Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book by Peter J. Bryant


    Types of Whale
    History of Whaling
    Modern Whaling
    International Whaling Commission
    Moratorium on commercial whaling
    Recovery of some populations
    Revised Management Procedure
    Loopholes in the IWC Moratorium
     Japanese whaling
    Illegal whaling
    Norway's Minke Whale Hunt
    U. S. Statutes Supporting IWC Decisions
    The Antarctic Sanctuary
    Small Cetaceans
    Cruelty in Whaling
    Whaling for Subsistence
    Laws Protecting Marine Mammals

Registered UCI students: view the slide show for the first part of this chapter or download it:

    Common Patterns of Over-exploitation in the Fishing Industry 
    California Sardine Fishery

    North Atlantic Groundfish
    Bluefin Tuna

    Some Recoveries

    Blue Crabs

    Horseshoe Crabs
    Seashell trade

    Incidental Take
    Depletion of Food Supplies



Registered UCI students: view the slide show for the second part of this chapter or download it:

Overexploitation has been responsible for catastrophic depletion of resources in both the whaling and fishing industries.


General reference on cetaceans

One of the worst examples of wildlife exploitation in the history of the world is provided by the whaling industry. So far, no species of whale has gone extinct because of whaling, but many species have been reduced to "commercial extinction" (too rare to be worth hunting), and many local populations, or "stocks", have been eliminated.

Types of Whale

There are two major types of whale: Visit Richard Ellis' Art Gallery for an appreciation of the diversity of these animals. 

The toothed whales, represented mainly by the sperm whale (related to killer whales, dolphins and porpoises) that lives in many of the world's oceans and feeds mainly on squid, including Giant Squid up to 57 feet long - a species that has never been seen alive!  The sperm whale was hunted for its meat, that was rendered into oil that was a major fuel for lighting. Another product was spermaceti - a liquid wax substance found in the huge head that was used in the manufacture of smokeless candles and as a lubricant for machines.

The baleen whales, that feed on swarms of shrimp-like crustaceans called krill, by straining the sea water through long, fringed baleen plates that hang down from the roof of a cavernous mouth. Baleen provided a strong, flexible material (similar to plastic) which was used for corset stays, horse whips and other applications.  These whales were hunted for their baleen as well as for their meat, which was either eaten or made into oil.   

History of Whaling

Whaling started in the first few centuries A.D. by the Japanese, and between about 800 and 1000 A.D. by the Norwegians and by the Basque people living on the north coast of France and Spain. The Dutch, British and Americans started in the 17th century. All of this early whaling was done from small boats using hand-thrown harpoons. Most of the whalers hunted the slow and docile Northern Right Whale, so named because it was the "right whale" to hunt. The Europeans wanted the whales for their oil and for their baleen. The Japanese ate the meat, and found uses for many other parts of the whale. Only about 300 right whales survive in the North Atlantic and 250 in the North Pacific Ocean, and the species is showing no signs of recovery.  In February 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service refused to designate Critical Habitat for this species, claiming that not enough information was available.  Many of the deaths of these animals occur by collisions with ships, and special methods are being tested to help avoid these accidents.  The Southern Right Whale, a separate species, is doing better with about 7,500 individuals.

A species related to the Right Whale, the Bowhead Whale, was hunted to extinction in the Atlantic Ocean but still exists in the North Pacific. The stock is still small (7,500), but still hunted every year (quota of 67/year) by Alaskan Eskimos.  However, at its 2002 meeting the IWC rejected the U.S. request to continue this hunt.

The American whalers also hunted the Sperm whale (made famous in Herman Melville's classic novel "Moby Dick"), first in the Atlantic from bases in New England, later in the Pacific from bases in Hawaii. Sperm whales feed on giant squid deep in the ocean, including species that have never been seen alive.  The population estimates released in 2002 show only 360,000 sperm whales in the world's oceans, in contrast with previous estimates suggesting 1.5-2 million.

The whalers also hunted the California Gray whale in the lagoons of Baja California, where they go to breed, and from 16 shore stations along the coast of California. The California Gray Whale is a specialized baleen whale: it sucks mud from the ocean bottom (in the Bering and Chukchi Seas north and west of Alaska) through one side of the mouth, and filters crustaceans called amphipods from the mud using short baleen plates. The California Gray whale was hunted almost to extinction in the late 1800's, then recovered, was hunted almost to extinction again by factory ships in the 1930's and 1940's, and recovered again. Today the species is up to pre-exploitation levels (about 26,000) and has been removed from the endangered species list.  

Modern Whaling

Modern whaling began in 1868, when the harpoon gun and explosive harpoon (which explodes inside the whale) were invented. The harpoon guns were mounted on fast steam-driven vessels, making it possible to catch the faster-swimming rorquals (blue, fin, Sei, and Minke whales). The development of factory ships made it possible for the whalers to stay at sea for long periods, increasing the number of whales they could hunt.

International Whaling Commission

Whaling has been regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1946. The IWC gave its member nations quotas on the whales they wanted to hunt, based on negotiations and guesswork. The quotas were always too high, so the populations declined rapidly. After the biggest whales (blues) were hunted to the point that they were too hard to find, the whalers went on to the next largest species, the fin whale. Then they moved on to the Sei whale, then the Minke. Humpbacks were also taken. Chart shows take by species. Humpback, blue, fin, Sei whale were hunted down to a small percentage of their original populations.

The IWC is open to non-whaling nations as well as whaling nations. The non-whaling nations gradually added to their numbers on the Commission, eventually turning it from a whalers' club into a conservation-minded organization. As a result, in 1982 the IWC was able to adopt a resolution calling for an indefinite moratorium on commercial whaling, which became effective in 1986.
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling  
Controversy swells around whaling commission meeting - 6-29-2000 Resolutions of the 2000 Meeting of the International Whaling Commission

Recovery of some populations

The IWC moratorium meant the end of most commercial whaling. As a result, many species seem to be recovering, at least in some parts of their range. In addition to Gray whales, Blue and Humpback whales are being seen in increasing numbers off the coast of Southern California: 

Population estimates, California coast to 300 miles

Species 1979 1991
Blue whale 500 2049
Humpback whale 88 607

Except for North Atlantic right whales and southern blue whales, most stocks seem to be increasing (Schmidt, 1994). Even bowhead whales, one of the most depleted species, seem to be on the increase (7500, up from 1500 in 1976).  North Atlantic humpback whales were estimated at 11,000 animals in 2000, compared with 5,505 in the 1980s.  An additional humpback whale breeding area was discovered off the coast of Africa in 1999. Humpback whales in Australian waters have recovered so well that the Australian  government is removing them from the national endangered species list.

The North Atlantic right whale population appears to be in serious trouble; only two females with calves were spotted off the coast of Georgia and north Florida in 1999, compared to 17 calves born in 1997 and 6 in 1998.  This has raised fears that the population may be disappearing.

