Ancient predators in peril in the Pacific

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 should 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 there is an increasing likelihood that catches might decrease if remedial action is not undertaken to reduce or suppress overfishing. Another 6 percent 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 percent 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 or recovering after having been depleted," the FAO reports.

The Grand Banks fishery off the shallow coast of Maine, after 350 years of commercial exploitation of haddock, cod and flounder, has all but lost these species. In May 1998, the Northeast Fisheries Management Council closed 884 square miles in the western Gulf of Maine to protect Atlantic cod.

"The depletion of the world's most popular fish species has set off three trends, each of which is adding to the oceans' troubles," says Peter Montague, author of Rachel’s Environmental and Health Weekly report. "Fisherman are adopting new technologies that allow them to fish in deeper waters, and they are fishing lower on the food chain."

Last year, during the U.N. International Year of the Ocean, more than 1,600 leading marine scientists and conservation biologists from 65 countries urged us to take that next step, to translate the Wilderness Act’s ethic from land to sea, to create an undersea Yellowstone – without all the tourists, of course. They called for an end to activities that are destroying marine species and ecosystems. In theory, at least, the worldwide decline of ocean species might be stemmed if enough waters were set aside from all fishing and oil and gas development, just as wilderness lands are off-limits to all logging and hunting.

At present, about ź of 1 percent of the world’s oceans are protected from exploitation. The 1,600 scientists called for expanding these areas 80-fold -- their goal is to protect 20 percent of the world's oceans by 2020. This has prompted a raging debate, fueled in large part by speculation. Scientists say information about ocean ecosystems – especially here in the Northeast Pacific – is meager. Just how much virgin ocean do we have left? How much seabed has not been damaged by humans? The problem is no one really knows. But among scientists who urge caution, who say that it's better to err on the conservative side than to risk losing more fisheries, ocean wilderness makes sense.

We can already see serious and unmistakable signs of adversity, and not just with the salmon and its epic struggle. The story here concerns rockfish – members of the scorpionfish family that encompasses some 60 species inhabiting the Northeast Pacific. Some of these spiny predators may be old enough to predate the Civil War. Some -- we don't know exactly how many -- rockfish species are in trouble from overfishing off California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The bocaccio is down as much as 98 percent over the last couple decades.

Government and industry tried to address the decline without closing areas of the Northeast Pacific to rockfish harvests, while still allowing fishing 12 months a year. Tighter regulations now seem inevitable, especially if the rockfish is listed under the Endangered Species Act, which may happen. For fishermen, that might be good news, if enhanced protection of species and their habitat mean that they can fish like there is a tomorrow.

Deep Sea Harvests

West Coast rockfish live among the crags and crevices on the Continental Shelf, a relatively shallow plateau extending tens of miles out to sea. Bottom trawl technology enables fishing the Shelf as deep as a mile. Nets fitted with rollers are dragged across its floor, removing everything of any size. I saw rollers on one trawler in Newport, Ore., made of airplane tires. Though the research on effects in the Pacific is still relatively sparse, the early evidence is damning. One study in California’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary showed that tiny but important benthic organisms at the bottom of the food chain are scarce in number in areas that are heavily trawled, and plentiful in areas that are lightly trawled.

To Elliott Norse, that sounds like a clearcut. Norse, director of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Wash., is an expert on both forest (he is author of Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest) and marine ecosystems. Bottom trawling, he says, is like clearcutting a forest and then converting it into a lawn. By declaring some areas off limits to the trawlers, Norse believes the decline can be reversed.

"There are substantial areas of the sea that are so biologically important that we should decide as a society that we want to protect them," he says. "We did that on land starting 127 years ago. The areas receiving protection are absolutely miniscule, and the protections are very weak. As poor a job we are doing on land, we are doing much worse at sea."

