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Ocean Fish Depletion at Crisis Levels

by Bruce Haring

Most of us don’t think about fish unless it’s on our plate, swimming in sauce with a hint of lemon. But that may soon be a luxury you can’t afford, as serious over-fishing threatens to destroy many species.

The swordfish, sturgeon and bluefin tuna have already been seriously damaged by over-fishing, and their stock is estimated to be well over 90% depleted. These are the large predatory fish that draw a high price at market (a bluefin tuna was sold for $1.8 million last year in Japan), leading fisherman to constantly hunt and to extend their searches into deeper and farther waters.

As a result, the breeding stock of many species are drawn down to a point where they are in danger of not being replaced. It’s not only the fish that are in trouble — a report by the UN estimates fish are the main source of protein for 20% of the planet. Things are already at crisis levels: according to a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted.

The fishing industry also has a problem with what’s termed “by-catch,” in which they scoop up unwanted fish and other marine creatures. This is akin to deforesting the sea bed; and added in with bottom trawling, another common practice in which the bottom is dragged for everything and anything, it’s creating an environmental disaster.

The UN estimates that by-catch comprises up to 25% of the harvested fish, including turtles and inedible fish. Some of it is tossed back, but the by-catch may already be dead, and some of the species caught have long reproductive cycles.

Big Money in Fish

Fishing is big business. A UN report put the world fish market at over $200 billion, a great deal of it subsidized by governments. Therein lies most of the problem.

Many industrial fishing fleets would not be profitable without the government monies. States give the money to keep prices low; but in the process, they encourage the continuation of so-called “zombie companies,” firms that otherwise would die and not contribute to the constant over-fishing. The US, Japan, China, and EU all play the subsidy game, creating a beast that’s estimated to be 2.5 times the size that current fishing stocks can sustain.

Essentially, that means that there are more boats than ever before, but they’re catching fewer fish than ever before.

Estimates are that if current practices continue, the oceans will be fished-out by 2050. Already, the European Commission for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries claims 96% of the Mediterranean bottom and middle-waters are over-fished.

The good news is that things can be turned around if — and it’s a big if —governments change their practices and cooperate. Unlike global warming issues, which have a wide range of debate, it’s clear what needs to be done to save the ocean fishing industry. Treaties can limit catches, lower by-catches, and ban bottom-trawling.

In the North Atlantic and Western Europe, those steps have already been taken to control errant fishing practices. Fish stocks there are deemed to be recovering, thanks to catch limits being set at the right levels. It takes the cooperation of the fishermen as well, which means it’s somewhat self-policing. But given the alternative of no livelihood and a barren ocean, it’s a price that must be paid.

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