This article was written for the Fisheries Research Institute, September 2004, and is reproduced with permission of the author.
What do these organisations really want?
If you've been paying any attention at all to marine fisheries issues, you'll know that a handful of so-called environmental organizations have been making life miserable for just about every commercial fisherman (except, of course, for those few in organizations that have been won over to the side of these "conservationists" by lucrative foundation grants and the chance to use their connections to get a competitive edge on fishermen in competing fisheries) for most of the past decade. Primarily funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, they have now turned their attention towards recreational fishing as well, making much of recent research identifying recreational fishing as a significant cause of fisheries declines (2) and pointing to discarded recreational fishing line as being a significant factor in the destruction of coral reefs. (3)
They have attacked virtually every domestic commercial fishery. They have done this through the management system, through Congress, through the courts and through the media. They have attacked particular fisheries because they supposedly catch too many fish, because they supposedly catch too many non-targeted species, because they supposedly disturb "habitat," because the fish they produce are supposedly contaminated, or because the fishermen are supposedly receiving too many government subsidies. Their attacks haven't been limited to commercial and recreational fishing. Fish and shellfish farming have been included as well. And, as the above quote by the head of Pew's Environmental Program shows, they have singled out some fisheries for particularly harsh treatment. (Please note that in spite of Mr. Reichert's pontificating, the North Atlantic swordfish stocks, which are still fished almost exclusively with longlines, were declared recovered several years ago.)
Do these organizations, that it would be most comforting to assume were simply being run by out of touch zealots, have anything other than their particular up front fisheries-related goals in mind?
They spend what must be millions and millions of dollars (of course, these aren't dollars that they actually had to go out and earn, nor even dollars that they had to beg from individual members (4) on influencing Congress, on selling their version of reality to the media, and on going to court when the people who catch fish for a living can't comply with the unrealistically stringent fishing regulations that they have used their massive influence to impose.
But do they spend any of their millions on actual conservation actions that will keep the fishermen fishing and keep the fish coming to market?
Armed with an initial $10 million from Pew, Pew/Oceana has filed suits aimed at either crippling or completely shutting down the same few fisheries time after time. While it's almost impossible to come up with a real-world equivalent, it might be close to consider a vindictive homeowner with really deep pockets filing suit after unsuccessful suit against a neighbor he was feuding with. If he had a big enough bucket of bucks and a willingness to throw large handfuls of them to his stable of in-house lawyers, the neighbor would have no choice other than to eventually pack up and leave. The Pew bucket, filled with billions of oil bucks, is certainly big enough to file a lot of suits.
Sea Turtles as an Example
Ocean Trust, an environmental organization with major ties to the commercial fishing industry, has been involved in operating a successful sea turtle hatchery for the last ten years. Since 1995, Ocean Trust has been one of the primary participants, along with the Mexican government and the shrimp industry, in a program in Mexico which has helped to restore sea turtle stocks by hatching, raising and releasing thousands of juveniles. Ocean Trust, not in spite of but because of its ties to commercial fishing, has been in the forefront of real sea turtle conservation and restoration efforts. Has Pew, either through Pew/Oceana, Pew/Seaweb or any of the other anti-fishing organizations that have received tens of millions of Pew dollars over the past decade, been a part of this effort? Not hardly.
Then we have the domestic pelagic longline fleet. As the introductory quote that we started off with shows so well, the longline fleet has been on Pew's "most wanted" list for a decade. This fleet consists of somewhere around a hundred boats. The longline fishermen, with boats that average well under eighty feet in length and are purposely mischaracterized by the anti-fishing groups like Pew/Oceana as "industrial," in the last several years have been working intensively with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to develop gear and methods to reduce their interactions with sea turtles.
Their efforts, accomplished at a significant cost, have been so successful that they showed reductions in sea turtle interactions of up to 90%. Accordingly, members of the fishery lobbied the government to make the gear and techniques they developed mandatory for all participants in the U.S. fishery. Their efforts have also provided the foundation for an outreach program by NMFS aimed at the international pelagic longline fleet. (5) Though they make up a small fishery with severely limited resources, the longliners have achieved a level of success in turtle conservation beyond anyone's wildest speculations. What role did the anti-fishing, supposedly pro-turtle activists at Pew/Oceana play in developing these mechanisms and techniques to allow the longliners to continue to fish while at the same time protecting the vulnerable sea turtle populations? Absolutely none at all.