Increased population sizes can be a mixed blessing for the whales. In 1993, the IWC Scientific Committee, noting that the Minke whale population was up to 900,000, concluded that it could now support commercial whaling. There was strong opposition from conservation-minded countries, and the IWC did not accept this recommendation, causing the Scientific Committee chairman to resign.  Some of the whaling nations are now arguing that they need to use their whaling fleets to reduce (“cull”) the Minke population in order to allow other species of whales and fish to recover.

Revised Management Procedure

In 1994 the IWC approved a Revised Management Procedure which will allow the reintroduction of commercial whaling as stocks increase to certain threshold levels (54% of pre-exploitation levels).  A special meeting of the IWC was convened in 2001 to consider reintroduction of commercial whaling, but it ended in a stalemate. 

Loopholes in the IWC Moratorium

There are also some loopholes in the IWC Moratorium. First, compliance with the moratorium is voluntary: any IWC member country can file a protest of the moratorium, and then need not abide by it: Norway is hunting Minke whales in the North Atlantic under such a protest. Second, there are exceptions for "aboriginal whaling"; the American Eskimos are still allowed to hunt the bowhead whale and the gray whale, and the Russians are allowed to take 100-200 gray whales to serve to their northern aboriginals. Third, whaling "for scientific research" is still allowed.

Japanese whaling

Japan has continued and expanded its whaling activities in spite of intense international pressure to abide by the moratorium.  In July 2000 Japan expanded its "research program" to include permits for 50 Bryde's and ten sperm whales in the North Pacific, along with its usual quota of 100 minke whales. In 2001 the fleet almost filled its quota with 100 minke whales, 50 Bryde's whales, and eight sperm whales. The Antarctic "research program" involves a quota of 400 minke whales annually.  Although the whaling is carried out by the Japanese "Institute for Cetacean Research", the meat is sold to wholesalers and used for school lunches.  The US has repeatedly threatened trade sanctions against Japan and other whaling nations, but has never carried out the threats, mainly because they violate the principles of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Molecular biologists have recently been taking samples of whale meat sold in Japan as kujira or sashimi (Baker and Palumbi, 1994). The only type of whale meat that could have been obtained legally since the moratorium was Minke whale, but using DNA tests the biologists have found samples containing blue whale, humpback whale, fin whale, and dolphin material as well as Minke whale. The assumption being made in plans to reintroduce commercial whaling is that only abundant species will be exploited and that rare species will be protected. But these new results show that legal whaling could easily serve as a cover for marketing the meat from illegally captured endangered species. A proposal has been made by Norway to establish a control system to detect illegal whale products. DNA samples would be taken from each animal, a set of sequence characteristics determined and entered into a public database. Samples from whale meat found in the marketplace could be analyzed and this would provide information about its origin. Not only species and stock, but even the individual whale can be identified this way. 

The samples collected in Japan were also analyzed for contamination, and over half of them contained levels of mercury, PCBs, and DDT that made them unfit for human consumption.  Since whales are at the top of the food chain, live long lives and have extensive fat stores, they show a high level of bioaccumulation of stable organic materials like pesticides. 

Japan planning new commercial whaling operations, Director says
More whales killed by Japan - 9-20-2000

WWF says Japanese killed 440 more minke whales

Ireland to urge ban on research whaling
Japan: Tokyo persists with bid to lift whaling ban
Japan, three other nations to set-up whale committee
Japan to defend ``research'' whaling at IWC meet

Illegal whaling

Another major problem in protecting whale species has been illegal whaling, which can often go undetected for many years. It was recently reported that the Soviet whaling fleet, operating from 1948 to 1973 in the southern hemisphere, reported taking 2,710 humpback whales but actually took over 48,000. In some cases they built ships with false bottoms so they could carry a lot more cargo than the inspectors could see. This illegal hunting makes management plans ineffective and is probably responsible for the failure of many humpback whale stocks and of the entire blue whale population in the southern hemisphere to recover.

Norway's Minke Whale Hunt

Norway is continuing commercial whaling in defiance of the moratorium, taking about 600 Minke whales per year out of the North-East Atlantic population that has been estimated by the Scientific Committee of the IWC (May 1996) at 112,000. There are an estimated 750,000 Minkes in the Antarctic, so the species as a whole is in good shape; but the North Atlantic population is genetically distinct from the Antarctic one (by DNA tests).

When Norway announced its decision to resume commercial whaling at the 1992 IWC meeting, 17 nations signed a statement condemning it. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has deliberately sunk two of the Norwegian ships that were participating in the Minke hunt. The IWC has repeatedly called on Norway to halt its whaling activities, but Norway continues to set itself a quota (549 animals for the year 2001). In the 1997 season Norwegian whalers in 31 vessels killed 503 Minke whales of their 580-whale quota.  This produced an estimated 730 tons of meat valued at about $2.9 million.  Norway hunts Minke whales only for their meat, but in Jan. 2000 they announced that they will start exporting other whale products (mainly blubber) to Japan.

In 1999, Iceland also made plans to resume commercial whaling.

The Minke whale issue illustrates a fundamental difference in approaches to conservation: Japan, Norway and Iceland want to resume commercial whaling under the rules of the Revised Management Scheme, which was established to allow scientific information on population sizes to guide the assignment of whaling quotas.  But the IWC has repeatedly refused to approve resumption of commercial whaling, even under the Revised Management Scheme.  This is because the delegations from several powerful non-whaling nations, following public opinion in their own countries, are opposed to commercial whaling even if it does not threaten the targeted species. 

U. S. Statutes Supporting IWC Decisions

The IWC has no enforcement powers, but individual nations can take action. According to the Packwood/Magnuson and Pelly Amendments to the Fishermen's Protective Act, the U.S. Government must invoke sanctions against any nation that undermines the authority of the IWC. These sanctions could be effective, since they would prevent Norway from fishing in U.S. territorial waters and from selling fish products in this country (worth $200 million per year). President Clinton has refused to implement the law against Norway, possibly because Norway could easily retaliate by refusing exploration licenses to U.S. oil companies.  

The Antarctic Sanctuary

In 1994 the IWC was successful in setting aside a huge area around Antarctica as a Southern Ocean Sanctuary, which should protect the major feeding areas of about 90% of the world's whales.  The proposal passed by a vote of 23-1.  Japan cast the single opposing vote, and has continued to hunt about 400 Minke whales/year in the Sanctuary for its "research" whaling program.  This is allowed because under IWC rules, a sanctuary can remain open to whaling by any nation that lodges an objection.

South Pacific Nations have repeatedly proposed that an additional South Pacific Whale Sanctuary be established to extend the Southern Ocean Sanctuary to include the warmer ocean where many of the great whales breed.  Unfortunately, the proposal failed to reach the required three-quarters majority due to votes cast against it by nations that were promised development aid by Japan.  But individual island nations can take action to protect large expanses of ocean.  For example, in 2001 The Cook Islands Government established a whale sanctuary throughout its Exclusive Economic Zone, providing protection for two million sq. km. of the central South Pacific Ocean.

