There are a lot of fish in the sea. But their numbers are no match for growing human appetites and the ultra-efficient fisheries that have sprung up to feed our hunger. A shift towards “blue job” fisheries is urgently needed, experts say, if the oceans are to nourish future generations as they have in the past.
(Discussions are ongoing at Rio+20 on making international oceans policy more sustainable.)
About three billion people count on fish and other marine species as their primary source of protein, and about 8 percent of the world’s population are fishermen. Until recently, many people believed that the ocean held so much marine life that even such huge numbers of humans could not deplete its bounty.
But since the mid 20th century industrial fishing operations have used ever-improving technology to fish farther, faster, and longer—rapidly emptying waters of seafood to satisfy the swelling hunger of Earth’s growing population. Many fisheries have shown steep declines for decades and some studies estimate that populations of large ocean fish are just 10 percent of their pre-industrial levels.
Sustainability is the key concept for successful management of both fish stocks and fisheries jobs themselves, said Rashid Sumalia, director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia. “Sustainable jobs, to me, are based on taking what the resource can withstand year in and year out. That’s crucial because right now at the moment we are killing future jobs for current ones. That’s not sustainable. That’s not green jobs. You want the jobs you create today not to prevent future generations from having these jobs but we’re front loading jobs because it’s politically more convenient.”
Blue jobs fishermen use science-based stock management programs and only harvest sustainable levels of fish.
“Based on stock assessments we can estimate how much fish can be taken out safely, that’s the total allowable catch,” Sumaila said. “To me a green fishery is one that takes only the additional growth from a resource, so that we don’t eat up all the capital or the biomass base.”
Blue fishermen also use environmentally friendly methods and gear rather than less enlightened techniques that not only harvest too many fish but destroy the habitat they need to survive and reproduce. Using long lines to hook-catch fish, for example, is a blue alternative to bottom-trawling with enormous drag nets.
“The nets just plow up the bottom of the entire ocean, which is crazy,” said Sumaila. “It destroys the homes of the fish, the places where they can grow and live. Long lines are more selective and they are also good in the market—because those fish are caught nicely they fetch higher prices.”
Fisheries managers can employ tools like marine reserves and protected areas and strict catch limits to achieve sustainability while providing blue jobs for generations to come. But they can only succeed if they can overcome pressures that continue to support unsustainable practices—like simply allowing too much fishing.
“Politics come into it, economics come into it. And most of the time we overdo it and that’s why we have this fishing problem,” Sumaila said.
Compounding this quandary is the international nature of the resource, which leads national fisheries to compete for their own interests—sometimes to the detriment of all. “The ocean is essentially one big global ocean,” Sumaila said. “What you do on one side effects the other. The interests of nations do come into play but it’s necessary to deal with this as a global problem.”
Global factors are also growing the problem. Earth’s surging population is putting increased strain on marine resources. And it’s not just a matter of more mouths to feed, Sumaila said, but also a matter of changing tastes and the increasing ability to finance them. “In many parts of the world, Asia is a big one, incomes are rising so people have the money to buy more fish,” Sumaila said. “So it’s an increase in the total number of people but also an increase in consumption per capita of fish. And there just aren’t enough fish in the sea.”
Aquaculture, also known as fish farming, can help to fill the gap. In fact today half of the world’s fish supply isn’t caught by anyone—it’s farmed. As wild stocks decline and demand grows the role of aquaculture is sure to surge in the future, but it can’t save us, Sumaila cautioned, because the practice has sustainability issues of its own. Blue fish farmers are needed.
Fish farms often pollute coastal waters and lakes with waste, sometimes creating ecological havoc, causing dead zones or unleashing disease on native populations. And many fish are raised on fish meal, which means someone has to catch and grind up countless wild fish, resulting in a zero sum or perhaps a net loss for the ocean resources consumed to produce “sustainable” farmed fish. Better, bluer methods are needed and some are already being developed. A few species, tilapia for example, can be raised primarily on renewable vegetarian feed.
But no matter how blue we can make fish farms, Sumaila cautioned, they can’t take the place of our oceans.
“One thing I worry about with aquaculture is this feeling you get sometimes when you kind of read between the lines that we can let wild fish go because there is aquaculture,” he said. “That scares me a lot, especially for poor and developing countries (where people depend on catching their own food). Whatever we do with aquaculture it should be complimentary to wild fisheries.”
What can be done? Sumaila said consumers can make a big difference by choosing sustainably caught fish, identified by resources like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, and even by choosing to eat fish less often.
“Personally, I’ve been limiting how much fish I eat,” he said. “I gave a talk at an AAAS meeting entitled “Whose Fish Are You Eating—Yours or Your Grandchildren’s? And I often quote Adam Smith in these lectures, from his own 1766 Lecture on Jurisprudence. ‘The Earth and the fullness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity.’”
“I think when it comes to our fish we have to weigh that and ultimately begin to think that way.”
Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.