The Not-So-Bottomless Ocean
Marine scientists believe that 90 percent of the large-fish species in the world’s oceans have been fished out in the last 50 years. It’s not hard to imagine because each year some 100 million tons of fish are hoisted out of the water to be sold on the market for roughly $85 million. That money is used to sustain 200 million people worldwide in a fishing industry dominated by China, Peru and the United States.
Even though the oceans cover 71 percent of the planet, size does not matter when it comes to depleting fishing stocks. “Most of the ocean is biologically a desert. The life is there, but it’s very sparse. Where it’s concentrated happens to be along the continents because that’s where the nutrients run off the land,” says Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean, in a PBS documentary on marine fisheries and aquaculture.
Overfishing, along with bad management practices and a lack of investment, already have caused havoc in Central Asia. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Kyrgyzstan’s inland fisheries and aquaculture production fell 98 percent between 1989 and 2006, In Tajikistan production dropped 94 percent and Azerbaijan saw a fall of 92 percent. Central Asians now eat a lot less fish than they used to - less than one kilo each per year. That’s 16 times less than the world average, according to FAO figures.
To counter the threat of disappearing stocks, fish farming has become the fastest-growing food-production industry in the world. Its production rose 60-fold between the early 1950s and 2004. But with innovation comes controversy, especially from farms that raise carnivorous fish. These, like salmon, need to eat volumes of other fish - like anchovies, sardines or capelin in the form of meal or oil. In many instances, they consume much more protein than they produce, adding pressure on an over-exploited ocean population.
And there are increasing concerns that pollution in the oceans has begun to trickle down the food chain. Many fish are now contaminated by PCBs and mercury which in turn may contaminate those raised in farms. The pollution has reached such a level of concern that experts recommend that salmon caught in the Baltic Sea - from Norway and Scotland - not be eaten more than once every other month.
“We have sufficiently contaminated our oceans, that now, if we concentrate the fish meal and fish oil from trash fish that nobody wants to eat, then shove it to fish in a cage and push their weight gain, we can develop animals that are dangerous to eat because of the accumulation of toxins,” says Dr. David Carpenter, professor of Environmental Health and Toxicology at the University of Albany in New York.
Yet the future is not all bleak. Already China has begun to reduce the size of its fleets to tackle overcapacity, no small feat in a country where some 13 million people live off fish farms. And the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages fisheries off the west coast of the United States, has agreed to modify some rules in order to save depleted stocks. Fishermen, for instance, will no longer have to shovel tons of dead fish overboard because they did not have permits to sell particular species inadvertently caught in their nets, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Yet these small measures have to become global if the ocean’s resources are to be preserved for future generations. It is especially true today as developing countries get wealthier and their citizens demand more fish to feed their families. If we are not careful about depleting the ocean’s resources, we may find ourselves like Central Asia - surrounded by lifeless water.