Small Cetaceans

One of the most important issues at recent meetings of the IWC has been an attempt, by the U.S. and other nations, to have the IWC regulate the catch of small cetaceans - mainly dolphins and porpoises. This is an urgent issue now as Japan has been killing so many dolphins for meat that some species are threatened. In 1988, 39,000 Dall's porpoise were taken by Japan, and in 1989 31,475 were taken -out of a total stock of 105,000! The meat is being used as a supplement to whale meat. 12,396 Dall's porpoise were killed by the Japanese in 1995 and 18,000 in 1998.  In 1999, Japan agreed to buy 200 tons of meat and blubber from Russian beluga whales (white whales), potentially launching the first-ever international commercial hunt of beluga whales.

Cruelty in Whaling

The whaling industry concerns itself only with whales as populations and as exploitable resources. Many conservation organizations oppose whaling because they don't want to see any more whale stocks driven to extinction. In addition, many anti-cruelty organizations and individuals oppose all kinds of whaling (commercial, subsistence, and scientific) because of the cruel methods used to kill whales (either explosive harpoons or "cold" harpoons).

Whaling for Subsistence

Many whale-protection statutes allow exemptions for small-scale whaling carried on by traditional methods for subsistence purposes.  The IWC is allowing the following:

Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock of bowhead whales

(taken by Alaskan Eskimos and native peoples of Chukotka):
"The total number of landed whales for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 shall not exceed 280 whales, with no more than 67 whales struck in any year (up to 15 unused strikes may be carried
 over each year)." The request to renew this quota was rejected by the IWC in 2002. 

Eastern North Pacific gray whales

(taken by those whose "traditional, aboriginal and subsistence needs have been recognized"):
"A total catch of 620 whales is allowed for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 with a maximum of 140 in any one year."

West Greenland fin whales

(taken by Greenlanders):
"An annual catch of 19 whales is allowed for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002."

West Greenland minke whales

(taken by Greenlanders):
"The annual number of whales struck for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, shall not exceed 175 (up to 15 unused strikes may be carried over each year). "

East Greenland minke whales

(taken by Greenlanders):
"An annual catch of 12 whales is allowed for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 (up to 3 unused strikes may be carried over each year)."

Humpback whales

(taken by St Vincent and The Grenadines):
"for the seasons 1996/97 to 1998/99, the annual catch shall not exceed two whales."

However, it is sometimes difficult to be sure that the activity fits the definition; for example, Siberian whalers are allowed to hunt gray whales, but much of the whale meat is used to feed foxes that are bred for their furs in a commercial operation.

At the 1997 IWC meeting, the U.S. government presented a request by the Makah Indian Tribe, who live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, to start hunting gray whales "for cultural uses and subsistence needs".  This would be the first Makah whaling activity in 70 years.  There was tremendous resistance to this proposal, since the IWC usually allows subsistence quotas only for groups whose traditional aboriginal subsistence and cultural needs have been recognized, and this is not the case with the Makah.  The U.S. ultimately won approval for the tribe to take up to five whales per year for five years, by incorporating the request into a joint U.S.-Russian proposal to allow aboriginal peoples to take 620 gray whales in the next five years in the North Pacific.  The Russian part is on behalf of the Chukotka people in the far north-east of Siberia, whose subsistence and cultural needs have been recognized. But in December 2002 a federal appeals court ruled that the hunt violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and ordered it to stop until the federal government completes a comprehensive environmental impact analysis.  The ruling came in response to a legal challenge by The Fund for Animals, The Humane Society of the United States, and others.

A coalition of conservation groups in 2001 petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to relist the gray whale as an endangered or threatened species, based on threats both to the species and its environment (it was taken off the endangered species list in 1994 because it's population had recovered so well). The  threats include: a decline in benthic amphipods - the gray whale's primary food supply - due to climatic changes, direct damage by bottom trawling and contamination; lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms to protect the whale and it habitat; and aboriginal whaling.

The High North Alliance was organized to "defend the right of coastal communities to utilize marine mammals sustainably". Their web site presents some lively debate on many aspects of the whaling question. You can add your comments to their site.   

International Whaling Commission, 2002 meeting | High North Alliance @ the 54th annual IWC meeting 2002

The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission

The Arctic nations are especially affected by the IWC moratorium, because their economies are largely dependent on harvesting of marine resources.  Partly because the IWC remains opposed to commercial whaling, in 1992 the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission was established by Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.  It emphasizes management  - a euphemism for hunting - of marine mammal populations in the region (this was the original purpose of IWC!).  It differs from the IWC in covering all marine mammals in the region (whales, dolphins, seals and walruses), and in trying to understand the role of marine mammals in the entire ecosystem.

Recommended book: Greenlanders, Whales, and Whaling: Sustainability and Self-Determination in the Arctic by Richard A. Caulfield. 1997, Dartmouth College; 224 pages. 

Laws Protecting Marine Mammals

Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions receive protection in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  In passing this legislation, Congress found that (quote):

certain species and population stocks of marine mammals are, or may be, in danger of extinction or depletion as a  result of man's activities;
such species and population stocks should not be permitted to diminish beyond the point at which they cease to be a significant functioning element in the ecosystem of which they are a part, and, consistent with this major objective,  they should not be permitted to diminish below their optimum sustainable population level;
measures should be taken immediately to replenish any species or population stock which has diminished below its optimum sustainable level;
there is inadequate knowledge of the ecology and population dynamics of such marine mammals and of the factors  which bear upon their ability to reproduce themselves successfully; and
marine mammals have proven themselves to be resources of great international significance, aesthetic and  recreational as well as economic.

The MMPA established a moratorium, with certain exceptions, on the taking of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and on the importing of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the United  States.

MMPA Reauthorization 1999

The eleven species of marine mammals that occur in U.S. waters, including most of the great whales, also receive protection because they are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Read some of the arguments:

Point Counterpoint
"Save the Whalers":

William Aron (former U.S. commissioner of the IWC and a former member of its Scientific Committee) argues that the whaling moratorium is supported by "environmental extremists" and that the IWC should allow whalers and whales to coexist.


David Hofmann (wildlife photographer) argues that the article by William Aron contains misinformation combined with propaganda for whale hunting. 

The High North Alliance defends the right of coastal communities to utilize marine mammals sustainably.   Greenpeace, Australia and New Zealand propose a global sanctuary for whales.
Defenders of the rights of the Makah to hunt whales claim that some whale protection advocates are using racist arguments. wants to stop the killing of gray whales by the Makah.

Then try to decide what you believe in, and why:

1.  Whale stocks are a renewable resource and should be commercially exploited like any other renewable resource

2.  Whale stocks are an exploitable resource but should not be exploited now because their population levels are too low

3.  Whale stocks as a renewable resource but should be exploited only for subsistence purposes

a.  Only traditional techniques should be used
b.  Only humane killing techniques, even if this involves non-traditional technology, should be used
c.  Only groups that have a long tradition of whaling should be allowed to harvest whales
d.  Only groups that depend exclusively on marine resources should be allowed to harvest whales

4.  Whales are special animals that deserve full protection.

a. They are mammals
b. They are intelligent, sentient beings
c. They are spectacular, interesting products of millions of years of evolution

5.  Whales should be protected because we should not exploit any wild animal populations.

AND: How should whaling policies be developed and enforced?

