Over Fishing the Oceans

Japanese Fishing Vessel in the Pacific
Most of us have heard of over fishing. It’s something normally associated with home ports and lakes. When you see the dozens of fishing vessels in a busy port, it’s easy to conceptualize that our local waters have been fished so hard there is little or nothing left.

But, the oceans are really big. The Pacific Ocean is the biggest of them all. You would think there’s no way we could be over fishing these giant waters. By the time a couple of fishing vessels could get back to the same waters (a year or two maybe), surely the fish that are left can mate and grow new schools of fish to replace those taken before. Right?

Yet, the rumors of over fishing in the oceans persist. (See story about a documentary on this subject).

During our last two passages I have been seeing way too much evidence that the rumors are true. First, we have seen very little marine life since we left the coastline of Panama. Plenty of flying fish yes, but very little else. Since we left the Galapagos (protected waters), we have not seen any whales, no dolphin, nothing but flying fish and a few sea birds. We haven’t even seen squid on the boat after our night sails. Usually you find a few hapless fish on your boat top after a night. We were expecting while we were near the Galapagos we would see plenty of life. But, once we left the nearby vicinity of the Galapagos – nothing. I have spent time in recent months reading about the likes of Captain Cook and Darwin’s Beagle plying the Pacific oceans which, at the time – two or three hundred years ago – were teeming with life. Whales, dolphins, and other marine life were to be seen all throughout the seas.

What we HAVE seen during the last 3 day, on our passage sailing to the Marquesas, are a fleet of large Japanese fishing vessels (like the photo I took of one at the top of this post). These aren’t your garden variety fishing vessels with a crew of 6 or so guys. Thanks to AIS (a vessel reporting system required by all commercial vessels at sea), we know a lot more specifics about these vessels. They have names like: Seiwa Maru No. 18, Chokyu Maru No 12, Chokyu Maru No. 21, Fuku Maru No. 72. Each one is either 187 or 197 feet in length, 33 feet in width and 16 to 19 feet in draft (below water depth). These vessels were traveling in grid patterns on exactly parallel paths at a set distance apart. Covering the entire area – missing nothing. We have crossed paths with different vessels several times in three days coming within 1 mile of three of the vessels. Once we get to the Marquesas, I’ll upload some pictures and screenshots from our chart plotter.

Let’s think about the statistical probability that we would intersect with three fishing vessels within 1 mile on three occasions while traveling at 10 knots across 3000 nautical miles of ocean. If we’re doing that, how many of these are out there? How much ocean are they covering? And, what about the names of these vessels? Three different names with fleet numbers running up to at least 72 (I’m guessing there’s probably at least 100 of each). These guys are 7000 miles from Japan fishing the waters just a few hundred miles from the Galapagos! How many are out here if we can get close to that many on one passage?

Is it any wonder we aren’t seeing any signs of marine life? How long will it take hundreds of giant fishing ships using modern technologies (sonar, satellite technology, some of the fishing vessels we’ve seen use helicopters to spot schools of fish), to completely scour and remove all fish from our oceans? It’s horrifying for me to think about the numbers. How many thousands of pounds of fish while a fleet of 500 fishing vessels bring home in a month? These are 200 foot ships remember. Probably 50 to 75 THOUSAND pounds of cargo is conservative. Taking the smaller number, that’s 25 MILLION pounds a fleet of 500 such vessels could bring home! Every month? Let’s say they are out for 6 months. It’s still mind boggling. How many pounds of fish farming do you think our oceans can sustain? Did these fish ever require in their evolution a need to breed fast enough to sustain their populations when millions of them are suddenly disappearing every year? Complete families in a single swoop of the net. No entire schools!

And, lets think a moment about the huge nets a 200 foot long ship can put out. Indiscriminately catching everything. Not just tuna, or other game fish. But, dolphin, sea turtles, sharks, etc. I’m betting they can find a market for everything they catch in Japan – or China.

I thought the devastation of the rain forests was bad. But, out here in the oceans, very few people can see what’s happening. Even Google Earth’s satellite photos won’t help. There’s no use saving imagery of the ocean since you can’t see anything. Right? Although, maybe if you could see dozens of huge fishing vessels moving in a grid pattern covering thousands of square miles of the ocean, it might just make you think: should we allow this to continue? When do we stop? Do we just wait until its no longer “profitable” for the fishing fleets to stop? When will that happen? How soon will it be with modern technologies before its too late? Is it already too late for some species to recover? Have we already upset the balance of nature in the oceans?

After witnessing first hand the amount of fishing occurring, I’m definitely going to start learning more about this problem. This isn’t just about the legacy of our children. It’s about whether we can live with ourselves for allowing eradication of yet another vital part of our ecosystem. Not being able to see what’s happening is just an excuse. The same modern technologies used to catch these fish can also be used to help educate and collect accurate information about what is happening. Let’s not allow a holocaust of the oceans occur.

(NOTE: while preparing to send this, another fishing vessel appeared on my AIS just 13 miles away: Taiwa Maru No. 78!)

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7 Responses to Over Fishing the Oceans

  1. jpwade_bsu says:

    Thank you for the updates/observations, and yes mind boggeling to say the least,

  2. Bo says:

    Wow…are you serious? I had no idea that overfishing was such an issue!
    This is really scary…I too am going to have to do some research and see how bad it actually is. Thanks for shining a light on the problem!

  3. KB says:

    There’s a great article here on the collapse of the cod on the Grand Banks. http://www.emagazine.com/view/?507 If we hurry, we can probably get the last one of whatever before someone else does. ;-(
    I enjoy your posts.

  4. Fred Burke says:

    As long as the demand exists, they will find a way to fill it – even if it were to mean breaking the law. So by educating us though what you are seeing first hand you are helping to raise our awareness.
    I have to wonder though what will it take to educate enough folks who are willing to act on what they know before any measurable change occurs?
    Googling on “overfishing the seas” comes up with many articles on the problem from the United Nations, Greenpeace and many others. Still for me it has more impact when I hear it from someone I know who is seeing the problem first hand.
    Thanks for writing about it Frank.

  5. Ned says:

    Wow Frank, You really know how to paint a vivid picture. For me, out of everything you’ve posted, this is by far the most disturbing I’m sorry to say. (You really brought my buzz down man!)
    I’m with Fred, hearing about this from someone you know strikes the gut a lot harder than seeing it on the History channel. Hopefully, with people like you witnessing this over fishing first hand and writing about it, might do some good one day. You have made me feel like spreding the word.
    Be safe, have fun, we’re thinking about you guys 🙂

  6. Paul Stewart says:

    Your eye witness account packs a powerful message. Thank you for writing it. Eat a whole ocean of fish, send thousands of species to extinction, change the climate. Oops.
    Some species of fish are not growing as large as they once did. What happens if you continuously select the biggest ones out of your live stock and leave the little ones? You breed smaller animals. Works for cows, sheep, chickens, etc. …. and fish!

  7. Susan says:

    Frank this was a very prolific story. It is amazing how real it seems when someone writes from firsthand experience.
    Wonderful story and something you should continue writing about to bring more awareness to the problems facing the marine life.
    Safe sailing, stay safe and safe travels to you all! We miss you, but we love living the adventure vicariously through your stories.

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