News Stories

Strange New Fish?Or None At All

A small and unusual lobster caught off the Isles of Scilly in the U.K. may be a result of global warming. The 5inch-long lobster is normally found around the coasts of the Mediterranean and only about a dozen have been recorded in English waters in the past 250 years. But the one caught by fisherman Barry Bennett is the fifth one caught in British waters since 1999.

It was taken to the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, where it joins the growing group of warm-water fish and marine life that are coming further north towards the British Isles because the temperature of the ocean is rising.

During the past few years, a series of warm-water species new to Britain have been caught. In November, Britain?s first barracuda was caught about 40 miles from where the lobster was found. In the late Eighties, southern species such as sunfish and torpedo rays began to appear and are now common.

Douglas Herdson, of the National Marine Aquarium, says, ?As fish are very dependent on the temperature of the water, it is sensible to link these changes with changes in water temperature. They would be consistent with predictions of climate change.?

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Fishing vessels that trawl thousands of feet below the ocean?s surface may be wiping out exotic creatures faster than scientists can discover them, according to Callum Roberts, a professor of environment at the University of York in Britain. In recent years, sturdier winches, stronger cable and more powerful engines have allowed fishing trawlers to extend their reach to depths of 3,000 feet and beyond. At those depths, growth is so slow that harvested fish can take decades to be replaced and damaged coral may require centuries or more to grow back.

?The pace of life in the deep sea is virtually glacial,? says Roberts. ?What we are destroying now will take centuries to recover.? He compares the current situation in the deep oceans to the clear-cutting of ancient redwood forests in the western United States during the last century..

In the Pacific off New Zealand, trawling has cut orange roughy populations to one-fifth their original levels. Because those fish live to be 150 years old and do not reproduce until they are in their 20?s, it will take decades for them to recover.

Cindy Lee Van Dover, an oceanographer at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, says, ?You can go with ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) and take pictures before and after a trawl?s gone through and see the devastation.?

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The first comprehensive survey of the entire ocean?s fishing reveals that the entire North Atlantic is being so severely overfished that it may completely collapse by 2010. ?We?ll all be eating jellyfish sandwiches,? says Reg Watson, a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia. Putting new ocean-wide management plans into place is the only way to reverse the trend, he says.

North Atlantic catches have fallen by half since 1950, despite a three times the effort put into catching them. The total number of fish in the ocean has fallen even further, with just one sixth as many high-quality table fish, like cod and tuna, as there were in 1900. Fish prices have risen six times in 50 years.

The shortage of table fish has forced diners to switch to other species. ?The jellyfish sandwich is not a metaphor?jellyfish is being exported from the U.S.,? says Daniel Pauly, also at the University of British Columbia. ?In the Gulf of Maine people were catching cod a few decades ago. Now they?re catching sea cucumber. By earlier standards, these things are repulsive.?

Normally, falling catches would drive some fisherman out of business. But government subsidies encourage overfishing, with subsidies totaling about $2.5 billion a year in the North Atlantic.

Pauly believes that only a public reaction like the one against whaling in the 1970s will be enough to bring about the necessary changes in commercial fishing. The only hope for the fishing industry is to drastically limit fishing, by declaring large portions of the ocean off-limits and at the same time reducing the number of fishing ships. ?It?s like shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic,? says Andrew Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire. ?Less is actually more with fisheries. If you fish less you get more fish.?

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