1. By individual nations
2. By international agreements

Additional Links on Whales and Whaling

Tethys Research Institute Home Page

Saving Whales With DNA

Office of Protected Resources Cetaceans Home Page

Whale Conservation Institute

Whale-Watching Web

Whale and Dolphin Adoption Project Home Page

Whale Research Lab, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada



River dolphins

WhaleTimes:Fishin' for Facts-River Dolphins
Baiji Dolphin PHVA


Common Patterns of Over-exploitation in the Fishing Industry

The fishing industry has over-exploited its resources even more than the whaling industry.

California Sardine Fishery

One of the first examples was the California sardine fishery, which was ruined by overfishing. In the 1936-37 season, 3/4 million tons were taken in California waters, and in subsequent years the fleet was enlarged as the catch per boat began to drop. The fishing fleet ignored advice from biologists and carried on fishing at too high a rate. By 1957-58 the catch was only 17 tons. The fishery never recovered. Its monument is Cannery row in Monterey.

The Peruvian anchovy fishery was another early example, which boomed in the 1960's and collapsed in the 1970's.

There are many more recent examples of overfishing.  The fishing industry has vastly increased in scale - the number of large ships fishing the world's oceans increased from 585,000 to 1.2 million during the 1970s and 1980s.  It has also increased in "efficiency" by developing new technologies. In spite of many fisheries collapsing, the total fish harvest on earth kept increasing until the early 1990's.

Early trawling techniques allowed sufficient fish to escape that the populations survived. But the industry has devised new, more "efficient" kinds of nets. For example, in 1966 the Norwegian fishing industry brought the purse seine net to the North Sea and they were able to gather unprecedented hauls of herring including smaller fish than were being taken by the trawl nets used by British fisherman. Between 1966 and 1970 herring catches dropped from 1.7 million tons to 20,000 tons, a nearly 100-fold reduction. This was the end of the coastal herring industry in Great Britain. Other "improvements" include factory ships and sonar "fish-finders". Fishermen even use helicopters to locate fish.

The total U.S. fish harvest (i.e. from the Exclusive Economic Zone of the U.S.) increased more than 300% from 1.56 billion pounds in 1977 to a peak of 6.65 billion pounds in 1986-1988.  This was largely due to a change in regulations that gave the domestic fleets a bigger share of the catch during this time. The total subsequently declined to 6.32 billion pounds in 1993. The largest offshore fisheries, in terms of volume landed, are now Alaska Pollock (catch worth $337 million in 1993) and Gulf of Mexico shrimp (catch worth $190 million in 1993).  

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) monitors the status of 959 fish populations.  In the 2001 NMFS report to Congress, 93 stocks are reported to be overfished, 163 are reported to be healthy, and the status of 655 is unknown.  West Coast groundfish populations and South Atlantic fisheries showed an increase in the number of populations at risk, and highly migratory species of sharks, tunas and billfish continued to show no improvement in status, with 29 of 37 monitored species considered at risk.  The NMFS report does indicate that the size of many protected stocks is increasing.

Many other marine fisheries have also wiped themselves out, or are currently doing so. The European Union has reduced many of the 1999 catch quotas around its coasts to try to protect dwindling stocks. As fish prices are driven up by scarcity of the product, illegal fishing is starting to endanger several species, such as the Chilean Sea Bass.

Further Reading on overfishing

Sinking Fast (1996)
Sustaining Marine Fisheries (1999)
The state of world fisheries and aquaculture (2000)

North Atlantic Groundfish

The Canadian province of Newfoundland has, for centuries, based its economy on an incredibly productive Atlantic Cod fishery. Filet o'fish at MacDonalds, and most of the fish used in fish and chips originally came from this fishery. In the 1960's, fishing fleets from 14 other countries were converging on the cod fishing grounds of the Grand Banks, and using enormous purse-seine nets and electronic fish-finders they were harvesting 800,000 tons of fish per year - three times the annual average from the previous century. In 1977, Canada and the U.S. declared a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around their shores, partly to keep out the foreign fishing fleets. But then Canada started heavily subsidizing its own cod fishery in order to stimulate the economy of Newfoundland, even setting up new corporations to duplicate the large-scale foreign fisheries that they had just thrown out. Within a few years, the fish were becoming scarcer and in 1992 their population was at the lowest level ever recorded. The Minister of Fisheries announced that the Newfoundland cod population had reached commercial extinction, and ordered a moratorium on the fishery. This put 25,000 people out of work and put the local economy into a tailspin. This is one of many cases where a government subsidy encourages exploitation of a natural resource, eventually having the opposite effect to what was intended. What's Left?

The New England fishery has also gone into decline after decades of overfishing despite warnings from fisheries biologists. In 1994 three depleted fishing grounds, totaling 6,600 square miles and including part of Georges' Bank, around New England were closed to allow the stocks of cod, haddock and flounder to recover.  NMFS' 2002 report shows that this has been successful in allowing some recovery of flounder and haddock populations on Georges Bank. In January 1998, the federal government paid New England fishermen $24 million to take 78 fishing vessels out of commission, reducing their fishing capacity by about 20%.   On Dec. 3, 1998, the New England Fishery Management Council reported that the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine was continuing its rapid decline and recommended that the catch be reduced by more than 80%. 

Deep water fish populations in the North Sea and the West of Scotland have also been depleted so much that the European Commission is proposing to limit catches.

Vice President Al Gore Announces $5 Million in Disaster Relief for New England Fishing Communities

North Pacific Groundfish

Similar fish species in the Pacific Northwest (mainly cod, hake and pollock) are also in trouble. The catch in 1994 was the lowest in 55 years.

Bluefin Tuna

The North Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is one of the largest (1,500lb) and fastest (55mph) fish in the sea.  It was for many years (until the 1960's) considered a sport fish, and sold for about 7 cents a pound to be used mainly as cat food. But in the 1980's the wholesalers on the east coast started putting the fish on ice and air-freighting them to Japan to be used in sushi and sashimi. A single 715 pound fish once sold at a Tokyo market for $67,500 - $94.40 a pound! But its numbers plummeted from over 200,000 in 1970 to an estimated 30,000 in 1990. The fishery has been regulated by a quota system since 1981, but the numbers are still declining. Because of the extremely high value of this fish, it will probably be hunted to extinction.

Australia, New Zealand and Japan are at loggerheads over the harvesting of Southern Bluefin Tuna, which has also dropped to less that 10% of its former numbers. 


