JUNE 1999

 

JUNE 1999 FULL ISSUE

OUR UNDERSEA YELLOWSTONES

By PAUL KOBERSTEIN

Wilderness, according to the authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act, is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man ... " The law, curiously, does not mention the words marine, ocean or sea. But should wilderness protection stop at land's end?

The national network of parks and wilderness protects creatures of the forest, but what about denizens of the deep? There is no doubt that the sea's biological diversity and integrity are in trouble, and thus so are we, according to the world's leading marine and conservation biologists. As vital components of our planet's life support systems, marine life protects shorelines from flooding, breaks down wastes, moderates climate and maintains a breathable atmosphere. Marine species provide a livelihood for millions of people; and food, medicines, raw materials and recreation for billions. Marine species are at risk from overexploitation, physical changes in ecosystems, pollution, the introduction of alien species, and global atmospheric change.

The world's catch of ocean fish peaked in 1989 and has been declining in most oceanic regions since. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated in 1997 that among the world's main fish stocks, 44 percent are fully exploited and are therefore producing catches that have reached or are very close to their maximum limit, with no room expected for further expansion. About 16 percent are overfished and likewise leave no room for expansion. There is an increasing likelihood that catches might decrease if remedial action is not undertaken to reduce or suppress overfishing. Another 6 per­ cent appear to be depleted, with a resulting loss in total production, not to mention the social and economic losses derived from the uncontrolled and excessive fishing pressure, and 3 per­ cent seem to be recovering slowly.

Fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic, the Southeast Atlantic and the Eastern Central Atlantic reached their maximum production levels one or two decades ago and are now showing a declining trend in total catches. In the Northeast Atlantic, the Southwest Atlantic, the Western Central Atlantic, the Eastern Central Pacific, the Northeast Pacific and the Mediterranean and Black Seas, annual catches seem to have stabilized, or are declining slightly, after having reached a maximum potential a few years ago.

"The declining and flattening catch trends in these areas are consistent with the observation that these areas have the highest incidence of fully exploited fish stocks and of stocks that  are either overexploited, depleted the FAO reports.

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Paul Koberstein