Where Have All the Fish Gone?


Something is wrong with the Gulf fish populations, and it’s having an impact across the region. Veteran fishermen are reporting a disturbing scarcity of fish. Boats sit idle, while both commercial fishermen and charter captains grow increasingly anxious about the future of Gulf fisheries.

In a recent TV report, commercial fisherman Jerry Luke told WJHG in Panama City that he “…caught more crabs last year in one day than I’ve caught this whole season, so that goes to tell you that something’s wrong.”

The report also quotes Jack Rudloe, a marine biologist in Panacea, who discounts cold weather as a cause. “It’s been a very cold year, but we’ve had cold years before… But if we go out there now, drop a net, we’re not going to catch many fish at all,” he says.

It’s an understatement worth repeating as the “Mission Accomplished” crowd tries to sweep these troubling issues under the rug.

As shortages persist, more and more Gulf fishermen are recalling the infamous collapse of the Alaskan herring population that came three years after the Exxon Valdez spill. And we should note that many researchers say that regulators bungled the Alaska situation because they underestimated impacts. Remember that then, as now, Big Oil took every opportunity to lowball impacts, especially spill volumes that determine fines, and the government mostly went along – just as we’ve seen here along the Gulf Coast. As for the herring, the problem wasn’t oil killing the fish outright, but suppressing their immune systems, allowing disease to run rampant, according to a report by Ben Raines in Alabama’s Press-Register last fall.

Also from the Raines piece: Herring play an important role in the aquatic ecosystem. Consuming plankton, they turn the ocean’s energy into food for whales, mammals and dozens of fish species. The loss of a robust herring population has been linked to depressed populations of everything from seals to fish, studies have shown.

Look, nobody becomes a charter boat captain to make political points against Big Oil. If these folks could return to fishing with assurances that the catch was safe, they would do so immediately. It’s what they do. It’s what they love. But many know that we can’t say that the seafood is safe yet, and they know something’s wrong.

We ignore the Alaskan experience at our peril. And industry and a way of life is being destroyed, and we need to understand what’s happening and why.

Here’s the recent TV report: http://www.wjhg.com/home/headlines/Fishermen_blame_oil_spill_for_decline_in_fish-catch_116340929.html

Here’s the Press-Register piece from last year: http://blog.al.com/live/2010/08/alaskan_fishery_collapse_holds.html

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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