Swordfish in the Atlantic have declined by almost 70 percent. This is mainly due to overfishing using "long lines" - monofilament lines up to 30 to 70 miles long, baited with thousands of hooks. These lines catch young as well as adult fish, and this is preventing the population from recovering. The average size of fish landed has declined to 90 pounds compared with 266 pounds thirty years ago.  The lines also catch non-target species including sharks and turtles, contributing to their decline.  Atlantic swordfish could be commercially extinct in 10 years if it continues to decline at the present rate. 27 Chefs in New York City recently (February 1998) started a "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign and refused to serve the fish in their restaurants. Despite the stock reductions, catch quotas for Atlantic tuna and swordfish were increased in late 1998 to take advantage of high demand from Japanese sushi markets. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has reduced the management goals of its recovery plan in order to allow the increased catch.


Shark fishing was done mainly for sport up until about 1970, then in 1976 there was a nationwide campaign to market shark as a cheap alternative to swordfish, then it became big business. By 1979 more than 11 million pounds of shark were caught in West coast waters. The industry was built up on thresher shark, and soon other species were added. But the industry reached its peak in the mid-1980's and the catch has plummeted since then - thresher shark catch in 1989 was only 28% of what it was in 1982. These stocks have been seriously depleted in less than two decades, and they will take a long time to recover since sharks are very slow at reproducing (they are not sexually mature until ten years old). Shark stocks in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have also been seriously depleted by overfishing. There has been a dramatic increase in worldwide trade in shark products including fins, meat, cartilage and liver oil. Now shark costs as much as swordfish, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has established fishing quotas for 39 species of shark found in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. U.S. federal regulations now prohibit all directed fishing (commercial and recreational) and possession/sale of five shark species: basking, whale, white, sand tiger and bigeye sand tiger from U.S. waters of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Many species, including the Great White Shark, are listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as vulnerable to extinction. 

Harvesting of swordfish, sharks, billfish, and tunas in the Atlantic is regulated by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).  The Commission sets quotas for its member nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Oct 1998 adopted an International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks. The plan establishes measures for the conservation of sharks and shark-like species (skates and rays) at the national, regional and global levels, calling for national shark management plans by early in the year 2001.
Protection call for 'gentle giant'


There are 27 species of Sturgeon, the famous fish whose eggs provide caviar worth up to $1,000 per pound, and all of them are in serious trouble. In spite of increased fishing effort, the total catch dropped from 22,000 tons in the late 1970s to about 1,100 tons in the late 1990s due to the rapid decline of sturgeon populations.  At the 1997 meeting of CITES, all 27 species of sturgeon were listed, either as endangered (Appendix I) or threatened (Appendix II). They are interesting primitive fishes, and they can get very big. e.g. the beluga is the biggest freshwater fish in the world, up to 19 feet long and 2,500 pounds. Most of them are also threatened by overfishing, damming, water diversion, dredging and pollution.

The Alabama sturgeon was thought to be extinct since it had not been captured since 1985, but a few years ago one of the fish was caught in the Alabama River. This was an important find because it means that the fish can now be listed as Endangered, and dredging of many Alabama rivers will have to be stopped.

To try to prevent the loss of a crucial population of Pallid sturgeons, 750 captive-bred fish were released in 1998 into the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sturgeon Page | The Sturgeon Family in Iowa | Paddlefish | Caviar Emptor

Other examples

Some Recoveries

There are only a few examples of recovery of fish populations following overfishing.  These include striped bass on the Atlantic coast, Alaska groundfish, and King and Spanish Mackerel.  Herring in the Northwest Atlantic are now fairly abundant for the first time since the 1970s, when they were fished to the point of collapse by Soviet and European fleets.  So, not surprisingly, fishing companies are planning to bring back factory ships and trawlers to work these stocks, and NMFS is recommending an expanded fishing effort for herring on Georges Bank to substitute for failed fisheries elsewhere.


It is estimated that historically, 100 million salmon a year emerged from rivers along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. Salmon are now extinct in Southern California, and the rest of the region produces about 15 million a year, mostly from hatcheries. Commercial landings of all species of salmon in the northwest fell from a 1987-91 average of $126 million to an all-time low of $17 million in 1996.  Production of salmon in hatcheries has often failed to meet goals and is also thought to have harmful effects on wild populations.

The loss of salmon is blamed on several factors:

1.  69 dams have been built on the Columbia and its tributaries, making it the most heavily dammed major river in the U.S. Each dam provides a significant barrier to the fishes' migration. Fish ladders work fairly well for the adults swimming upstream, but the young fish, which in the past have been swept downstream by a fast-flowing river, now often get killed in turbines or trapped in reservoirs, where they mature in freshwater and can then never adapt to living in sea water.  The federal government uses barges to carry hundreds of thousands of fish downstream, but only a minute fraction are expected to make it back up the river.  The Columbia River Alliance offers weekly updates on developments affecting operation of Federal water projects on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.  Breaching the four lower Snake River dams has been proposed as the the best way to restore salmon runs to Idaho, Washington and Oregon.  Dam removal is becoming almost commonplace: since 1999 more than 40 have been removed in the U.S., and 40 more are slated for removal in 2001. 

2. Degradation of spawning streams by roads, development, logging and agriculture are also partly to blame.

3. Another major problem with salmon is salmon pirates on the high seas. In 1988 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was expecting that, of all the pink salmon spawned in Southeast Alaska, 38 million would return. Only 8 million showed up. Since 1985, returns to one hatchery have declined from 11.8% to 0.5%. Steelhead trout fisheries are also being affected.

4. Eight years of below-normal rainfall and sustained El Nino ocean conditions, which seem to reduce the amount of food available for salmon. The El Nino condition in the 1997-1998 season may have major impacts on salmon distribution and migration.

Coho salmon listing

In October 1996 the federal government declared the Coho salmon in eight Northern California counties a threatened species.  This decision was prompted by the decline in the naturally spawning population of California Coho to about one percent of its historic size, which was between 200,000 and 500,000 in the 1940s.  In April 1997, the coho populations in northern California and southern Oregon were added to the list but the NMFS delayed announcing regulations to protect the fish in order to give the states time to develop habitat conservation plans.  Oregon's plan has been completed, but California has yet to develop its coho conservation plan. (See lecture 8, ESA)

Protection of the salmon requires protection of its river habitat, and this means new restrictions on logging, mining, ranching, waste water treatment operations and other activities that could disturb the fish or its spawning grounds. The decision brought an immediate protest from California Governor Wilson, who claimed that a better way of protecting the species and its habitat was through a voluntary alliance between landowners, environmentalists and local governments (as in the Local Communities Conservation Planning Program (NCCP) in Southern California).  In winter of 2002, "huge numbers" of Coho were seen returning to spawn in Marin County.

IMPACTS OF CALIFORNIA SEA LIONS AND PACIFIC HARBOR SEALS ON SALMONIDS AND WEST COAST ECOSYSTEMS | Beware knee-jerk reactions to salmon listing | Saving Northwest salmon may save us, too | Working through ESA Salmon Listings | What do Northwest salmon really need? | Salmon Aquaculture | Details on Pacific Coast Salmon issues: July 1997 | Welcome to the Oregon Plan | Salmon Conflict Investigations | The Salmon Page | Salmon Aquaculture | Stephen Crawford |  

2001: New West Coast salmon rules start - 1-8-2001 - | The Columbia & Snake Rivers Campaign -- Action Center  

Atlantic Salmon

Maine Fights to Restore Atlantic Salmon Runs   (Nov-Dec 1998)

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have proposed the listing of eight stocks of Atlantic Salmon.

