Depleting the Seas of Fish
In November 2006, Washington Post writer Juliet Eilperin headlined, “World’s Fish Supply Running Out, Researchers Warn,” saying:
International ecologists and economists believe “the world will run out of seafood by 2048” if current fishing rates continue.
A journal Science study “conclude(d) that overfishing, pollution and other environmental factors are wiping out important species” globally. They’re also impeding world oceans’ ability to produce seafood, filter nutrients, and resist disease.
Marine biologist Boris Worm warned:
“We really see the end of the line now. It’s within our lifetime. Our children will see a world without seafood if we don’t change things.”
Researchers studied fish populations, catch records, and ocean ecosystems for four years. By 2003, 29% of all species collapsed. It means they’re at least “90% below their historic maximum catch levels.”
In recent years, collapse rates accelerated. In 1980, 13.5% of 1,736 fish species collapsed. Today, 7,784 species are harvested.
According to Worm, “It’s like hitting the gas pedal and holding it down at a constant level. The rate accelerates over time.”
Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco said the study shows fish stocks are in trouble. “I think people don’t get it,” she said. “If there is a problem with the oceans, how come the case in my grocery store is so full? There is a disconnect.”
National Environmental Trust vice president Gerald Leape said “This should be a wake-up call to our leaders, both internationally and domestically, that they need to protect our fish stocks. Otherwise they will go away.”
Researchers conducted dozens of controlled experiments. They also examined UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) worldwide catch data since 1950 and ecosystem records. They include sediment cores and archival data going back a 1,000 years.
They said losing so many species is eroding marine ecosystem viability and their ability to resist environmental stresses.
“In 12 marine ecosystems surveyed, they found that a decline in biodiversity of 50 percent or more cut the number of viable fisheries by 33 percent, reduced nursery habitats by 69 percent and cut the ocean’s capacity to filter and detoxify contaminants by 63 percent.”
For example, Chesapeake Bay oyster fishing collapsed. The whole ecosystem was affecte. In 1980, oyster supplies filtered bay water in three days. In 1988, remaining supplies took over a year.
Marine Ecology Professor Hunter Lenihan said mass dredging oysters over the past century transformed the ecosystem. As supplies declined, water got more cloudy, and sea grass beds dependent on light died off. Phytoplankton replaced them. It doesn’t support the same range of species.
“When you remove the oysters through overfishing, that’s when you begin to see a rapid decline in water quality,” said Lenihan. “What it’s done is change the entire production of the bay.”
Worm believes it’s not too late to change things, provided measures are taken soon. So far, however, overfishing continues.
On September 7, 2011, Field and Stream writer Chad Love headlined, “Scientists: Industrial-Scale Deep-Sea Fishing Depleting Oceans,” saying:
A Marine Policy scientific journal paper says deep sea industrial fishing should be banned. Productive areas were targeted sequentially. As a result, fish species were depleted and deep-sea corals destroyed. Then new areas are targeted.
As a result, the ocean’s now “a watery desert.” Popular species were overfished, “only to crash in a matter of years.” Marine Conservation Institute president Elliot Norse said deep-sea fishing flourished “out of desperation,” not realizing stocks there take much longer to recover.
Vessels use Global Positioning Systems and trawlers. They scrape large metal plates across sea bottom areas. From 1960 – 2004, catches increased seven-fold, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Mean depth fishing more than tripled since the 1950s from 492 feet to 1,706 in 2004, according to Unversity of the Azores Department of Oceanography and Fisheries’ Telmo Morato.
Fishing subsidies sustain the practice. Annually, high-seas trawlers get about $162 million. It’s about one-fourth of catch value at taxpayer expense.
On September 7, 2011, Science Daily headlined, “Deep Sea Fish in Deep Trouble: Scientists Find Nearly All Deep-Sea Fisheries Unsustainable,” saying:
Leading marine scientists recommend ending most deep sea commercial fishing. With rare exceptions, “deep-sea fisheries are unsustainable….When bottom trawlers rip life from the depths, animals adapted to life (there) can’t repopulate on human time scales. Powerful fishing technologies are overwhelming them.”
As coastal fisheries got overexploited, commercial fleets moved further offshore into deep waters. The effects on local species are devastating. Globally, deep-sea fishes are collapsing, including sharks and orange roughy. Fishing outside 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones prevent effective government control.
Oceana is the largest international ocean conservation and advocacy organization. It works to protect and restore world oceans. In 2008, it published a report titled, “Too Few Fish: A Regional Assessment of the World’s Fisheries,” saying:
Decades of overfishing depleted ocean food sources. Hidden reserves are disappearing. Scientists warn “of impending collapses in fish populations within decades.” New environmental stresses hasten the outcome. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says:
“The maximum long-term potential of the world marine capture fisheries has been reached.” It’s all downhill ahead. FAO assessed 584 fish stocks and species globally. More than three-fourths are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering.
As a result, expanded commercial fishing can’t be sustained. Only 17% of world fisheries have potential for higher catches. In six FAO regions, accounting for half the global catch in 2005, “at least 85% of stocks are already fully fished or overfished.”
Moreover, in Western Central Atlantic, Northeast Atlantic, Eastern Central Atlantic, and Western Indian Ocean, “more than 95% of fish stocks cannot sustain any further expansion of fishing.”
Nonetheless, governments keep subsidizing biologically unsustainable practices. Doing so adversely impacts ecosystems, food security and economic development.
Oceana said depleting fish stocks “violates the basic conservation requirement of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as every tenet of sustainable development.”
Doing so also ignores 1995 FAO Code of Responsible Fisheries principles and management provisions. Stopping this plunder is essential. Evidence shows maximum potential was reached.
In 2005, 83.7 million metric tons (MT) were caught, 1.7 million MT lower than 2004 and down 4% from 2000 levels. Declines were greatest in the Northeast Atlantic, Western Central Atlantic, and Southwest Atlantic. They ranged from 13 – 20%.
Nine of the top 10 marine capture species can’t withstand further exploitation. They account for 30% of total world fishing. They include Peruvian anchoveta, Alaska pollack, Japanese anchovy, blue whiting, capelin and Atlantic herring, and yellowfin tuna. Other troubled species include the largehead hairtail and skipjack tuna.
Notably, industrial fishing removed 90% of large predatory fish populations, including sharks, tuna and marlin. In the past 30 years, North Atlantic stocks of bull, dusky, and smooth hammerhead sharks declined up to 99%.
Other predator fish losses, including groundfish, altered the composition of remaining catches. Declines in Northwest Atlantic bottom dwelling fishes increased mollusk and crustacean catches.
In 1989, yields peaked at about 90 million tons annually. Since then, they declined or stagnated. Valued species like bluefin tuna, orange roughy and Chilean sea bass collapsed.