I was saddened to see today's news that West Coast salmon fishing had to be abruptly halted due to a 93% freefall in the number of spawning fish over the last six years. Just like I've urged a deep look at how our short-term energy decisions have us on the road to a dangerous climate future, near-sighted fishing choices are dooming more species (and the fishermen that depend on them) toward collapse every year.
I just read much of Carl Safina's Song for the Blue Ocean, which is a moving exploration of the world's fishing industry. Safina describes many amazing creatures that land-dwellers like myself only get to see when we're looking down, fork-in-hand, at our dinner plates. The focus of the book is on the bluefin tuna, their dwindling numbers, and the powerful industries from Japan to New England that exacerbate the situation.
The behavior he describes of overfishing until fishery collapse is nothing new. Even Cape Cod couldn't prevent the destruction of its namesake. The National Marine Fisheries Service is mostly led by industry interests who set annual quotas that are too high (and often unenforced) to allow fish to recover from the overfishing of the last few decades.
With a world human population still on the rise, the strain on natural resources continues to increase. Now that food prices are causing riots throughout the developing world, it is clear to see that these strains seriously threaten both the health of the world's poor and the security of home countries. This situation may not get under control unless we quickly stop the growth of current food-to-fuels programs like corn ethanol in the US and we become educated food consumers - lowering our consumption of fish that are not responsibly caught and of meat since it's so much more efficient for us to get energy directly from vegetables (notice I didn't say everyone has to be vegetarian - but lowering consumption is a great strategy to help the poor not have to compete with so many cows and pigs for basic foods).
While part of the recent decline in Sacramento is due to natural variations, I hope any West Coast fishing interests that lobbied for high salmon quotas these past few years take their folly to heart. If they had lowered their hauls they probably wouldn't have had to completely halt their operations this year (and now taxpayers are gonna have to bail them out). So, what's best for jobs? A sustainable environment that breeds abundance and fishermen (or loggers -- you name it) who are patient enough to understand our world's natural limits.
We didn't learn enough from the tragedies of the bison and the passenger pigeon. We haven't yet learned enough from the collapse of most of the predatory fish of our wild oceans to set up the policies and consumer habits that foster recovery for those that haven't yet fully collapsed.
The question is, are we smart enough as a nation and a global community to finally take this story of the Chinook salmon's collapse to heart and lower the quotas for fishing across the board to levels that allow a recovery in populations and a larger yield for the fishermen of tomorrow?