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Fished Out
March 23, 2014 10:40 AM   Subscribe

The world's fish are in danger—as is everyone who depends on them (via)

New management is needed for the planet's most important common resource
Arctic ice now melts away in summer. Dead zones are spreading. Two-thirds of the fish stocks in the high seas are over-exploited, even more than in the parts of the oceans under national control. And strange things are happening at a microbiological level. The oceans produce half the planet's supply of oxygen, mostly thanks to chlorophyll in aquatic algae. Concentrations of that chlorophyll are falling. That does not mean life will suffocate. But it could further damage the climate, since less oxygen means more carbon dioxide.

For tragedies of the commons to be averted, rules and institutions are needed to balance the short-term interests of individuals against the long-term interests of all users. That is why the dysfunctional policies and institutions governing the high seas need radical reform.
A constitution for the oceans, the common heritage of mankind
According to Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2009, to avoid a tragedy of the commons requires giving everyone entitled to use them a say in running them; setting clear boundaries to keep out those who are not entitled; appointing monitors who are trusted by users; and having straightforward mechanisms to resolve conflicts. At the moment, the governance of the high seas meets none of those criteria.

Changes to high-seas management would still do nothing for two of the worst problems, both caused on land: acidification and pollution. But they are the best and perhaps only hope of improving the condition of half of the Earth's surface.
posted by kliuless (52 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Depressing, but I don't see anyone actually able to solve the problem. The governments won't do what's necessary to allow the remaining fish stocks to recover for very strong political reasons. I can only see it stopping when stocks absolutely collapse - a very very nasty bubble.
posted by YAMWAK at 10:53 AM on March 23 [3 favorites]


The scarcer the fish, the bigger the trophy.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:54 AM on March 23 [2 favorites]


Well, that was the most depressing 1:07 I've spent today.
posted by kozad at 11:58 AM on March 23 [3 favorites]


I can only see it stopping when stocks absolutely collapse - a very very nasty bubble.
posted by YAMWAK at 1:53 PM on March 23


I personally think this is the collapse of fish stocks. They're already at that point. What we're witnessing is the science catching up with the reality.
posted by glaucon at 12:00 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


I personally think this is the collapse of fish stocks. They're already at that point. What we're witnessing is the science catching up with the reality.
posted by glaucon at 12:00 PM on March 23


At that point? Sure, the system has started to collapse, but it hasn't fallen yet. We have a little way further to fall. What do you see stopping that collapse? Science won't do it. Political willpower won't do it - there isn't any on this topic.

As stocks dwindle, prices go up (money, time:calorie ratio, danger:calorie ratio, ethical cost:calorie ratio) and it's still worth squeezing that many more fish from the sea. And worth bypassing any government regulations on supply. Even if some western governments were to move on the issue (big if), it would only be the ones least dependant on the resources.

Hate to say it, but judging from that graph, we've got another twenty to thirty years. Then you've got a LOT of fishermen/women and dependant industries with no job and a massive hammer-blow to the economy. Won't be pretty when that happens.
posted by YAMWAK at 12:09 PM on March 23


Fuck the children and grandchildren, I guess, but why must everyone conspire to ruin my old age as well?
posted by Behemoth at 12:34 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


We might need early collapses that rich people actually feel before things get worse.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:40 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


Short of sinking fishing vessels (my preferred method) and maybe starting WWIII (though there is that), there is no solution but to wait for stocks to plunge so low that all the fishing companies give up and go out of business and people give up on fish or start getting all their fish from fish farms or factory-made fish-flesh sludge. Then some species that haven't been zeroed out might slowly recover, but a lot of species will never come back and the entire ecosystem will change. Whale watchers will be able to tell their grandchildren what real whales used to look like. Hemingway wannabes will brag about fish that had sword noses and big scary fish that were all teeth and never slept.

You could do your part by not eating any sea food other than farmed fish, but I guess most people figure it wouldn't make any difference so they might as well get theirs.
posted by pracowity at 12:43 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


Then you've got a LOT of fishermen/women and dependant industries with no job and a massive hammer-blow to the economy. Won't be pretty when that happens.

