SAN FRANCISCO (FNS) -- Representatives of the seafood industry and of the environmental movement squared off in a dispute over the future of the world's fisheries at the Grocery Manufacturers of America/Food Marketing Institute Environmental Affairs Conference, held here.
Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, and Carl Safina, director of Living Oceans, a branch of the National Audubon Society, offered attendees a lesson in how two people, using the same data, can reach two diametrically opposite views of an issue. In this case, the conflicting ideas were about the health of the ocean population.
"Lee sees the glass as half full, and while I may agree with that, I am afraid that there's a hole in the bottom of the glass," said Safina, talking about the current state of fisheries.
Weddig's stand was that while a few fisheries were depleted and a few others may be overextended, "more than three-quarters of the world's fisheries were being used at a rate that allowed the stock to replace itself. And more than 30% of the total is either underutilized or only moderately exploited."
There are problems, Weddig admitted. "Areas that are being overexploited are increasing and some fish stocks are decreasing, but the increase in fish farming appears to have the capability to meet the increased needs of the world's population."
Even while supplies of wild fish are leveling off, the world's population is increasing, and higher standards of living will increase the demand for fish and fish products, Weddig said. That dictates the need to increase use of the underused fish populations, while at the same time increasing aquaculture.
He agreed with Safina that there are problems in the New England fishing regions and the salmon catch off the West coast of the United States. However, Weddig pointed out that in the Pacific, the majority of the salmon catch comes from Alaskan waters, where there are no problems, and the New England fishery decline has allowed an increase in the catch of other ocean denizens, such as lobsters.
"Most fish are not caught for human use. They are eaten by other fish. In the New England area, there is an increase in the lobster catch, because most of the baby lobsters were usually eaten by cod, which is in decline. In the Alaskan waters, there are fewer crabs than usual, because there is a greater number of salmon, which eat baby crabs. It all evens out," Weddig said.
But Weddig also cautioned that the industry must work with environmental groups to forge new rules for the use of the seas, in order to prevent the collapse of other fish stocks.
While urging that the oceans be used as "food producers, not wildlife refuges," he also said that industry must develop new technology to reduce or eliminate what he called "by-catching," or the 25% of the catch that fishing boats must throw back because they either do not want them, cannot use them or they are too small.
An example of new technology is the "turtle ejector device," a screen on shrimp nets that ejects turtles before they get tangled or are drawn up on the boats. "This device has almost eliminated by-catching turtles, and under U.S. law, any country which wants to export shrimp to this country must use TEDs on their shrimp nets.
"There will soon be an embargo on all shrimp which is not caught using TED nets," Weddig said, "and while it may be unfair to Third World countries to force them to accomplish in four months what it took this country 10 years to do, soon the TED sign on shrimp will be as commonplace as the 'dolphin safe' logo on tuna fish cans," he said. "Soon all shrimp will be 'turtle safe.' "