Peak fish


in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Daniel Pauly, of the UBC Fisheries Centre, has a sad but compelling article in The New Republic. The basic message is a familiar one: governments have allowed, and even encouraged, the wholesale destruction of marine fisheries by industrial fishing fleets. While they contribute less to GDP than hair salons, they have gained disproportionate power and given license to literally smash some of the world’s most productive and important ecosystems.

Pauly argues that we are reaching the end of the line:

The jig, however, is nearly up. In 1950, the newly constituted Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that, globally, we were catching about 20 million metric tons of fish (cod, mackerel, tuna, etc.) and invertebrates (lobster, squid, clams, etc.). That catch peaked at 90 million tons per year in the late 1980s, and it has been declining ever since. Much like Madoff’s infamous operation, which required a constant influx of new investments to generate “revenue” for past investors, the global fishing-industrial complex has required a constant influx of new stocks to continue operation. Instead of restricting its catches so that fish can reproduce and maintain their populations, the industry has simply fished until a stock is depleted and then moved on to new or deeper waters, and to smaller and stranger fish. And, just as a Ponzi scheme will collapse once the pool of potential investors has been drained, so too will the fishing industry collapse as the oceans are drained of life.

He cites a study published in Science which argued that by 2048, all the world’s commercial fisheries will have collapsed, and will be producing less than 10% of what they were at their peaks.

Sometimes, it is utterly disgusting to see how humans behave. The fishers who are destroying their own future and a resource that could serve human needs indefinitely; the governments that are so happy to be corrupted in exchange for jobs and political support; the general public that is indifferent to the origin of the seafood they eat.

It’s all quite enough to feed the lingering feeling that seems pervasive in the modern world: that the emergence of humanity as Earth’s dominant species has largely been for the worse, and that the world might be better off without us.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. October 5, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Here’s one radical solution:

Governments could tax fishing revenue at 100%. Then, it could issue payments based on both the market value of the catch and an index of how sustainably caught it was. In very well managed fisheries, those fishing might get 100% of the revenue back. In destructive ones, they might get very little, or even 0%.

The reason this will never be implemented is that it would throw a lot of people out of work. Of course, they will end up out of work anyone once they destroy the fisheries they are now exploiting.

Milan October 5, 2009 at 3:17 pm

If governments actually had the stomach to fight overfishing, they could do so in all sorts of ways. They don’t. They have been captured by the short-term interests of the industrial fishing lobby, and therefore will not agree to a new system that trades short-term profit off for long-term sustainability.

To actually get such a system, the political calculation must change.

Milan October 5, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Back when he was the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, I spoke with Hilary Benn about the EU’s fishing access agreements in West Africa. I later had a paper published arguing that the agreements are unethical, unsustainable, and illegal.

His response doesn’t really recognize the severity of the problem, or promise much in the way of corrective actions.

. October 13, 2009 at 10:05 am

BIODIVERSITY: Dwindling Fish Catch Could Leave a Billion Hungry
By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 9 (IPS) – Fish catches are expected to decline dramatically in the world’s tropical regions because of climate change, but may increase in the north, said a new study published Thursday.

This mega-shift in ocean productivity from south to north over the next three to four decades will leave those most reliant on fish for both food and income high and dry.

“The shift is already happening, we’ve been measuring it for the last 20 years,” said Daniel Pauly, a renowned fisheries expert at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

“Major shifts in fish populations will create a host of changes in ocean ecosystems likely resulting in species loss and problems for the people who now catch them,” Pauly told IPS.

In the first major study to examine the effects of climate change on ocean fisheries, a team of researchers from UBC and Princeton University discovered that catch potential will fall 40 percent in the tropics and may increase 30 to 70 percent in high latitude regions, affecting ocean food supply throughout the world by 2055.

. May 5, 2010 at 10:23 am

‘Profound’ decline in fish stocks shown in UK records

By Richard Black Environment correspondent, BBC News

Over-fishing means UK trawlers have to work 17 times as hard for the same fish catch as 120 years ago, a study shows.

Researchers used port records dating from the late 1800s, when mechanised boats were replacing sailing vessels.

In the journal Nature Communications, they say this implies “an extrordinary decline” in fish stocks and “profound” ecosystem changes.

Four times more fish were being landed in UK ports 100 years ago than today, and catches peaked in 1938.

“Over a century of intensive trawl fishing has severely depleted UK seas of bottom living fish like halibut, turbot, haddock and plaice,” said Simon Brockington, head of conservation at the Marine Conservation Society and one of the study’s authors.

“It is vital that governments recognise the changes that have taken place (and) set stock protection and recovery targets that are reflective of the historical productivity of the sea.”

. June 18, 2017 at 7:13 pm

Deep trouble
How to improve the health of the ocean

The ocean sustains humanity. Humanity treats it with contempt

Humans have long assumed that the ocean’s size allowed them to put anything they wanted into it and to take anything they wanted out. Changing temperatures and chemistry, overfishing and pollution have stressed its ecosystems for decades. The ocean stores more than nine-tenths of the heat trapped on Earth by greenhouse-gas emissions. Coral reefs are suffering as a result; scientists expect almost all corals to be gone by 2050.

By the middle of the century the ocean could contain more plastic than fish by weight. Ground down into tiny pieces, it is eaten by fish and then by people, with uncertain effects on human health. Appetite for fish grows nevertheless: almost 90% of stocks are fished either at or beyond their sustainable limits. The ocean nurtures humanity. Humanity treats it with contempt.

Improving the ocean
Getting serious about overfishing

The ocean face dire threats. Better regulated fisheries would help

Overfishing is not the only problem. Pollution, notably fertiliser run-off, damages a lot of marine ecosystems. There are estimated to be 5trn bits of plastic in the ocean, with over 8m tonnes of the stuff added every year. By the middle of the century the sea could contain more plastic than fish by weight, according to research done for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

There have been three global bleaching episodes since 1998, worsened by El Niño events that heat up the tropical Pacific. The one that started in 2014, and is still going on, has been the longest and most damaging; more than 70% of the world’s coral reefs have been harmed by it. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, worth $4.6bn each year to nearby Queensland alone, has been particularly badly affected. “Five or ten years ago, most of the discussion about coral reefs was over how they would look by the end of century,” says Rusty Brainard, a coral expert at America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Now the talk is of whether coral reefs will survive as we know them to 2050 or even 2030.”

Establishing more protected areas both within EEZs and on the high seas beyond would be another way to help, particularly if they were to contain “no-take” zones where fishing is completely barred. Such zones provide breathing spaces, or breeding spaces, in which stocks can recover. Crow White from California Polytechnic State University and Christopher Costello from the University of California, Santa Barbara have calculated that if such an approach was taken to its extreme and the high seas were closed to fishing, then yields elsewhere could rise by 30%, with fisheries’ profits doubling because fish closer to shore become cheaper to catch.

The countries that dominate fishing in international waters would never stomach such a ban; they prefer the often inadequate regulation offered by regional fisheries-management organisations. But even in these regimes, temporary and rolling closures have been tested. In the Antarctic permanent ones have proved successful.

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