14 November 2008

Teaching ourselves to fish

Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he'll eat forever. Or so the old aphorism goes. But is it true given the current state of the evidence?

In Europe, the crisis is becoming dire as deep cuts to the numbers of fish extracted from the ocean are being proposed. For 2009,the following measures have been proposed:

  • No fishing at all west of Scotland for cod, haddock and whiting west of Scotland;

  • A 25% cut in herring catches in the North Sea and west of Scotland;

  • A continued a ban on anchovy fishing in the Bay of Biscay;

  • A new ban on fishing for spurdog and porbeagle, two species of deep-sea shark.

Ironically enough, these cuts come after a poorly thought out 11% increase in the numbers of cod taken agreed to last year...Bluefin tuna in the Atlantic are also threat of becoming depleted.

Sharks are also under extreme duress, with a quarter of sharks and rays threatened with being fished out of existence in the Northeast Atlantic. Critically endangered sharks in include the gulper shark, prized in the cosmetics industry for its liver oil, and the two sharks most valued in Europe for their meat -- the spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks.

The shark's path to extinction isn't confined solely to Europe. Rising affluence in Asia is stoking demand for shark fin, widely viewed as a delicacy when shredded in soup. Much of this is supported by illegal fishing activity, with 'hotspots' found off Central and South America as well as in the western and central Pacific. Tragically, most of this catch is a complete and utter waste, because in many cases crews on illegal vessels slice the fins off sharks and dump the less valuable carcasses overboard.

Even the fish that aren't merely tossed overboard aren't particularly utilized in an efficient fashion. Nearly one third of 'forage fish' –anchovies, sardines and the like -- are ground-up into meal and fed to pigs, poultry, and even farm-raised fish. Domestic pigs and poultry are such gluttons for seafood that together they consume six times the amount of fish eaten in the United States and double the amount in Japan. These fish provide food for seabirds, marine mammals and larger fish; their removal may be putting the entire oceanic food web at risk.

Aquaculture -- fish-farming -- is apparently no better, particularly in the ocean. While perhaps feasible at a small-scale and as part of a larger process with multiple uses of water, a group is claiming that ocean salmon farming is devastating the world's oceans.

Three or more kilogrammes of wild fish is needed to produce one kilo of farmed salmon. The ocean bottoms under and around the open-ocean net pens are usually devoid of any life, buried under the excrement of up to a million salmon overhead...

Other impacts of the farms, including rampant disease and salmon as invasive species, are described in the linked article.

Overfishing (and its disruption to the biosphere) is but one of the many consequences of humanity's reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The ongoing Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment is also having strong impacts: Increasingly rapid ocean acidification; ecosystem changes driven by the unusual(?) melting of the Arctic ice caps, Indian ocean circulation oddities wrought by both natural variability and climate change. Humanity takes from the natural world, contributing little (if anything) back.

Because the oceans are owned by everyone and no one, a classic 'tragedy of the commons' scenario arises. All take, few give back. Laissez-faire rules the day. Some toothless attempts are made to curb the excess: agreements, quotas, licenses and such are easy to write and impose. We have heaps of them now regarding fisheries. Unfortunately, only those law-abiding souls with a conscience are bound by them; the dominant economic and social paradigms dictate that such people are losers, in both the literal and pejorative sense*. The oceans are too big to effectively police; people can and will (and indeed do) take what they want when they want it. Given the performance to date, this strategy is unlikely to succeed.

The parable cited above is remains true. Metaphorically speaking, Gaia has just been giving us fish; the earth is finite, unlike our seemingly insatiable demands. Humanity has not learned to fish yet, because we have failed to heed the lessons. The most straightforward path, as twisty as it may be, is to make the cost of extracting resources (like fish) prohibitively expensive when done at unsustainable levels. Given that money is about the only thing(s) that gets anyone's attention, the changes must be economic. Proper valuation of environmental considerations must be made in the general economy. This pretty much requires a change in the value system (of the global North in particular, but everyone really) lives by. Consumption must once again come to refer primarily to tuberculosis, not Our Way of Life.

It is late in the piece, and dramatic changes to the planetary ecosystem could be 'locked in'. Or not, we don't know for sure. The risks are large and we should act as best we can. It is time to listen to the lessons being taught and learn to fish.

*Summarizing the paradigm, not a personal viewpoint...
Image: Spiny dogfish shark found dead in a net. From
The Guardian.

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