Plundering the oceans

Overfishing continues at a shocking rate, as countries break one environmental promise after another

Published July 1, 2009 10:31AM (EDT)

When it comes to stopping overfishing in coastal ocean waters, there's a whale of a gap between what nations pledge to do and what happens at sea. That's the grim conclusion of a new study published in PLoS Biology, the first global assessment of human management of fisheries -- designated areas where fish and aquatic animals are caught -- whose coauthors include renowned marine biologists such as the late Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

It's well documented that many of the world's major fisheries are in shocking decline. Some 90 percent of the world's big fish, such as bluefin tuna, blue marlin and Antarctic cod, have almost disappeared from the oceans since the advent of industrial fishing in the 1950s, according to a groundbreaking paper published in Nature in 2003 by Myers and Worm. And by 2048 the world's supply of seafood will likely simply run out, Worm and other marine biologists warned in the pages of Science in 2006. As of 2008, 80 percent of the world's fish stocks were considered either vulnerable to collapse or already collapsed.

This sorry state of affairs has inspired numerous international efforts, such as the United Nations Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the Convention on Biological Diversity, in hopes of making more of the world's fisheries sustainable. These initiatives have gained broad acceptance on the world stage, with many countries pledging to adhere to their principles. But where the trawler meets the sea, it's a different story. "Unfortunately, our study shows that there is a marked difference between the endorsement of such initiatives and the actual implementation of corrective measures," observe the authors of the report "Management Effectiveness of the World's Marine Fisheries."

Researchers spent a year approaching almost 14,000 fishery experts, including marine biologists, fishery managers and university professors around the globe, asking them to take an online survey in either English, French, Spanish, German or Portuguese about local fishing practices and policies. Almost 1,200 completed the survey from 243 countries and territories, including representatives from every country that borders the ocean. The survey asked the experts about their respective nations' scientific data about fish populations and ecosystems, and how they translated those scientific findings into regulations and enforcement.

The dismal results: Only 7 percent of coastal states did rigorous scientific assessments to generate fishing policies; a pitiful 1.4 percent have a participatory and transparent process for turning that science into policy; and fewer than 1 percent had strong mechanisms to insure enforcement with fishing policies.

"Perhaps the most striking result of our survey was that not a single country in the world was consistently good with respect to all these management attributes," says Camilo Mora, 34, a research biologist at Dalhousie University, who was one of the coauthors of the study. "So which countries are doing well, and which are not, is a question whose answer depends on the specific attribute you are looking at."

Not surprisingly, rich countries had the best scientific assessment of how fish in their waters were doing, and poor countries had the weakest. But both wealthy and developing countries performed badly when it came to converting that science into policies to limit fishing, if for different reasons. "In poor countries, there was a lot of corruption going on," explains Mora. "In rich countries, there were more political and economic pressures on the policymaking. The end result of that is that in both cases, science is not converted into proper regulation." Rich countries did a better job than poor countries enforcing those regulations; in some poor countries, there was no enforcement at all.

But there's a catch. While rich countries may do a better job policing fishing in their own coastal waters, they are globalizing overfishing by sending their industrial fishing fleets to hoover up the catch near poor countries. Thirty-three percent of the poorest countries in the world sell the right to fish in their waters to some of the richest countries in the world, including those in the European Union, the United States, Taiwan, China, Japan and South Korea.

Seafood makes up at least 15 percent of all animal protein consumed by humans, either directly, or indirectly as feed for the aquaculture and livestock industries. Demand for it is expected to rise as the human population increases. Fisheries employ 200 million people around the world, generating $85 billion annually. But overfishing won't just change what's on the end of homo sapiens' forks, and who makes money to put it there.

"The consequences of overexploiting the world's fisheries are a concern not only for food security and socioeconomic development but for ocean ecosystems," says Worm, who was one of the coauthors of the paper, in a statement. "We now recognize that overfishing can also lead to the erosion of biodiversity and ecosystem productivity."

While Mora calls on governments to become more transparent about how fishing regulations are created to help prevent outside pressures from influencing those regulations, he also says that there's a lot that individuals can do. "The general public needs to become more aware of the consequences of the things that we consume," he says. "I can't see any excuse for a person to eat a bluefin tuna or a shark. These species are going extinct, and the reason for that is because of the demand for them."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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