The end of the line

Fish has been an important source of protein, essential amino acids and oils to human societies for tens of thousands of years. However, in the last 50 years many of our important fish stocks have become depleted. Some have vanished entirely.

In his recent book and documentary film The End of the Line, Charles Clover, investigative reporter and prominent environmental spokesperson, outlines the social, political, technological and environmental choices that have pushed many of our favorite types of seafood to the brink of extinction, and have transformed most of the world’s biologically productive marine habitats.

Cod, a predatory fish once so common in the North Atlantic that early European pilgrims to the New World left accounts of their ships pushing through thick seas of fish, was declared commercially extinct in 1990. Estimated to contain 7.7 million tons of fish before significant human depletion, the spawning stock of the North Sea in 2005 was a meager 45,100 tons. Bluefin tuna, perhaps an even more impressive top predator reaching weights of over 1200 pounds, began disappearing from the North Sea in the 1950s.

As the oceans top predators have become rarer, fisheries have turned their attention down- down the food chain, and into deeper waters. Smaller fish that feed at a lower on the food chain, such as anchovies and herring, are now being harvested both for human consumption and as feed for fish farming operations, which focus mainly on raising big predators like salmon and tuna.

Fishing down the food chain would be a disturbing trend on its own, given its implications about our concern for maintaining the integrity of marine ecosystems. A possibly even more ecologically dangerous trend, however, is the heightened interest among fishermen in the slow-breeding, long-lived species that inhabit deeper waters. The technology to fish at depths greater than 1,000 meters is relatively new, and government regulations are virtually non-existent. Enterprising fishermen are now catching fish  such as the orange roughy, a creature that lives up to 150 years, does not reproduce until about 30 years of age, and produces far less offspring than common shallow water species, at depths down to 10,000 feet. As consumers are most familiar with fish from shallow continental shelves, many of these deep catches are fileted to look like any other more familiar white fish, and brandished with exciting new names (empereur in the case of the orange roughy).

The countries that are the largest culprits in global fishery depletion are also those that travel furthest from home to ensure plentiful delivery of seafood to their citizens. For instance Spain, which has traditionally depended on seafood more than most other European countries as a principle source of protein, is currently in the process of stripping West African countries of their coastal stocks, hiring out just enough locals to make their operations legal to the European Commission. 

In a Earth whose population is expected to peak around 10 billion in another four decades, is there any way to halt the accelerating demise of our world’s fisheries? According to Clover, a fundamental paradigm shift needs to occur in the way we view our oceans. Fishing is the only type of food production carried out on an industrial scale that follows a hunter-gatherer tradition. Agricultural yields have been vastly improved by investments in technology. As Clover puts it, “the trajectory of modern technological hunter-gathering goes in the opposite direction. Increased effort produces less fish”.

To maintain the integrity and heritage of our oceans, to ensure that our descendants have access to this resource, we need to put away the steamrollers and heavy artillery. If we continue to treat the oceans as a battlefield, it is a war that we have already won. However, the short term gains of industrial fishing technology, gains enjoyed by only a privileged few, will not be remembered when the oceans have been scraped clean. The time is ripe to change the way we interact with this precious resource. Already, smart management decisions including restricted fishing seasons, maximum allowable catches based on scientifically-determined safe population sizes, and larger nets to avoid catching the youngest fish that have not had a chance to spawn, are transforming some of the world’s fisheries into what could one day be a truly renewable resource.

As a consumer, your choices have as much of a voice in the ocean’s future as fishermen or politicians. There is good documentation on several websites about what popular seafoods are the most environmentally-friendly or the most endangered. At the very least, it’s important to know where your fish came from. If every consumer insisted on knowing where his or her fish came from, even what ocean it came from, it would force fisheries to become more accountable and transparent about their catches. A can of light, dolphin safe tuna (a label which, by the way, does not mean that no dolphins are killed as bycatch, and moreover does nothing to protect the thousands of seaturtles and birds caught in nets intended for tuna every year) might as well have come from mars for all the fisheries tell us.

Scientists predict that if we continue fishing as we are now, we will see the end of most seafood by 2048. Let’s ring in the new year with a resolution to not let that happen.

– Good, up to date seafood guide that rates fish and shellfish based on the sustainability of their fisheries

-Monteray Bay Aquarium fish guide

-Red List of threatened or endangered species by the International Union for the conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.


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