Our oceans are in deep trouble. A growing population with an insatiable appetite for seafood has driven exploitation of our seas to such an extent, that some scientists predict a global collapse of fish stocks by 2048, or thereabouts.
Daniel Pauly, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, likens these dire straits to Bernard Madoff’s now infamous ponzi scheme. As our oceans have been plundered and fish stocks declined dramatically we simply moved our efforts to exploit stocks elsewhere.
Pauly’s reasoning is simple: Madoffs’ scheme required a pool of new investors to generate revenues for past buyers and when these disappeared so did the scheme. The global fishing industry similarly requires new stocks to continue and when the supply is ultimately exhausted a collapse is inevitable.
The consequences for us all, however, are far beyond the havoc created by Madoff.
Numerous factors contribute to the crisis. Perhaps foremost among these is the combination of increasingly sophisticated technology that can locate all manner of fish and the phenomenal industrialisation of a once relatively benign practice.
As with now intensive land-based food production, the technology and the scale of fishing is almost beyond comprehension. The techniques that now imperil our ocean life range from bottom trawling, which rapes vast planes of the ocean floor, to deployment of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) and its consequent bycatch.
In Charles Clover’s relatively recent documentary ‘the end of the line’, bottom trawling is likened to ploughing a field seven times in one year. Fish, indeed the entire marine environment, simply don‘t stand a chance if we continue as we are.
Is talk of a potential collapse scaremongering? A look at statistics indicates otherwise. In a 2003 paper, Ransom A. Myers & Boris Worm wrote that declines of large predators in coastal regions have extended throughout the global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems.
Part of the problem remains that fishing is heavily subsidised and global regulation is for the moment at least, not a force to be reckoned with. The dramatic decline of the majestic blue fin tuna and many shark species serve as cases in point.
The fate of the Blue Fin was sealed just a few days ago when the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) failed to ban international trade. This unfortunate species now faces extinction in the not-distant future.
Sadly, the short-term gain of a few has once again triumphed at the expense of the environment. In the meantime, things are as bad if not worse for sharks.
Despite evidence to suggest that many shark species are critically endangered, only five species are protected under CITES. Of those, it is perhaps encouraging that two are banned from international trade, however on the down side it would seem that these are virtually extinct already. In Hong Kong, which accounts for 52% of global shark fin imports, there is no regulation beyond CITES.
As fish stocks decline we become ever more cunning in hiding the truth as we turn to less attractive species for food. Rock salmon served in many fish and chip shops in the UK for example is actually dog fish, a species of shark.
As Clover points out in his book, other unappealing species that are ending up on our plates are being creatively recast – black scabbard has become sabre and the increasingly endangered Orange Roughy is now known as empereur.
The problem is deeply worrying – and not just because hundreds of millions of people depend on fish for animal protein, or that fishermen the world over rely on healthy catches for their livelihoods. Havoc is quite literally being wreaked on an essential resource on which depend for survival.
We are causing significant changes that we don’t yet fully understand to a vast ecosystem that requires balance to provide the benefits we take for granted.
As an example, there have been increasing reports of mass jellyfish swarms. One of the causes commonly cited is industrial-scale fishing. Since fish prey on jellyfish, it shouldn’t be surprising that a consequence of overfishing is an explosion of these creatures in our seas.
What then is the answer? Aquaculture has increased dramatically in recent years but unfortunately, this practice is not the panacea we might like it to be and in fact has its own issues.
One concern is the widespread practice of raising predatory fish such as salmon as opposed to herbivorous fish such as carp. A Worldwatch Institute report produced two years ago offers the following startling facts:
- Farmed seafood, or aquaculture now provides 42% of the world’s seafood supply and is on target to exceed half in the next decade
- The average per capita consumption of farmed seafood has increased nearly ten fold since 1970
- Early fish farming raising herbivorous species on vegetable scraps and increased the overall supply of seafood
- The growth in modern fish farms focused on large-value predatory fish fed on smaller fish is now contributing to a net drain on seafood supply
- There is a growing scarcity of fish feed. Today, about 37% of marine fish landings are reduced to fishmeal and fish oil
- Four fish groups – marine shrimp, marine fish, trout and salmon consume more than half of the world’s fishmeal even though they represent just seven percent of global aquaculture and less than three percent of total seafood production
- Twenty kgs of feed is required to produce just 1 kg of tuna (it is worthy of note that tuna farming or ranching as it appears to be known, for the most part involves catching juvenile wild tuna which are then caged and fattened with fish protein )
In summary, the Report indicates that despite ongoing improvements in feed ingredients and technologies, the rapid growth of fish farming in recent decades has effectively outweighed any gains in feeding efficiency. Modern fish farming is a net drain on the world’s seafood.
As a fish eater, it’s difficult to find sources of sustainable seafood such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified varieties and blatant mislabelling or creative naming of fish don’t help.
While there are many fish guides around, I for one find them hard to use, given the lack of knowledge of staff in restaurants and supermarkets and the need to identify for example the location of the catch. Still I use these where I can (iphone apps have been helpful) and am increasing my awareness of locally caught ‘non-endangered‘ seafood.
In this instance, the low-hanging fruit perhaps are species such as blue fin and to a lesser extent yellow fin tuna and farmed salmon, amongst others, that are easier to recognise and so avoid.
Another approach is simply to reduce consumption of the larger long-lived fish with lower fecundity and go for the smaller short-lived species that reproduce rapidly – sardines and anchovies for example.
If chefs can be creative with these smaller species, maybe eating anchovies can become as trendy as blue fin sushi. The UN FAO points out that consuming longer-lived species such as Orange Roughy, which can reach 200 years in age, means that fish on your dinner plate could have hatched at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte!
But on the bright side, with the Oscar for best documentary going to “the Cove”, perhaps even Hollywood finally has taken note of the plight of marine species.
Films such as “The End of the Line”, “Sharkwater” and “Food Inc.” make it easier for all of us to understand enough to consume more sustainably, ask more questions of those supplying our food and lobby our governments to act.
In the meantime, I look forward to the release of “Oceans “ on Earth day next month – a film that by all accounts promises a breathtaking view of the beauty and power of a valuable resource for which we sadly seem to have little regard.