sustainable land use

delaware bay fisheries need help

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The pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of sustainable resource management dominates fishery management of the Delaware Bay. The fishery is predominantly a boom-and-bust affair that leaves most fishermen unable to make a reliable living, forcing them into other occupations to round out a living. Most of the overfishing gets little mainstream attention except for  horseshoe crab, whose population collapse from overharvest had a wider impact on Arctic-nesting shorebird populations.  Although there are many stories of woe, weakfish and sturgeon are a heart-break for anyone who cares for the bay.   

Once the heart of the recreational fishing industry in bayside towns like Fortescue, NJ, weakfish populations have been declining for more than 10 years according to data collected by Delaware Fish and Wildlife . The commercial fishery in Delaware Bay nearly dead and the recreational fishery is struggling. The impact on the local economy cannot be properly calculated because recreational  fishermen spend as much money on boats and head boats as they do on restaurants, motels and bait.  It’s hard to document, but suffice to say that the weakfish decline has been tough for the already hard-pressed communities of the Delaware Bay.

Why has the weakfish population collapsed?  Talk to a marine biologist and you’ll hear mostly guesses.  The landings data for weakfish  shows weakfish harvests going up and down like a rollercoaster  ride – and just like a rollercoaster the downs are related to the ups. When populations are high, fishermen have a joyful ride up, making money and having fun.  As stocks are depleted, they have a harrowing ride down,  the ride stops, and the fish remains unrecovered.   

Atlantic sturgeon, meanwhile, went on a one-way ride down  from which it has yet to recover.  It was fortunate that for years the harvest was low and stable.  Sturgeon, unlike many fish, take years to mature — harvesting too many leaves too few breeders. Eventually the population crashes.  In the late 1980’s easy money flowed from a burgeoning sturgeon harvest that even a fool could see was a tragedy in the making. The party ended fairly quickly, and now the Atlantic sturgeon is economically extinct and has even been considered for federal listing.

The same happened to horseshoe crabs (and the shorebird migration stopover).  Something similar is happening to blue claw crabs, although their inherent productivity leaves wide room for lax management. Oysters are hanging on by a thread, mostly because of disease, but some scientists believe overharvesting contributes to disease susceptibility. 

The question people of the bay should be asking is: Why?   This regular plunder does not sustain jobs, so why not pursue smarter regulations? Yet, as far as I can tell, no politician has stood in the way of the carnage. Those defending this destructive management talk of saving jobs, but mostly they create human and environmental wreckage. There is a better way. Fish populations can recover and the seas bounty can be harvested sustainably and remain productive. Most of us can remember when there were plenty of fish and crabs for everyone. The sea tells us many things, but most of all it tells us that an economy based on quick, short-term  profits may create jobs, but an economy  based on wise stewardship creates jobs that last.