EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Natural Systems Under Stress: Collapsing Fisheries

After World War II, accelerating population growth and steadily rising incomes drove the demand for seafood upward at a record pace. At the same time, advances in fishing technologies, including huge refrigerated processing ships that enabled trawlers to exploit distant oceans, enabled fishers to respond to the growing world demand.

In response, the oceanic fish catch climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to its historic high of 93 million tons in 1997. This fivefold growth—more than double that of population during this period—raised the wild seafood supply per person worldwide from 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) in 1950 to a peak of 17 kilograms in 1988. Since then, it has fallen to 14 kilograms. 57

As population grows and as modern food marketing systems give more people access to these products, seafood consumption is growing. Indeed, the human appetite for seafood is outgrowing the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries. Today 75 percent of fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable capacity. As a result, many are in decline and some have
collapsed. 58

While oceanic fisheries face numerous threats, it is overfishing that directly threatens their survival. Oceanic harvests expanded as new technologies evolved, ranging from sonar for tracking schools of fish to vast driftnets that are collectively long enough to circle the earth many times over.

A 2003 landmark study by a Canadian-German research team published in Nature concluded that 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans had disappeared over the last 50 years. Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist at Canada’s Dalhousie University and lead scientist in this study, says: “From giant blue marlin to mighty bluefin tuna, from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left.” 59

Myers goes on to say, “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.” 60

Fisheries are collapsing throughout the world. The 500-year-old cod fishery of Canada failed in the early 1990s, putting some 40,000 fishers and fish processors out of work. Fisheries off the coast of New England were not far behind. And in Europe, cod fisheries are in decline, approaching a free fall. Like the Canadian cod fishery, the European ones may have been depleted to the point of no return. Countries that fail to meet nature’s deadlines for halting overfishing face fishery decline and collapse. 61

Atlantic stocks of the heavily fished bluefin tuna—a large specimen of which, headed for Tokyo’s sushi restaurants, can bring in $100,000—have been cut by a staggering 94 percent. It will take years for such long-lived species to recover, even if fishing were to stop altogether. The harvest of the Caspian Sea sturgeon, source of the world’s most prized caviar, fell from a record 27,700 tons in 1977 to just 461 tons in 2000. The quota for 2007 was set at 368 tons. Overfishing, much of it illegal, is primarily responsible for the dramatic drop. 62

The U.S. Chesapeake Bay, which yielded more than 35 million pounds of oysters per year a half-century ago, now produces scarcely 1 million pounds per year. A deadly combination of overharvesting, pollutants, oyster disease, and siltation from soil erosion is responsible. 63

Even among countries accustomed to working together, such as those in the European Union (EU), the challenge of negotiating catch limits at sustainable levels can be difficult. In April 1997, after prolonged negotiations, agreement was reached in Brussels to reduce the fishing capacity of EU fleets by 30 percent for endangered species, such as cod, herring, and sole in the North Sea, and by 20 percent for overfished stocks, such as cod in the Baltic Sea, the bluefin tuna, and swordfish off the Iberian Peninsula. The EU had finally reached agreement on reducing the catch but the cuts were not sufficient to arrest the decline of the region’s fisheries. 64

The catch of North Sea cod, the mainstay of U.K. fisheries, fell from 300,000 tons per year in the mid-1980s to below 50,000 tons in recent years. For 2006, the annual quota was dropped to 23,000 tons, but the fishery continued to decline, leading to an additional 14 percent quota cut in 2007. The history of EU fishery management and the reduction of quotas has been a matter of too little, too late. EU officials are all too aware that Canada’s vast Newfoundland cod fishery has not recovered since collapsing in 1992, despite the total ban on fishing imposed then, but even so they have consistently failed to move quickly enough. 65

When some fisheries collapse, it puts more pressure on those that remain. Local shortages quickly become global shortages. With restrictions on the catch in overfished EU waters, the heavily subsidized EU fishing fleet has turned to the west coast of Africa, buying licenses to fish off the coasts of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Morocco, and Senegal. They are competing there with fleets from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Taiwan. For impoverished countries like Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau, income from fishing licenses can account for up to half of government revenue. 66

Unfortunately for the Africans, their fisheries too are collapsing. In Senegal, where local fishers with small boats once could quickly fill their craft with fish, on many days now they cannot catch enough fish to cover even their fuel costs. As one Senegalese tribal elder said, “Poverty came to Senegal with these fishing agreements.” 67

To the north, John Miller, reporting in the Wall Street Journal from the Mauritanian port town of Nouadhibou, describes how a 39-year-old fisherman and father of six, Sall Samba, had beached two of the three fishing boats he used to harvest octopus. “You used to be able to fish right in the port,” he said, “but now the only thing you can catch here is water.” 68

Overfishing is not the only threat to the world’s seafood supply. Some 90 percent of fish residing in the ocean rely on coastal wetlands, mangrove swamps, or rivers as spawning areas. Well over half of the mangrove forests in tropical and subtropical countries have been lost. The disappearance of coastal wetlands in industrial countries is even greater. In Italy, whose coastal wetlands are the nurseries for many Mediterranean fisheries, the loss is a whopping 95 percent. 69

Damage to coral reefs from higher ocean temperatures and ocean acidification caused by higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, as well as damage from pollution and sedimentation, are threatening these breeding grounds for fish in tropical and subtropical waters. Between 2000 and 2004, the worldwide share of destroyed reefs, those that had lost 90 percent of live corals, expanded from 11 percent to 20 percent. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network reports that 24 percent of the remaining reefs are at risk of imminent collapse, with another 26 percent facing significant loss in the next few decades, due to mounting human pressures. As the reefs deteriorate, so do the fisheries that depend on them. 70

