How Do We Know That Our Fisheries Are Overfished?
One fish per person please.
Are fish in trouble? Are Snook in trouble? Grouper? Red snapper? Are they overfished? What exactly is overfishing, anyway? We are sure you're at least fairly confident you are correct in your opinion, too. The real question is, "What exactly gets a fishery in distress?" Too many fishermen? Not enough fisherman? Not enough fish? Which is it?
These might seem like stupid questions, but this is not an opinion piece. This is a discussion about overfishing and what it means, exactly. It is a term whose definition might not be as obvious as you think. It is also a term that is being used – as terms often are – to evoke emotional response. Sometimes the emotional response is dedicating your life to a single species. Convinced you are making a difference, you might actually add or subtract a few days of extra flounder carcasses in the course of 365. You may succeed in collecting important phone numbers, and participate in committees.
Follow the Wealth
Sometimes a man's entry into a fishery is not emotional at all. The executives at organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Ocean Conservancy, and our own Federal Government are not one tiny bit concerned about how many red snapper you caught or failed to catch this month. Executives inside Tyson Foods or Walmart or Publix, or other large scale grocery chains and food distribution centers are concerned about their numbers. How much food costs, what spoilage and theft statistics do to those numbers, and how it trickles its way to the bottom line. The difference between the first category and the second is that one is tax exempt and lives on government grants and donations from the guilty.
They are all people. People who have bills to pay, kids to educate, and cars to feed with fossil fuels. Plugged in or not, coal burns to fill those carbines that turn on lights and drive those cars and send energy down those wires. They are people with opinions. Just like yours. The difference is that they have power over many people's lives. Power – regardless of the form of the collecting entity – requires two things: control and funding. You need to control people to truly effect change, and you need money to do it. The job of the environmental left or the federal government is not to protect the fish. They can use fish as the victim of the month, but they need to evoke emotions. Scaring people is good and always works. So does making you go "Aw. Look at that frozen and obviously orphaned and sad polar bear floating on a solitary ice cube in the middle of nowhere."
The Types of Overfishing
So let's talk American Red Snapper. The advent of paper finders evolved in turn to digital bottom finders to side scanning sonar that can show you scales on a fish at 8 feet, or 120 feet, or far deeper. And global positioning satellite (GPS) technology that is able to position your boat in the middle of the open ocean within three feet of those fish you can see in high resolution adds more nails in the coffin of those poor, overfished fish, right? Wrong. Sure. If ten people live on a one acre pond and fish there too much, the largemouth bass population along with the bluegill, catfish, and occasional cichlid will eventually vanish. But if you stop fishing the pond for ten years you will find bass, bluegill, catfish, and all but the cichlid. Water is the source of life, and living creatures find adaptive environments. Recreational fishing could potentially destroy the population of a given contained body of water. But the species inside that pond will not reach near extinction because of bottom finders.
The definition of the concept of overfishing – the true definition of what injures fisheries – has nothing to do with side sonar. Can I kill fish faster and am I more likely to find and kill my allotted number of tasty fish? You bet. Does it give me an advantage over some guy unable to spend $100,000 on a fishing boat with decent electronics able to reach the fish? You bet it does. Does it result in less red snapper? Nope. They are not counting red snapper to determine if they are overfished.
They theorize what might have happened to the fish thirty years ago. They then theorize about how many fish there are today and what might have happened to them or not happened to them. To complete their theoretical calculations so as to determine the allocations, they theorize about what might happen to the current theoretical fish population if something theoretical happens to them.
It is called precautionary science. College graduates being paid by corporations or through government grants theorize fish populations. Once in a rare while they might gather a few dead fish from somewhere, but the carcasses are assumed to be all fish in the ocean. They are unimportant but required optical input to a computer model. More than one computer model in some cases.
Should We Feel Bad for the Fish?
Overfishing is harvesting a fish stock to the extent that much of the potential food and wealth is not maximized. What about the poor fish? What about their feelings? The feelings of the fish living in their pristine and completely safe environment do not count. They might count to the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that effectively seek to make you feel bad as a revenue tactic, but how the fish feel has nothing to do with overfishing. Fish are truly overfished if the fishery is pounded so hard by anglers that less people get to eat them and less people make money on them. Period. End of story.
I want happy fish as much as you want happy fish, but if the fish's feelings come into play, you will not be allowed to fish at all. Do not laugh. There is a large percentage of the environmental movement that feels any intrusion – one fish caught and made to feel bad – is too much intrusion. Welcome to the world of big money investors. Poor people and rich people both feel terrible that that poor red snapper is being ripped fish utopia (never mind Bulls and thirty other species of sharks that eat them) by a barbarian with steel hooks and side sonar systems. EDF does not have many employees, but check their tax returns.
So let's assume that human beings are the scourge of the universe and it would be a better place if all towns held no more than 2,032 people living in three high rises in a mystical utopian land where only soft music plays. That would be 2,032 people that would not consider fishing or eating anything but rotted bean turd and cookies that were a smell on a scratch off. Until the smell of chocolate bars, garlic, and fried fish can be put into capsules and imagined, people are gonna eat fish. Hell. People are actually going to want to catch fish for no reason other than to torture the poor little things.
I am one of them. Having the tackle, knowing their behavior, targeting, hunting, tracking, and killing them (or not and just letting then go) has been part of my life. It is probably part of yours, too, if you got this far. Lots of money is spent on fish. Eating them or torturing them, they are all about feeding human beings and moving money around. Wealth. If nobody ever ate them and nobody liked hunting for them for the sake of the hunt, we would not be talking about them.
So it is not how they feel that defines overfishing unless you are wearing bamboo cloths and unable to connect to the cloud. I hate to sound cruel, but we do not care what Bamboo Man things about the emotional well being of a blue crab or the cobia that chase and eat them. We are talking about food and recreational activity.
How Can We Really Determine Overfishing?
So how do you know if something is overfished or a fishery is in trouble? Ideally, you would count the fish caught, and you would go underwater with cameras to count them in their natural environment. It is not all that hard to do, really. In the case of commercial fishing, you can count the poundage of specific species they bring to the fish houses. Those are the distributor and handler that stands between commercial fisherfolk and the stores and restaurants where you buy or eat them immediately.
Unfortunately that is not how fish are counted in today's world. Fish are counted by computer. A few are counted at the fish houses, and an effort is underway to register all anglers with the federal government. We all know how good they are at collecting, story, and retrieving data, right?
From the publisher: We will be exploring the concept of overfishing in future articles, and how the loose definition is responsible for government takeover of every aspect of your fishing life. We will explore biomass, and we will investigate the money trail that has led in the recent past to a one-day red snapper season in Gulf waters. And we will talk about what you can do to rebuild our fisheries. Not the fish, mind you, but the people fishing for them. You see there is another level nobody talks about – "underfishing." That is where there are more fish available than are being caught. The population is such that many more fish – and food and wealth – could he caught that are not being targeted. Enter the red snapper. And enter government-forced underfishing. And Gummy Bears that look like Red Snapper because we can't keep any.