I respect my friend Sylvia Earle’s refusal to eat seafood, as well as the famed ocean scientist’s argument that no market hunting has ever been sustainable. Still, there’s nothing as delicious to me as a wild salmon I’ve caught myself, or raw oysters from cold waters with their fresh briny sea flavor, or fried calamari with beer and the Giants winning another World Series. But I’ll only eat fish, bivalves, and cephalopods that still have a fighting chance—and my menu options are rapidly shrinking.
Most fish—including 90 percent of the largest pelagic (open ocean) fish, such as sharks, big tuna, and black marlin—have disappeared from the world’s oceans since the end of World War II. Actually, they didn’t disappear. They ended up on the plates of white linen restaurants and in the supermarket seafood aisles of the developed world.
At the end of World War II, about 15 million tons of ocean fish were being caught each year. Today, we’re taking some 85 million tons—perhaps more, according to a study soon to be released.
After World War II, we started catching fish using conflict-spawned technologies like radar, sonar, and later satellite surveillance. The catches skyrocketed, reaching a peak around 1989. Since then, fish and marine wildlife populations have been crashing. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates 85 percent of the 600 commercial species it monitors are currently fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.
Having decimated many familiar species, like cod and red snapper, fishing companies began chasing less accessible fishes, including orange roughy (slimeheads) and Chilean sea bass (Antarctic toothfish), in the ocean depths and the polar seas. This military-industrial fishing has also endangered global food security for close to 1 billion people in the developing world who still depend on local “artisanal” fishing as their main source of protein.
Imagine an aircraft carrier that weighs more than 80,000 tons, with 5,000 crew members and a fouracre flight deck with jet fighters launching and landing—a deadly floating city of steel and iron. Now try to imagine the weight of 850 aircraft carriers being taken out of the world’s ocean every year as living, thrashing biomass. That’s what the world’s fishing fleets, many subsidized by their governments, are now doing, catching fish faster than they can reproduce, the very definition of overfishing.
On April 2, a 330-foot Russian Factory Trawler, the Dalny Vostok, sank in the Pacific, killing sixty-nine crewmembers from Russia, Burma, and elsewhere. It keeled over while trying to haul in an eighty-ton fishing net full of pollock. After leaving its homeport, the Russian trawler had picked up dozens of Burmese crew members in Korea (sixteen of whom would die) before heading to its fishing grounds between Alaska and the Russian far east, where dozens of giant trawlers pull in pollock, one of the world’s last abundant fisheries.
Pollock goes into most fast-food fish as well as fish sticks and surimi, a popular Japanese fish paste also used to make imitation crab. Pollock is one of the ocean species (along with clams, corals, krill, penguins, and polar bears) at particular risk from the impacts of fossil fuel-fired climate change, with its population already migrating north into colder waters.
On April 3, the day after the Russian trawler sank, more than 300 mostly Burmese slaves, forced to work on Thai fishing boats without pay and often beaten and imprisoned onboard and on an isolated Indonesian island, were freed by Indonesian authorities following an Associated Press expose. Earlier reporting had linked Korean fishing companies to human trafficking and trade in Burmese slaves (which likely explains the Russian boat captain picking up those extra crewmen in Korea). The AP report documented how illegal Thai pirate fishing boats use slave labor to feed their product into the global seafood market, including U.S. outlets.
Ironically, Burma’s Myeik archipelago, one of the richest and most diverse coral reef habitats in the world, is now being overfished by Burmese boats (many secretly owned by Thai companies) to feed the export market. Today, the lines between industrial fishing, Illegal, Unreported and Undocumented fishing, human trafficking, drug smuggling, and organized crime are becoming ever more blurred. Overfishing, and its criminal cousin, pirate fishing, are now common currency from Thailand and Korea to Russia, Fiji, Costa Rica, Italy, and Spain.
New players like the massive Chinese fishing fleet have also entered the global hunt for what could be the last stocks of edible marine wildlife. In 2000, when I first visited Fiji to look at the impact of climate induced coral bleaching, I saw a dozen longline fishing vessels from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea docked in Suva, the capital. When I returned in 2009, there were thirty vessels, including many from China.
I went diving in the warm clear waters of Fiji’s Kadavu Island, where the reefs still looked healthy with beautiful coral cathedrals and pillars standing nine stories high. But it soon became clear that these had become ghost reefs, depleted of almost all their big sharks, rays, barracuda, turtles and trevally, shellfish, sea cucumbers, and grazing herbivores like the multi-hued parrotfish that keep the reef from being overrun by algae. I quickly learned that while the longliners were depleting tuna and shark outside the reef line, organized bands of criminal poachers were nightdiving inside the reef—spearing and collecting anything that moved.
Their bigger outboard engines prevented local artisanal fishermen from catching them. And, despite the fishermen’s pleas and calls from the hotel association, the military junta in charge at the time was unwilling to crack down. Sources in Suva told me corruption played a major role in the ability of the poaching gangs to operate.
A 2006 study published in the journal Science predicted commercial extinction of fish by 2048. That will happen when fuel and other extraction costs make it no longer profitable for fishing companies to pursue the small number of fish left in the ocean.
