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With over a billion people dependent on our global oceans for the delivery of animal protein, the seas are often thought of as our never-ending food basket. Here in Australia, our relationship with ocean produce is engrained in our national consciousness and most of our holidays – we love seafood to the point where we each consume around 25kgs of seafood a year.
But we’ve known for some years now that the oceans aren’t an endless resource. The most recent figures indicate that over 85% of the world’s fish stocks are now fished up to full capacity, or are over-fished (UN FAO 2012). In a world with an ever-expanding population, the question is how we can balance what we take from the seas and how we keep the ocean healthy, so we can ensure we have fish in the future.
We often hear the message that Australian fisheries are the best managed in the world, or packaged another way, that all Australian fisheries are sustainable. While it’s certainly true that we have better management in place than some other countries, international fisheries management is hardly stellar. And even though Australia has the third largest marine Exclusive Economic Zone (the area of ocean that we manage), our waters are quite low in nutrients and don’t hold a huge abundance of fish. This means we need to get the sustainability of our fisheries right the first time, and don’t have the luxury of trial and error.
Australian fisheries are managed by eight different jurisdictions, all of which are not equal in terms of the sustainability of their fisheries.
Fisheries from around 3 nautical miles out to the edge of Australia’s ocean realm are managed by the Commonwealth Government. Fisheries from the shoreline out to 3nm are managed by the State or the Territory Governments, although there is little consistency between how they all separately manage their resources. By value, the state fisheries are by far the most valuable, with Commonwealth managed fisheries only accounting for 15% of the total value of Australia’s $2 billion fishing industry.
An incredible 80% of the world’s fish stocks are now over-exploited or fished right up to their limit. Once considered inexhaustible, our oceans are now in a state of global crisis, and they need our help.
There is hope if we wake up to ourselves!
In order to do this, it was necessary to come up with a metric, a single unit to normalize the data. The University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Daniel Pauly, who is Principal Investigator of the project, suggested energy expenditure as a measure of fishing effort, expressed as total engine power and the number of fishing days in a year.
Their data looks at the global picture from 1950, where the main effort took place around the European coast. By the 1980s, European fishing fleets started intensifying their efforts off the coasts of Africa, the Antarctic, and also in the deep ocean. Asian fishing efforts also ramped up around this time and, from the 1990s onwards, there has been a massive increase in fishing effort in the equatorial zones off northwest Africa and in the Pacific off southeast Asia. Around the same time, the global catch stagnated at around 70 million tons a year. Fishing effort was flat from 1950 until 1970, when it began to increase, ramping up to the 2010 level of 4.4 billion kilowatt days, a 54 percent increase over 1950 levels.
Having reached peak fish, the resulting fish stock collapses have meant that maintaining the annual landing of 85 million tons of fish in the 2000s became more and more energy intensive. Forty-seven million tons of fuel were used by the global fishing fleet each year over that decade, which works out to 1.8 tons of fish per ton of fuel, or 13.5lb of fish per gallon. Just as global agriculture has become incredibly dependent on fossil fuels, so too has global fishing, and it’s just as unsustainable.
Pauly pointed out that the recent FAO biennial report, which described the world fisheries as stable, was misleading, because it just measured catch, but not energy expenditure or the area being fished, which expands each year both in ocean depth and ocean area. Pauly thinks that consumers aren’t feeling this yet, since so much fish is imported from around the world, but that, within a decade, it will be more noticeable in the prices we pay at the supermarket.
Villy Christensen, also of UBC, tried to square the contradictory predictions of life in the future oceans. Unfortunately both these links require a subscription to Science, but the abstracts are free. The 2006 study predicted the global collapse of all taxa currently fished by 2048, but the 2009 study (which has many of the same authors) suggests that efforts to rebuild stocks are underway. According to Christensen, the 2009 paper is correct, at least for some regions.
Fixing the problems will require a more holistic approach to fisheries management than in the past, but there are signs that this is beginning to happen. The United Nations Environment Program is starting to work with the FAO to reduce the polarization between agriculture departments and environment departments across fishing nations. Even marginal reductions in fishing efforts now suggest that we could return to current fishing catch levels, but sustainably, by 2050. Unfortunately, not everyone who currently fishes can continue to do so—since that means taking away peoples’ livelihoods, reaching sustainability won’t be an easy sell.
Changes in fishing methods can also be successful; white sharks off the California coasts have recovered following a ban on drift nets. Increased use of marine protected areas will also be needed, but we can see these at work already—cod are recovering in the Gulf of Maine, for example. Alaskan fisheries are also doing much better since moving to a model that allocates each boat a catch share, rather than a limited number of fishing days. It’s not popular with everyone, since it effectively assigns property rights to the fish in the sea, privatizing a public resource. But, if the alternative is collapsed fisheries, then I think on balance it’s worth it.
5 Reasons There Will Soon Be No More Fish in Our Seas.
1. Efficient methods such as bottom trawling are turning widening swaths of global seas into the equivalent of deserts. This has already happened in much of the Mediterranean and the North Sea and could well occur in West Africa. Recent data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reveals that West Africa’s coastal fisheries have declined 50 percent in just the past 30 years.
2. Government policies that provide subsidies are a short-term solution that add up to a long-term problem. According to the BBC, one in three fish caught in Spain is paid for by a government subsidy. Subsidies keep people employed (certainly a pressing issue in Spain, where unemployment is around 25 percent) but are not sustainable and ultimately deplete jobs along with the world’s fish supply.
3. We have simply become too good at catching fish. But now we need policies to prevent overfishing and undo the tragedy of the commons situation, whereby fishermen simply seek to net as many fish as they can in any waters. Fisheries need to be managed in sustainable ways; a policy promoting sustainability would be for each government to set “quotas based on stock levels in their surrounding waters” and then to ensure compliance with monitoring.
4. The marine ecosystem is, thanks to the new top marine predator (us), out of whack. Formerly sharks were on the top of the marine food chain but their numbers have declined by 80 percent worldwide and, as a result, there has been an “increase in fish numbers further down the food chain, which in turn can cause a crash in the population of very small marine life, such as plankton.” Climate change, acidification and pollution have also taken their toll on our seas and other marine wildlife including seabirds, who are caught in nets and discarded.
5. Only a miniscule 1 percent of the ocean is currently protected and it will not be until 2020 that 10 percent of it is. But simply protecting the ocean is not enough; such areas also need to be monitored and regulations enforced. In addition, as endangered species including sharks are migratory, mobile reserves are very much needed.
But here in Australia – Mr Abbot thinks otherwise, by removing marine parks from around Australia and threatening the Great Barrier Reef itself!
On a more cheery note, the BBC cites one study according to which, by just designating 4 percent of the world’s oceans as reserves, 108 species (84 percent) of the world’s marine mammals could be protected.
What really stood out to me in the BBC‘s report is that we humans have become the “top marine predator.” Like it or not, that’s a huge responsibility and we owe it to the oceans, ourselves and our children to protect fish before, one day, there are none left.