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Ocean Crisis Discussed At Stony Brook
October 10, 2008 - Dan's Paper
By Debbie Tuma

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the adage "there are plenty of fish in the sea," is up for a challenge. But that sentiment was corroborated last Friday by Ellen Pikitch, the new Director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook Southampton, who told an audience of about 100 people that in the past 50 years, many of our fish species are on the wane. During her lecture on the state of our oceans, Pikitch said, "Over the past decades, the stocks in our oceans have vastly declined. During the 1950s and '60s, the world fish catch was growing, and then it gradually began to decline."

Pikitch held up a large world map highlighted with red blotches indicating areas rich in fish. "Back then, there were 11 tons of fish per square kilometer of ocean bottom," she said. She then held up a map of the year 2000, with much less red.

"One century later, our oceans have become depleted of fish," she explained. "We fished down the marine food web, from larger to smaller fish, and of different species and sizes, until 90% of the big fish were gone. And it happened quickly, with a rapid decline in all the oceans of the world."

One of the biggest impacts was Japanese long-line fishing, which started in the Western Pacific and became rampant throughout the world by 1956. One of the first fish that started to die out as a result was the orange roughie.
"They caught so many of these fish in the nets that the nets would actually burst, and suddenly the catches in New Zealand started disappearing," Pikitch said. She explained that this fish lives to be 150 years old, and "this species was clear-cut like a tree, by all the net fishermen."

Pikitch said the collapse of the marine species around the world started around 2006. "In 2003, we saw 113 more marine extinctions, of which overfishing caused 55% and the rest was caused by habitat destruction," she said. "At this rate, everything will be gone by 2048."

She then took a look at how the rate of fish extinctions is accelerating, showing photos of the deep coral forests in the Aleutian Islands, and the difference between the trawled and untrawled areas. The trawled areas were wiped clean of this important coral.She showed how the Collateral Impacts of Fishing affects the habitats, mortality, and the bi-catch (other fish which get caught in the nets and die).

"There is a growing consensus today that we need a new fishing paradigm, where the goal is to maintain the fisheries," she said. "But we need a functioning ecosystem in order to do it."

One of Pikitch's goals is to save the sturgeon species - especially the Beluga. These "fossil fish," as she calls them, have been around for many years and are among the largest fish in the sea. "They can weigh up to a ton and live to be 100 years old," said Pikitch. "There were 27 species in the Western Hemisphere, and all but one species is considered extinct. They are one of the most endangered group of fish, and they are slow to recover once they are overfished."

Pikitch said the main threats to sturgeon are the value of and desire for Beluga caviar, which can cost up to $100 an ounce.

"The U.S. was 80% of the global Beluga caviar importer in the year 2000," said Pikitch. "We tried to stop that demand - we reached out to chefs, and suggested caviar lovers try farm-raised caviar instead. We decided that farm-raised caviar tasted just as good." Her campaign won a top award for public education from the Public Relations Society of America.

But the damage had been done. Over a 20-year period, there was a 90% decline in Beluga sturgeon. "We got the U.S. to list Beluga sturgeon as threatened, under the U.S. Endangered Species Act," said Pikitch. "This gave them the ability to ban products to the U.S. She explained that, "Unfortunately, not everything is reversible. "If we bring the population of any species down too low, it is hard to replenish it."

Pikitch added that another problem is the depletion of the smaller fish, such as anchovies and menhaden, which are used in the health food industries for their oils.
"We need to keep up the numbers of these small fish, because without them, the big fish will lack food," said Pikitch, who is on her way to Japan for further research into the "ocean crisis." She said that the crisis is finally being recognized, and believes that public education and outreach can influence change.

The monthly talks will continue at Stony Brook Southampton. The next one, titled "Ocean Acidification and the Global Carbon Cycle," with Dr. Cindy Lee, is scheduled for November 7 at 7:30 p.m. For information, call 631-632-5046.

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