Countries began designating marine waters for protection only in the last few decades. Out front is New Zealand, where the undersea wilderness movement began in the 1960s led by ecologist Bill Ballantine. Australia has created 300 "marine protected areas" that cover some 400,000 square kilometers. Probably the best known is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the largest of its kind in the world. It supports 1,500 species of fish, 350 species of hard coral, 4,000 species of mollusks and 240 species of birds. Some areas of the park allow most activities, including fishing. Other areas allow some tourism, but no fishing. Some areas are completely out of bounds to everyone.

Another leader is Canada, which in cooperation with the province of British Columbia has created 104 marine protected areas in B.C. The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the west side of Vancouver Island, is the only reserve that bans fishing. Half of the reserve is waters of the open Pacific, around the Broken Group Islands west of Barkley Sound. Parks Canada is thinking carefully about their future. The growing interest in the islands, with a recent increase in summer visitors, has caused the agency to consider the possibility of rationing visits. Under the new Canada Oceans Act, the government seeks to build an extensive system of marine protected areas by 2010 through a series of coastal planning proceedings.

But Sabine Jessen of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society says even this is not enough. "In B.C., 11 percent of the land is protected, and yet less than 1 percent of the marine environment has any protection. This has to change."

West Coast states have taken some steps to protect marine ecosystems. Several small nearshore areas in Puget Sound and off California coast are off-limits to fishing, as are underwater pinnacles off Sitka Sound, Alaska, and pollock areas around Steller sea lion rookeries in the Bering Sea. None of the experts interviewed for this story were aware of any marine protected areas off Oregon. California bans bottom trawling within 3 miles of shore.

The U.S. government is just beginning to consider strengthening protection for the special places in its seas. It too has yet to establish much true marine wilderness. Over the last 25 years, the U.S. created 12 National Marine Sanctuaries on both coasts, in the Gulf of Mexico, and off Hawaii and American Samoa. However, there is little that is unique about the way these areas are managed, other than around coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Some, including the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington, contain valuable commercial fishing grounds that are routinely exploited.

As in the forest, the Endangered Species Act may have an answer to poor management in the sea. The National Marine Fisheries Service is now reviewing a petition to list 18 species of deep sea fish in Puget Sound that allegedly have been overfished commercially. The petition may the catalyst for a broad coastwide status review of rockfish under the ESA, similar to how the initial salmon listings led to a regional review and a torrent of more listings. All of this activity may accelerate the creation of refugia for these fish and the ecosystems that support them. It may also speed up efforts to prop up coastal fishing economies already staggering from the loss of salmon fishing. Various proposals call on government agencies to buy permits, gear and vessels from out-of-work operators.

The idea of creating marine wilderness is denounced by some national fishing groups, but two West Coast organizations, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations and the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, say conservation is essential to healthy fishing livelihoods and communities.

"The reality is marine protected areas are going to happen," says John Fussell of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, a group that advocates conservation and sustainability, and represents commercial and recreational fishing interests, conservationists and scientists. "If stakeholders want to have a hand in it, they have to participate."

When fish disappear, so do profits. The West Coast rockfish industry declined by 30 percent from 1995 to 1997, a drop from $37 million to $26 million in the value brought to shore. "We have to have intact ecosystems to support sustainable fisheries," says Glen Spain of the PCFFA. "Everyone knows the horrors of rampant overfishing."

Imperiled Denizens of the Deep

Canary rockfish. Pacific Ocean perch. Bocaccio. Sound appetizing? You’ve seen these fish in your grocer’s seafood case, or ordered them at Red Lobster. No, you haven’t? Perhaps you would recognize the name Pacific Red Snapper, or Oregon Red Snapper, the market names for several varieties of reddish rock fish caught in the Pacific from Mexico to Alaska.