Aint't this the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy? The total lack of private ownership means no one cares in the long term and everyone grabs as much as they can from "the commons" until there is nothing left to grab. I guess a world dictator could solve the problem, but that sort of introduces problems of it's own.
posted by three blind mice at 12:47 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


We overfish bad tasting fish just to feed the carnivorous fish humans like in the fish farms, pracowity. I've heard shrimp aquaculture can be done sustainably so maybe the rich could eat fish fed by farming such creatures or fed with fake meat. Any chance a sufficiently powerful fish farm conglomerate could get fishing outlawed in the U.S. and Europe to give themeless a regional monopoly and save the north atlantic while the pacific collapses?
posted by jeffburdges at 1:08 PM on March 23


a world dictator could solve the problem, but that sort of introduces problems of it's own.

I've said for over a decade now that our species needs top-down planning and this issue is exactly the one that got me thinking on that. We need a highly educated, just left-of-center dictator with a plan for succession over a thousand-plus year period to get things right.

We shouldn't like that we need this, but it is definitely now a need.
posted by Fuka at 1:10 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


The scarcer the fish, the bigger the trophy.

Trophy fish are getting physically smaller. We've caught the big ones, and we catch the smaller ones before they have a chance to grow big.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:21 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


Cod fishing was banned on the Grand Banks in 1992. It absolutely devastated the economy of Newfoundland, a place extremely reliant on the fishery for its economic well-being. It threw tens of thousands of people out of work more or less overnight. The population shrunk by more than 10% in a decade, throwing into question the survival of the island's unique culture.

More than twenty years later, the cod stocks on the Grand Banks, once the richest in the world, have made only an anemic recovery. So there exists the possibility that ecosystems have been permanently altered.

I grew up in the midst of this, in a small town on the south coast, and it did feel apocalyptic. It still does, really - oil was discovered offshore and has caused an economic boom in recent years, but this is concentrated in the capital city and a few lucky towns. Most of the rest of the island is still falling apart because of the ecological and economic disaster that was the collapse of the cod stocks. My hometown, for example, is only half the size it was when I was a small child, and the population of school children today is less than 1/3 what it was when I was in school. It's a tragedy, it really is.
posted by erlking at 1:21 PM on March 23 [16 favorites]


There are maps showing the tonnage hauls and their locations, dating back decades upon decades. The hauls now are miniscule compared to the good old days. The stocks have cratered: beyond decimated, truly annihilated. It's game over. There is no recovering from what has been done.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:29 PM on March 23 [6 favorites]


More than twenty years later, the cod stocks on the Grand Banks, once the richest in the world, have made only an anemic recovery. So there exists the possibility that ecosystems have been permanently altered.

There also exists the possibility that uncontrolled fishing by international fleets has continued unabated while Canada and the US have imposed quotas and bans on their fleets. As pointed out above, there is no Law of the Sea agreement that could control this. I don't mean to snark; I'm just pointing out that the anemic recovery, IMO, should be placed squarely at the feet of the powers that be.
posted by sneebler at 1:44 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


The Economist also pointed out that stopping the $34 billion subsidies we pay to encourage more fishing would help.
posted by alasdair at 2:10 PM on March 23 [10 favorites]


Is there a plan for once your left-wing world dictator becomes throughly corrupt, rejects necessary reforms, endangers everyone by keeping old corruptly run nukes operation, etc.? We fairly strong policy tools to apply pressure to other nations, like banking restrictions, tariffs, sanctions, targeted killings, etc., but all the corruption obstructs applying them to environmental causes. Just even creating stronger tool will ultimately grant the corrupt even more power.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:23 PM on March 23


I love how 'just left of center' became 'left-wing.'

There's a simple solution to government corruption that we have abandoned...
posted by Fuka at 2:25 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


And still, over in Gloucester, they'll tell you how it's all bullshit, how there are plenty of fish, and how it's all the fault of those lying scientists and government bureaucrats who only want to destroy the fishermen.
posted by briank at 2:36 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


What y'alls 're flapping yer gums 'bout 're good ol' philosopher kings.

So we've fished out the mid and apex predators of the ocean. Are plankton overgrowing? Mmm, krill paste and jellyfish sandwiches for all!
posted by porpoise at 2:58 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


You could do your part by not eating any sea food other than farmed fish

Even farmed fish often hurt wild fish stocks, the environment, and our health. I'm personally no longer buying ocean fish or shellfish, even though I know fish oils and lean meats could benefit my health, because it's not worth it if I live longer and the oceans die sooner. Chicken and eggs are pretty much my primary proteins at this point.
posted by limeonaire at 3:07 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


Agreed that corruption responds to deterrents, but dictatorships are not known for deterring corruption, usually the insiders stay insiders no matter what.

