‘The world faces the nightmare possibility of fishless oceans by 2050.’ That was the message of a 2010 UNEP report that concluded that 30 per cent of the world’s fish stocks have already collapsed. And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 70 per cent of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. In the North Atlantic region, for example, commercially exploitable populations of cod, hake, haddock and flounder have fallen by as much as 95 per cent – and may require a zero-catch policy to allow them to regenerate. Some species, like bluefin tuna, are close to extinction. These are potentially catastrophic warnings for world food security: a billion people, mostly from poorer countries, rely on fish as their main source of animal protein.
An oversized fleet
Part of the problem is that there are simply too many of us fishing. According to the United Nations, there are 35 million people fishing around the world on 20 million boats – that’s a fleet that’s two and a half times larger than the oceans are able to support without depleting stock. This is exacerbated by the fact that we are such efficient hunters. Big, government-subsidized fishing fleets of ever larger boats are technologically capable of harvesting too many fish at once from previously hard-to-reach deep-sea environments. Because deep-sea fish species such as monkfish, Patagonian toothfish (often sold as Chilean sea bass) and orange roughy grow and reach sexual maturity slowly, they are particularly vulnerable to intensive fishing. Once populations are damaged, recovery can take generations. In the last 50 years, numbers of large predatory fish in the deep oceans, such as marlin, swordfish and sharks, have dropped by 90 per cent.
Another problem is waste: fishing fleets haul up and throw away 20 million tonnes of unwanted ‘by-catch’ every year, killing and discarding unprofitable species, and surplus or juvenile fish. By-catch also includes such endangered wildlife as dolphins, porpoises and small whales, loggerhead and leatherback turtles, sharks, seabirds and corals, sponges, starfish and more. Such practices damage not just individual species but the marine ecosystems that support them.
Governments and ministries try to implement fishing quotas and sound fisheries management, but it’s very difficult to monitor activities – much less enforce guidelines or laws governing fishing practices – out at sea. In the case of the high seas, there are very few international fishing regulations in place. And while scientists propose catch limits to help keep populations sustainable, management bodies don’t necessarily heed their advice, often setting limits that far exceed the recommended quota.