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What’s in a name? For the slimehead and toothfish, the extreme makeover leads to rampant overfishing

By Joe Romm  

"What’s in a name? For the slimehead and toothfish, the extreme makeover leads to rampant overfishing"


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If the slimehead were still a slimehead, it wouldn’t be in this kind of trouble,” begins a good WashPost story today on overfishing of the Orange roughy and other fish with popular nom de plumes.  Same Fish, New Name

As lakes and oceans have been depleted by heavy fishing, the seafood industry tried to dress up what was left — former ‘trash’ species, and unfamiliar fish from the deep ocean — with new names to improve their popularity.

The Post story is based on a major report on the world’s seafood stocks published in Science, “Rebuilding Global Fisheries” (subs. req’d), which found that 63 percent of assessed fish stocks, species are below healthy levels.  I feel compelled to note that the lead author of this major report on overfishing is Boris Worm.  I can only imagine what he went through as a child….

Worm predicted that “if fishing continued at the same rate, all the world’s seafood stocks would collapse by 2048.”  The world’s fish catch “has grown more than fivefold since 1950.”  The result:

The depleted stocks include familiar fish such as the Atlantic cod, which has been fished so heavily that the Georges Bank population off New England is at 12 percent of healthy levels. The Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper stocks are at 6 percent of what scientists say they should be.

And that has led to the makeover of previously unpopular fish:

The most famous case involves the Patagonian toothfish and the Antarctic toothfish — drab, yard-long creatures from the cold waters near the South Pole. In the 1970s, they were rechristened “Chilean sea bass,” although they are not, biologically speaking, sea bass.

The toothfish’s new name and the firm, oily meat found a huge market. In recent years, environmentalists have said both toothfish are now threatened with heavy fishing, including by “pirate” fishing boats that ignore conservation laws.

The slimehead had similar troubles. Environmentalists say they live long — 100 years or more — and reproduce slowly, so it takes a long time to replace fish that are caught.

And along the U.S. Atlantic Coast, fishermen used to toss back a toad-colored fish that looked like it was 30 percent mouth and 50 percent stomach: the goosefish. Then somebody noticed that the tail meat could be cut into tasty fillets. Then, someone thought of “monkfish.” Harvests jumped five times from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, and the fish’s numbers dropped.

The Science study itself itself suggests the problem can be solved:

[Worm] said the latest study actually revealed something surprising: a reason for optimism.About half of the depleted species might actually have a chance to recover, the scientists found, if given enough protection.

All that is required for this recovery is for humanity to bear “short-term costs” and adopt a variety of proactive environmental strategies.  Now does that sound like a behavior pattern common to the subspecies homo “sapiens” sapiens?

Indeed, if the study has any flaw, it is an utter lack of discussion of global warming. A 2009 study in Nature Geoscience warned that global warming may create “dead zones” in the ocean that would be devoid of fish and seafood and endure for up to two millennia (see Ocean dead zones to expand, “remain for thousands of years”).

Kind of hard to recover fish stocks if we wipe out the coral reefs, “put calcification out of business in the oceans,” and generally render the seas inhospitable to complex life forms.

You can read the study abstract online, so let me end with the study’s conclusions:

Conclusions. Marine ecosystems are currently subjected to a range of exploitation rates, resulting in a mosaic of stable, declining, collapsed, and rebuilding fish stocks and ecosystems. Management actions have achieved measurable reductions in exploitation rates in some regions, but a significant fraction of stocks will remain collapsed unless there are further reductions in exploitation rates. Unfortunately, effective controls on exploitation rates are still lacking in vast areas of the ocean, including those beyond national jurisdiction. Ecosystems examined in this paper account for less than a quarter of world fisheries area and catch, and lightly to moderately fished and rebuilding ecosystems (green and yellow areas in comprise less than half of those. They may best be interpreted as large-scale restoration experiments that demonstrate opportunities for successfully rebuilding marine resources elsewhere. Similar trajectories of recovery have been documented in protected areas around the world, which currently cover less than 1% of ocean area.

Taken together, these examples provide hope that despite a long history of overexploitation  marine ecosystems can still recover if exploitation rates are reduced substantially. In fisheries science, there is a growing consensus that the exploitation rate that achieves maximum sustainable yield (uMSY) should be reinterpreted as an upper limit rather than a management target. This requires overall reductions in exploitation rates, which can be achieved through a range of management tools. Finding the best management tools may depend on the local context. Most often, it appears that a combination of traditional approaches (catch quotas, community management) coupled with strategically placed fishing closures, more selective fishing gear, ocean zoning, and economic incentives holds much promise for restoring marine fisheries and ecosystems. Within science, a new cooperation of fisheries scientists and conservation biologists sharing the best available data, and bridging disciplinary divisions, will help to inform and improve ecosystem management. We envision a seascape where the rebuilding, conservation, and sustainable use of marine resources become unifying themes for science, management, and society. We caution that the road to recovery is not always simple and not without short-term costs. Yet, it remains our only option for insuring fisheries and marine ecosystems against further depletion and collapse.


