By Tricia Walters
The sea is not a limitless resource, nor can it absorb any and everything we humans put in it. As the world's population grows so too does competition for limited marine resources, resulting in a cycle of adverse changes to our oceans. Some of the worst culprits are overfishing and pollution, together with emissions of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air, which in turn raises the temperature of the ocean, while also making the seas more acidic.
A diverse array of fish species is an essential part of our aquatic environment and the health and size of our fish stocks is an indicator of environmental quality. Historically fishing was a means of survival, and while some still earn their living this way, fishing has also become a way to relax. According to a report earlier this year in the journal Science, several of the world's leading marine biologists concluded that: "If bad fishing practices continued, in a worse-case scenario all fish and seafood species worldwide will crash by 2048".
Whether this, and similar conjectures come true depends on how we respond to the biological and economic decline of fisheries. The good news is that Bermuda is changing course.
Green Pages met with the Director of the Department of Environmental Protection, Dr. Fred Ming and Senior Marine Resources Officer, Dr. Tammy Trott to talk about the Government's work on a "Sustainable Fisheries Strategy", and what this means for both commercial and recreational fishermen.
"Sustainable fishing is a global objective that has emerged over the years in recognition of diminishing stocks of economically-important species of fish," Dr. Ming explains.
With this objective in mind, fisheries scientists and conservation biologists across the globe are working together to ensure information is shared as to the health of our oceans — this includes healthy fish stocks.
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Bermuda's Department of Environmental Protection, particularly the Marine Resources Section, Dr. Ming feels the Island is well placed to respond to the global movement. But first, he points out, existing, but outdated scientific measurements and evaluations for maximum sustainable yield need to be updated.
Bermuda has two categories of fish that are monitored. One is migratory fish, the other is reef fish.
Dr. Trott elaborates: "Migratory fish require the cooperation of everyone in the region in order to manage these resources, because these fish travel across countries' borders. The fish we get here in the spring and the fall come from other areas of the Atlantic Ocean, so a mandate was set up through a regional management body to assist in the management of these species."
This does call for the cooperation of all countries where these fish are "harvested" or caught and Dr. Trott adds: "This means conducting research so that you know when the species are found in your waters and gathering data on the amount of fish caught; however, trying to get a handle on these stocks isn't always easy."
Why? Because the Island can't account for what is caught by recreational fishermen. Dr. Ming adds that there is currently no requirement for this group to participate in data collection.
"Until we can get to that point, there will always be gaps in our statistics and understanding of what the status of stocks are that pass through our 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone", he says.
Dr. Trott agrees, adding: "A lot of recreational activity takes place for migratory species such as Wahoo, Yellowfin Tuna and Marlin."
In fact, recreational fishing is on the increase in Bermuda and Dr. Ming believes that up to 30 new recreational vessels are being registered each month. With this comes an added burden on fish stocks, from both commercial fishing and recreational fishing. This in turn puts pressure on Government to manage this fragile resource.
"Research is needed, supported by legislation that will require fishers to report their catch," Dr. Ming insists. "We have legislation requiring commercial fishermen to report their catch and if they don't report their stats we can take away their license. And, we do mean business."
He adds that this year some 17 commercial fishermen received warnings of this nature and are at risk of losing their licenses.
There are currently 326 registered commercial fishermen; however, these fishermen all fish from 200 licensed commercial fishing vessels as some are boat owners and some are crew.
Dr. Ming is also concerned about the reluctance of some for the need for stricter control: "From recreational fishers and those in fishing clubs, to people who are decision makers and who want to serve the people of Bermuda and not put them 'in a box', we all want to make our lives better in Bermuda. But increasingly as the pressures grow on our limited reef system, we are coming to the point of having to change the way in which we do business."
This is where the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy comes in. Issues it will address include management of species and the ecosystem of which they are a part.
Dr. Trott elaborates that this includes doing research on potential nursery grounds and fish movement patterns.
Management of the commercial fishing sector and non-commercial fishing sector will also be addressed.
However, one area, which is of great concern to both Dr. Trott and Dr. Ming, is climate change and its effect on Bermuda's reef.
"We need to find ways to make the reef system more resilient for the species that live there," Dr. Trott points out.
As for the die-offs in reef fish over the last month and a half, Dr. Ming says: "While we are at the earliest stages of our investigations into the die-offs in reef fish over the last month and half, there is a very strong suspicion that temperature is a major driver behind the problem. Not in a direct way, but in a more indirect way in that temperature change is stressful to fish. Globally, the month of August has seen sea temperatures of more than a degree Celsius above the norm and we can't help but think that this is perhaps one of the reasons that fish died."
The investigation is ongoing, with overseas fish expert Dr. Wolfgang Vogelbein this week confirming that a variety of factors may have contributed to the fish dying off, including an unusual rise in sea temperature. (See story below)
On a final note, Dr. Ming says the feasibility of culture fisheries is also being investigated: "There has been work done on a few local species that may prove suitable for culture in commercial numbers, but Government's role will be to provide technical support for managing issues like nutrition and fish health. Our role will be supportive and the private sector will drive the growth of that new sector."
So what can you do to help? Recreational fishermen are invited to sign up for a voluntary logbook scheme, which should be launched early next year to help with research. Green Pages will notify the public before the scheme is officially launched.