Monday, May 12, 2008

How the world's oceans are running out of fish

A few snips from a detailed piece in the Guardian (UK) by Alex Renton about the fishing industry and the perverse incentives that lead to overfishing: …Is anyone not aware that wild fish are in deep trouble? That three-quarters of commercially caught species are over-exploited or exploited to their maximum? Do they not know that industrial fishing is so inefficient that a third of the catch, some 32 million tonnes a year, is thrown away? For every ocean prawn you eat, fish weighing 10-20 times as much have been thrown overboard. These figures all come from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which also claims that, of all the world's natural resources, fish are being depleted the fastest. With even the most abundant commercial species, we eat smaller and smaller fish every year - we eat the babies before they can breed.

Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at York University, predicts that by 2050 we will only be able to meet the fish protein needs of half the world population: all that will be left for the unlucky half may be, as he puts it, 'jellyfish and slime'. Ninety years of industrial-scale exploitation of fish has, he and most scientists agree, led to 'ecological meltdown'. Whole biological food chains have been destroyed.

….Strangely one of the first international attempts to conserve fish stocks, especially for the more easily exploited nations, also became part of the disaster. The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, signed in 1979, extended national rights over fisheries to 200 miles from a country's coasts. But it included a provision that, if fish stocks in that zone were surplus to national needs, the country could sell its rights to outsiders. That convention allowed cash-strapped and sometimes corrupt countries in west Africa to raise funds by letting the industrial trawler fleets in. Since 1979 the EU has negotiated deals on fishing rights with a string of impoverished African countries. Despite the EU's own studies indicating massive and quite possibly irreversible damage to fish stocks off west Africa, these deals continue to be struck.

….The Newfoundland cod fishery, for 500 years the world's greatest, was exhausted and closed in 1992, and there's still no evidence of any return of the fish. Once stocks dip below a certain critical level, the scientists believe, they can never recover because the entire eco-system has changed. The question is whether, after 50 years of vacillation and denial, there's any prospect of the politicians acting decisively now….

Sea birds trailing a longline fishing vessel, Kim Dietrich, NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

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