Little Has Changed in 20 Years
On June 20-22 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) will take place in Brazil. 20 years after the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, and a decade after the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), little has changed in the way we exploit and preserve the oceans. If we continue to fish and consume fish as we do now, scientific studies point to all of today’s commercial fisheries being wiped out by 2048. Oceans also play an important role in the global climate system by generating oxygen and absorbing about 30 percent of global CO2 emissions.
Many scientists believe this is the last chance to turn the tide. Under-developed nations are leading the calls for change, but unless Europe champions their cause against the might of the USA, Japan, and China their demands will go unheeded and fish stocks, and the oceans they live in, will be faced with a very bleak future.
How has it come to this?
A major international scientific study released in November 2006 in the journal Science found that about one-third of all fishing stocks worldwide have collapsed (with a collapse being defined as a decline to less than 10 percent of their maximum observed abundance), and that if current trends continue all fish stocks currently fished will collapse within fifty years. However, they also conclude that “available data suggest that at this point, these trends are still reversible”. Based on scientific research and data, this date is now predicted to be 2048.
The Fisheries and Aquaculture Department (FAO) State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2004 report estimates that in 2003, of the main fish stocks or groups of resources for which assessment information is available, “approximately one-quarter were overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion (16 percent, 7 percent and 1 percent respectively) and needed rebuilding.”
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) figures in 2012, 76 percent of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited or overfished, while billions of unwanted fish and other animals die needlessly each year.
Threat of Overfishing Not Limited to Target Species
The threat of overfishing is not limited to the target species only. As commercial trawlers resort to deeper and deeper waters to fill their nets, they have begun to threaten delicate deep-sea ecosystems and the fish that inhabit them, such as the coelacanth. In the May 15, 2003 issue of the journal Nature, it is estimated that 10 percent of large predatory fish remain compared to levels before commercial fishing.
From 1950 (18 million tonnes) to 1969 (56 million tonnes) fish food production grew by about 5 percent each year; from 1969 onward production has increased by 8 percent per annum. It is expected that this demand will continue to rise, and MariCulture Systems estimated in 2002 that seafood production would have to increase by over 15.5 million tonnes to meet the desire of Earth’s growing population over the following decade.
“According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) figures in 2012, 76 percent of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited or overfished, while billions of unwanted fish and other animals die needlessly each year.”
Overfishing has depleted fish populations to the point that large-scale commercial fishing, on average around the world, is not economically viable without government assistance. By the 1980s, economists estimated that for every $1 earned fishing, $1.77 had to be spent in catching and marketing the fish. Every penny or cent you spend on commercially caught fish is increasing your tax bill. The total magnitude of fisheries subsidies in 2003 was estimated at US$25-29 billion. Fuel subsidies compose about 15-30 percent of total global fishing subsidies, and capacity enhancing subsidies sum up to US$16 billion or about 60 percent of the total. Governments continue to pump billions of dollars into the fishing industry each year, sustaining an otherwise unprofitable business, promoting overcapacity and allowing it to continue depleting marine resources.
As we have severely depleted nearby stocks, our tax contributions are spent buying commercial fishing rights in developing nations, particularly African ones, with serious and far-reaching repercussions on the lives of local subsistence fishing families. Without their age-old source of food and meager income, they turn towards Europe and clandestine entry and employment to feed their families.
The world’s fishing fleet is able to catch up to 2.5 times the maximum sustainable yield. It has been estimated that if fish stocks were rebuilt, the current marine catch could be achieved with almost half of the current global fishing effort. Yet the cumulative power of the global fleet is still increasing at a rapid rate. Bringing fisheries to a sustainable level necessitates decisive measures to eliminate the excess capacity of the global fleet. Reduction efforts should be focused on large-scale vessels and be coupled with ensuring priority access to fish resources for low-impact, small-scale fisheries.
