Wiping out watermen

THE INDIVIDUAL waterman seems headed in the same direction as the family farmer and may well reach extinction first.

Both are being done in by huge industrial-style competitors that benefit from economies of scale. In the case of the watermen, though, the damage is even greater because giant fishing concerns are also wiping out the product.

In fact, the Bush administration has conceded the collapse of wild fish populations in U.S. coastal waters, with a proposal that fish farming be permitted in the zone from three miles to 200 miles offshore where most commercial fishermen have traditionally plied their trade. Plus, the proposal is designed in such a way – with no environmental safeguards – to ensure that whatever wild fish remain will be killed off in the process.

There is a better alternative to surrendering to this defeatism. But it requires the foresight and the ability to stand up to commercial concerns that think only of short-term profits no matter what the cost.

Stiff curbs on overfishing – locally, nationally, globally – could still reverse the trend for those species that remain, perhaps even including the self-employed waterman.

The devastation under way beneath the sea’s surface is staggering. During the past 30 years, when the size and number of commercial fishing vessels grew dramatically, fish stocks declined at an even more impressive rate. The Atlantic cod, for which Cape Cod is named, is all but wiped out.

Further, large scale fishing can destroy marine habitats when, for instance, draggers scrape the ocean floor; and massive sweeps can be indiscriminate in killing species other than the one being fished.

The political difficulty of imposing fishing curbs was underscored when Virginia officials warned their state may balk at last week’s decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to impose catch limits on menhaden. The bait fish is netted exclusively by a protein firm that employs 250 workers in the state.

Of eight such regional regulatory commissions in the country, only the one that oversees Alaska has been a successful manager of its fisheries – a feat attributed to fishing limits automatically imposed when a population declines below its target level.

Instead of moving to copy a program that works, the administration is proposing instead to weaken the authority of the regional commissions and to water down the definition of overfishing – all with the notion of sparing the fishing industry any pain.

And, if the fish disappear? No worries, the administration says. Fish farms will rise up to replace them. Trouble is, fish farms are polluters that require more wild fish for feed than they produce for the dinner table. They may soon be all that’s left, but they should at least be properly managed to limit their environmental damage.

Overfishing is a problem throughout the world. But the United States is notexactly leading by example if it can’t even save the individual waterman – the main species in whose interest it claims to act.