Overfishing: What Sailors Should Know
The fallout from depleted fish stocks is complicated, but the path to recovery and the choices you can make aren’t. From our December 2012 issue.
CW: Speaking of local ports, if I own a sailboat, what can I do in my home port to help fish populations?
PG: Onboard toilets should be up to code and in good working order. Poorly operating heads and sewage overflows introduce nitrogen into the water column. This in turn causes algal blooms, which in turn deoxygenate the water and cause fish kills. Stemming the tide of nitrogen into the marine environment is key.
In addition to reducing nitrogen and other wastes in the water, we need to encourage the revival of ecosystems that can actually do a lot of waste management for us. As competition for coastal resources gets more and more intense, I find there are increasing conflicts between yachtsmen and shellfish farmers.
Throughout New England, I heard many stories from oyster farmers saying that they had great difficulty getting leases for good bottom and that many shore owners, particularly boat owners, resented the presence of oyster farms in their view. I think this is ludicrous. Oysters—and, indeed, all bivalves, such as clams and mussels—filter the water and make it cleaner. The more shellfish farms, the better, in my opinion, and sailors need to understand that and to work with shellfish farmers over coastal mooring rights.
CW: So we should eat a lot more farmed oysters and mussels?
PG: Absolutely. Mussels actually have massive amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids—nearly as much as salmon. And they’re very good for the environment. And a dozen oysters have fewer calories than a single large banana.
CW: Is there anything we can do differently to help the ocean?
PG: As I said earlier, the key to good fisheries management is keeping fishing limited to a defined number of licensed vessels. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of unsanctioned fishing going on out there. If you’re on board your boat and a log freak, it’s not a bad idea to note the locations and times that you see commercial fishermen on the water and perhaps informally provide that information to your local fisheries officers. This isn’t as big a problem in the United States as it is elsewhere. If you’re an adventure sailor who plies the Roaring 40s, it’s probably even more important to keep an eye out for fishing vessels out there.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU, in the parlance of the United Nations) causes a huge amount of damage to fish stocks around the world. A lot of that takes place on the high seas, outside of the territorial jurisdiction of nations and outside of the capacity of most nations to monitor. If you’re a cruising sailor, you’re another pair of eyes and ears on the water. Helping to keep officials informed on vessel location could be useful.
CW: But is it still OK for me to throw out a line while under sail and catch fish for dinner?
PG: It all depends on the regulations. Remember that inside of three nautical miles, waters are generally state regulated and that you need to check state fish-and-game rules before you go.
Beyond three nautical miles, you’re often in federal waters, and you need to check federal laws. Striped bass, for example, may not be killed in federal waters.
Over and above regulations, though, be mindful in your fishing techniques. Replace treble hooks on your lures with single hooks. Use a needle-nose pliers and pinch down the barbs on your hooks to make them barbless. Better yet, ask tackle-shop dealers for circle hooks, which are specially shaped hooks that lodge in the jaws of fish instead of in their guts. Barbless and circle hooks allow for easy release of undersized or unwanted fish, and that means a lot more healthy fish go back into the water.
Also try to figure out before you fish how many fish you’ll need. A friend of mine, the great naturalist, avid fisherman, and author Carl Safina, once said to me, “Sometimes ‘kill and go home’ is better than ‘catch and release.’ Knowing when to stop fishing is the most important and mindful thing a fisherman can do.”
CW: With overfishing, global warming, ocean acidification, energy and mineral mining of the ocean floor—is the ocean doomed?
PG: The ocean isn’t doomed. The living ocean is profoundly dynamic, and it’s been around far longer than we have. I’m pretty sure that it’ll outlast us. But our ocean—the one we evolved with—is at risk. Species are stressed, the environment is changing, things are shifting. The best we can do is to change along with it. Winter flounder and lobster are declining in Long Island Sound, but crabs and summer flounder are increasing. So it stands to reason that we should probably not take so many lobsters and winter flounder from that body of water and shift our eating preferences.
But the worst thing we can do, I think, is turn our backs on the sea. We should eat seafood, but we should keep an eye out for the sea that provides it. And, of course, if you have a choice between a motor or a sail, the sail, environmentally speaking, is the better choice.
Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food (The Penguin Press) is the recipient of the 2011 James Beard Award for Writing and Literature and a 2012 Grantham award of special merit; it’s also a New York Times bestseller. For additional details about the book and the author, log on to Four Fish (www.fourfish.org) or follow Greenberg on Twitter (@4fishgreenberg).
• Buy seafood from small-scale fishermen who use gear that does not harm the bottom and that doesn’t kill untargeted species.
• Find a community-supported fishery near you. Start your CSF search with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and Local Catch.
• If you eat farmed fish, choose Arctic char and barramundi.
• Cooperate with shellfish farmers in coastal waters near you.
• Eat more farmed oysters and mussels.
• If you’re sailing in remote areas, report illegal fishing.
• If you’re sailing in state-regulated waters, check first with state fish-and-game authorities so you know the regulations. When in federal waters, be sure to check the federal regulations.
• When you fish, make use of barbless and circle hooks.
• Don’t dump raw sewage overboard.
It contributes to an overabundance of nutrients, and this deoxygenate the marine environment.
• If you’re fishing from your boat, don’t use treble hooks.
• If you have a choice between a motor and a sail, sail.