Overfished

With the daffodils bursting, blossoms lining the streets, and the ever-longer hours of sunshine, my anticipation for the beach in summer is rising. As with many New Zealanders, I couldn’t imagine life without being able to visit the beach regularly in summer. The sea almost feels like a second home. To the animals for which it is a first home, there is a problem. I, like many others, enjoy seafood a lot. But our insatiable appetite for seafood may have terrible consequences.

Like many issues of today, overfishing was something I had heard about and knew to be a problem in this world, but I didn’t know a single fact about it. So I decided to learn more about it. As it turns out, there is good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad.

The world’s oceans are severely overfished. In the mid-twentieth century, a demand for more protein-rich food led to governments turning to the seemingly unending abundance of food in the ocean to feed a rising population. Huge international efforts were made to increase fishing capabilities by making favourable loans, policies, and subsidies, and soon big industrial fishing fleets replaced local fisherman as the world’s main source of seafood. Consumers soon became used to an plethora of inexpensive seafood but by 1989, after 90 million tons of catch were taken, we had reached peak-fish. Yields have stagnated or declined ever since. Fisheries for the most popular species such as orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, and Bluefin tuna have collapsed. This stagnation has spawned the rise of aquaculture to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for seafood.

Of all the world’s fisheries, 85 percent are over-exploited, fully exploited, depleted, or in recovery from exploitation. This is according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) two yearly report on the state of the world’s fisheries. Large-fish populations have been in decline for decades and, as the National Geographic reports, commercial fleets are going further down the food chain and deeper into the ocean to catch our fish. Massive nets are dragged along the bottom of the ocean targeting fish such as orange roughy, Patagonian toothfish, and sablefish. Not only do they destroy deep-sea corals, sponges, and other habitats in the process, but they take these fish out of the water in numbers that the fish cannot replace. The deep-sea is almost completely devoid of light, near freezing in temperature, and has very little food. As a result the fish there are long-lived, slow growing with slow metabolisms, have low reproductive rates, and do not reach breeding maturity for 30 to 40 years. The deep-sea is usually beyond the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of most nations, making them international waters with very little legal protections. This makes it very difficult to control the activities of commercial fleets and can be cited as an example of the tragedy of the commons (which is an interesting piece of economic theory if you are interested).

Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly and economist Ussif Rashid Sumaila researched subsidies paid to deep-sea trawlers and found that US $152 million is paid to deep-sea fisheries per year. Without this, they calculated that global deep-sea fisheries would not be viable as they would lose $50 million a year. Most of the subsidies are for fuel to get beyond the 200 mile limit and drag weighted nets through the deep ocean. This claim is further substantiated by another paper published in 2011 that reports that without subsidies nearly all deep-sea fisheries would be unprofitable.

A 2008 report from the United Nations FAO and the World Bank stated that US $50 billion is being lost each year through depleted stocks and bad fisheries management. They assert that up to half of the world’s fishing fleet could be scrapped with no change in harvest numbers. Further to this, illegal fishing is still a scourge on the industry overseas, accounting for an estimated 20 percent of all catch.

There are many examples of collapsing fisheries. The most famous is probably the cod fishery in Newfoundland, Canada. In 1992, harvesting numbers plummeted after years of extensive fishing and they have never recovered. Forty thousand jobs were lost as a result. In the 70s, anchovy fisheries collapsed off the coast of Peru. An annual yield of 10 million tons was reduced to 4 million tons over the next 5 years, less than ten percent of the previous yield, resulting in huge losses for the Peruvian economy. The Blue Walleye went extinct in the 1980s in the Great Lakes of North America

As an aside, it is important to mention that not all the reports we read remain relevant. The oft-quoted fact that large fish populations have been reduced by 90 percent of their pre-industrial levels has now been soundly rebutted by many in the scientific community. There is another study that projected that if current practices remain unchanged all fish stocks would collapse by 2048; this too has been criticised by fisheries scientists.

The good news is that we are getting better. Although only 1.6 percent of the world’s oceans are marine protected areas, President Obama created the largest network of marine protected areas in the world last year. And even within the industry there is commitment to sustainability. With the economic consequences of overfishing being as devastating as the environmental consequences, the commercial fishing world has just as much interest in better management of fisheries as environmentalists.

New Zealand is lauded as an example of excellent fisheries management. According to Seafood New Zealand, at 4.4 million square kilometres, we have the fourth largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Yet of this, 65 percent is either too deep or closed to commercial fishing. A third of our EEZ is closed forever to bottom trawling. We have an extensive quota system where the Ministry for Primary Industries works with scientists and the industry to set a yearly total allowable catch for each species. Ninety-six species are now controlled by this quota system. In July 2009, a report from marine and ecosystem scientists around the world gave New Zealand the highest possible rating for ecologically sustainable management. Along with Alaska, New Zealand was praised for leading the world in management success by not waiting until drastic measures are needed to conserve, restore, and rebuild marine species.

People power has also created positive change. After much public pressure, Sealord announced in 2013 that it would change its fishing methods to more sustainable methods that do not result in bycatch. Pole and line caught tuna has become more widespread meaning less sharks, turtles, and juvenile tuna are killed for no reason.

Being informed is the best the most important thing when it comes to living sustainably. Knowing where our food comes from and being responsible consumers is the most powerful tool we have to affect change. There are some handy guides online like Greenpeace’s Red Fish List and Forest and Bird’s Best Fish Guide that help consumers ensure their fish is sustainably caught.

It is agreed by most scientists that with aggressive fisheries management, overfishing could easily be avoided. But we in New Zealand are lucky to have such a responsible attitude to fisheries management in a world that is behaving recklessly when it comes to protecting the Ocean’s resources.

-James

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