The Disappearing Feast: An Empty ocean


School of Bigeye Jack

Photo: All rights copyright, Microsoft Corp.

he good news is that Americans are rich, and can pretty much afford to each whatever we want. Those dire warnings about the death of fish species and the emptying of the oceans… doesn’t really apply to us. True, between America and China we’re managing to eat some of the tastier species of finned fish faster than they can reproduce, but if you can afford a $50 steak, you can afford a $50 can of tuna. A bigger problem is that our choice of fishing methods plus other human activities, are killing off other species that we don’t eat, but which are very important for the health of the oceans.  And, of course, if you don’t happen to live in a rich country, you’ve got a big, BIG, problem.

As the oceans of the world are depleted, the cost of fish will rise and countries that rely on a seafood diet will have massive problems keeping their populations fed. These fish based countries, pretty much any country with a coastline, may also rely on fishing for income. No fish means no food AND no job! That’s not the formula for global political stability. The US consumes a lot of fish, just because we are a rich and large nation. However, we’re not very fish dependent. China catches more fish than any nation on earth, and Chile consumes more fish than any other country (nearly 180 lbs. annually, compared to about 30 in the US). If fish go away America would miss them, but we would survive.

We are not a fish dependent nation, we know that something has been going on, but not what. We’ve seen notes on menus at progressive restaurants telling us that some fish are endangered, and some can be sustainably farmed. The problem is that when we look at our ocean, rivers, and lakes, we can only see what’s on the surface. All the interesting things happen deep underwater. We know see that elephants and rhinos are disappearing because we can see and count the remaining herds. We can’t see most of the life in the oceans. Even well-known species… like whales… live lives that are largely unknown to us.

Arguments over how species depletion needs to rely on statistics, rather than pictures of missing “herds” of fish. The vast majority of scientists know that species are in trouble, but complex scientific data is hard to understand, and too… academic. As long as the damage is hidden from our view, we substitute opinions for data. What do we really KNOW about the fish in our oceans?

It’s Nothing New:  Before we ran out of fish, we were told that our fish had been poisoned. And they were. For decades, we’ve known that many ocean fish contain unacceptable levels of mercury and other toxins. Which ones? The fish that eat other fish. The most poisoned are the biggest carnivorous fish. Top predators, like the tuna, have the toxins they are exposed to, and also all the toxins that everything they’ve eaten (i.e. little fish).

Strangely, except for fish, American’s don’t eat predators. We eat beef, chicken, pork,  lamb, turkey, even rabbit and deer. None of which are predators. We don’t eat vultures, lions, wolves, etc. We instinctively avoid eating predators. Jews, Christians and Muslims are all prohibited from eating predators. Unfortunately, ancient religious leaders living in a desert didn’t know much about the hunting habits of deep sea fish.

Tuna, cod, perch, salmon, pike,  and many other fish we consume are predators. Worse yet, top predators often eat fish, who eat other fish (who might eat other fish). This is why top predators are sponges for heavy metals and toxic chemicals. We knew all of this, decades ago. That’s when we realized “the ocean is NOT endless.” We started to pay a bit more attention to pollution in the ocean. We had to! Some fish breeding grounds were so polluted, that they had essentially died, and took the fishing communities with them. Other still had fish, but they were too toxic to eat. We learned our lesson, did some basic science, put some laws in place and old fishing grounds started to come back. For a while. Then we started to ask a slightly different question. “If the oceans are not endless, could it be that the number of fish are also not endless?”

Fishermen Cheat: At the end of the day, individual fishermen talk about the “fish that got away,” who are inevitably larger than the best fish in their catch. In industrial fishing, factory ships with bulging nets that haul in hundreds of tons of fish a day somehow report very meager catches. Why? Because international fishing limits are very far below the capacity of international fishing fleets. Especially the Chinese fleet.

Virtually every country in the world with a significant fishing fleet has complained about over fishing by the Chinese. Even when scientists agree that fishing quotas are reasonable, no one believes that everyone is strictly following these quotas, or that we have enough monitors to know who is cheating. Many studies pointed to China. The latest of these studies shows that China is catching 12 times their quota. Chinese over fishing may be more than all of the legitimate fish harvesting in the world. And… other countries are cheating too!

Size Matters: American’s like big fish. Fish like tuna and cod. As we’ve discussed, many of the biggest fish are predators. In order for a predator fish to gain a single pound of weight, it must consume several pounds of smaller fish. The exact ratio depends on the species of predator, the species of forage fish (the little fish the bigger fish eats), time of year and other factors. For a farmed fish like salmon, it takes a 5 to one ratio. If we use that ratio, and there is another link on the food chain (the little fish eats  smaller fish), it takes 25 pounds of forage fish for your 1 pound of fish fillet. A third link in that chain, and it could take 125 pounds of forage fish for your 1 lb. fillet.

Many countries consider small fish (anchovies, sardines, etc.) to be a delicacy. If America  changed its preferences, and relied more on smaller fish, we could dramatically turn around the depletion of the oceans. It would be a major change in how we look at fish, but carefully choosing fish that are one or two links further down the food chain could dramatically change human impact on fish populations. And, there are other preferences that could dramatically change the depletion of our oceans.

Bycatch: Bycatch is the industry name for the fish that are accidentally caught, usually in trawling nets. Bycatch, about 20% of the fish harvest, die during the fishing process and are then just thrown away. Shrimp fishing is the most bycatch intensive catch of all. Shrimp is just 2% of the tonnage that the fishing industry catches, but it generates a third of the world’s bycatch. That’s a lot of wasted fish, And most of it is completely edible, it’s just not profitable enough to bother bringing home. Shrimp nets not only kill other species, they also drag across the bottom of the ocean and destroy the fish breeding areas and coral reefs.

Confusing Data: in previous decades, the Lobster industry of New England was going out of business due to over fishing. Agreements were made, and for many years the fishermen limited their catch, and strict monitoring was put in place. A few years ago, there was a miraculous recover. Then, against all odds, there was a record harvest of lobsters. It was a miracle, and another reason to ignore the scientific evidence. However, the reason why there has been a turnaround is that there are holes in the environment, where there were once other species. Without predators, the population of lobsters has exploded. And, the price of lobsters has hit a new low. Too many lobsters have been worse for lobstermen than too few lobsters.

If you are not a scientist, you probably think, “If lobsters made a come-back, the conditions of the ocean can’t be THAT bad. After all, the lobsters must be eating… SOMETHING?”  When you answer that question you, learn a bit more about how much the oceans have changed. Today, for the first time, big lobsters eat… little lobsters! Under extreme conditions, such as being confined in a small area with no other food, many species in and out of the ocean will eat each other. But only when other food isn’t available. A very hungry lobster might eat a baby lobster, if nothing else is available. But lobster cannibalism has become a primary source of prey for adult lobsters. THAT is something new, and disturbing.

We humans have changed the oceans. At first, we dumped our garbage in the ocean, and we learned how poisoning the oceans could poison our food. Now we’ve learned about another limit. There are only so many fish in the ocean. The good news is that we can do a lot to reverse the damage. Something as simple as eating sardines (or some other small fish) instead of big tunas, and we could give a lot of species room to recover. Find a less destructive way to fish than slicing up the ocean floor with nets and throwing “undesirable fish” overboard, and we can do a lot more.

We can eat our fill of fish for generations to come, if we make a few changes in what we eat and how we catch it. But we don’t have forever to fix the damage we’ve done. The very latest research tells us that there may be a point of no return for some ocean environments. Once they’re gone, Coral and other complex structures, could take centuries or even longer to recover. If we want to continue to harvest the oceans, we’d better help to protect them! And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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