In the spring of 2007, the author of an introduction to three essays in National Geographicwarned, "The oceans are in deep blue trouble. From the northernmost reaches of the Greenland Sea to the swirl of the Antarctic Circle, we are gutting our seas of fish. . . . Nets scour reefs. Supertrawlers vacuum up shrimp. Nations flout laws." 1
There are valid reasons for concern. Numerous scientific reports have thoroughly documented the extent of over-fishing. Despite a growing awareness of the problem and efforts to address it by government officials and fishers alike, fish stocks around the globe have collapsed, most dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s.
As a result, Americans and other people around the world have watched as some of their favorite types of fish disappear from their dinner tables—North Atlantic cod, swordfish, and blue-fin tuna, to name a few—to be replaced by others, such as wild Alaskan salmon, pollock, Pacific cod, and sablefish.
There have been many efforts globally to address the over-fishing crisis, some more successful than others. Two American fishing regions highlight the pitfalls and possibilities of a sustainable fishing industry.
In the waters off New England, we see a marked failure to regulate bottom-fish catches. Fish stocks disappeared and along with them the livelihood of fishing families, some of whom had been in the business for generations.
Yet, far across the continent the Alaskan Pacific fisheries have succeeded in regulating the amount of bottom fish and, to some extent, salmon and crab taken from the water. It was no coincidence that when Atlantic fish disappeared from American meals, Pacific fish took its place.
However, even successful practices of sustainable harvesting are not without their own problems. Alaska's approach to fishing may have replenished fish stocks, but along the way it has also raised important questions of environmental justice. Debates have been fierce over who will benefit and who will lose out from these efforts to preserve fish stocks and the fishing industry.
Conservation, the fishing story tells us, is never easy.
The Over-Fishing Crisis
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, innovations in fishing and improvements in transportation helped fishers boost their catches—and consequently sales of seafood—enormously.
Large-scale, "industrial" fishing can be traced back to the 1870s and 1880s, when fishers started trawling with steam-powered vessels in British and European waters, such as the North Sea. At about the same time, railroads connected fishing ports to interior towns, increasing markets for fish.
Having depleted inshore and near-shore fishing grounds, steam trawlers fished far from their home ports by the 1920s and 1930s. Steam-powered trawlers came to dominate Canadian and American cod fisheries, and fast-freezing techniques, introduced to some fisheries at the same time, further extended operations.
The decades after the Second World War saw a tremendous expansion and intensification of global fishing. New, long-distance fishing and processing vessels stayed at sea for months at a time.
There was great optimism that off-shore fishing would provide the peoples of the world with much-needed protein at reasonable costs. In the 1950s and 1960s, some scientists estimated that the oceans and seas could sustain an annual seafood catch of 200-350 million metric tons per year, more than twice as much as was ever actually achieved. (A metric ton is 1,000 kilograms or 2,204 pounds.)
Popular movies such as the 1954 production of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues beneath the Sea" featured divers harvesting seemingly inexhaustible riches from seas and oceans. This tremendous optimism about oceanic resources rivaled that expressed about nuclear power and space at about the same time.