Salmon Farming

Salmon are now being farmed in large steel/net cages that are moored in various estuaries and rivers in Norway, Canada, Chile, Spain, Scotland, and Ireland.  Although these activities are often commercially successful, there are many harmful effects on the wild salmon populations as well as the environment in general.  Salmon diseases can be transmitted to the wild fish, escapees can introduce foreign genes into the wild population, and the feed and waste can contribute to water pollution.

Coastal Shelves: Fisheries Impacts


Invertebrate fisheries have also collapsed, including those for blue crabs and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and for lobsters, abalone, squid and sea urchins off the California coast.

Blue Crabs

The blue crab fishery in Chesapeake Bay is in decline, although exact numbers are not available.  In 1991, commercial dredgers averaged 10 bushels of crabs per hour of fishing.  In 1995, the average was down to 1.1 bushels.  At the same time the number of commercial crabbing boats has risen from several to several hundred, as fishermen turn from the declining shad and oyster fishery to crabs.


Ecuador concedes to protesting fishermen's demands

Horseshoe Crabs

The Atlantic Horseshoe Crab was very abundant until the 1990s, when fishermen discovered a market for the crabs as bait for a growing eel fishery.  The numbers on some of Delaware's beaches where the crabs come ashore to breed are down 90% in five years. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2000 adopted fishing quotas along the U.S. Atlantic coast  to protect these animals. Virginia refused to comply with its quota, and now faces a complete ban on horseshoe crabbing.

Delaware Outdoor Magazine | Horseshoe crabs to be counted


40% of the world's shrimp supply is now farmed by aquaculture in many less developed countries including Thailand, Bangladesh, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico and the Philippines.  These countries are being pressured by international financial institutions, including the World Bank, to convert their natural mangroves and other ecosystems to aquaculture projects.  This is being promoted as a quick, inexpensive and profitable way to increase earnings from the industrialized world.  But it carries an enormous environmental cost, because the shrimp farms are replacing huge areas of highly productive mangrove forests, which are coastal ecosystems vital to fish and shorebird populations and which are very effective barriers against erosion and flooding. Half of the world's mangrove forests have disappeared, and over half this loss is due to shrimp aquaculture.  


With increasing popularity of Calamari among many Pacific-rim countries, squid in the 1990's became California’s “number 1 oceangoing cash crop”.  The catch in 1996 was 175 million pounds, worth $33.5 million.  In 1997 the fishing grounds off the California coast were invaded by fleets from Oregon, Washington and Alaska, sparking calls from California fishermen for new regulations.  The squid fishery is the last remaining commercial ocean fishery that is unregulated - there are no limits and no seasons.  But in the winter of 1997-98 the yield in California was virtually zero.  The fishermen blame the crash on El nino, which made the coastal waters too warm and drove the squid to colder, deeper waters that the fishing boats could not reach.  Yields of herring, sea urchin and rockfish also dropped dramatically during this season.  The Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento requested the federal government to declare an economic disaster in the state's fishing industry.


Seven species of abalone live off the coast of California, and all of them have been depleted by overfishing.  In fact, the white abalone, the highly prized and deepest-living species, will probably be the first  invertebrate to be driven to biological extinction through fishing.  After other species living in shallow waters had been depleted by overfishing, there was a nine-year (1969-77) intense fishery on white abalone.  Recent surveys show that this formerly abundant species is now almost impossible to find.  Only three individuals were found in 3 hectares of prime habitat in 1991-93, where somewhere between 6000 and 30,000 would have been found 20 years earlier.  The animals that have been found are old and probably not reproducing, so the species seems doomed to extinction in the wild.  There are less than a dozen white abalones in captivity.
Marine Resource Issues - White Abalone

On May 15, 1997, the California Senate voted to impose an indefinite moratorium on harvesting red abalone south of San Francisco. Biologists report the population has declined 75% in the last two decades. Red abalone sell for up to $85 per pound in southern California. 

Extinction on the High Seas (Abalone as an example)

Queen Conch

This large edible marine snail is the target of a large commercial fishery in the Caribbean region, with the U.S. as the largest market for the meat.  It has been listed in Appendix II of CITES since 1992.  Survival of the species is not considered at risk, but many local populations are threatened and consequently the industry is jeopardized.


A chart from National Marine Fisheries Service shows the decline of the Maryland and Virginia oyster harvests during the past 40 years.  The Chesapeake Bay oyster population is down to 1% of the level a century ago, due partly to disease but mainly to overfishing. Attempts are being made to restore this fishery by rebuilding oyster reefs and seeding them with oyster larvae raised in laboratories.

Loss of oysters means much more bay pollution.  They filter out microscopic algae, keeping the water clear.  100 years ago the oyster population could filter the entire bay in 3-4 days.  Now it takes the reduced population a year to do the same job.  At the same time the algal growth is being stimulated by nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients that are entering the bay from leaky septic tanks, sewage plants and agricultural runoff. 

Seashell Trade

The United States exports $50 million worth of mussell shells to Japan each year for use in the cultured pearl industry.  Nearly 70 mussel species are currently endangered.


Incidental Take ("by-catch")

Driftnet Fishery

One of the reason for the loss of salmon in the Pacific Northwest was that many of the fish were being caught in high-seas driftnets (a type of gillnet), used to catch squid and swordfish during the last ~10 years. These nets hang from the surface and reach down to 40 feet, and stretch for up to 40 miles. The fleet of about 1500 boats from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, on any given day could deploy about 25,000 miles of driftnet (enough to go around the entire world). They collected not only the target species but also thousands of salmon, dolphins, whales, seabirds, and seals. In a report to the U.N. in 1991, the U.S. reported that one of the four Japanese squid fisheries (the one operating in the North Pacific) resulted in the deaths of:

26,000 marine mammals

406 sea turtles

270,000 sea birds

700,000 blue sharks

25,000 non-target squid species

141,000 salmon

39 million other fish

The use of driftnets has been called "strip-mining" of the ocean, because of the devastating effect it has on wildlife. Even worse, an estimated 600 miles of driftnet is lost every year and becomes a "floating cemetery" of sea life.

Drift netting is the most destructive and wasteful fishing technique ever invented. It has been banned in the North Atlantic since the 1970s, when the driftnetters devastated the Atlantic salmon population. However, in 1991 some Taiwanese driftnetters were again working in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

A moratorium on high-seas driftnet fisheries has been in place since 1993 under a United Nations resolution. Italy is continuing to use driftnets despite the ban.

The Driftnet Act Amendments of 1990, passed into law in 1990, provides for U.S. compliance with the U.N. resolution and for the imposition of sanctions against nations that violate it.