The West Coast’s declining rockfish fishery still produces many of the fish fillets we commonly find at the supermarket. The rockfish group is incredibly diverse (about 100 species worldwide and 65 in our Northeast Pacific Ocean). Harvested for centuries by First Nation peoples, they have been targets of intense fishing with bottom trawl gear since the 1950s. The Pacific Ocean perch rockfish was overfished in the 1960s, and has still not recovered. Since the 1980s, many individual rockfish species (belonging to the sebastes genus) have "decreased alarmingly," along with the general rockfish population, according to Mary Yoklavich of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The hardest hit? Possibly the bocaccio, one of the most popular varieties. Sometimes called the rock salmon, it is a rockfish that has a long history of exploitation in the West Coast groundfish fishery, particularly in California. Weighing up to 20 pounds, it ranges from Kodiak Island, Alaska, to Punta Blanca, Baja California. The largest concentrations are off southern and central California, and near the Oregon-Washington border. The bocaccio frequents a range of habitats, including kelp forests, rocky reefs, midwater, and open, low relief bottoms. It can be identified by its large mouth and protruding lower jaw.

As recently as 1997, bocaccio has been among the top 10 rockfish species caught off all Washington ports and several ports in California, including Monterey, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The Pacific Fishery Management Council reports that during the 1970s and ‘80s, annual catches of bocaccio frequently exceeded 6,000 tons. In 1982, fishers landed a record 6,784 tons of bocaccio. Since then, the catch has dropped precipitously. In 1996, the total catch was 668 tons.

In 1998, a National Marine Fisheries Service survey showed bocaccio at 2-to-4 percent of its historical abundance. The American Fisheries Society has nominated bocaccio as a candidate for "special concern" status on its list of Endangered and Threatened Marine Fishes of North America, and the World Conservation Union has identified the fish as a candidate for its Red List of "critically endangered" plants and animals.

Nevertheless, last December the Pacific Marine Fisheries Council – which sets federal fishing regulations for coastal waters off California, Oregon and Washington – took steps to increase fishing pressure on bocaccio.

Several conservation groups protested in February in a letter to the Portland-based council. "Now that new information has revealed an even worse state of affairs for this species, the need for the Council to take decisive rebuilding steps, and to take them immediately, is truly urgent," said the letter, signed by representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Center for Marine Conservation and the Pacific Marine Conservation Council.

They called for emergency action to reduce the bocaccio catch to zero, and threatened further action under the ESA if not satisfied. "The available data would, in our view, clearly justify listing bocaccio under the Endangered Species Act," they wrote.

It didn’t take the National Marine Fisheries Service long to react. Just one month later, in March, NMFS placed bocaccio on the federal "overfished species list." There must now be a plan to halt the decline. For now, the Council is encouraging all recreational and commercial fisherman to avoid bocaccio as much as possible. A formal rebuilding plan could be adopted in November.

Avoiding bocaccio might be simple if it lived alone. But it doesn’t, and many other rockfish varieties in the nets are in nearly as bad shape as bocaccio. Others are quite healthy. No one really knows for sure about most of them. There are 53 species of rockfish caught in the Pacific fisheries. Of these, there is little or no data for 45 species.

The health of another species marketed as red snapper, the canary rockfish, is just now being reviewed by NMFS. Recent surveys show a "noticeable absence" of old females (more than 20 years old), a disturbing fact given that these older fish produce greater numbers of offspring. They show a consistent decline over the last several years, and scientists are pessimistic about its population’s ability to stabilize. The canary rockfish has declined to about 8 percent of its historic abundance, according to a draft report issued June 1. Any species that has dropped under 25 percent of its historical abundance will be listed as overfished.

Also in March, NFMS listed two other fish, the Pacific Ocean perch and the ling cod as overfished. But the designation does not mean that ling cod served in restaurants in fish and chips, is from an overfished stock. Ling cod considered "overfished" off California, Oregon and Washington, meaning that at current exploitation rates, the population is not sustainable. But in Alaska, the ling cod is plentiful.

