|Global fisheries nearing the end of the line
By: John Gibbons
‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea’. That’s a phrase often used to ease a broken heart. But what if in fact it’s literally no longer true?
Oceans, rivers and lakes cover well over two thirds of the face of the earth. The great oceans are so vast that it has long been felt that nothing we could do could possibly have any serious long-term impacts on these enormous systems.
This, we now know, is not the case. The damage wrought on the world’s seas and oceans is already so acute that, in the words of a United Nations expert: “The recovery from the changes we're making will probably take a million years.”
A lethal combination of climate change, over-fishing and pollution is causing severe strains on fish stocks worldwide, with the total collapse of commercial fish stocks now believed to be just three or four decades away, according to Achim Steiner the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
During this same period, world population is expected to continue its seemingly unstoppable rise, increasing at the astonishing rate of 80 million a year from its current level of 6.7 billion to reach up to 9 billion within just 30 years.
Right now, one in three of the world’s population depend directly on fish for their protein. The predicted collapse in world fisheries will be calamitous for these people, not to mention the 3 billion additional people who will be clamouring for food sources in the next three decades.
It’s a crisis of epic proportions, and the UN experts say we are truly out of our depth. According to UNEP’s recently published report, called ‘In Dead Water’, climate change has compounded other problems such as over-fishing and pollution, while rising ocean temperatures are killing off the world’s great coral reefs.
This in turn threatens the spawning grounds of tuna and countless other species. Climate change is also shifting ocean currents and with them the plankton and small fish which support the ocean food chains.
Another dangerous effect of the billions of tons human activity dumps into the atmosphere every year is that as it is dissolved in water, the oceans are both warming and become more acidic. This is disrupting, for example, the ability of shellfish to produce their shells.
Collapses in one or several species in any ecosystem can trigger calamitous chains of events, and these are now unfolding rapidly in the world’s oceans. Experts call it a classic case of ‘the tragedy of the commons’.
Because most of the world’s seas are not owned by any one nation, there are few if any ‘rules’, and the few existing regulations are rarely enforced. This leads to a free-for-all in which giant trawlers using advanced electronics are able to locate, intercept and wipe out entire fisheries.
Once the fish in one area have been exterminated, the fleets simply move to the next area, and so on. In 1900, for instance, total world fish catch was a couple of million tons. By 1950, that had risen to 50 million tons, and by 2000, it had shot up to over 120 million tons of fish being taken from the seas a year. These figures might at first glance suggest that there are indeed still plenty of fish out there. Scientists know otherwise.
Because most of the pelagic species (those that live closer to the surface of the sea) are easiest to catch, their numbers have been hit hardest by the relentless slaughter. Using new technologies, giant ocean-going trawlers and factory ships are now able to catch even the so-called demersal (deep sea) species, delivering ‘exotic’ new species such as roughy, blue hake and grenadier to our tables.
While this has given a boost to the fishing industry’s profits, it’s at a terrible price. Many deep-sea fish can live to the age of 60 and may not reach sexual maturity (just like humans) until well into their teens. They are therefore extremely vulnerable to being overfished, since juvenile fish take so long to mature.
Ireland has the dubious honour of producing the world’s biggest trawler, the Atlantic Dawn. It can kill and store 7,000 tons of fish every time it takes to sea. Its nets are 3,600 feet in width and 550 feet deep. Ships of this scale sweep every form of marine life in their path, and the by-catch (i.e. unwanted species) is tossed back dead into the sea.
This by-catch can be as much as a third of the typical take, so a typical trip by the Atlantic Dawn can lead to the killing of 10,000 tons of fish – that could be far more than a million individual creatures, and may include turtles, dolphins and sharks.
When fishing off the coast of Mauritania in west Africa, according to Greenpeace, the Atlantic Dawn was nicknamed “the ship from Hell”, as it can catch and freeze more fish in a day than 10 local boats could in an entire year. Ships like this literally empty the seas of life, and when there’s nothing left to kill, they move to the next area. Meanwhile, the livelihoods of poor African fisherman are also wiped out.
Drift net fishing is now mostly banned in EU waters. This practice involves dragging nets up to 50 km long between two trawlers, killing everything in their path, including sea birds and whales. Under this kind of pressure, it is easy to see why scientists are so concerned at the entire fabric of marine life being destroyed before their eyes.
The rate and intensity of slaughter of marine species is made even worse by the damage done by types of weighted nets that drag across the sea floor, destroying the breeding grounds and leaving an underwater desert in their wake.
We consumers are mostly unaware of the havoc that our taste for cod and chips, prawns and other marine delicacies is creating. Governments, including our own, bend to powerful fishery lobby groups rather than vague consumer unease.
Unless a radical conservation-led approach to managing the world’s fisheries is quickly put into place with binding international agreements, the calamity will not be limited to the marine ecosystem.
If we do nothing to prevent the worldwide fisheries collapse, upwards of three billion people will face starvation in the coming decades. From where we now stand, all we have to do ensure the maritime doomsday scenario comes to pass is simply to carry on our current path and allow ‘market forces’ to continue to drive the slaughter to its sure and certain conclusion.
We are, as a fisherman might say, nearing the end of the line.
John Gibbons is Publisher of Climatechange.ie