In the 2000 movie, Castaway, Tom Hanks survives four solitary years on a deserted island by spearing fish and eating them uncooked. When he finally finds his way back to civilization, he gets thrown a party featuring sushi. In Analyze That (2000), psychiatrist Billy Crystal and his gangster patient, played by Robert De Niro, go out for sushi after De Niro’s release from prison. Sushi references in the media have become nearly as common as Coca Cola ads, and while the impact might be great for restaurants featuring the delicacy, the global fish population has suffered.
Seafood consumption worldwide has doubled in the past 40 years, and so has consumption of sushi. And while this probably signals a healthier eating trend despite the mercury and bacteria factors — since fish is a low-fat protein source — it actually signals a big problem for the planet. As I’ve pointed out before, the world’s fisheries are “collapsing” as a result of over-fishing.
Most countries require their fishing fleets to obtain licenses, and to maintain those licenses the fishermen must abide by catch limits and other regulations. Even with these regulations, though, and assuming fishermen actually followed the limits set in the regulations, the sheer numbers of fishermen in the world would threaten the world’s fish stocks. According to a May 22, 2010 article in Time, the bloated number of fishermen is an indirect result of $27 billion in annual subsidies paid to the fishing industry around the world. The subsidies make diesel cheaper and support the factory fishing vessels that plunder the seas. And when you add the large outfits to the numerous smaller fishing fleets and subsistence fisherman already in business, you get a worldwide fishing fleet of more than 20 million boats with a capacity to take 1.8 to 2.8 times more fish than the ocean can sustain. As the Time article states, “Our tax money is essentially paying fishermen to strip mine the seas.”
The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) recently released a preview of a landmark, comprehensive report on the state of the world’s fisheries.
According to that report:
- 75 percent of the world’s fisheries no longer have healthy supplies of fish.
- 30 percent of fish supplies worldwide have “collapsed,” which means, essentially, that they have become critically depleted, and the rate of decline continues to increase.
- 90% of large predatory fish have disappeared since mid-20th century.
In fact, the situation is so critical that some experts contend that by the middle of this century, the commercial fishing industry will have completely collapsed for lack of supply. If you think caviar is expensive now, just wait until you try to buy a simple piece of ocean caught fish to eat then. A report by a team of biologists and marine scientists released in 2006 defined “collapse” as when the current year’s fish catch is less than or equal to “10% of the highest observed in a stock’s time series.” There is controversy about this definition and a lively debate has occurred in the scientific and fishing communities about whether fish catch accurately represents supply. But there does seem to be little doubt that, overall, the world’s fish population is in extreme danger. At present, over 60 percent of the fish stocks assessed by the UN group were found to need rebuilding. And in fact, Pavan Sukhdev of the UN team said, “If the various estimates we have received … come true, then we are in the situation where 40 years down the line we, effectively, are out of fish.”
One of the sources of this collapse is illegal fishing. What is especially insidious about the pirate fishing trade is that it is so difficult to police. The United Nations has a program called the Port State Measurement Agreement (PSMA), which requires port cities to close their harbors to fishing vessels involved in unregulated activities. But the program is spottily enforced. Illegal fishing boats easily find a harbor that will accept them if they encounter a port that will not allow them to anchor.
The UN report claims that the damage still may be curtailed if governments invest about eight billion dollars a year to re-employ fishermen in other industries, rebuild stocks of fish, establish fishing quotas and create protected marine areas. Of course taking such steps is essential to protecting biodiversity and ecological systems on the planet. To wipe out entire species in such massive sweeps seems unthinkable.
But keeping the fishing industry alive for generations to come doesn’t necessarily ensure healthy eating for the world’s populations. As you know, fish contaminated by toxins and heavy metals, particularly mercury, too often end up on the dinner table. In fact, much of the splash about disappearing fish stocks seems almost frivolous given the fact that the oceans are becoming so polluted that those fish that remain are unfit for eating. Controlling the fishing industry is only a small part of the equation. The other part involves controlling industrial pollution of the oceans by companies like BP so that whatever fish do remain are healthy.
Again, as I said two years ago: “Much of the debate on fish as food is moot. As a viable protein source for the human race, it will most likely be pushed beyond its limits within the next one to two decades. After that, it will be a “special treat” for those who can afford it…and who don’t mind becoming living thermometers in the process.” Unfortunately, that prediction seems even more inevitable now than when I first made it.