UC Santa Cruz researchers featured in PBS documentary series on fishing crisis

Cuddly animals such as pandas and sea otters usually steal the limelight in conservation programs. But a new PBS documentary series spotlights fish as animals in desperate need of protection.

Two UC Santa Cruz researchers are featured in the two-part series, which explores problems associated with fishing and fish farming. Part one of the series, Empty Oceans, Empty Nets, premieres on Earth Day, Monday, April 22, on PBS stations nationwide.

More than 100 million metric tons of seafood are harvested annually, but the supply is shrinking while demand grows. Overfishing, destructive fishing practices such as trawling, and the increasing human population all contribute to fish stock declines. But, since supermarket shelves are never empty, many people have a hard time believing their dinner may be headed for the endangered species list.

"People have no concept of how rich the oceans once were," said Steven Berkeley, a research specialist at UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences. "If you never saw a fishery, habitat, or wildlife population before exploitation, you don't know what was out there."

In Empty Oceans, Empty Nets, Berkeley discusses the North Atlantic swordfish fishery. Fishers catch swordfish using longlines, which also catch marlin, sharks, and sailfish. In addition, fishers toss back dead juvenile swordfish they cannot sell because of minimum-size regulations. Berkeley works with the fishing industry to develop fishing gear that will reduce how many unwanted fish are caught.

"A fisher's livelihood is tied up in fishing, but also in the ability of the ocean to continue to produce fish," Berkeley said. "It's a complex issue, so this isn't just a wildlife documentary."

Part two, Farming the Seas, looks at the benefits of and problems with aquaculture, or fish farms. In it UCSC's Dennis Kelso, an assistant professor of environmental studies, discusses the environmental aspects of salmon aquaculture.

The documentary series, produced by Habitat Media, consists of two one-hour episodes. Empty Oceans, Empty Nets will premiere at 9 p.m. on April 22 and repeat at 11 p.m. on April 26. Farming the Seas is still in production and will air sometime in the fall.

Habitat Media is part of Habitat Productions, a project of the Tides Center, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco. They have produced several award-winning documentaries about sea turtles, and plan to use footage from Empty Oceans, Empty Nets to create a 15-minute film for aquariums and science museums to show. More information about the series can be found on the Habitat Media web site, http://www.habitatmedia.org.


Editor's note: Reporters may contact Steven Berkeley at (831) 459-3530 or stevenab@cats.ucsc.edu.