Now China does execute white collar criminals, but China is not even remotely a dictatorship. In particular, power changes hands in China almost as frequently as in western democracies. Also, China could institute a demarchy based body to check the central committee's power while retaining all their system's advantages.

Could China's elite become corrupt? Absolutely, but currently they're caught up competing with the west. And rest assured they'd abandon sense if you take away that external check.

Any world government would become a disaster extremely quickly. Any idea when the WTO started causing problems? It's predecessor GATT was only formed in 1948.

Also, you require vastly fewer militant environmentalists for unilateral action than for world conquest. Just elect strongly pro-environment governments in several nations with ICBMs, negotiate an temporary anti-fishing treaty, and start harassing fishing boats of non-signatories.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:09 PM on March 23


God will provide lol
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:27 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


There is an essential difference between what we do on land and what we do at sea in terms of food production. On land, for most practical purposes and in most places, we stopped hunting/gathering during the last 200 years or so, and virtually all land-sourced food is the product of farming. On the sea, we are still hunting/gathering, and there is no equivalent of farming in sight. We've terraformed most of the habitable land to our liking, but we're not going to be able to do that with the oceans.
posted by beagle at 3:40 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


Could China's elite become corrupt?

LOL. China's elite is as corrupt as they come, and the corruption runs from the top right down to the bottom. In no way has their competition with the West staunched this corruption either. I'd go into more detail but Wikipedia has done a better job.
posted by claudius at 3:47 PM on March 23 [4 favorites]


We've terraformed most of the habitable land to our liking, but we're not going to be able to do that with the oceans.

Why is that?
posted by lenny70 at 4:05 PM on March 23


we stopped hunting/gathering during the last 200 years or so

Isn't that more like, in the last 10,000 years or so?
posted by thelonius at 4:11 PM on March 23


[limeonaire]: Even farmed fish often hurt wild fish stocks, the environment, and our health. Amen, limeonaire - particularly disturbing to the Pacific Coast, British Columbia policies on ocean fish farming are creating breeding grounds for sea lice, which cling to and kill young fry. Inland farms can be done sustainably, but ocean farming has an awful impact. Many of the fish farms apparently make much of their money when their stock dies from disease.
posted by dylanjames at 4:33 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


Why is that?

Because the rise of private property as a Right, and the enclosure of the commons. Fencing the oceans to create property doesn't really work, especially outside of the 200 mile limit.

The oceans are the last great commons, if you like, and any regulation of behaviour in that commons would be against the interests of those who seek to profit by extracting the fish, at least until they're all gone. So the nations whose common interest is to preserve the ecological functioning of the oceans for "all" are equally resistant to the notion of regulation because it might interfere with their commercial activities.
posted by sneebler at 4:52 PM on March 23


Isn't that more like, in the last 10,000 years or so?

Not really. As late as the 1700s it was common in England to be able to purchase venison and other wild meats at London markets. On the continent and the Americas, even more so.
posted by beagle at 4:55 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


We are too many and we're not sufficiently evolved yet as a species or a society to be able to manage our resources responsibly. Perhaps the only hope for our beleaguered little planet and the fellow creatures we share it with is something like a nice plague to reduce our population by at least half.
posted by islander at 5:01 PM on March 23


Agreed claudius, obviously they execute the odd man out while protect any more connected people they can, but some deterrent exists, which I presume Fuka referred to. America just legitimizes the corruption so that nobody important gets punished.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:10 PM on March 23


Did someone miss the memo? Shit is over. Go have a beer.
posted by Token Meme at 5:24 PM on March 23


New Report Reveals U.S. Fisheries Killing Thousands of Protected and Endangered Species
posted by homunculus at 6:14 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


In the future, poor people will survive by eating insects. As long as we manage not to kill all of them, things will be fine. Pity about the fish though.
posted by mrhappy at 8:48 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I agree that overfishing is a big problem. I did notice earlier this month a report from an Australian university that the fish stocks of the ocean were much healthier than we thought, because 95% of the biomass is deep water:

http://www.fis.com/fis/worldnews/search_brief.asp?l=e&id=66944&ndb=1

I have just been looking for reports on this to link here, and for some reason it seems to have been better reported in India, for example Times of India:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Deep-sea-species-make-95-of-worlds-fish/articleshow/31417899.cms

So long as we don't find a way to harvest these deep fish on a big scale the oceans may remain healthier than we deserve.
posted by communicator at 12:13 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I have just been looking for reports on this to link here, and for some reason it seems to have been better reported in India, for example Times of India

Maybe the research is weak or unconfirmed. Your links point to one recent ocean survey and estimates based on that survey.