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Energy and Global Warming News for July 31st, 2009: DOE puts up $30 billion in clean energy loan guarantees; Worlds biggest factory for making towers for wind power gives hope to Colorado steel town ›

12 Responses to What’s in a name? For the slimehead and toothfish, the extreme makeover leads to rampant overfishing

  1. Albert says:

    So all we really need to do to protect tuna is to mandate a name change to “vomitfish” and require it to be used on all labels and menus.

  2. Gail says:

    I grew up fishing with my dad almost every day in the summer, in the Ipswich Bay, off Plum Island, and in the channels of the Essex salt marshes. Our arms would ache from hauling in the cod and flounder, which we froze for the winter. You could see the factory tankers on the horizon, and by the time I grew up, we could sit on the boat all day without so much as a nibble. My family quit fishing about 20 years ago, there was nothing left to catch.


  3. Phil Eisner says:

    “Management” is a nice sounding word. But how well will managed fishing last in the reality of 3 billion more mouths to feed by 2050? Reasonable, well fed, rich scientists can plan sustainable fish stocks, but will the plans work in the face of human starvation and despair?

  4. Richard Steckis says:

    Probably the reason that Worm did not mention global warming is that it is a non-issue in fisheries. I, as a fishery biologist work with other fisheries scientists and AGW is so far down the list of priorities in fishery management that it just does not rate. Nor should it at this stage.

    [JR: If AGW doesn't rate as an issue for fish stocks, then the problems they face must truly be horrifically unsolvable. As with, say, the Everglades, all the recovery effort for fish in the world will be undone if we go to 1000 ppm.]

  5. Mateo says:

    I am always amazed at how truly ugly the Monkfish is. Though, I don’t really think that ‘goosefish’ sounds worse than ‘monkfish.’ Overall, the name debate seems like more of a red herring than anything else.

  6. tidal says:

    In some of Jeremy Jackson’s lectures, he says something to the effect that if we were actually deliberately designing some kind of multi-faceted shock-and-awe attack on the ocean ecosystems, we could hardly do better than what we are almost accidentally doing now: habitat destruction, overfishing, introducing invasive species, warming, acidification, dumping in toxins, massive runoff of nitrogen and other eutrophying nutrients, etc.

  7. Richard Steckis says:

    ” As with, say, the Everglades, all the recovery effort for fish in the world will be undone if we go to 1000 ppm.”

    Your proof for this statement is what?

    [JR: Uhh, the link I provided, for one. Try reading the literature here.]

  8. ecostew says:

    A non-fisheries issue? For example something I saw a couple of weeks ago: http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/boise/AWAE/briefing/Isaak_FocusOnBullTroutClimate.pdf

  9. Peter Wood says:

    Like climate change and ozone depletion, overfishing is a problem that will require significant amounts of international cooperation in order to be addressed.

  10. K. Nockels says:

    Joe, you are right of course, if we can’t stop AGW, and the acidification of the oceans that go with it there won’t be anything left to MANAGE! If these efforts were done and in place 50yrs ago and we were really working world wide on AGW than I could see something postive ahead for the oceans as things stand we are just falling futher and futher behind on all of it.

  11. J. Grant says:

    You failed to mention that fish in lakes and oceans have also been depleted due to pollution , invasive species , breeding habit (salt marshes destroyed for housing developements , etc.. ) and gov mis-management.
    Too often the commerciial fisherman is the easy target for blame . That is wrong.

  12. R. Wood says:

    I recommend to you an excellent article and analysis on the subject of codfish populations off the New England coast, “The New England Herring Problem (who is taking our baitfish?) on the http://www.bunnyclark.com website. Few people know more about groundfish in the Gulf of Maine than Tim Tower, the captain of the Bunny Clark. It’s also a great website for seeing great fish photos.

    I am a periodic fisherman on the Bunny Clark, and even in recent years there have been plenty of groundfish to catch and keep, including codfish. I have also released my share of cod back into the ocean alive — undersized fish that would have been killed in a trawl net as well as large breeders that will, I hope, spawn many other codfish.

    In recent years, however, the herring that once attracted huge schools of cod and other groundfish as well as whales and tuna have been depleted significantly by mid-water herring trawlers. The cod thus look for food outside the protected areas like Jefferies Ledge and move to the Grand Banks, where they get caught by commercial fishermen. What sense is there to make Jeffries off-limits to commercial groundfishing but to allow the herring trawlers operate in the same area?

    As for global warming being a larger concern for fish populations, there is a growing number of scientists who dispute the global warmers’ predictions, especially as current climate data don’t prove those theories true. Indeed, the ocean acts as a giant sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, and there’s no evidence that dissolved carbon dioxide kills coral reefs. Also, industrialization and AGW cannot account for warming periods before industrialization or even before human civilization. Far more significant are such things as solar output and the tilt of the earth’s axis.

    Also, the global warmers have a political and ideological axe to grind: it is the last best hope for communism and totalitarianism, not to mention the ultimate excuse for knocking man off its top-species pedestal. The problem with those concerned scientists is that too many of them are political scientists.