Save waters before fish grow scarce
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Thursday, 16 December 2004 12:56
In the next few months you might see a lot of stories in newspapers and on television about the impending collapse of major oceanic fish stocks.

It isn't something that happened overnight.? Scientists have been warning that it has been coming for decades.

The potential disaster is mostly the product of intensified commercial fishing in the past 30 years and technological changes that have made the increased effort possible.

When I was working in Florida 30 years ago, I read about how stocks of blacktip sharks and king mackerel along the Gulf Coast were being decimated because of technology. Even with the advent of electronic fish finders after World War II, commercial fishermen still had to guess where the fish might be before they could get close enough to pick them up on the sonar screen.

Then came spotter aircraft, which could find schools of kings along the shoreline or spot huge shoals of blacktips gathered in bays to spawn. The pilots used radios to send boats to the fish, boats with more efficient nets that caught a far bigger percentage of each school than the old nets.

It wasn't long before many fish populations were in such dire straits that Florida eventually banned inshore netting.

Today, huge fishing fleets from China, Russia, Japan, Malaysia and a dozen other nations lay hundreds of thousands of miles of long lines and nets in fishing grounds from the central Pacific to the south Atlantic. They often are far offshore, places that once were so remote they were safe from heavy fishing pressure.

We Americans don't know much or think much about those commercial fleets. But the history of commercial fishing is the same as the history of beaver trapping or buffalo hunting or our exploitation of other species. We hammer a resource until we deplete it to the point that it no longer is commercially viable, then we switch to something else.

While some people might think that what goes on thousands of miles away isn't their problem, we and the fish share the same planet, and a healthy ocean means a healthier world for all of us.

Michiganders should be worried because the potential collapse of fish stocks isn't confined to the oceans. Some of the disturbing signs fishermen are seeing in the Great Lakes are warnings that we might have a disaster of our own in the making.

Lake Huron anglers found salmon hard to come by this year. The ones they did catch were small and thin, and biologists tell us that prey fish stocks are greatly depleted in that lake compared to a decade ago.

There was even a story in newspapers last fall about salmon migrating from Huron to Lake Michigan, but that turned out to be an exaggeration. It was based on the recovery of a handful of fish that were tagged in Lake Huron and then swam to Lake Michigan, but scientists later found that, statistically, just as many salmon were likely to make the trip in the other direction.

At least it focused some attention on what I think will be a growing problem for both lakes -- the effect that dozens of exotic species are having on sport fish.

When we cleaned up the Great Lakes by removing the worst of the phosphate and nitrate contamination, we did a good thing. But we never included zebra mussels in our equation, and zebra mussels continued to clean up the water at an even great rate than man was able to accomplish.

We didn't include things like round gobies, European ruffe and spiny water fleas, which prey on juvenile game fish or compete with them for food.

So as you hear more in the coming months and years about the mess in the world's oceans, don't think that there, but for the grace of God, go us. Think that this is where we will be going if we don't move soon.

Our scientists know what we have to do to try to fix the worst of the problems in the Great Lakes, or at least ameliorate them. It's up to the rest of us to back up those scientists when the time comes and demand that our political leaders give them the tools they need to do the job.

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