We're destroying the seas

As big fish dwindle from the oceans, swordfish, tuna and marlin could disappear. An expert explains what we'll lose

Published July 9, 2012 1:55PM (EDT)

    (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-590995p1.html'>Guido Montaldo</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Guido Montaldo via Shutterstock)

For centuries, our culture has been fascinated with big fish. From "The Old Man and the Sea" to "Jaws," ocean giants have embodied the awesome and terrifying power of nature. But they may not be around for much longer. Every year, 16 billion pounds of sea life are lost to overfishing, and 6 million square miles of ocean floor are maimed by industrial gear. Rampant corruption among commercial fisheries has lowered the number of bluefin tuna, marlin and swordfish by approximately 80-90 percent since 1950. All three species could be driven to extinction in a matter of decades, asserts Matt Rigney, author of the new book “In Pursuit of Giants: One Man's Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish."

Why should we care? Rigney, a writer and lifelong New England fisherman, laments that without healthy oceans, we lose not only a viable food source, but also a humbling reminder of human frailty. Left to our own devices, sans technology-driven fish farms and flashy rods, reels and boats, the great ocean giants would elude us. In traveling around the world, from Mexico to Japan to New Zealand, Rigney introduces people who are risking their lives to catch monstrous fish. All the while, he observes the extent to which corporate interests are wreaking havoc on the oceans, and the disheartening lack of political attention being paid to environmental protection.

Salon spoke to Rigney about the economic crisis in commercial fishing, the failures of the environmental movement, and how consumers can effect change.

In the book you say that you embarked on this journey around the world partly because staying on shore, having seen a bluefin tuna, felt like a betrayal of a certain part of your being. How does seeing the big fish change a person?

It's changed me in a lot of ways. It's first of all made me understand that these creatures are beings, they're not things. And the one editing regret I have in the book is where I make the dedication – it’s first to my daughter and then it's to the fish. You'll see it says "and for the fish, without which I never would've dreamt of the sea." I wish I'd kept it as I originally written it, which was "and for the fish, without whom I never would've dreamt of the sea" because they are beings. They're not people, obviously, but they're beings, they're living creatures that we actually know very little about. It's so clear to me that we need to be able to get out into some sort of natural environment because we don't really know ourselves until we do. We don't really know the world that we were born to until we get out there.

Why do people become fascinated with big fish, in particular?

There's something that happens when you encounter something that's greater than you are. And by "greater" I mean something that in its own right can kind of challenge you or stay even with you or say, "Look, you may be up there in your big boat being human, dominant, but here I am and I'm alone in something the size of an ocean and this is my realm." It shatters the context in which we always find ourselves, in which we normally operate, and that's one of the real values of an experience with wilderness, I think, is that it makes us appreciate that the world is a far bigger and far greater place than we normally experience. And we're changed by an encounter with that. I would say most people who are drawn to fishing are drawn to it because it does something for them. It relaxes them, it puts them in contact with nature and it changes their perspective. And if we don't have that to go to anymore, we're going to be in a sorry state. I really believe that.

Why do you think we don't have the same compassion for ocean animals as we do for land animals?

I think it has to do with the fact that you can't see into their world as easily, the fact that they live in water. It's a difficult medium for us to penetrate. We're not water creatures. But we have to realize we live on a planet that's 70 percent ocean and that dividing line between air and water might as well be a hundred light-years. It's a different planet, literally. It operates by different means, it has different rules, it's far wilder than what we have on land now. But I think that's easily changed once you come in contact with it. To encounter animals of the ocean we actually have to penetrate a boundary that keeps us separate, and that's one of the things that I encourage readers at the end of the book to do. Get out there, put yourself on a boat, go on a whale watch. You'll be changed.

How bad is the economic crisis of commercial fishing?

We're basically squabbling over the crumbs of what's left. We're talking about how do we divide up 5 percent of the abundance that used to be there. I think we should be on a rebuilding plan that's drastic, that brings back major populations of foraged fish – these are fish at the bottom of the food chain – and if we do that it's very likely that we will see an increasing abundance of everything that relies on those species. Part of what's required to rebuild stocks is much greater enforcement. We need the commitment of governments and resources to make sure that more stringent guidelines are adhered to. Commercial fishing will be stronger, the environment will be stronger, recreational fishing will be stronger, and if it's well managed, that can be sustained.

When you're talking about the destruction of certain species, especially the bluefin tuna, you say that there should be a category of international law for crimes against nature. Many people would probably roll their eyes at this idea. Why do you think so many people sometimes have this mocking reaction to environmental causes?

I think environmentalism in this country has succeeded in a lot of ways, but I think it's failed in communicating to the broad population. The main argument that I find effective is to say, "Why are we satisfied with so little?" We as a culture, a species, why are we satisfied with populations of bluefin tuna that are between 3 and 5 percent of their historical maximum? I think if we could really see the world our grandparents lived in, we wouldn't roll our eyes, we would cry. So that's where I think environmentalism has failed, is to make people appreciate that. If you give people the facts and you paint the world as it used to be versus what it is, and show the disparity and say, "Now which do you want for you and your kids? And we can get there." I think sometimes environmentalists have failed to communicate across the boundaries of the political spectrum.

