inevitable unless responsible conservation measures are taken immediately.

World Cod Stocks
World Cod Stocks

Unsustainable commercial overfishing has resulted in the near extinction of worldwide Cod stocks. During the 1990’s, several Cod stocks, including the American and Canadian stocks, collapsed (declined by greater than 95%). Even with subsequent protection and cessation of fishing, the stocks have failed to recover. In fact, in 2004, the World Wildlife Fund predicted the world’s Cod stock to be completely depleted within 15 years if the current catch rates were continued. Cod is an apex predator, and the collapse of Cod stocks has led to a trophic cascade in many areas of the world. The removal of Cod from the ecosystem removed significant predatory pressure on other species which, no longer kept in check by the Cod, began to increase in number and range. The trickle down effect dramatically changes the ecosystem, resulting in increasing homogeneity among marine species.

The tragic fate of Cod stocks should serve as a lesson in fishery management. Unfortunately, it has not, and other species have begun to take its place and face the same fate. Tuna is likely the next species of fish overexploited to the point of no return. Given NOAA’s increased commercial shark season, sharks may also face the same fate. And if the loss of Cod as an apex predator caused a trophic cascade that altered the entire ecosystem, imagine the effect on a marine ecosystem with the removal of one of the planet’s biggest apex predators-the shark.

Current fishery management and marine wildlife conservation practices desperately need reworking. One obvious effect of the destruction of coral habitat and the complete collapse of species is the inability for future generations to enjoy the many wonders of the sea. Divers will increasingly have fewer places to explore, and will find fewer marine species. But a less subtle effect is even more important: once Cod stocks are completely exhausted, the fishing industry will move on to the next species, such as Tuna, and the ecological impact will multiply. Species after species will be overfished, and the trophic cascade that results with each new species taken out of the ecosystem will cause the ecosystem to become more and more homogenous.

Beneath the waters all over the world, Mother Nature holds exhilarating surprises for those willing to search for them. From the worlds largest animal, the Blue Whale, to the small, yet stunningly beautiful Nudibranch, and everything in between, the wildlife that can be found inhabiting our oceans are truly breathtaking. From diving with Orcas in Norway, Great Whites in South Africa, Leopard Seals off Antarctica, Manatees in Florida or Giant Mantas in the Galapagos, some of the world’s greatest adventures may be found under water. Unless more responsible fishery management and marine wildlife conservation is implemented, these once-in-a-lifetime adventures may disappear forever.

Protecting both shallow-water and deep-sea corals, as well as preventing species annihilation caused by overfishing, are just two examples of ways to better improve our ocean conservation efforts. Reducing wasted catch, protecting sites where fish breed, reducing/eliminating dredging operations, ending dynamite fishing and reducing maritime waste (especially plastic) are a few other desperately needed measures. In April, 2016, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing fishing in United States waters, turns 40 and is due for renewal and revision. This law, along with international treaties and agreements, needs updating to protect the vulnerable resources of the world’s oceans. Otherwise, the treasure one can find underwater today may not last much longer.

Frank Sullivan is a 3L and the Managing Editor of Communications for the Journal of Law and International Affairs at the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law.


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