Marine Wilderness

What’s not clear is whether reducing the catch is the right response to the rockfish crisis. Research in Monterey Bay shows that bottom trawling is removing a food source for these fish – including tube worms, sponges, anemones, hydrozoans, urchins, and other odd creatures. Up to 20 pounds of these animals can be discarded as waste for every pound of commercial catch. Some remain on the ocean after trawls have plowed through the sediment that had been their home. Only no-fishing zones can protect the food chain as well as the endangered fish.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has taken no position yet on such an idea, but its biologists there concede it has merit. They emphasize, however, that they know very little about trawling’s impacts, particularly in the Pacific. "We need to develop a really well thought-out research program," says W. Waldo Wakefield, a fisheries research biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Some segments of the commercial fishing industry are not willing to concede to any further restrictions. "We don't have a crisis of no fish, we have a crisis of no science," Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, told a House committee in 1998.

"We don't know whether we are overfishing or leaving millions of pounds of fish in the ocean while we starve to death on shore," he said. "We have quotas, we have catch reporting systems, we have management tools, and we have enforcement. What we don't have is the wealth of scientific data available to New England. In effect, twenty years of scientific neglect, compounded by policy decisions based on the fear that the New England example could recur, have created the same social and economic problems on the west coast, even though our fish stocks may be in good shape."

The NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center has approximately 120 employees working on groundfish, but only 28 dedicated to west coast groundfish in the Northwest, Southwest, and Alaska Fishery Science Centers combined. The Northeast Center is supported by two NOAA research vessels that conduct a complete resource survey every year. On the West Coast, NMFS surveys stocks once every three years.

"Even within our region, groundfish research is the poor stepchild," Moore said. "According to a recent analysis, during the last 10 years nearly $3 billion has been poured into Columbia River salmon recovery efforts, yielding fewer fish returning to the Columbia River than when the program started. As for groundfish, we maintained a thriving fishery on approximately 1 percent of that amount."

"Trawlers' have been fishing off our west coast over sixty years and we go back to the same places over and over again," said Gerald Gunnari of the Coos Bay Trawlers’ Association. "If we were destroying important fish habitat, we would not still be fishing there."

Nevertheless, the time for marine wilderness apparently has come. In January of this year, state and federal resource managers in Florida restricted fishing and other activities in parts of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The joint state-federal management plan for the sanctuary would ban fishing and restrict boating and diving in 10-14 square miles of the 2,800 square mile sanctuary.

The decline of rockfish on the Pacific Coast has spawned increasing interest in the use of marine wilderness on this side of the continent. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council, one of the eight regional councils around the U.S., has formed a marine reserve ad hoc committee. It met for the first time in May.

Some fishing groups see no-take zones as an economic hardship. They will force some fishers to travel further to find fish, and cause fishing to increase in areas outside the reserves, possibly leading to localized extinctions in those areas.

But reserves can also provide long-term benefits to the fishing industry: more fish, more consistent harvests and the reduced probability of closures due to overfishing. They can also protect species that are not targeted in commercial fisheries, but are unintentionally trapped in nets.

Moreover, as Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund points out, the purpose of marine reserves can go beyond the simple enhancement of fisheries. "Perhaps the most robust purpose of a marine reserve designed primarily as a fishery enhancement tool is to provide insurance for fishery management failures," he says. But reserves created for fisheries can fail if they are not planned carefully.

A reserve would have value even if it did no more than provide a sense of marine wilderness and directly protect biodiversity. "A marine reserve that includes a spectacular stretch of coast, kelp forests and rocky outcrops accessible to divers could be successful... even if no fishery benefits accrue," according to Fujita.

Even so, Elliott Norse says, marine reserves are not sufficient conservation tools by themselves — oil spills and other types of pollution don't stop at the invisible line in the water surrounding a reserve, and many marine organisms, such as whales, seabirds, and billfish are wide-ranging and depend on environments outside limited reserves.

"If we want pieces of water that function pretty much as they did before we came here, in which we can do scientific research, where we can learn what the ocean is all about, if we want such places then we need to have marine protected areas," Norse says.

"No place in the sea is safe just by dumb luck."

Paul Koberstein