A World Resources Institute report on coral reefs in the Caribbean notes that 35 percent of these reefs are threatened by sewage discharge, water-based sediment, and pollution from fertilizer and that 15 percent are threatened by pollution from cruise ship discharges. In economic terms, the Caribbean coral reefs supply goods and services worth at least $3.1 billion per year. 71

The spectacular coral reefs of the Red Sea, some of the most strikingly beautiful reefs anywhere, are facing extinction due to destructive fishing practices, dredging, sedimentation, and sewage discharge. Anything that reduces sunlight penetration in the sea impairs the growth of corals, leading to die-off. 72

Pollution is taking a devastating toll, illustrated by the dead zones created by nutrient runoff from fertilizer and from sewage discharge. In the United States, the Mississippi River carries nutrients from the Corn Belt and sewage from cities along its route into the Gulf of Mexico. The nutrient surge creates huge algal blooms that then die and decompose, consuming the free oxygen in the water, leading to the death of fish. This creates a dead zone each summer in the Gulf that can reach the size of New Jersey. 73

UNEP reported in 2006 that there were more than 200 dead zones in the world’s oceans and seas, up from 149 two years earlier. Among the dead zones they counted were ones in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, Ghana’s Fosu Lagoon, and Uruguay’s Montevideo Bay. In these oceanic “deserts” there are no fishing trawlers because there are no fish. 74

Commercial fishing is now largely an economics of today versus tomorrow. Governments are seeking to protect tomorrow’s catches by forcing fishers to keep their ships idle; fishing communities are torn between the need for income today versus the future. Ironically, one reason for excess fleet capacity is long-standing government subsidized loans for investing in new boats and fishing gear. 75

The growing worldwide demand for seafood can no longer be satisfied by expanding the oceanic fish catch. If it is to be satisfied, it will be by expanding fish farming. But once fish are put in ponds or cages they have to be fed, most often corn and soybean meal, putting further pressure on land resources.

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57. FAO, FISHSTAT Plus, electronic database, at www.fao.org, updated March 2007.

58. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006 (Rome: 2007), p. 29.

59. Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature, vol. 432 (15 May 2003), pp. 280–83; Charles Crosby, “‘Blue Frontier’ is Decimated,” Dalhousie News, 11 June 2003.

60. Myers and Worm, op. cit. note 59; Crosby, op. cit. note 59.

61. Myers and Worm, op. cit. note 59.

62. Stephen Leahy, “Atlantic Bluefin Going Way of Northern Cod,” Interpress Service News Agency, 24 August 2007; Ted Williams, “The Last Bluefin Hunt,” in Valerie Harms et al., The National Audubon Society Almanac of the Environment (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994), p. 185; Callum Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007), p. 280; Konstantin Volkov, “The Caviar Game Rules,” Reuters-IUCN Environmental Media Award winner, 2001; 2007 quota from UNEP, “2006 Ban on Caviar Lifted,” press release (Geneva: 2 January 2007).

63. Harvests from National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Annual Commercial Landing Statistics, electronic database, at www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/st1/commercial/ landings/annual_landings.html, updated 12 February 2007.

64. Caroline Southey, “EU Puts New Curbs on Fishing,” Financial Times, 16 April 1997.

65. Alex Kirby, “UK Cod Fishing ‘Could be Halted’,” BBC News, 6 November 2000; ; Norway Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, “Norway and EU Agree Fish Quotas for 2006,” press release (Oslo, Norway: 2 December 2005); European Commission, “Council Decision on 2007 Fish Quotas Confirms Gradual Approach to Sustainable Fisheries,” press release (Brussels: 21 December 2006); European Commission, “Outcome of the Fisheries Council of 16-20 December 2002,” at ec.europa.eu/fisheries/press_corner, updated 23 December 2002; Indrani Lutchman et al., Indicators of Environmental Integration: Final Report (London: Institute for European Environmental Policy, June 2006).

66. Diadie Ba, “ Senegal, EU Prepare for Fisheries Deal Tussle,” Reuters, 28 May 2001; Charles Clover, The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat (London: Ebury Press, 2004), ppd. 37–46.

67. Clover, op. cit. note 66, p. 38.

68. John W. Miller, “Global Fishing Trade Depletes African Waters,” Wall Street Journal, 23 July 2007.

69. Lauretta Burke et al., Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Coastal Ecosystems (Washington, DC: WRI, 2001), pp. 19, 51; coastal wetland loss in Italy from Lester R. Brown and Hal Kane, Full House (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).

70. Clive Wilkinson, ed., Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004 (Townsville, Australia: Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, 2004), p. 9.

71. Lauretta Burke and Jonathan Maidens, Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean (Washington, DC: WRI, 2004), pp. 12–14, 27–31.

72. Mohammed Kotb et al., “Status of Coral Reefs in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in 2004,” in Wilkinson, op. cit. note 70, pp. 137–39.

73. UNEP and Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, The State of the Marine Environment: Trends and Processes (The Hague: 2006); Nancy Rabalais and Gene Turner, “Dead Zone Size Near Top End,” press release (Cocodrie, LA: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, 28 July 2007).

74. UNEP, “Further Rise in Number of Marine ‘Dead Zones’,” press release (Beijing and Nairobi: 19 October 2006); UNEP, GEO Yearbook 2003 (Nairobi: 2004), p. 58.

75. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Environmental Outlook (Paris: 2001), pp. 109–20.


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