The world’s ocean fish stocks are “on the verge of collapse,” according to a special report from IRIN. Already small fishers in poor countries are reeling, turning to ever-more destructive techniques and suffering from poor health and dwindling livelihoods.
An estimated 70 percent of fish populations are fully used, overused, or in crisis as a result of overfishing and warmer waters.
Citing data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Jared Ferrie reports that the oceans have absorbed more than 93 percent of the heat generated by human activity since the 1970s, primarily through its large surface area, volume, and low albedo. Last year, the ocean was its warmest in 136 years of records.
The increase in ocean temperatures has led to new toxic organisms and algae blooms that poison fish and can even make humans sick if consumed. Many species are moving out of their natural habitats towards the poles in search of cooler waters.
Furthermore, the full extent of human fishing activities may have been greatly underestimated for decades. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have collected data that is often omitted from reports by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization – from artisanal and subsistence fisheries, on discarded bycatch and illegal fishing – and produced “reconstructed” versions. They find that global catches between 1950 and 2010 may have been up to 50 percent higher than data reported to the FAO indicated.
“The main trend of the world marine fisheries catches is not one of ‘stability’ as cautiously suggested early by FAO,” they write, “but one of decline.”
An estimated 70 percent of fish populations are fully used, overused, or in crisis as a result of overfishing and warmer waters. If the world continues at its current rate of fishing, there will be no fish left by 2050, according to a study cited in a short video produced by IRIN for the special report.
Industrial, long-distance fishing fleets, mostly from developed countries, are largely responsible for the destruction of the marine food chain.
Industrial, long-distance fishing fleets, mostly from developed countries, are largely responsible for the destruction of the marine food chain. China has been the largest producer of fish since 1990 and often engages in illegal fishing in other countries’ exclusive economic zones. A recent study in Marine Policy details how China’s fleet has grown thanks to government-issued fuel subsidies that encourage long hauls. The study found 95 percent of these subsidies are “harmful to sustainability.”
A Dying Way of Life?
Not only are overfishing and climate change wrecking ecologies, they are also having a profound impact on communities that rely on fish for protein and micronutrients. Two short vignettes accompanying the IRIN report give a glimpse into the personal effects on fishermen from South Africa and Indonesia.
Desmond Makka, a small-scale fisherman from outside Cape Town, grew up on the water but now struggles to catch enough to get by. He tells Simon Taylor that the big boats take all the sardines through trawling, a method that involves the attachment of a large net to the back of a boat to catch everything in its path. Trawling undercuts the main source of food for larger fish, which drives them to other areas. “In two years’ time, I don’t think there will be any fish left,” he says.
Big boats take all the sardines through trawling, a method that involves the attachment of a large net to the back of a boat to catch everything in its path.
Some fishers are taking risks to try to preserve their way of life. Lino, from the Indonesian island of Kaledupa, lost his left arm and use of one eye after an accident with a makeshift bomb made of plastic soda bottles. He was blast fishing, a technique that uses explosives to kill large schools of fish for easy collection. Blast fishing can lead to catches 10 times the size of a normal haul, but is incredibly destructive to the environment, indiscriminate in the species killed, and very dangerous.
“It was difficult to make a living from my earnings which were around $1.50 per day. Besides, I have a child and a wife, what food do I give them?” he tells IRIN’s Florian Kunert.
By 2050, 11 percent of the world could face malnutrition, according to IRIN. The special report emphasizes the necessity for of a change in perspective. If fish stocks are to recover, the world has to stop looking at the global fishing industry solely through an economic lens, and also recognize the environmental and health context surrounding it and the implications for long-term sustainability of today’s fishing practices.
Dick Zeller, executive director of the Sea Around Us research institute at the University of British Columbia, told IRIN that he is cautiously optimistic about changes in multilateral organizations and governments that help set the narrative on ocean governance. “More organizations – within the UN system, within governments – are becoming aware that fisheries [are] not purely an economic activity,” he said. “It is an environmental issue, and increasingly they will also know that it’s a health issue.”