Zoologist Tony Pitcher, UBC co-director of the Pacific Fisheries Think Tank, holds his thumb and index finger a few centimetres apart.
"In the area around Hong Kong and the South China Sea there isn't a fish longer than that. They've completely wrecked their environment."
The possibility that the South China Sea may be an example of what lies ahead for our West Coast fishery is something that he, SFU co-director Bob Brown, and other scientists at the Pacific Fisheries Think Tank are working hard to avoid.
"Fisheries, like the one around Hong Kong, tend to follow a traditional pattern," Pitcher explains. "First you get rid of the big fish and then you take the next level of fish and so on, and eventually you end up with a sea that is a soup of plankton and not much else."
Pitcher and colleagues at the Pacific Fisheries Think Tank recently participated in a study of the area around Hong Kong aimed at helping to bring back species endangered by poor resource management. The group, a partnership between the Fisheries Centre at UBC and the Institute of Fisheries Analysis at SFU, was formed one year ago to address complex issues facing the B.C. fishing industry.
"We're on the same path," Pitcher says. "Don't forget, only a hundred years ago there was a resident population of humpback whales in Georgia Straight, there were 50-kilogram chinook salmon and there was a halibut fishery in English Bay. Look at how much has changed in the blink of an eye."
The inability this summer of Canadian and American negotiators to reach agreement on how to protect threatened sockeye and chinook stocks doesn't help matters.
Former UBC president David Strangway was recently appointed Canadian envoy by Prime Minister Jean Chretien to recommend ways of getting the fish talks restarted.
Pitcher says there is no easy solution to the impasse, but that scientists on both sides of the border agree on what needs to be done.
"There are many attractive features to the way Alaska manages its fishery. Equally, we've got some good features."
The environmental costs of continuing along the current path are significant Pitcher says, but the benefits of improving fisheries management could also be enormous.
To that end, the think tank has sponsored several events this year to get suggestions from communities and stakeholders in the B.C. salmon fishing industry.
But while the sockeye and chinook salmon attract the most attention, Pitcher points to several under-exploited local markets. Squid, off-shore tuna, pink and chum salmon, and arrow-tooth flounder could all be fished more extensively but still sustainably. Hake is considered a low-value fish by the local industry even though internationally the hake fishery is 10 times bigger than the salmon fishery.
With the world demand for seafood rising rapidly, there is no doubt those countries that maintain a healthy fishery will not only have a healthier environment, but an economic advantage, Pitcher says.
"Why shouldn't we be the ones to profit?"