In The Sea Around Us

In The Sea Around Us
     In his July 23 Gone Fishin' column, The Duxbury Clipper's Skip Cornell wondered, "Where are the stripers? ...the bass are missing." On August 2, The Boston Globe reported that the codfish population is down by 13 to 18 percent in the last three years, and that it contains as little as three percent of numbers needed to sustain the species.
     By way of perspective, in "Sea of Slaughter," the renowned Canadian naturalist Farley Mowat wrote that in 1600 the first exploiters of what would become known as King Cod reported they had "catched" six-to-seven-foot cod weighing 200 pounds. By the turn of the 20th century, much smaller (thus not fully-grown) cod were scarce throughout the North Atlantic. "In 1956, cod landings were a fifth of what they had been just half a century earlier," Mowat wrote.
     Bass have had a similar 400-year decline. Before 1620, 50-pounders abounded and six-footers weighing 200 pounds were common. By the 1870s, overfishing had cut average weights to 20 to 30 pounds. By the 1970s, the pollution of spawning grounds in Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River was threatening to cause the striper to "vanish as a viable species."
     Bass and cod are ground fish that feed on smaller coastal bait fish (their bait before fishermen made them man's). Disappearing ground fish are traditionally attributed by wishful-thinking man to migrations of the bait fish. This is sometimes true. The life cycle of bait fishes is short. They will disappear and reappear – bringing back with them absent bass, cod and other predators. "Our fishery isn't collapsing!" we'd prefer to believe.
     But we may be wrong. The 400-year history of innumerable species of fish, birds, whales and land mammals declining to two to five percent of their "virgin" populations is proof enough that the "they'll be back" argument cannot be counted on. Despite efforts to restore the great North Atlantic fishery in very recent times – 40 years against 400 – cod, especially, do not seem to be recovering; and striped bass are still declining.
     There is also an unfortunate history among commercial exploiters of fish and other animals that when a species begins to decline, killing it is not then reduced to a sustainable level – which would be rational and self-serving in the best sense. Instead, since scarcity causes prices to rise, the threatened species is exploited until it is functionally extinct.
     A landlubber isn't qualified to count fish species, but may sometimes catch fishy behavior in humans. Environmentalists like to exaggerate for effect – a form of crying wolf that reduces their credibility when they are right. Much is heard about rising sea level; and many take as a proven matter of fact the most extreme estimate that the mean high tide could rise five feet in the next 75 years. (So much, then, for water bans, seaside seasonal liquor licenses and other great issues of nowadays.)
     The danger is lest what we are looking at and obsessing about blind us to the calamity that is actually going to happen. In the 20th century, the sea is estimated to have risen six vertical inches – all but invisible, but accompanied by continuous decline in bird and fish species. In the future the sea may rise no matter what we do. But the rise or fall of life in the sea will depend almost entirely on what we do.
     As citizens, we therefore need to take evidence of despeciation seriously. The Globe's report on falling cod stocks noted that the new data will not be released to the public until "independent scientists ... review the findings." That's exactly what I mean by fishy behavior. Give the press the outlines of a report some will call alarmist – but by no means entrust it to the tax-paying public.
     It comes down to a refrain in this space: As citizens, we must practice the art of self government, or soon lose it.

                                               –D.A. Mittell, Jr.

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