Empty Nets: Fisheries Are in Decline around the World as Fishing Technology Outstrips Ecological Capacity

By Pauly, Daniel | Alternatives Journal, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Empty Nets: Fisheries Are in Decline around the World as Fishing Technology Outstrips Ecological Capacity


Pauly, Daniel, Alternatives Journal


JUST AS A TROPICAL SCIENTIST might look at the impressive expanse of Canada and assume that this country has boundless potential for agricultural production, unaware that in reality only the thin sliver of land along its southern border (five percent) is arable, we terrestrial aliens have assumed that the expanse and depths of the world's oceans will provide us in the ways that their more familiar coastal fringes have. This is very wrong. Of the 363 million square kilometres of ocean on this planet, less than seven percent--the continental shelves--is shallower than 200 metres, and some of this shelf area is covered by ice. Shelves generate the biological production supporting about 85 percent of global fish catches; the rest consists of tuna and other oceanic organisms that gather their food from the vast, desert-like expanse of the open oceans.

The overwhelming majority of ocean shelves are now "sheltered" within the exclusive economic zones of maritime countries. According to the current Law of the Sea, any country that cannot fully use the fish resources of its economic zone must make this surplus available to the fleets of other countries, and this, along with eagerness for foreign exchange, political pressure and illegal fishing, has led to all of the world's shelves being trawled for bottom fish, purse-seined for open-water fishes and illuminated to attract and catch squid.

Perhaps the strongest factor behind these destructive fisheries and their tacit support by the public at large is the notion that, somehow, the oceans will yield what we need--just because we need it. While much of the deep ocean is unexplored and mysterious, we do know enough about ocean processes to realize that its productive capacity cannot keep up with an ever-increasing demand for fish.

Global fish catches began to decline in the late 1980s and extrapolation of present trends suggests that large-scale fisheries will collapse in a few decades throughout most of the world, inducing losses that aquaculture cannot be expected to compensate for. A shifting baseline as to what is considered a pristine ecosystem and continued reliance on single-species scientific models have prevented us from fully appreciating the extent of the changes fishing has wrought.

Historic miscalculations

The industrialization of fishing began in the early 19th century when English fishers started operating steam trawlers, soon rendered more effective by power winches and, following World War I, diesel engines. (1) The aftermath of World War II added another peace dividend to the industrialization of fishing: freezer trawlers, radar and acoustic fish finders. The fleets of the Northern hemisphere were ready to take on the world.

Fisheries science had geared up as well: the two world wars had shown that exploited fish populations, such as those of the heavily mined North Sea, would bounce back when released from fishing. (2) This prompted models of single-species fish populations where numbers were presumed to be affected only by fishing pressure. The main point of these models, now still in use (though in strongly modified forms), is that adjusting fishing effort to some optimum level leads to a "maximum sustainable yield," a notion that the fishing industry and the regulatory agencies eagerly adopted--if only in theory.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In practice, optimum effort levels were rarely implemented. Rather the fisheries expanded their reach by fishing deeper waters and remote sea mounts and by moving onto the then untapped resources of West Africa, Southeast Asia and other low-latitude and southern hemispheric regions.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, this massive increase of global fishing effort led to increases in catches so rapidly that their trend exceeded that of world population growth. An entire generation of managers and politicians was led to believe that launching more boats would automatically lead to higher catches. …

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