Part 2: Finding Hope?
To continue making money, fisheries should be careful not to deplete the fish. But they tend to do the opposite, pursuing short-term gain in a race to the fish, driving many fish populations to all-time lows. Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Duke University, Stanford University, University of British Columbia, and Dalhousie University, have shown that the abundance of fishes, whales, and turtles was almost inconceivably greater before human fishing than what is left in today’s ocean. Compared to even 1950, catch rates for tunas, sharks, Atlantic cod, and groupers has declined roughly 90 percent.
And now, planetary warming and ocean acidification—both caused largely by the carbon dioxide resulting from our burning of coal, oil, and gas—have added enormous new challenges to ocean life (and to ours). Warming is shifting the distribution and productivity of plankton and fish. Acidification is already slowing shellfish and coral growth in many areas and threatens the existence of coral reefs within the lifetime of today’s children. (These changes also threaten the stability of civilization, primarily because warming is likely to reduce the productivity of grain crops; rice pollination success is nearly 100 percent at roughly 95º Fahrenheit (34º C). Rather stunningly, for every added one-degree-Celsius rise in nighttime temperature, rice yields drop ten percent. At about 105 Fahrenheit (40º C) it fails almost entirely. Similarly, for each one-degree-Celsius rise in temperature, corn and wheat yields decline about five percent. The National Academy of Sciences says, “Temperature increases due to global warming will make it increasingly difficult to feed Earth’s growing population.”)
And plastic continues to accumulate each moment, tons and tons of nearly-eternal drifting trash, tangling and being swallowed by ocean wildlife worldwide.
But beneath these major problems runs a current of improvements. The U.S. law regulating fisheries was greatly improved by the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which requires management plans that end overfishing and let most depleted populations recover to target levels within ten years. Many declining fish populations in U.S. waters have stabilized, and some are undergoing substantial recoveries. Some whales are staging substantial increases in several regions of the world. After the U.S. and Canada closed major Atlantic fishing grounds, various valuable marine species—and their fisheries—are recovering. And globally, there’s intensifying discussion, and action, about establishing no-fishing zones that function like ocean wildlife sanctuaries. This is needed.
In some parts of the world, fitting trawl nets with devices called turtle excluders saves many thousands of turtles from drowning. And albatrosses and other seabirds simply by using streamer lines that scare them away from fishing gear as it’s being set out.
The eastern Pacific tuna fishery’s improved dolphin-release procedures have greatly reduced the numbers of dolphins drowned in their nets. (Tuna follow dolphin herds, and the boats encircle dolphins with nets to get the tuna beneath them. While dolphins can now be safely released, questions remain about separation and loss of infants from mother dolphins chased to exhaustion prior to netting.)
International bodies are increasingly recognizing the overfishing problem. The United Nations has enacted a high-seas fisheries treaty and published a Code of Conduct for responsible fishing, and drafted Plans of Action for reversing sharp declines in populations of sharks and seabirds.
And in 2011, several places throughout the world banned the practice of killing sharks for just their fins (the fins are used as a thickener in Chinese shark-fin soup.) Though change will come slowly, these represent major steps toward recognizing the problems.
We can have ocean fishing. But the main need now is to let fish populations rebuild, and then cap catches. In many places, studies indicate that fishing power must be reduced by about half. This will be difficult in a world of 7 billion people, with a still-increasing human population. But there are ways of accomplishing it. In some fisheries in Alaska, for example, managers have let market forces reduce fishing power by allowing fishing boats to buy and sell shares of a scientifically set catch quota. This has allowed less profitable operators to sell out.
Once, there were places too far and too deep for fishing. But after industrial fishing came of age, fish could no longer hide. The sea now needs some reserves, closed to fishing. The ocean must have some natural factories for production; it can’t have only retail stores where the merchandise is up for grabs.
What about fish farming? Fish farms are often made by destroying natural habitats supporting both coastal wildlife and human fishing communities. To grow fish, many fish and shrimp must be fed wild fish caught from the ocean—a net loss of protein that could have fed people. Yet some fish and shellfish are raised in environmentally benign ways. The best path lies in developing less harmful farming methods and supporting best practices.
Seafood lovers can improve ocean fishing and fish-farming. Several environmental organizations recommend choices that seafood enthusiasts can enjoy with a clear conscience. Look for retailers that sell only sustainably caught fish. In the U.S., Whole Foods Market is a supermarket chain dedicated to sustainable agriculture and seafood. Worldwide, fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council are often good choices. Increasingly, there are other good options.
The answers to ocean recovery lie in fishing slower than the fish can breed, farming seafood in non-destructive ways, and giving consumers the information they need to vote with their conscience and their wallet.
So, yes, there is hope.