Even after the U.N. resolution, several European countries continued use of drift nets, but the European Union instituted a ban on their use in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, effective 1 January 2002. The European Commission also arranged for compensation to alleviate the economic and social hardship suffered by fishermen and the owners of fishing vessels as a result of the ban.

Dolphin kills in the Tuna Fishery

Another example of "incidental take" has been very important over the past 20 years - the killing of dolphins in the tuna fishery. Tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific ocean swim in large shoals, and for some reason that nobody understands, these shoals tend to be under herds of dolphin. Therefore, the tuna fishermen discovered that they can easily find tuna by first finding the dolphin, which are very easy to spot because they jump out of the water. The tuna are then caught in a "purse-seine" net, which encircles the fish and is then pulled back on board the boat, together with both tuna and dolphin. This encirclement method has resulted in the deaths of more than seven million dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean over the past four decades.  Eventually, the mortality was reduced by a "backing down" procedure that allows the dolphins to be chased out.

In the 1990s, dramatic progress was made on forcing the tuna fishery to stop killing dolphins. In 1990, the U.S. government established regulations so that tuna caught without killing dolphins could be labeled "dolphin-safe". The three canners that supply 75% of the tuna bought by consumers in this country - Starkist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee - announced that they would buy only "dolphin-safe" tuna. This had a profound impact on the whole industry, since any country that did not use dolphin-safe techniques found it difficult to sell their product. The U.S. passed laws to embargo tuna that is not dolphin-safe. Import of tuna from Mexico and Venezuela was prohibited under this law.

All of these measures resulted in a substantial lowering of dolphin mortality, even though about 2,700 dolphins are still being killed each year in this fishery.

Unfortunately in summer 1997, the U.S. House and Senate both passed bills to repeal these dolphin protection measures, and the embargo has ended. This was mainly because it was claimed that the U.S. was violating its obligations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) by imposing embargoes on tuna imports.  In January 2000 the U.S. issued an interim final rule for dolphin-safe tuna that allow encirclement to be used again in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. If no dolphins are killed or injured by the encirclement, the tuna can be labeled dolphin-safe.In February 2000, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the U.S. and others filed suit against the Clinton administration over this rule, claiming that it violates the 1997 International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA). 

Sea Turtle and Fish kills in the Shrimp Fishery

All five species of sea turtle that spend part of their lives in U.S. waters (loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp's ridley turtles) are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. One of the reasons they are in trouble is that they are killed incidentally in various commercial fisheries. In May 1990, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that as many as 55,000 sea turtles annually drown in American shrimp nets not equipped with turtle excluder device (TED) that allow turtles to escape the trawl net. The TED is a box-like cage with a trap door, that reduces the turtle kill by shrimp trawls by 97%. The academy report concluded that incidental drowning in shrimp trawls "kills more sea turtles than all other human activities combined...".  The academy recommended the use of TEDs in "most places at most times of the year". TED use is presently required for most of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico shrimp fisheries.

For several years, the U.S. restricted imports of shrimp caught by foreign fleets not using TEDs. But in April 1998 the World Trade Organization ruled against the U. S. in a dispute over this practice with Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan and India.  The U. S. law was challenged on the grounds that it discriminated against shrimp exports from countries that did not require turtle protections (this is exactly what it was intended to do!).  International trade rules prohibit countries from making distinctions between products based on the way they are produced. But the U. S. justified the law under a different provision that allows restrictions in order to protect human, animal or plant life. The U.S. appealed the decision, but the appeal was turned down in Oct. 1998. There are some encouraging signs: a record number of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle nests were found on Mexico’s Gulf Coast south of Brownsville in the year-2000 nesting season. 

The Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery is also very wasteful of other marine life. Shrimp comprise less than 20% of what is caught in shrimp nets; the rest is other kinds of fish that are discarded.  Bycatch Reduction Devices can reduce this waste by about half, and now will be required in this fishery.

Increases in other kinds of fishing off South America is causing the deaths of hundreds of leatherback turtles.

The Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles addresses all the major threats to sea turtle survival, including accidental and intentional capture, exploitation and habitat destruction.  It has been ratified by seven nations, and will go into effect when a total of eight have signed on.

By Catch Summary | Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; Revised Sea Turtle/ShrimpSea Turtle Survival League 

Sea lion kills in the Squid Fishery

After an estimated 79 sea lions or more had been killed in the Auckland Islands squid fishery off New Zealand in the 2002 season, the fishery was forced to close early.

Everything killed in the Trap Net Fishery

Trap Nets were installed in 1996 by a Taiwanese fishing fleet in a pelagic migratory channel at Manado, Indonesia. Between 27 March 1996 and 12 February 1997 the catches included some 1,424 manta rays, 18 whale sharks, 312 other sharks, 4 minke whales, 326 dolphins, 577 pilot whales, 789 marlin, 84 turtles, and 9 dugong.  The fishermen report all of these as "by-catch" but most of the animals were frozen and sent to market.

Seafloor damage by bottom trawling

One of the most common fishing methods, bottom trawling, has the same devastating impact on the ocean bottom as clearcutting of forests has on the Earth's surface.  Trawlers scrape nearly 6 million square miles a year, twice the area of the lower 48 United States, and this destroys many different ecosystems including seagrass beds, coral reefs, rocky reefs and cobbles, and kills many non-target fish.  

Depletion of Food supplies

Some of the birds and mammals that depend on fish for food have declined when overfishing has depleted their food source. Off the coast of Alaska, the population of Steller sea lion was estimated at 140,000 in 1960, 68,000 in 1985, and 25,000 in 1989. Thus the population has declined by 82% since 1960. The sharpest declines were seen in the Eastern Aleutian Islands, where the count dropped from 50,000 to 3,000. The declines are spreading to previously stable areas and are accelerating. They are thought to be due to depletion of the sea lions' food supply by the Atka Mackerel and Pollock fishery in the Bering Sea / Gulf of Alaska. Harbor seals are also declining, probably for the same reason. In 1997 the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the western Alaska population of Steller sea lions as "endangered," with the eastern population (southeastern Alaska to California) remaining classified as threatened. NMFS has been accused of waffling on sea lion protection.  Steller sea lions beleaguered by salmon farmers and commercial fisheries

In April 1998 Greenpeace, the American Ocean Campaign and the Sierra Club sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, demanding that the Service take action to prevent the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem.  The suit reported that the sea lion and harbor seal populations declined by 85% during the time that the pollock, mackerel and cod catches in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska doubled. In response on June 14, 1998, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council imposed new catch restrictions on the Atka mackerel fishery, intending to gradually (over a four-year period) shift 60% of the harvest taken inside Steller Sea Lion critical habitat to areas outside such habitat.  More recently the fisheries agencies have been developing rules to move more of the pollock fishery out of sea lion habitat as well.

