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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Blue Oceans

Air Date: Week of November 28, 1997

Overfishing now threatens one of the most popular items on U-S menus; swordfish. That's according to Carl Safina, a research ecologist and founder of the Living Oceans Program for Marine Conservation at the National Audubon Society. He's just written a book about fish and fishing called "Song For the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas" being published by Henry Holt and Company. Steve Curwood spoke with Dr. Safina who says part of the reason for the swordfish decline is the way the fish are caught.

Transcript

CURWOOD: We've heard the warnings. In oceans around the world, fish species are declining. Now, overfishing threatens one of the most popular items on US menus: swordfish. That's according to Carl Safina, a research ecologist and founder of the Living Oceans Program for Marine Conservation at the National Audubon Society. He's just written a book about fish and fishing called Song For the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas. Mr. Safina says part of the reason for the swordfish decline is the way the fish are caught.

SAFINA: The way that they are caught now, with long lines, which is a fishing line that's 40 to 80 miles long with thousands of hooks on it, that type of gear is an indiscriminate kind of gear and 80% of the female swordfish that are caught are juveniles. They've never spawned. They're babies. The hooks also catch other kinds of fish; they sometimes catch sea birds, they sometimes catch sea turtles, they sometimes entangle mammals.

CURWOOD: Should fisher folk stop fishing for swordfish?

SAFINA: Well, no. There are ways to do all these things that are not damaging. We had up until about 25 years ago the ideal way of catching swordfish. That was the whole commercial swordfishery. People went out with a harpoon, they looked for a big swordfish at the surface, because only the big ones would come up to the surface to bask in the sun. The boat would approach them with a person out on the bowsprit or what's called the harpoon pulpit. And in fact, they caught as many pounds of swordfish then as they do now. The difference between then and now is that when long lines came in, they started catching all the juveniles and they took the whole population way down. So now we have a very much depleted population that instead of living off the interest has depleted all the biological capital, and is on its last legs. At the rate we're going, the Federal Government's Fishery Service says that swordfishing will be commercially nonviable in 10 years.

CURWOOD: When you say this to people who fish, what do they say?

SAFINA: Depends who you say it to. The people who are long lining will give you a big harangue about how they never cause any of these problems, that they are being unfairly blamed. If you talk to the people who were put out of business who used to be harpooners, you get a very different story. Everybody except the people who are still making money out of it will tell you that a lot of damage has been done and that there are much better ways of doing it.

CURWOOD: Should we stop eating swordfish?

SAFINA: Well, I won't buy swordfish because the thought of what goes into it doesn't sit well with me. But I also think it's a mistake for people to think that if they simply don't buy swordfish that they've done the best that they can do. We've heard of the big problems that we had with yellowfin tuna where they catch them by encircling schools of porpoises. Now, because of consumer pressure on the tuna companies, they have changed the way that they set those nets so that the kill of porpoises has declined over 99%. And that's because people were concerned about it and they said I don't want to eat fish that's caught in this way. They didn't just quietly decide to stop buying it; they vocally said that you know, we will buy it, but we don't want to buy it if it's destroying other things. We don't want to buy it if it's depleting the fish themselves. And that's real consumer power. With that kind of involvement, a person can be much more influential as an individual than simply if they don't eat swordfish the once or twice a year than they might otherwise eat it.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

SAFINA: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Carl Safina's new book, Song for the Blue Ocean, is being published by Henry Holt and Company.

 

 

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