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It Will Affect You - The Tragedy of Commercial Fishing

After many years of debate, the dogged determination of environmental groups, and scientific studies, the cause of many large-scale disasters—killing floods and landslides, starvation from lack of topsoil in which to grow food, air and water degradation—is now recognized as a threat to global security. This threat is the clear cutting of forests throughout the world.

I am certain you are wondering what clear cutting has to do with commercial fishing. A recent study conducted by Dr. Les Watling of the Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine states that commercial bottom trawling and dredging destroys 150 times more sea bottom than clear cutting destroys forests per year. 150 x 16m = 2400m acres of sea bottom per year; 2,400,000,000 acres, a number so large as to be almost incomprehensible.

In 1966 as I was flying across the Amazon at sunrise, a kindly Pakistani scientist invited me to join him at the plane’s windowed hatch. For as far as the eye could see, the Amazon River wound its way through a tree canopy that was so thick, no ground could be seen. The Amazon Forest back then sheltered plants and animals, many yet to be discovered, plants with medical miracles in their leaves and roots, animals and insects that had existed for millions of years, and billions of trees that filtered carbon dioxide to produce clean air, with root systems that filtered pollutants from water and prevented floods, and with leaves that helped to keep the earth’s surface cool. The Amazon Forest was so large that it even created its own weather.

The Amazon River, winding over 4,000 miles from Peru to the Atlantic Ocean was the largest source of freshwater in the world, depositing millions of cubic feet of water per second into the Atlantic where it spread to distant nations.

Forty years after I watched that spectacular sunrise over the relatively unspoiled Amazon, studies by Brazilian scientists indicate that about six million acres of Amazon rain forest disappear each year to clear cutting. When I look at recent satellite images of the once lush Amazon forest, I see desolate land stretching miles and miles from the river’s banks, a wasteland slashed with roadways, where nothing can live. The river now polluted with heavy metals, cyanide, mercury, trash, and sewage still empties its millions of cubic feet of water per second into the Atlantic where it is carried thousands of miles.

Just as clear cutting has destroyed forests, commercial bottom trawling and dredging is destroying acres of sea bottom yet to be explored. These acres surely contain undiscovered species, may hold the key to our energy crises, and sustain a pyramid of life on which all life depends. Not only are sea bottoms and coral reefs destroyed but so, too, are entire schools of fish, along with the innocuous sounding “bycatch,” hundreds of tons of sea turtles, dolphin, whale, sea horses, mollusks, sharks, even sea birds.

What happens when a species of marine life goes missing? When an indigenous fisherman cannot find the lobster he is hired to catch in order to feed his family because a commercial fisherman and his American partners smuggled millions of dollars of illegal Caribbean lobster into the U.S., what can he do? Like so many, he may be forced to leave his family to seek work in town, or perhaps he makes his way north, hoping to cross into the United States.

What happens to the people living and working in a beautiful resort town when tourists stop coming because it is no longer safe to go into the water? This has already happened. In Recife, Brazil, where the beach is filled with travelers as well as locals, people no longer go into the water. Bull and Tiger sharks have taken over the coastal waters and have struck swimmers and surfers 44 times in the past 10 years. Why?

Scientists were called in because the sharks have always been there and were not troublesome. The same sharks in Cuban waters pose little threat and actually interact with divers without incident. So why is it different in Recife? The mangroves south of town that sheltered both the sharks and their prey were destroyed when they were filled in so that a port could be built. The fringing reef along Recife’s beaches was damaged by fishing and pollution. And, over-fishing by commercial enterprises took all the fish that remained both in and off-shore. Videos of the sea bottom along the coast of Recife show a dead reef bereft of any fish life with gaps large enough to allow the Bull and Tiger sharks to enter once-protected swimming waters where people now have been maimed and killed. The tourism industry in Recife realizes that tourists will stop coming and yet there is little they can do to protect their livelihoods.

This series in the coming months will explore in depth commercial fishing as it exits today. The bounty of the seas is not limitless; however, it is sustainable if those in authority in countries around the world realize that seas are not static nor is the life that lives within. When a commercial trawler takes an entire population of grouper off one country’s shores, another country along the line will suffer the consequences. Sea life is not stationary; it migrates with the tides, the moon, and the seasons. We are all connected by the seas.

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