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Deep sea fish wiped out

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Posted 1/4/2006 7:03 PM Updated 1/4/2006 8:21 PM
Scientists report some fish being fished into extinction
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

It's taken just a generation to virtually wipe out Canadian populations of deep-sea fish that weren't even considered desirable before the 1970s, a study finds.
Commercially fished species, such as the roundnose grenadier and the onion-eye grenadier, declined 99.6% and 93.3% respectively from 1978 to 2003. Accidentally snared fish, such as the blue hake, spiny eel and spiny-tail skate, declined as much as 98% from 1987 to 1994, say researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

Steve Murawski, a scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, notes that while the species range from the Virginia coast to Greenland, the data are only from Canadian waters. "We need to be careful that we don't over-interpret a snapshot of the corner as giving us the entire picture."

But that doesn't mean that the species aren't in danger, Murawski says. International fisheries management programs are needed to protect such fish, he says. "It doesn't mean we can't fish them but it has to be done carefully."

The problem most certainly isn't limited to only Canadian waters, says Helen Fox of the World Wildlife Fund. "The same thing is happening in the rest of the world, it's just going unnoticed."

Deep-sea fish, which reproduce later at age 15 and up than other species, were mostly ignored until the 1970s. That was because fishing in more shallow waters off the coasts was easier and more reliable. But as those fish populations began to decline in the 1970s, harvesting shifted to deep-sea species.

An example is the Chilean sea bass, a fish that can live to be 50 or older in the southern oceans near Antarctica, says biological oceanographer Richard Haedrich. It became hugely popular in the 1990s and some populations already are in decline because of overfishing.

"We're talking about species whose generation time, which is the amount of time (they need) to replace themselves, is 17 to 21 years. So it will be a century before we see any recovery," says Jennifer Devine, co-author of the paper in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Andrew Solow, director of the Marine Policy Center of Woods Holes Oceanographic Institution, says we should simply stop fishing these slow-growing species because they can't bounce back like faster growing cod or mackerel.

"They're very susceptible to extinction. In these species, if you make a mistake it can be forever."

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