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One Man's Opinion: Green groups should put an end to this FAD

Peter Redmayne
Peter Redmayne
December 01, 2005 Bob Miles is mad as hell. But he’s not sure he’s going to be around to take it anymore.

A Southern Californian in search of the perfect wave, Miles dropped anchor in Quepos, Costa Rica, in the 1980s. The surfing was great, and he soon learned the fishing was fantastic, too. Mahi and bigeye and yellowfin tuna teemed in the waters off Central America’s Pacific coast. So Miles built some fishing boats, started a seafood company, Martec Industrias, and began exporting to the United States, where demand for fresh fish was just beginning to take off.

With business as good as the surfing, Miles and his partner, Skip Baker, made a big investment in the 1990s, adding freezers and cold-storage capacity to produce value-added portions and steaks. Life was good. Catch some waves on the way to work, grab some rice and beans, peddle some fish and retire to the local watering hole to smoke a Cuban cigar and sip rum and Coke.

It’s a different story these days, though, he told me recently. The fishing has been lousy, so he’s processing just half the fish of a few years ago. As anyone who owns a fish plant knows, a processor’s profit mantra is “pounds through the plant.”

Of course, fishing always has its ups and downs, but for hook-and-line fishermen from Ecuador to Mexico, it’s been a steady downhill ride.

Miles blames the proliferation of big tuna seiners, which have littered the waters of the eastern Pacific with FADs, or floating aggregate devices, as they are formally known. FADs are little more than rafts that attract small fish, which attract big fish, and so on. Their use makes it a lot easier for the seiners, because they don’t have to chase schools of tuna around the ocean to load up.

According to its critics, FAD fishing is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Huge numbers of fish are swept up indiscriminately in the seines. Since the seiners want only tuna, the mahi and other bycatch are tossed back into the water, dead. And a lot of the tuna that are caught are small, immature fish — not a good omen for the future of the tuna resource.

Miles has spent a lot of time going to meetings of organizations like the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, where biologists flash graph after graph showing hook-and-line catches plummeting as seine catches soar. But while scientists bemoan the use of FADs, they are powerless to stop a fishery that takes place in international waters.

So where are the green groups who preach the gospel of sustainable fishing? You know, the people who brought us the “Give Swordfish a Break” and “Take a Pass on Sea Bass” campaigns? Bob Miles would sure like to know.

“Somebody has to stop what’s going on down here,” he pleads. “It’s a disaster.”

In countries like the United States, the green groups can usually get their way by hauling fisheries managers into court. But when a fishery takes place on the high seas, courts and lawyers are useless.

Organizations like the Packard Foundation have spent millions telling people what fish they should and shouldn’t eat, with mixed results. Maybe it’s time they take some of that money to buy plane tickets and head south to start raising a ruckus about an unsustainable fishery that’s driving people like Bob Miles out of business.

 December 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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