Sunday, 18 February 2007 11:46

Science conference sounds alarm about climate and fish stocks

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One of the largest annual meetings of the world's leading scientists, currently underway in San Francisco, this year has very heavy environmental slant, indicating growing unease in the scientific community about climate change and environmental sustainability. A conference to be called on February 18 will call for the abolition of deep sea fishing saying entire species are under threat.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, the largest scientific conference in the US, has drawn a staggering 10,000 scientists from around the world to San Francisco to discuss contemporary issues in the field of science.

This year’s theme, "Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being," set the tone of the conference which began on February 15. Subjects ranging from how aerosols affect clouds, in turn impacting climate, to Arctic melt and the calamitous effects of deep sea fishing, have dominated the conference.

One of the more aggressive stances taken by scientists will be outlined in a media conference on February 18 which will call for the abolition of government fuel subsidies that keep deep-sea fishing vessels moving to deeper waters.

"Industrial fisheries are now going thousands of miles, thousands of feet deep and catching things that live hundreds of years in the process - in the least protected place on Earth," says Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

Scientists say fishing fleets operating beyond the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones are like roving bandits, using state of the art technologies to plunder the depths.

According to marine biologists from a range of institutions, the massive nets of deep-water trawlers or draggers can in a few hours destroy deep-sea corals and sponge beds that have taken centuries or millennia to grow. The trawlers target fish such orange roughy and grenadiers for food, and sharks for the cosmetic industry. These fish are generally long-lived, slow growing and late maturing so their populations take decades, even centuries to recover, the scientists say.

"The unregulated catches by these roving bandits are utterly unsustainable," says Robert Steneck, of the University of Maine. "With globalized markets, the economic drivers of over-fishing are physically removed and so fishermen have no stake in the natural systems they affect," says Steneck. "While it may be a good short-term business practice to fish out stocks and move on, we now see global declines of targeted species."

The scientists say that this form of fishing would be unprofitable without government subsidies because of the high fuel costs.

Scientists say orange roughy are the classic example of boom and bust deep-sea fisheries.

Orange roughy fishing began in New Zealand in the late 1970s. In the past 20 years, orange roughy fisheries have expanded to the Northeast and Southeast Atlantic, South Pacific and Indian Oceans. During the same period the catch has declined by approximately 75% and Australia recently classified roughy as a threatened species, while in November 2006, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission agreed to establish a moratorium on fishing for orange roughy.

"When you buy orange roughy you are likely eating a fish that is at least 50 years old. Some can be as old as 150, which means you could be eating a fish that was born when Lincoln was president," says Krista Baker of Memorial University.

"Perhaps we need a consumer guideline that says we shouldn't eat fish that are older than our grandmothers," adds Selina Heppell, a fisheries ecologist from Oregon State University.

"These fish have evolved to live a very long time so they can get the chance to reproduce many times. Anything that shortens their lifespan defeats their primary way of surviving."

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Stan Beer

Stan Beer assists with Digital Advertising installation and monitoring of advert performance. With 35 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications. Any previous news story submissions should be director to editor@itwire.com and advertising enquires to andrew.matler@itwire.com

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