In addition, in about 2001, scallopers began for the first time to experience interactions with expanding sea turtle populations in a portion of their Mid-Atlantic fishing areas (Needless to say, this is another fishery that the various Pew organizations love to hate.) Realizing that this could mean an increase in turtle interactions, they immediately began to consider avoidance measures. Working with government and academic researchers, they designed and tested "turtle chains" which were proven effective in reducing interactions with the burgeoning population of sea turtles in the southern range of the scallop fishery. They subsequently petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to make these turtle chains mandatory where and when turtles and scallopers are in the same areas. What role did the anti-fishing, supposedly pro-turtle activists at Pew/Oceana play in developing these mechanisms to allow the scallopers to continue to fish while at the same time protecting the vulnerable sea turtle populations? Absolutely none at all.
But not by a long shot have Pew/Oceana and other like-minded groups stayed out of turtle issues. Unfortunately, and in spite of seemingly having more riches than Croesus to contribute to for-real turtle conservation and restoration programs, their actions to date have involved expensive law suits in federal courts that it's extremely difficult to consider as anything but attempts to shut down the very commercial fisheries that have led the way in sea turtle conservation. In the latest chapter in their quest to "save turtles" from the domestic pelagic longline and sea scallop fisheries, they have brought high profile suits to impose potentially bankrupting sanctions on the longliners and to close half of the traditional fishing grounds to the scallop fleet. Evidently just saving turtles isn't enough for Pew/Oceana; it seems as if the two fishing fleets that have led the way in turtle conservation must be destroyed as well.
Is Pew's Way the Only Way?
In an article in the Boston Globe on a program to reduce the entanglement of whales in lobster gear (09/21/04, Gearing up to save whales, livelihood) Beth Daley wrote "the International Fund for Animal Welfare has raised about $150,000 in private donations and is raising another $150,000 to $200,000 for the rest of the program." With another $660,000 from the federal government and $300,000 to $450,000 from Bay State lobstermen, both whales and the lobster fishery will be saved. Hats off to the International Fund for Animal Welfare for involvement that prioritizes saving fishermen as well as protected species. It's obvious that fishermen weren't their actual target; preventing fishermen's interactions with threatened species was.
Pew/Oceana hasn't come close to demonstrating that level of concern, for either turtles or fishermen. In light of this, it's hard for us to see what their motivation really is.
(2) For an earlier exploration of this subject, see The Truth About Recreational Fishing, FishNet USA, #15, Dec. 5, 2000.
(4) In an "action alert" Pew Oceana was seeking $10,000 in donations to "help us reach our goal and show the scallopers that there are people out there who will stand up for sea turtles. Your contribution can make the difference!" In the first place, scallopers don't need to be shown any such thing. Scallopers were the first people to identify the potential problem and were the first to do anything about it. But, and both more importantly and more perplexingly, Pew/Oceana was started with ten million or so Pew dollars. And we've seen the papers they've filed and their team of litigators in court. It's our impression that the $10,000 they are asking for isn't any more than a very small drop in their bucket, so why the impassioned plea? It might be an attempt to show "grass roots" support for their court machinations (their request for a preliminary injunction to stop fishing immediately was immediately denied), which would make their actions appear much more altruistic than if they were bought and paid for solely by a multi-billion dollar series of trusts established with big oil revenues, but it sure seems that that level of support isn't anything more than a token.
(5) In an "ocean update" from a Pew/Oceana staffer (To Save the Sea Turtles: A Spanish Fishing Adventure, Charlotte Hudson, 2004-09-16, Section: Europe, Topic: Dirty Fishing), after she condescendingly writes "think fishing, no showers, foam rubber pads that everyone shares and blankets on the deck of the boat sitting in fish guts - and then imagine that they haven't been washed in months. ... I won't even begin to explain the no toilet and limited freshwater problem," (just so, of course, no reader would mistakenly confuse working Spanish fishermen with "people") writes about using the gear and techniques developed by the U.S. pelagic longline fishery on a Spanish swordfish longliner. But of course she gives no credit to the U.S. fishermen or to the National Marine Fisheries Service for developing the gear/techniques, glossing over who actually did by clumsily writing "These hooks are a new idea by the U.S. and research shows that they reduce the number of turtles being caught by the gear - and since most of these turtles are on the Endangered Species List, this is a good thing. So, I brought some of these new hooks with me from the U.S." It probably wouldn't do to have a Pew staffer mentioning in a positive light that a fishery her bosses were out to destroy or a governmental agency they were out to eviscerate were responsible for developing the highly effective technology that she was so eagerly promoting.