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Biology 103
2000 Third Web Report
On Serendip

When Economics and Environment Collide

Meghan McCabe

In this era of increased profits and globalization, it has become not unlikely to see a clash between economics and environmental policies. This clash is particularly evident among fisherman and rapidly decreasing populations of fish and other marine wildlife. In my research, I mostly found information discussing sharks and salmon, so I will be focusing mainly on the effects of fishing on shark and salmon populations.

One controversial yet increasingly lucrative commodity is shark fins. In various parts of east Asia, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy and can sell for as much as $120 a bowl (1). In most cases, a shark is caught by a fisherman, who cuts off its fins and then throws the shark (which, most of the time, is still alive at this point) back in the water where it is left to die. The practice of shark finning has been banned in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico since 1993 (2), but it is still widely used in the Pacific Ocean, particularly in Hawaii, where fisherman can earn up to $40 for a pound of shark fins. Shark finning has increased significantly in the past nine years; the Ocean Wildlife Campaign reported that the number of sharks killed by Hawaiian fisheries has increased from 2,289 in 1991 to 60,857 in 1998 (2).

If shark finning is not stopped, or at the very least controlled, it will cause detrimental effects on shark populations, particularly the blue shark, who is the main target for finning. Sharks have very slow growth and reproductive rates (3) and can take up to ten years to mature. Sharks are one of the main predators of the ocean, and the destruction of shark populations can severely destabilize marine ecosystems, perhaps resulting in overpopulation of other species of fish, which is a situation that marine ecosystems are not equipped to handle.

While shark conservation seems necessary, the practice of shark finning remains controversial among fishermen and conservationists. Fisherman are unwilling to give up shark finning, as it is so profitable for them. Many fishermen argue for the economic importance of shark finning, especially as Asia recovers from its economic collapse. Other fisherman believe that, given the size of the Pacific Ocean, blue sharks are in no danger. Unfortunately, scientists do not have enough knowledge of blue sharks to support or refute that belief (1).

Recently Hawaii legislature approved a bill that would ban the arrival of shark fins at Hawaiian docks unless they were attached to the whole shark. This was passed because many people-including fishermen-believe that cutting off shark fins and disposing of the body is wasteful since shark teeth, meat, and oil are profitable as well. However, most fishing boats lack the equipment to store shark meat and prevent it from spoiling. Hawaii legislature hoped that this would deter fishermen from finning. But although this bill would prevent the wasting of sharks, it doesn't outlaw the practice of killing sharks. Fisherman should consider the fact that sharks are a vital part of the underwater ecosystem and that the destruction of shark populations now could result in the destruction of other fish populations in the long run, which would be a serious problem for fishermen in the future.

There is a similar situation with various species of salmon in the northwestern coasts of the United States and the southeastern and east coasts of Canada. However, this situation is a bit more complex than that with sharks, mainly because it involves more parties.

The Columbia River in Oregon used to be the world's most productive salmon river, with 15 million salmon that habitated it annually. In 1995 that number dropped to 750,000, which is the lowest number on record (4). While this number has increased slightly in the past few years, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife predict it will continue to drop. This is becoming a widespread phenomenon: the sockeye, a species of salmon, which was widely found in Bristol Bay, Alaska, decreased to 8 million in 1998, a three million decrease from earlier periods (5).

While over-fishing has been a cause in the sharp decrease of salmon populations in the Northeastern Coast, several other factors are involved as well. Salmon breed and are born in fresh water streams and then swim out to sea, where they mature. Once they are ready to breed again, they swim back to the fresh water stream where they were born, reproduce, and then die (3). It is necessary for them to have cool clean water that is free of sediment beds in order to spawn. However, man-made dams can block their return to the fresh water streams where they were born, and often times logging practices create pollution in these streams, creating harmful spawning environments for the salmon. In fact, there has been a decline in marine life in that past two years, and scientists are trying to understand the causes of this decline (6). While many blame this on El Niņo and other weather phenomena, physical sizes and weight of current salmon suggest otherwise. In 1998 chinook salmon weighed less than in previous seasons. This change could be due to a 20-year rise in Pacific Ocean temperatures (7). Some people consider this another El Niņo, except that it takes decades to play out. In fact, many people use changes in climate and weather as an excuse to ignore dwindling salmon populations. Since weather is impossible for humans and governments to control, they feel that it is not worth the time and effort to try and save salmon populations. However, regardless of weather conditions, salmon are still unable to return to fresh water rivers and streams to spawn due to man-made dams and pollution. If scientists can come to understand the effects of climate on different fish populations, perhaps they can use that knowledge in the favor of the salmon.

While the federal government has enforced the Endangered Species Act on twelve species of salmon, in early 1999 President Clinton pledged $100 million to the Northwest so each state could individually develop salmon-saving programs (8). Local governments have begun to map out plans, such as bringing local waterways to the healthy standards necessary for salmon spawning. However, lately the federal government has begun planning a long-term strategy to save the salmon, which include removing barriers that prevent salmon from reaching the fresh water streams where they spawn, reducing risks of sedimentation, and putting ceilings on harvest levels (11). The federal plan also expects state and local participation.

The reaction to federal and state plans has been mixed. In Oregon, plans to reconstruct sewage lines to keep sewage out of spawning areas are costing $1 billion. That means that the monthly sewage bill for an average family can increase from less than $30 to more than $50 (8) . Nevertheless, many fishermen and fisheries prefer state local legislature to any federal legislature. Many feel that local governments will be more sensitive to the lives of fishermen and loggers than the federal government would be. After all, local governments need the revenue from fisheries to keep the state economy stable.

In my research, I mostly found information from a conservationist point of view. I was curious as to how fishermen felt about the salmon situation. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association (10) helped clarify the point of view of some fishermen. While they are concerned with the economic decline of the American fishing industry, they blame the government for the salmon problem, rather than conservationists that lobby for policies that could hurt fishermen in the end. Many fishermen feel that the federal government should have predicted what is happening to salmon, and acted on it much sooner. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations suggest that the federal government should provide the funds to protect salmon habitats and that scientists and fishermen should work together to improve the understanding of fish behavior. Many fishermen also feel that if they should not be subject to laws that protect fish and marine wildlife if fishermen from other countries from which we import fish are not, because it is a double standard, and in the view of American fishermen, unfair.

While many fishermen agree that conservation laws are beneficial because they save future populations of fish, fishermen, governments, and conservationists still disagree in several areas. But the problem isn't limited to the United States. The salmon situation has become a battle for profit between the United States and Canada, whose fisheries often times overlap. Canadians argue that Americans fish more salmon than has been allowed in previous treaties, while Americans argue that Canadians have over-fished Columbian coho and Puget Sound Chinook, and are now threatening these species with extinction (9).

There have been, and will continue to be many policies that attempt to appease all parties and countries, including buying property rights to fish before they are caught (9). Undoubtedly, the most beneficial policies will be those that cater to the interests of both fishermen and conservationists. One can already see fishermen and conservationist ideas overlapping, but solving the problem of dwindling fish populations, particularly blue shark and salmon populations, will most likely require much more time and money.

WWW Sources

1) A Hunger for Shark Fin Soup

2) House to Vote on Shark Fins Bill

3) Animal Protection Institute

4) Seattletimes.com

5) Seattletimes.com

6)"Three Letter Word for Last Chance"

7) Oregon Live

8) Oregon Live

9) Washington Institute Foundation

10) The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association

11) National Marine Fisheries Service




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