06/23/2010 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The BP Oil Spill: Spilt Milk

Recently I was standing on a beach in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, looking at the orange and yellow containment booms laid across the inlet to protect against the oil expected to come ashore. Having spent the last three years traveling the globe to research the fate of the ocean's great fish -- marlin, bluefin tuna, and swordfish, whose global populations have declined by as much as 90% -- I can tell you: the destruction that has hit the Gulf of Mexico is minuscule compared to what industrial fishing does to the world's oceans every day.

A single modern purse-seine fishing vessel, like those used in the Mediterranean to annihilate their bluefin tuna population, can capture several thousand adult bluefin in one encirclement of its net. The largest purse seiner in the world -- the Spanish flagged Albatun Tres -- is 115 meters long and can haul 3,000 metric tons (6.6 million pounds) in one shot. This is more than twice the annual fishing quota of some Pacific island nations.

This does not count the longliners, which lay up to 75 miles of line with hooks set mere yards apart. There are thousands of longliners fishing the world's oceans. Annually they lay enough line to circle the globe 550 times. In 2008 the world's fishing fleets, combined, baited over a billion hooks. Baited hooks are indiscriminate. Every year they hook, maim and kill hundreds of thousands of unintended victims -- called "bycatch" -- including turtles, seabirds, whales, sharks, and dolphins. Each year, an estimated 7 million metric tons of sea life -- 15 billion pounds -- ends up dead, maimed, unwanted, and thrown over the side. That's 21,000 tons per day of wasted sea life. The body count so far after six weeks of the BP oil spill is paltry compared to a single day's industrial fishing.

Bottom trawling is no better. Boats towing huge nets and dredges over the bottom to harvest species like cod, scallops, flounder, and haddock destroy bottom habitat and have been compared to bombing forests to harvest deer. You get the deer, but everything else dies too. An area the equivalent of twice the United States -- 6 million square miles -- is trawled every year on the coastal shelves of the world's oceans.

Scientists estimate that the near-shore waters of the southern Gulf of Maine, where I have spent most of my life fishing, have lost 97-99% of the weight of all life compared to what was there 150 years ago. This includes gulls, cod, bluefin tuna, whales, crabs, urchins, herring, mackerel, sand lance, skate, sharks, swordfish, and more. This destruction is the equivalent of the BP spill many times over, decade after decade. This has happened to shores here in the US and around the world in the last 50 years on an inconceivable scale, and it continues to happen.

The impact of industrial fishing on fishermen and fishing communities is equally devastating: thousands out of work, non-existent or severely depleted fish populations, economic collapse and ruined communities. Talk to Newfoundlanders in what is left of the outport communities if you think this can't happen. The destruction of the bluefin fishery in the Mediterranean over the last 10 years has put tens of thousands of fishermen out of work and gutted hundreds of local communities (at an estimated annual cost of $400 million per year). It has also concentrated wealth in the hands of a few industrial tuna corporations, to the tune of $16.4 billion between 1998 and 2008.

Not all industrial fishing is this destructive, but there is so much that is -- so much illegal and legal use of these methods -- that the world's oceans are literally being emptied of fish. Entire ecosystems are being thrown out of balance, with the result predicted to be the complete collapse of all commercially fished species by 2048, should nothing change. We will be left with oceans populated by little else but jellyfish and worms.

You thought the BP oil spill was bad. It is, especially for the people, animals, and communities being hit by it. But the effect of industrialized fishing on this planet's oceans, on human communities and local economies, makes the BP oil disaster look like spilt milk.

Matt Rigney has been a recreational fisherman off New England for over 30 years. He is currently working on a book about the decline of the large offshore fish--marlin, bluefin tuna, and swordfish. The book, "In Pursuit of Giants: One Man's Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish" ( will be published in 2011 by Viking/Penguin.