PLENTY more fish in the sea? It just isn't so. The world's fishing fleets are engaged in what looks increasingly like the final round-up of the planet's last great stocks of wild creatures. And the picture emerging this week looks even bleaker. According to an analysis that focuses on how the oceans looked before the great fishing fleets put to sea, most fishing grounds lost up to 90 per cent of their stock in the first 15 years of exploitation, with the largest, predatory fish disappearing first (see "Old men of the sea have all but gone").
Those giant tuna photographed in the fish markets of East Asia with price tags that would buy a Porsche are minnows compared with their forebears. The fisherman's boast about "the one that got away" is a myth in a world with a million "industrial" fishing boats. Sadly, all the big fish have long since been caught.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization argues that nine of the world's 17 largest fisheries are being over-harvested. We should be so lucky: the latest assessment suggests all are severely depleted. Cod stocks in the north Atlantic are at half their former levels, says the FAO. The new estimate is 1/20th.
The world has failed lamentably to protect its fish stocks. As with many other commonly owned natural resources, we seem to have lost the ability to control those who want more than their fair share. Government subsidies mean that fish stocks continue to be exploited way beyond the point where they are commercially viable. And if local stocks run out, there are always distant waters to trawl...
Such behaviour is patently unsustainable and its end result inevitable. The remedy is clear: fishing needs to be cut to levels that will allow stocks to recover. Easy to say, but politically very tough to do. Just ask Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, who banned cod fishing off the coast of Newfoundland, effectively closing down the province's fishing industry. He is now in full-blown dispute with the provincial government.
These decisions would be that much easier if fisheries biologists could say exactly what a sustainable catch is. But this has proved to be an incredibly difficult task, and our knowledge is not yet up to it. This week's findings imply that, at best, fisheries managers have been trying to stabilise stocks at 1/10th their pristine size. The dramatic collapse of rockfish stocks in the Pacific and cod fisheries off Newfoundland are vivid reminders that we still do not understand ocean ecosystems. We urgently need to completely rethink how to model stocks in a robust way so that accurate predictions of the impact of fishing can be made. If that means governments spending more on research, now is the time to start.
Other methods might help too. Consumer pressure can be a formidable force. Six years ago, the wildlife group WWF and Europe's largest fish trader, Unilever, launched the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to allow approved traders to label their products as having been sustainably caught. A good idea. Even if only 0.7 per cent of the world's fisheries have been granted the accolade, it is at least a start.
Now this scheme is under question. This week, environmental groups attacked the MSC for not policing its eco-label properly. Certificates, it turns out, are given to fisheries that have yet to meet certain basic standards (see "Can ocean friendly labels save dwindling stocks?"). It turns out no application for certification has ever been turned down or revoked, so it is far from clear what might happen if the standards are not met. The council must raise its game if the pursuit of sustainability in the fishing business is not to become a complete sham.
There is one other, potentially more effective way of safeguarding fish stocks. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has been signed by almost all the world's nations and carries real clout. Until recently, CITES has held off "listing" fish of commercial value, but last year it added two shark species to appendix II, forcing governments to limit catches in international waters and control exports.
Cuddly pandas tend to be regarded by the public and governments as more worthy of protection than slimy North Atlantic cod and the supremely ugly Patagonian toothfish. Yet all are threatened with extinction. This month, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada added two populations of Atlantic cod to its lists. If we are serious about saving these creatures, it is time for CITES to follow suit.
Marine Stewardship Council under fire - Old men of the sea have all but gone - 17th May 2003
Marine Stewardship Council under fire - Can ocean friendly labels save dwindling stocks? -17th May 2003