Fish live in the sea, fishermen catch them and we eat them: How many of us, whether we eat fish or not, have heard such a story as children?
But the image of fish in the sea could become a tale from the past. Our oceans are running out of fish and our generation may well be the last to hunt them in large numbers, due to insatiable global demand for fish. At a time when fish stocks around the world are decreasing, global fish consumption is now about 17 pounds per person a year, a record high, with the average person eating four times as much fish as in 1950.
A BBC report offers some disturbing details about how a combination of more efficient technology, government policies and human consumption are fast eliminating the world population of fish.
1. Efficient methods such as bottom trawling are turning widening swaths of global seas into the equivalent of deserts. This has already happened in much of the Mediterranean and the North Sea and could well occur in West Africa. Recent data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reveals that West Africa’s coastal fisheries have declined 50 percent in just the past 30 years.
2. Government policies that provide subsidies are a short-term solution that add up to a long-term problem. According to the BBC, one in three fish caught in Spain is paid for by a government subsidy. Subsidies keep people employed (certainly a pressing issue in Spain, where unemployment is around 25 percent) but are not sustainable and ultimately deplete jobs along with the world’s fish supply.
3. We have simply become too good at catching fish. But now we need policies to prevent overfishing and undo the tragedy of the commons situation, whereby fishermen simply seek to net as many fish as they can in any waters. Fisheries need to be managed in sustainable ways; a policy promoting sustainability would be for each government to set “quotas based on stock levels in their surrounding waters” and then to ensure compliance with monitoring.
4. The marine ecosystem is, thanks to the new top marine predator (us), out of whack. Formerly sharks were on the top of the marine food chain but their numbers have declined by 80 percent worldwide and, as a result, there has been an “increase in fish numbers further down the food chain, which in turn can cause a crash in the population of very small marine life, such as plankton.” Climate change, acidification and pollution have also taken their toll on our seas and other marine wildlife including seabirds, who are caught in nets and discarded.
5. Only a miniscule 1 percent of the ocean is currently protected and it will not be until 2020 that 10 percent of it is. But simply protecting the ocean is not enough; such areas also need to be monitored and regulations enforced. In addition, as endangered species including sharks are migratory, mobile reserves are very much needed.
On a more cheery note, the BBC cites one study according to which, by just designating 4 percent of the world’s oceans as reserves, 108 species (84 percent) of the world’s marine mammals could be protected.
What really stood out to me in the BBC‘s report is that we humans have become the “top marine predator.” Like it or not, that’s a huge responsibility and we owe it to the oceans, ourselves and our children to protect fish before, one day, there are none left.
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