Personally, I’m more frustrated than despairing because we know what the solutions are. When you stop killing fish, their populations tend to rebound. When you establish large marine protected areas where fishing is not allowed, they come back quicker and bigger.
We should eliminate the most destructive fishing methods like driftnetting, bottom trawling, and longlining, and focus on regulating local artisanal fisheries and markets. Roving factory trawlers should be banned from the seas. We can promote sustainable forms of aquaculture or fish farming that now account for half our seafood. We must protect oceans, coasts, and communities, both human and wild.
What’s been lacking till recently is the political will to end overfishing, but even that’s beginning to change.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the main federal fisheries law for the United States, was revamped in 2006, putting scientists in charge of stock assessments and requiring depleted fish populations be restored within five years. As a result, two-thirds of overfished populations are now recovering. But as the stocks have begun to slowly rebuild, some politicians like Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska, have begun pushing industry-sponsored “reforms” to slow down or reverse the process.
Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on overfishing, credits the U.S. and European Union with helping reverse the damage. However, he notes, “developed countries also import lots of their fish from other countries from Asia, West Africa, and Antarctica, where there is massive overfishing.” He calls on nations to mind not only their own fisheries but what they import.
In 2013, the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for National Ocean Stewardship went to Macky Sall, president of Senegal, after he rescinded the fishing permits of 26 foreign factory trawlers operating in Senegal’s waters. Within months, thousands of local fishermen were seeing their catches dramatically increased and their families and communities revitalized.
“As long as fish are seen as commodities to be taken out of countries that need them, that’s a problem,” says Pauly, who won the Benchley Excellence in Science award this year. “Senegal really needs the fish and needs the protein requirement for people who have no other protein source.”
Despite heavy pressure from the EU and “distant water” fishing fleet operators, Sall has refused to restore the trawlers permits and is now working with Greenpeace and others to develop a sustainable domestic fishery plan.
Since the 1990s, scientists have argued that at least 20 percent of the ocean ought to be put aside as biological or no-take reserves. In 2006, George W. Bush, arguably the worst environmental president in U.S. history, nonetheless established America’s first great wilderness park in the sea, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which stretches for 1,200 miles through Northwest Hawaiian waters and contains 70 percent of America’s coral reefs.
As a recreational fisherman, Bush was influenced to take action by a host of events, including a White House dinner with Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau. And First Lady Laura Bush became a strong advocate for protection, which prompted further measures from her husband, including the setting up of three additional marine monuments in the far Pacific just before he left office. (Dick Cheney, not surprisingly, objected).
This past September, President Obama expanded those three monuments by almost half-a-million square miles, creating the largest marine protected area in the world. In 2012, California protected 16 percent of its state waters as a network or reserves, essentially moving its world-class state park system into the water column. Worldwide, particularly in the Pacific, there’s been a recent competition among nations to create new marine protected areas, resulting in a tripling of their total size over the last five years. Still, these protected areas constitute only 3 percent of the global ocean; 12 percent of the world’s land is protected.
Meanwhile, high-tech satellite surveillance along with treaties and legislation are targeting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. “Till now, technology was used for fishing but now it can be turned around and acquisition of satellite data is cheap and accessible and that’s a whole new ballgame,” Pauly says. Today, with the help of these tools, “illegal fishing can be licked.”
On May 13, the largest citizen lobby for ocean conservation in U.S. history converged on Capitol Hill. Delegations from twenty-four states held 163 meetings with elected officials, including nine Senators and more than twenty-five House members, to oppose offshore drilling and promote a broadly bipartisan bill that targets illegal fishing. Secretary of State John Kerry, another 2015 Benchley winner, has been a strong advocate for cracking down on pirate fishing and encouraging the global expansion of protected marine reserves.
Responsible fishing groups also back the cause. The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team, a Oregon-based nonprofit group, has worked since 2001 to clean up and restore their forested watershed, educate kids, establish a marine lab in their small town of 1,200, and market sustainable boat-to-table seafood. Executive Director Leesa Cobb says it’s all about the triple bottom line: “environment, economy and equity.”
The Thimble Island Oyster Company on Long Island Sound, a model of integrated aquaculture, grows oysters, seaweed, and other sea vegetables in a way that improves water quality. Owner Bren Smith, a commercial fisherman, provides his farm-design plans free of charge to other ocean farmers, who have replicated his model in more than a dozen sites up and down the east coast. Smith sees aquaculture becoming a major player in a more sustainable future of food.
Of course, even if we can create the political will and power to replace industrial overfishing with sustainably managed artisanal fishing and aquaculture, we could still see the collapse of marine wildlife due to other factors, such as climate-linked ocean acidification.
But a unified citizen response, including a growing coalition of diverse marine, coastal, and inland interests, might yet provide a way to restore our salty world. We must make sure there is always something tasty and wild to share among humans, seabirds, sharks, and whales.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier (www.bluefront.org), an ocean conservation and policy group. His latest book is Saved by the Sea: Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World.