How can the distrust between fishermen and the scientists and policymakers who influence the industry be remedied?

I think they need to spend more time together. I think scientists, if they're not getting out with commercial fishermen, they should. I think commercial fishermen, if they are worth their salt, so to speak, if they are these rough and tumble guys, well, get off your boat and get on the science craft -- figure out that these guys aren't all white-shirted, pen-toting idiots; these guys know stuff you don't know. Really, it's a cultural thing. You're talking about the educated class versus the blue-collar class. I think there needs to be a lot more cross-fertilization and I think both sides would come to appreciate that.

There's actually a good story of a guy up in Maine who was a commercial fisherman, and went and got some degrees in science. He was able to go back through captains' logbooks that were in his family and put together this history of where cod-breeding grounds were. He could tell scientists, "Look, this is where the cod were breeding 40-50 years ago, all these locations all over the Gulf of Maine, right in close to shore."

Will fish farming ever completely replace wild fishing?

The first major problem with fish farming is the necessity, so far, of using a huge amount of foraged fish (that is, fish lower down on the food chain) to feed fish farms. Another problem is that a lot of farmed fish are higher on the food chain. I think it'd be smart if we found a way to farm sardines. I mean, you talk about a fast-breeding, fast-turnover fish who doesn't need to be fed other fish; they eat phytoplankton and zooplankton. The third problem is the necessity of relying on antibiotics to keep the fish clean. In some countries there's almost nonexistent oversight of this, for example, salmon farms or shrimp farms, and these things just wreak environmental destruction. So do I think it's going to take over? I think that sector's going to grow and grow and grow, and it just has to change how it's being done if it's going to be at all sustainable. Do I agree with it? No. I think the smarter option would be to support healthy, robust wild oceans that would be fished within the limits that can be sustained. I'd much rather a wild fish than a farm-raised fish any day.

If there were stricter restrictions placed on commercial fishermen, how could they continue to make a living?

I think the government has an obligation to protect the common good. For me, first and foremost, that means the environment, and secondly, there could be a way to work with fishermen to find creative solutions that keep the fishermen employed and in good work that they want to be doing. I think there's great danger when the government begins to work directly with corporations. The corporate structure and the corporate mind is such that it often concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, takes fishermen from being independent operators and makes them basically wage slaves within a corporate structure. And the result is that you go from being a fisherman, running your own boat, to being, what, maybe a captain of a tug that's pulling a cage or something like that? So it's not really something that preserves the way of life. I think that's an important piece. I'd rather see subsidies go to creating supportive, independent fishermen community rather than subsidizing corporations.

There's a scene in the book when you're scuba diving and you pick up a snail and later you find out that it was a deadly harpoon snail that could've killed you. There are several brushes with death in the book. What is lost in, say, office culture, where people lose sight of their mortality?

I just think it's impossible to really have the full experience of being human if you live within a totally controlled, totally contained sort of hermetically sealed, safe environment. I'm not saying to court danger is romantic, but we were bred as animals to survive in a physical world, and the world we live in, like office cubicles, these are not what we're born to. We can't really have an experience of all of the other parts of us unless we're getting out there and living in a much more diverse, exciting, interesting habitat. And I think we live in strange habitats of concrete and rugs and desks and technology; I mean, I think it's bizarre. And it does strange things to our minds and hearts.

Has fishing lost its cultural prestige?

I think we've become detached from an appreciation that, first of all, fishermen are doing among the most dangerous work that there is to do. The injury rate and the fact these guys get maimed and killed doing this work, some would argue that that's a perfect argument for controlling it more, doing fish farming or having some way to do it that spares fishermen from that. I totally agree. I mean, I heard horror stories of men getting dragged overboard and killed. So of course that ought to be changed. But to be somebody who makes his livelihood by going out and fishing the ocean is a special thing and that ought to be supported. I think that's part of a good world if we're living in a place where that's happening safely, sustainably.

What’s your favorite ocean giant?

You know, I thought it was a bluefin tuna when I really first started this, but my mind was changed. It's really swordfish. They're just unbelievable fish. They're incredible because they're crafty, first of all. The fish that I saw would shoot off the back of the boat, turn around and be shooting back at the boat underneath it, in the blink of an eye. I've never seen anything move like that. You just appreciate them. I was in awe of these animals. I don't know if there's any equivalent I can think of. They have incredible speed. They have endurance that just sort of blows your mind. I think it's important not to romanticize it; the stress of being on the line, of fighting against an angler will cause all sorts of critical physiological changes in the fish. If you're going to go out angling, hook it, catch it, release it, do it quick.

What might it take, for those of us who haven’t seen the great fish, to change our perspective on nature? To consider nature equal to or greater than we are?

It’s going to take more humility, a little bit more nuanced thinking. There are all sorts of ways to be advanced; technologically is just one way. We have to become more advanced in our thinking and in our behavior. We could blow this planet to smithereens – that’s not necessarily a sign of greatness or advancement. I think it'd be a greater sign of advancement if we could turn ourselves around and show that we had the wisdom and the ability to work together to do something unprecedented, and we have that ability. The thing I'm talking about is to actually turn around this trend of ocean overfishing and over-usage, start to take real steps to address global warming and the ways that it's going to affect the ocean.

By Sarah Amandolare

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Environment Fishing