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As Oceans Become Killing Field, Fish We Eat Dwindle

Thanks to giant trawlers armed with technology and massive nets, the seas are running low on the fish we like to eat, like halibut and cod.
The oceans are running low on the fish we like to eat, making room for the kind of sea creatures we don't eat.
The oceans are running low on the fish we like to eat, making room for the kind of sea creatures we don't eat.Jim Seida /

The oceans have become a killing field. Thanks to giant trawlers armed with technology and massive nets, the seas are running low on the fish we like to eat, like halibut and cod, making room for the ones we don’t like.

Over the past century, the biomass of predatory fish in the world's oceans has declined by about two thirds, according to fisheries scientists. In the voids left by the cod, halibut, salmon, and tuna are increasing populations of forage fish, which are short-lived and vulnerable to environmental change such as ocean waters that are warming and becoming more acidic in response to global climate change.

"What this doesn't boil down to is the sea is suddenly full of sardines and anchovies and other small things that we like to eat," Villy Christensen, an ecosystem modeler at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said. "It is to a large extent small fish that we don't eat that have benefited; because sardines and anchovies, those are fisheries … we keep fishing those."

"What this doesn't boil down to is the sea is suddenly full of sardines and anchovies and other small things that we like to eat."

More than half of the decline in predatory fish has occurred during the past 40 years, indicating the trend is accelerating as more efficient boats and fish-finding technology increases the amount of fish humans can haul from the sea.

"It is a picture that is gray. There are many shades of that gray. But those are the trends," Christensen said. "Things are improving where management works, but in most of the world that is not the case."

Per Odegaard has been a witness to the change. Odegaard began longlining for halibut alongside his father in 1967 aboard the Vansee, an 87-foot schooner built half a century earlier with old-growth fir hewn from the Pacific Northwest.

Then came the foreign-owned trawlers – boats that drag nets through the water to snare fish instead of luring them to bite baited hooks. Fish stocks were hammered. Being a longliner became a tough row.

"But these old boats kept your expenses low," Odegaard said from inside the pilot house of the Vansee, which he now owns and continues to operate with his brother-in-law. "You made a go of it; you made a living."

Halibut Bust to Boom to Bust

The passage in 1976 of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a national fisheries management law, temporarily turned the tide for the halibut fishery, according Odegaard. Foreign fleets were pushed out of waters within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. coast and trawling for halibut was outlawed. Stocks rebounded. "By the time we got to the 80s, the fishing was unbelievable and everybody was a hero," he said with a wide grin.

The picture is cloudy again. Domestic trawlers that target sole, flounder, and other groundfish such as Pacific cod and pollock inadvertently catch and kill juvenile halibut as well, explained Odegaard, who is also president of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association, a group of longliners that is pushing for a lower so-called bycatch limit for the trawlers.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council set the bycatch limit in 1988, a time when halibut stocks were high. Today, stocks are nearly half of what they were, yet the bycatch limit remains the same. The trawlers are "below their counts right now because abundance is so low," Odegaard said.

In 2014, trawlers hauled up 4.4 million pounds of halibut in the Bering Sea. They threw most of it back dead. The longline fishery, by contrast, was limited to 1.2 million pounds of halibut.

Odegaard said his son, a junior in college, has joined the Vansee crew the past three summers and seemed to enjoy the work. "I don't know if he is going to be a fisherman, but I sure would like him to have that option," he said.

Game over, almost

On the East Coast, Nantucket-based fisherman Pete Kaizer has no such hopes for his son. "I said, 'You can go fishing with me anytime you want, but you are not going to become a commercial fisherman,'" he explained. "It is almost like game over. The numbers aren't there."

Kaizer has all but hung up a 40 year career as a commercial fisherman. Today, he mostly runs a charter service. When he started out in the early 1970s, he and crewmates would catch upward of 5,000 pounds of cod a day using handlines and a fish-finding technology called a flasher. "But the next thing you know, the boats come a little bigger or faster, the electronics are a little better, and the fish stocks were starting to dwindle," he said.

The trigger, he explained, was passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which came with government tax incentives to spur investment in the fishing industry to fill the void left by the foreign fleet. "Nobody realized at that point in time that was at the brink of when the fisheries were starting to go downhill," he said.

What's more, he added, trawlers out targeting scallops, clams, and baitfish such as herring have ripped up prime fish habitat and scooped up as bycatch untold amounts of cod, haddock and other groundfish. Efforts to restore stocks via fisheries management have met some success for sculpin and black sea bass, he added, but stocks of cod and haddock are still on the decline.

The remaining commercial fishers in New England get paid more per pound, Kaizer noted, but they catch "a half, or a third, or quarter of the fish" while using fancier boats and equipment. "Everybody is competing for the last few fish and I don't want to be that guy to catch the last fish."

Better management, fleet reductions

Christensen, the ecosystem modeler, said the effects of fisheries management such as bycatch limits and the closure of prime habitat areas to fishing have begun to improve the outlook for fisheries, particularly in North America and Europe, areas that have also experienced large reductions in number of boats out on the water.

"The worry is really what will limit the fishing capacity in the rest of the world," he said.

Back on the Vansee, Odegaard shook his head at the lack of regulation in most of the world's oceans. The week before, he attended meetings of the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Vancouver where the 2015 catch limit was set and he was preparing to argue for increased restrictions on bycatch from trawlers at a North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meeting in Seattle.

"I've always said that unless you are a natural optimist, you have no business being a fisherman because you can slip into clinical depression really easily by looking at regulations, looking at the state of your fishery," he said. "To do this, you really should be a natural optimist and always hoping that it is getting better."