Some species’ stocks are so depleted that less desirable species are labeled and marketed under the names of more expensive ones (“species substitutions”). For example, genetic analysis shows that approximately 70 percent of fish sold as the highly prized “red snapper” (Lutjanus campechanus) are other species. For 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of prawns, there is 4kg of wasted by-catch and for or every kilo of North Sea Sole caught by beam trawl, up to 14kg of other species are killed, not to mention the destruction to the sea floor. One passage of a beam trawler can be likened to sowing and planting a field seven times in one year.
Examples of the outcomes from overfishing exist in areas such as the North Sea, the Grand Banks of North America and the East China Sea. In these locations, overfishing has not only proved disastrous to fish stocks but also to the fishing communities relying on the harvest.
- In the 1970s, the Peruvian coastal anchovy fisheries crashed after overfishing, following an El Niño season, which largely depleted anchovies from its waters. Anchovies had previously been a major natural resource in Peru; indeed, 1971 alone yielded 10.2 million metric tons of anchovies. However, in the following year, and the four after that, the Peruvian fleet’s catch amounted to only about 4 million tons. This was a major loss to Peru’s economy.
- The collapse of the cod fishery off Newfoundland, and the 1992 decision by Canada to impose an indefinite moratorium on the Grand Banks, is a dramatic example of the consequences of overfishing.
- The sole fisheries in the Irish Sea, the west English Channel and other locations have become overfished to the point of virtual collapse, according to the UK government’s official Biodiversity Action Plan. The United Kingdom has created elements within this plan to attempt to restore this fishery, but the expanding global human population and the expanding demand for fish has reached a point where demand for food threatens the stability of these fisheries, if not the species’ survival.
Many deep-sea fish are at risk, such as orange roughy, Patagonian toothfish and sablefish. The deep sea is almost completely dark, near freezing and has little food. Deep sea fish grow slowly because of limited food, have slow metabolisms, low reproductive rates, and many don’t reach breeding maturity for 30 to 40 years. A fillet of Orange roughy at the store is probably at least 50 years old. Most deep-sea fish are in international waters, where there is no legislation. Most of these fish are caught by deep trawlers near seamounts, where they congregate because of food. Flash freezing allows the trawlers to work for days at a time, and modern fish finders target the fish with ease. In 2006, the UN Secretary General reported that 95 percent of damage to seamount ecosystems worldwide is caused by deep sea bottom trawling.
- In Tasmania, Sand-tiger sharks were overfished, allowing octopus to thrive, annihilating the lobster stock and related fishery.
- Ninety-seven percent of North Carolina’s Tiger Shark population has been wiped out. This lead to an increase in cownose rays. They ate all the scallops and the 150-year old scallop fishery collapsed. When there were no more scallops for them to eat, the cownose rays died or moved on. The scallops used to eat juvenile sea urchins, so the urchin population rocketed. Young urchins eat algae, a photosynthesizing plant (consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen).
One-third of the fish landed from the oceans is fed to poultry and pigs, those renowned marine predators. It is claimed by Paul Watson, the founder of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, that domestic cats worldwide eat more tuna than wild dolphins. It is also estimated that for every fish landed, one is thrown back into the ocean dead.
Tuna, the World’s Most Consumed Fish
Tuna is one of the most consumed tinned fish products in the world and is a much sought after commodity as a fresh food source too. Years of poor management and over-fishing has left tuna in a perilous state. Of the 23 commercially exploited major tuna stocks identified, nine are classified as fully fished, four are classified as overexploited or depleted, three are classified as critically endangered, three are endangered and three are vulnerable to extinction. All 23 stocks are heavily fished.