Declines in seabird populations (kittiwakes, boobies, cormorants, pelicans) have also been blamed on depletion of the fish stocks that they feed on.  In 1998, eleven of the 17 existing penguin species were listed as threatened with extinction (up from only five species two years previously), in part because of depletion of anchovies and sardines.  Habitat destruction and oil spills are also threats to these birds.

Ecosystem Collapse Caused by Overfishing

Overfishing has led to the depletion of food supplies for other fish as well as marine mammals and turtles in many areas of the world.  A recent and dramatic example is in the ocean surrounding the Aleutian Islands, a long island chain that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. In the 1980s, this was the main home for sea otters, supporting about 100,000 of the mammals which was about 80% of the world's population.  But Between 1992 and 2000, the population dropped by 70 percent, and in 2000 the numbers were down to only about 6,000.  

The sharp decline in Alaska Sea Otters is just one part of a catastrophic ecosystem collapse that is occurring in the area.  The chain of effects seems to be:

Increased commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska (Bering Sea Pollock is now the primary food fish in the world market, used for fish sticks, imitation crab meat and fillets all over the world.
•Decline in Steller sea lions (80% drop in past 30 years) and harbor seals (usual food of Killer whales)
•Increased predation on Sea Otters by Killer Whales (over 40,000 eaten in the period 1990-1998),
•Population explosion of sea urchins (usual food of sea otters)
•Depletion of kelp beds (food of sea urchins)
•Depletion of king crabs, shrimp, smelt
•Less food for seals and sea lions

New studies, based on data from paleontology, archeology, history, and ecology, indicate that overfishing in prehistoric as well as historic times has led to similar ecosystem collapses in many other coastal regions of the world.  The authors argue that these ecosystems originally supported enormous numbers of top predators such as whales, sea lions, sea turtles, and birds, and that ecosystem collapse caused by overharvesting has left them with a minute fraction of the former abundance of these animals.  Some examples:

Kelp Forests off the coasts of Alaska, Southern California and the Gulf of Maine.  The Alaska and Southern California coastlines once supported huge kelp forests, providing food for sea urchins that were fed upon by hundreds of thousands of sea otters and other predators.  Overharvesting of the sea otters by native people and then by European hunters, followed by overfishing of other sea urchin predators (sheephead fish and spiny lobsters), and competitors (abalone), led to a population explosion of sea urchins and this reduced the kelp forest and the ecosystem it supports to a small remnant of its former size. In the gulf of Maine a similar collapse occurred, but in that area the main sea urchin predator removed by human overharvesting was cod rather than sea otters.
The Great Barrier Reef. On the Great Barrier Reef, huge population explosions of crown-of-thorns starfish has led to massive mortality of coral, and these population explosions may be related to overharvesting of predators.  
The Chesapeake Bay once featured huge oyster beds, so thick that they were a navigational hazard.  Oysters are filter feeders, and they once filtered the Bay's waters so effectively that it was crystal clear.  The oysters were overharvested and now the bay is murky and chemically changed, with frequent harmful algal blooms.  This led to other ecological changes and the loss of many predators that were once abundant including Gray whales (now extinct in the Atlantic Ocean generally), dolphins, manatees, river otters, sea turtles, alligators, giant sturgeon, sheepshead fish, sharks, and rays, all of which were abundant inhabitants of Chesapeake Bay.


In November 1998, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization adopted a series of measures to monitor and manage the world's fishing fleets. The measures include regular assessments of harvesting capacity, maintaining better records of fishing fleets, establishing national capacity management plans, and reducing or eliminating subsidies that contribute to the build-up of fishing capacity.

Governments plan for sustainable fisheries, ENN Daily News -- 3/16/99


Fisheries in the U.S. are regulated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  One of the main statutes administered by them is the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976.  This brought all fisheries resources within 200 miles of all U.S. coasts (subsequently covered by the Exclusive Economic Zone) under Federal jurisdiction. Eight Regional Fishery Management Councils were established for the New England, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, Western Pacific, and North Pacific regions. The eight Councils prepare fishery management plans (FMPs) that allocate fishing rights, with priority given to domestic fisheries.  NMFS also administers many other statutes including  the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act as applied to marine species.  It is also responsible for implementation of international treaties regarding fisheries.

Sustainable Fisheries Act ("Magnuson Act")

In 1996, after years of debate, Congress finally passed legislation to strengthen conservation measures in the nation's fishing laws. Key improvements include:

New Limits to Prevent Overfishing. The new law excludes social and economic factors from consideration in setting fishing limits. These considerations previously resulted in fishing levels designed to protect the industry rather than the fish. The new Act also requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to make an assessment every year of those fisheries that are overfished or on the verge of being so. Fishery management plans must include measures to rebuild overfished populations.

Additional Protections for Fish Habitat. Each of the eight Regional Fishery Management Councils are now required to identify a fishery's essential habitat, describe the adverse impacts on the habitat and the actions required to ensure conservation of the habitat. Fishery Management Plans must minimize adverse impacts to habitat caused by fishing.

Reductions in Bycatch. Fishery Management Plans must contain measures to minimize damage to non-target species.

Fisheries Management will be improved by the new legislation, but biologists feel that there are still several pressing problems: 

Regional Management Councils are dominated by individuals who have a direct financial stake in the fisheries they manage, and therefore have a conflict of interest.

Attention is too often restricted to individual fisheries rather than to entire ecosystems, and predictions therefore fail.

There is inadequate funding for enforcement of regulations and for monitoring of fishing operations.
WHAT CONSUMERS CAN DO (From Time Magazine, Aug. 11, 1997)
Shark (especially shark-fin soup) 
Bluefin Tuna 
Beluga Sturgeon 
Orange Roughy 
Canned Tuna 
Pacific Cod 
Atlantic Striped Bass 
Atlantic Mackerel 
Atlantic Herring 
Farm-raised Trout 
Farm-raised Catfish 
Farm-raised Shrimp 
Farm-raised Salmon (maybe)


FAO Fisheries Department news
Gadus Associates : Science Serving the Fisheries
SEAArizona's Native Fish at Risk
Gadus Associates : Index to List of Fisheries Sites
Coastal Guide Index
Coastal Guide News
European Union for Coastal Conservation EUCC
Welcome to ENYO WWW Server
Summaries of Major Laws Implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service
Task Force for Researchers & Managers
North Atlantic Fisheries College
The Management of Fisheries and Marine Ecosystems -- Botsford et al. 277 (5325):509
No-Take' Zones Spark Fisheries Debate by Karen F. Schmidt
Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Home Page
Leon Spring Pupfish
National Marine Fisheries Service NEFSC Headquarters
Northwest Fisheries Science Center
NOA: northwest region
Requiem for a dying sea
WWW sources for aquaculture, fisheries and aquariums
Marine Fish Conservation Network
Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act Reauthorization
Internet Guide to International Fisheries Law
NOAA Fisheries - National Marine Fisheries Service
International Ocean Governance: Using International Law and Organizations to Manage Marine Resources Sustainably.  

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Copyright © 2000  Peter J. Bryant (, School of Biological Sciences,
University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.
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