Empty oceans

Favourite fish like cod, tuna and sole may disappear from our tables. It’s up to us to solve the problem.

Tijn Touber | May 2005 issue
Over the past 30 years, global fish consumption has nearly doubled and the world’s fish can’t mate fast enough to keep up. The list of species threatened by overfishingis growing every day, with once-common varieties like cod, tuna, and sole now on the list. The Ecologist (December 2004/January 2005) has even issued an report on the alarming decline of cod on the Grand Banks off New Foundland in the North Atlantic, once the most celebrated fishing grounds in the world.
Explorer John Cabot discovered the Grand Banks in 1497 and reported that fish were so numerous that he simply hung a basket over the side of his boat and hauled hundreds of cod out of the water. These waters turned out to have the largest cod population in the world. Starting in the early 1500s European fishing boats traveled to the vicinity just to trawl for cod. They stopped coming only in 1990 when the Canadian government put a sudden ban on cod fishing. The reason: they discovered that the cod population had shrunk 99 percent since 1960. According to optimistic estimates, it will take at least 20 years before the Grand Banks fish population has recovered, and some biologists are concerned the cod will never return in large numbers.. So far there are no signs that cod numbers are climbing.
The situation for cod is no better in the North Sea where the population is only one-third the level needed for the species to survive. It’s not that the European Union has failed to set clear limits, it’s that fishing boats simply ignore them and the EU only cursorily monitors compliance to the rules. And fishing fleet owners consider the low fines that are sporadically imposed as part of their operating risk. In fact, half of the cod that you and I eat is caught illegally. Independent organizations like the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea have been recommending for years that cod fishing west of Scotland, in the Irish sea and in the North Sea, be banned completely in order to give the fish a chance to repopulate.
The ecologically-minded Canadian publication Finding Solutions (Spring 2003) suggests that if we continue to plunder the global waters at the current pacewe will end up with only jellyfish to dine upon. Finding Solutions is looking—as the name suggests—for answers. One of those answers might be fish farming. But for the moment, this approachshows little promise. The large amounts of chemicals used to raise salmon, for example, pollute the water. Moreover, farm-raised salmon are prone to diseases that quickly spread to the wild salmon in the same waters.
The best solution would be to impose no-go fishing zones internationally. That’s already being done— but such measures are hard to enforce. . Back to Grand Banks: after the initial scare in 1990, Canada allowed cod fishing once again in 1995. The government was overburdened paying benefits and subsidies to fishermen and fish processing companies sidelined by the ban. When Canadian officials were once again forced to close the Grand Banks in 2003, the fish population had fallen below 1990 levels. In violation of all internationalagreements, European boats continue to fish there illegally. Betty Fitzgerald, mayor of the nearby town of Bonavista, New Foundland, has gone out to sea several times at night. She says the Grand Banks looks like a “city at night”, lit up by all the lights of the fishing boats in the distance.
According to The Ecologist, gigantic European boats now set out for the west coast of Africa, plundering the fishing grounds there at top speed. With modern equipment, fishermen are able to fish deeper than ever. Whiting, for example, lives at a depth of 400 meters (1300 feet). Until recently, this fish was rarely caught, but last year along 2.3 million tons were netted. Kjartan Hoydal of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission expects the whiting population to collapse within a few years.
Due to the unwillingness of political leaders to truly tackle the problem, responsibility lies more than ever with consumers. It is up to each of us to choose carefully which fish we eat. One thing is clear: we will have to eat less fish and—more to the point—different varieties if we want to prevent certain species from disappearing entirely. Otherwise we may be condemned to ordering jellyfish sandwiches .
 

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