“Japan’s huge appetite for tuna will take the most sought-after stocks to the brink of commercial extinction unless fisheries agree on more rigid quotas. –World Wildlife Fund”
Some varieties of tuna, such as the bluefin and bigeye tuna, Thunnus obesus, are threatened by overfishing, which dramatically affects tuna populations in the Atlantic and northwestern Pacific Oceans. Other areas seem to support fairly healthy populations of some of the over 48 different species of tuna —for example, the central and western Pacific skipjack tuna, Katsuwonus pelamis—but there is mounting evidence that overexploitation threatens tuna populations worldwide. In 2006, the Australian government alleged that Japan had illegally overfished southern bluefin by taking 12,000 to 20,000 tonnes per year instead of their agreed 6,000 tonnes; the value of such overfishing would be as much as USD $2 billion. Such overfishing has resulted in severe damage to stocks. According to the WWF, “Japan’s huge appetite for tuna will take the most sought-after stocks to the brink of commercial extinction unless fisheries agree on more rigid quotas.” According to Charles Clover and the film “The End of The Line,” the Mitsubishi Corporation, the world’s largest Bluefin trader, may be stockpiling frozen tuna and deliberately making the species extinct to control the dwindling market. The Chicago Tribune reported that some canned light tuna such as yellowfin tuna is significantly higher in mercury than skipjack tuna, and caused Consumers’ Union and other health groups to advise pregnant women to refrain from consuming canned tuna.
Unfortunately, farmed fish is yet to provide the answer as the species farmed are generally carnivorous. The popular and common salmon require between 1.7 and 4kgs of fish protein to create 1kg of salmon protein.
Up to 22kg of wild-caught fish is needed to produce just 1kg of farmed tuna; 4kg of wild-caught fish is needed to produce 1kg of farmed salmon, and up to 2kg of wild-caught fish is needed to produce 1kg of farmed marine shrimp.
The waste products from a large quantity of farmed fish concentrated in one area is also harmful to the environment where they are kept.
Why not just eat the fish caught to make fishmeal? Anchovy is the single most popular fish for fishmeal, but is also lovely grilled or filleted and marinated in olive oil and garlic and is not given growth hormones or injected with coloring.
Only 0.6 percent of the world’s oceans have been designated as protected – compared to almost 13 percent of our planet’s land area. Yet, of the small number of marine protected areas that have been established, most exist in isolation.
Worse, the vast majority suffer from little or no management at all. Fewer than 10 percent are currently achieving their management goals and objectives, and 90 percent are open to fishing. Poorer states such as Kiribati and Tanzania have created marine protected areas, yet have few resources to enforce protective legislation. The Galapagos archipelago, renowned for its high numbers of endemic species, is reliant on NGOs for protection.
Marine park managers – and the governments and non-profit organizations that support them – must often juggle conflicting national and local priorities coming from a variety of sectors, such as industry, artisanal fishers, commercial fishers, tour operators, local town councils, farmers, and scientific researchers.
In addition, park managers often have extremely limited budgets and staff, and frequently rely on community participation and volunteers to carry out much of the essential work.
This means that in most cases, park staff cannot adequately patrol marine reserves, carry out essential research or implement effective conservation strategies.
According to the UN, studies have shown that since the beginning of the industrial revolution, oceans have become 30 per cent more acidic and predictions show that by 2050, ocean acidity could even increase by 150 per cent. This would give marine ecosystems a very small timeframe for adaptation, as it would represent a rate of increase that is 100 times faster than that of any ocean acidity change experienced over the last 20 million years.
Tropical coral reefs offer habitat to 25 per cent of all known marine species, while constituting only less than one tenth of 1 per cent of the marine environment. About one fifth of the global coral reefs have already been damaged beyond repair and it is predicted that 90 per cent of coral reefs will be threatened by 2030 and all coral reefs will be threatened by 2050, if no protective measures are taken. A recent study assessing the world’s oceans, including the deep sea, highlighted the significant damage caused by pollution, resource exploitation and climate change.
Given the long gaps between international policy-making conferences, previous inability to implement durable solutions and the ever-accelerating and ever-more perilous state of our oceans, UNCSD is the planet’s last chance to save the oceans before the point of no return is reached.
But will the opportunity be seized, or scuppered by self-interest and greed?