The Worldwide Problem of Overfishing

The problem of overfishing is not, of course, limited to the Columbia River. The worldwide growth in ocean harvest was explosive after 1970. Between 1970 and 1990, the world's industrial fishing fleet grew twice as fast as harvests. One fisheries biologist estimated that "[t]his armada finally achieved twice the capacity needed to extract what the oceans could sustainably produce."47

Study after study has found that overfishing can permanently destroy populations of fish (or at least “permanently” as far as several generations of human beings are concerned). As one fisheries biologist noted, "some of the world's greatest fishing grounds, including the Grand Banks and Georges Bank of eastern North America, are now essentially closed following their collapse—the formerly dominant fauna have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their previous abundance and are considered commercially extinct."48 The huge cod that fueled trade as America was settled are all gone.

The phenomenon of low vitality following overfishing-induced population collapse remains “puzzling” to state and tribal salmon managers in the Pacific Northwest. Having reduced coastal coho harvests after disastrous miscalculations of coho abundance in the 1980s, and seen no rebound in salmon populations, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is beginning to recognize that “once a population is reduced to low levels, its resilience is reduced, keeping it from breaking through some threshold to higher levels of productivity”.49 In the Columbia River Basin, however, the fishery agencies refuse to acknowledge this phenomenon. It is assumed that dam passage must be the problem.

Daniel Pauly of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia and Villy Christensen of the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management in Manila have pointed out that the vast majority of shallow continental shelves have been scarred by fishing, whereas large untouched tracts of rain forest still exist.50 The President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a panel of other marine scientists recently proposed that nations set aside 20% of the oceans as a reserve from overfishing.51 As Ferngully demonstrates, even children are educated to believe that protecting the rain forests is of vital importance. But the effects of "clear cut" fishing are invisible—except for the absence of fish, which can always be blamed on something else, like dams.

47 C. Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish", Scientific American, Nov. 1995, at 50.

48 C. Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish", Scientific American, Nov. 1995, at 48.

49 B. Bakke, “Four wild coho make it back to the Clack”, NW Fishletter, Mar. 5, 1997, at 6.

50 C. Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish", Scientific American, Nov. 1995, at 48.

51 R. Hill, “Scientists call for protecting oceans”, The Oregonian, Feb. 17, 1997.

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