Too many Not enough fish in the sea

If you're a lover of seafood and scuba diving like I am, the recent report on the projected impact of overfishing on worldwide fish populations probably has you shaking in your fins too.

"At this point 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed — that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating," Worm said. "If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime — by 2048."

Why should I care?
Aside from the obvious moral horror that arises at the idea of destroying a vast part of the life that occupies most of the planet's surface, there are a number of more self-interested, pragmatic points to make.

First of all, the effect on humankind would be tremendous. Although fish and other seafood are often listed as important components of a healthy diet, that's assuming that you're actually wealthy enough to have some choice in what you eat. As the article above notes:

Joshua Reichert, head of the private Pew Charitable Trusts' environment program, pointed out that worldwide fishing provides $80 billion in revenue and 200 million people depend on it for their livelihoods. For more than 1 billion people, many of whom are poor, fish is their main source of protein, he said. (emphasis added)

Running out of fish might mean higher cholesterol for some of us, but it would also mean the loss of the core staple food for many poor coastal communities.

Humans aside, try to imagine the effect on other creatures who share the food chain with fish. We can say goodbye to marine mammals and birds, and probably countless other land-based species. Bears wandering into backyards searching for food will be shot on a regular basis because of the danger they pose to us.

Back on the 'people-centric' thread, the ocean is frequently cited as a source of potential medicines as rich as the Amazon basin. By destroying that ecosystem, we may also deprive ourselves of a cure for cancer, or malaria, or AIDS.

OK, I care. Why is it happening?
Although people in developing countries often use fishing techniques that are harmful to their own local fish stocks (cyanide, dynamite, etc), the overall effect that this behaviour has on global fish populations is small. They may end up destroying their local coral and ruining their local ecosystem, but even if every fishing village in the world were to destroy its own livelihood, the oceans would be fine. Once the people left (due to lack of food), the fish would rebound. The real threat to the fish population is from commercial fishing; the catch-everything-in-its-wake trawler, the "Burns Omni-Net" that sweeps the sea floor clean.

When you remove everything from an ecosystem, you have also elminated the potential for regrowth. Clearcutting, whether of forests or of kelp, doesn't just remove the targetted item from the environment, it removes the environment itself. It's a short-sighted approach that probably wouldn't even occur to us if we weren't mortal. But what do I care if there are no fish in 2048 if I'm going to be dead by 2040?

Right. What can I do?
I suppose the simplest, easiest option for any individual person is to not eat fish (hey, before long that'll be the only option, right?) But that's not a realistic option for those 1 billion people mentioned above, and it's not an option that is overly appealing to many others (myself included) which means that it's not likely to be implemented. And a solution that no one wants isn't much of a solution at all.

The big answer is education (isn't it always?). Education of governments both rich and poor, education of the people who catch fish, and of those who eat fish. On a larger scale, this site is a great resource for finding organizations who are working to treat the oceans in a rational, sustainable way.

On an individual level, you can become educated about the type of seafood you eat and try to make intelligent, sustainable choices about what you eat. Last year, the Vancouver Aquarium launched its Ocean Wise program in conjunction with 16 BC restaurants (the number is now up to 41) to provide menues featuring sustainable seafood choices. The program defines sustainable seafood as follows:

  1. A species that is abundant and resilient to fishing pressures

  2. A species that is well managed with a comprehensive management plan based on current

  3. A species that is harvested in a method that ensures limited bycatch on non-target and
    endangered species

  4. A species that's method of catch ensures there is limited habitat loss associated with the
    harvesting method

The participating restaurants are required to:

  • complete an initial menu assessment, removing one unsustainable item from their menu and promoting at least one sustainable menu item with the Ocean Wise logo.

  • commit to remove at least one additional unsustainable seafood choice from their menu every six months until none of the listed species are offered.

Now, as much as I'd like to, I don't go out to a seafood restaurant for dinner every night, so it's helpful to know that the Montery Bay Aquarium in California has a similar (no doubt pre-existing) program called Seafood Watch that can help you identify which seafood in your region is sustainable and which isn't. It relies on knowing how the fish in question is caught in some cases, which can be difficult, but it provides options free from those constraints as well. When in doubt, go for the safe choice.

After thinking about how important it is to have the right information available to make these kinds of choices, my new goal for the next year is to convince at least one local fishmonger to join either the Ocean Wise program or a modified version of it where Ocean Wise options are clearly identified to consumers (I recognize that it may be harder for them to remove unsustainable choices every six months, but the first step in that direction is providing the necessary information to buyers). What are you going to do?

(hint: The Montery Bay Aquarium has a great set of resources on this page about what you can do. Give 'em a look)


Any thoughts on fish farming as a replacement for ocean scraping? I know there are biodiversity, disease, and sustainability implications there too.

One interesting thing I recall reading about somewhere was an "open sea" fish farm - a floating feeding station that would drive stocks up for commercial fishing in a small area... not sure where I saw that.

Anyway, that globe & mail front page made for an alarming morning...

Posted by: Rod Edwards on November 6, 2006 2:02 PM