Get ready for jellyfish sandwiches, scientists warn: Fragile fish stocks being wiped out at 'devastating' speed
National Post , 18 Feb 02

BOSTON - The oceans are being emptied of fish so fast that people may soon be eating ''jellyfish sandwiches,'' say scientists who are calling for drastic action to protect the seas.

Fish stocks are being wiped out, they say. Coral reefs are being destroyed. And the scientists say deep-ocean mountains and canyons -- along with the century- old creatures that live there -- are being devastated by the fishing industry that is using increasingly sophisticated techniques.

''They're peeling the lid of the ocean and offering fish no place to hide,'' Professor Callum Roberts, of University of York in Britain, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the weekend in one of several presentations on the state of the seas.

Fishermen, guided by satellite navigation systems, spotter planes and unclassified military maps, are homing in on previously unseen canyons and seamounts, he said.

The fishing nets being dragged hundreds of metres beneath the surface are having a ''devastating'' impact on the slow-growing fish -- such as orange roughy, featured on the menus in many restaurants. Roughy can live for 200 years and don't reproduce until they are in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

As well, fragile corals and ecosystems of the deep are being destroyed. ''Unique mega fauna is being hooked and netted faster than it can possibly be replaced,'' said Prof. Roberts. "Deep water corals that took 5,000 years to grow can be destroyed with the single pass of a trawl net."

He was echoed by Canadian scientists who presented new findings on the demise of the Atlantic fishery. Dr. Daniel Pauly and Dr. Reg Watson, of the University of British Columbian's fisheries centre, say the collapse of fish stocks goes far beyond disappearance of Canada's cod. The catch of tuna, haddock, flounder and hake, across the entire North Atlantic has decreased by more than half in the last 50 years, they say.

''We are unequivocally losing the battle to manage fisheries in the North Atlantic,'' said Dr. Pauly, who has made headlines for years by mining international catch statistics and showing how global stocks are being wiped out.

The study shows more and more fishermen are chasing fewer and fewer fish. The fishermen, it shows, are working their way down the food chain and are now catching species long considered bait.

In 10 years ''we'll probably be eating jellyfish sandwiches,'' said Dr. Watson. ''Seafood is becoming something for the rich people to have. Poor people won't be able to afford it,'' he said.

A jellyfish fishery recently opened in the southern United States.

Dr. Andy Rosenberg, former deputy director of the U.S. National Marine Fishery Service, who is dean of life sciences at the University of New Hampshire, told the assembly it is clear there has been a 'huge decline' in the biomass in the North Atlantic.

''This is not a matter of pollution, it's not a matter of environmental change,'' he said. ''The decline is due to fishing, there isn't any question of that.''

Prof. Roberts likens trawling to logging of old growth forests. ''In the deep-sea we are clear-cutting ancient forests of invertebrates in just the same kind of ways.

''What we are destroying now will take centuries to recover,'' he said.