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February 01, 2010

It's in the Eyes

How is it possible that several nongovernmental environmental organizations recently helped organize a workshop to consider allowing fish traps in the Gulf once again?

Fish traps don't harm sea turtles. But I wish they did.

These traps are commercial gear so insidiously destructive that they were banned from use off the South Atlantic states in 1992 and in the Gulf of Mexico in 1996 (though it took another 10 years for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to completely phase them out).

In brief, fish traps are large mesh structures made of non-corrosive materials and cleverly designed to invite fish in - and keep them in. Most are placed in reefs deep enough to ensure near-100 percent mortality when non-target fish are released from the traps at boat-side. Beyond that problem, an even greater concern is that so many traps have historically ended up lost or abandoned. These traps then turn into killing machines as fish continue to enter (often to feed on dead or dying fish already there) and perish, for years and years. (Divers have documented this, describing extensive fish-bone graveyards littering the seafloor around such ghost traps.)

So how is it possible that several nongovernmental environmental organizations recently helped organize a workshop to consider allowing fish traps in the Gulf once again?

The answer is all too simple. Fish traps don't harm leatherback turtles. They only harm fish. And that's OK.

It must be OK because the Environmental Defense Fund, Oceana and The Ocean Conservancy joined forces recently with several commercial fishing groups to sponsor "A Workshop on Fish Traps in the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fishery." The stated goal of that December meeting: "to explore benefits and potential impacts of reintroducing traps in the Gulf of Mexico reef fishery."

So these "environmental" NGOs are encouraging consideration of gear so harmful it's already been widely banned. I realize that may strain credulity, but it's absolutely true.

Why? The answer is all in the eyes.

Before I elaborate, a bit of background. The green groups are concerned about longline fishermen's bykill of threatened loggerhead sea turtles in the Gulf. They want to reduce that, and since longlining is such an indiscriminate killer of sea life, that means allowing less longline fishing. The longliners would like some payback - in the form of a green light to start dropping fish traps into the depths once again.

In other words, this unholy alliance of green and greed would substitute one indiscriminate killer of sea life for another: untended traps for untended, baited circle hooks.

Makes no sense, you say?

Aule contraire. It makes perfect sense - when you understand the strange environmental priorities at play here.

These NGOs - and presumably most of those well-heeled patrons on whom the groups' existence relies - love doe eyes. In the oceans, doe-eyed things include all marine mammals, seabirds (though that may be a stretch for some of us) and, certainly, sea turtles. Think of those scenes in so many nature shows showing close-ups of the tearful big dark orbs of momma turtle while she's dropping her eggs on a lonely beach.

Unfortunately, fish don't have doe eyes or even warm blood. They're not cuddly or cute, and in fact unlike marine mammals or turtles, we eat 'em.

So these groups are willing to consider allowing destructive gear as long as it only destroys fish. Apparently, that is no big deal.

Or are these environmentalists now going to contend that, hey, traps weren't really all that bad?

Certainly, The Ocean Conservancy (TOC) didn't seem to feel that way in 2001 when it spoke in favor of a court decision to minimize damaging gear practices. Kimberley Davis, then fish-conservation program director of TOC, said, "The effects of fishing on marine ecosystems go far beyond the sea life killed in nets, traps and fishing lines," citing damage to reefs as well.

Indeed, the organization has stated publicly that, "We're at an important crossroad in the Gulf," demanding that we "safeguard the health of the Gulf's ecosystem" and "stop wasteful bycatch."

I guess they meant to say, "Stop wasteful bycatch of turtles."

If these groups truly cared about fish populations, they would be fighting to ban all ecologically evil methods, not supporting the lesser of evils.

Fish traps have been compared to black holes on the ocean floor. They keep sucking in fish to die.

But not turtles.

Maybe snapper, grouper and other fish can evolve large, appealing eyes. Then these environmental groups will fight for their existence too.