But even if it's correct, species are not evenly distributed from top to bottom. Ocean life that does not live in deep water -- most of the fish that we know -- will vanish and the balance of ocean life will change a lot. And then someone will figure out how to scrape every species from top to bottom anyway. You'll end up eating strange bottom-feeding species given new names and PR; "deepwater tuna" and "dark shark" will be something that isn't even remotely related to the extinct tuna and shark people vaguely remember.
posted by pracowity at 1:03 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by author Paul Greenberg looks at , well, four fish (salmon, tuna, branzino, and cod) and how they have been affected by overfishing and the response of fish farming to meet the challenge. Those silvery brazino sea bass you order at the Italian restaurant? They almost went extinct, but an incredible story of aquacultural sleuthing and pure luck brought them to your table in that fancy new restaurant. Taking wild fish is becoming less and less profitable. Pacific Salmon fishing provides wild fish on an entirely industrial level. Today, every piece of Atlantic salmon you’ll find at your local supermarket or fishmonger, smoked into lox, wrapped around mock crabmeat, or lying flat and orange against crushed ice, is farmed.

Greenberg takes a refreshingly balanced approach to the aquaculture-versus-wild-caught debate, making it clear that there are good and bad ways to do both. The wild species we choose for farming, he says, should be efficient feeders, not reliant on massive quantities of fish meal and fish oil produced from fully exploited wild stocks of anchovies and herring. They should be adaptable, and their presence should not spread disease to wild stocks. For wild fish, he suggests drastically reducing fishing and creating no-catch sanctuaries in important areas of the ocean ecosystem.
posted by zaelic at 1:39 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


You know, humans suck. Even when compared to geese, humans suck.
posted by angrycat at 3:04 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


We ought to devote a few billion dollars to developing synthetic fish and meat products. People already happily eat reconstituted beef and fish in various fast food products. I'm sure we can eventually take out the middleman (middlecow, middlefish) and make entirely synthetic products that people would like. Grow muscle, grow fat, brow bone, grow gristle, grow anything people expect in their meals. Mix it together in the right quantities and dish it out. Do it cheaply enough and there won't be any demand for killing and eating actual animals.

And then wean people off the synthetic flesh and on to vegetable meat and fish replacements...
posted by pracowity at 3:05 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I did notice earlier this month a report from an Australian university that the fish stocks of the ocean were much healthier than we thought, because 95% of the biomass is deep water

It seems a little misleading, at least in the way it is presented. I think we have known for a long time that there is a lot of biomass in the deep scattering layer and that there are many fish and other organisms that travel up and down the water column daily. Although it is nice that there are some fish that we aren't driving to severe decline at the moment, they also don't replace the fish that we are overfishing. It's not like they are going to take over the ecological role of the fish species we are decimating, and these little fish also aren't going to be a good replacement for the fish we like to eat.
posted by snofoam at 4:21 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Part of why the Cod in Newfoundland fisheries have not recovered well is because of how the fish have evolved in response to fishing. Cod now mature at younger ages and smaller sizes, which makes them less fecund. That kind of life history evolution is predicted to happen to most fish species that are over fished, since we tend to want to eat the bigger, older fish. Source: I have a student writing her term paper about this, which is btw a great way to have someone else summarize literature you don't have time to read.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:28 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


> It's a tragedy, it really is.

The idea that failure to prop up unsustainable industries is a "tragedy" has caused the world an awful lot of problems.
posted by kjs3 at 6:22 AM on March 24


You're reading an awful lot into my statement, there.

I meant it's a tragedy that a renewable resource wasn't managed in such a way that it could be sustained more or less indefinitely. Fishing is only "unsustainable" because of the compounded effects of decades of human failure. Bad management of a renewable resource more or less dealt a deathblow to my culture. The tragedy isn't that the fishery wasn't "propped up" after it became unsustainable. The tragedy is that, starting in the 1950s, industrial fishing techniques were allowed to run rampant over fishing grounds, and as a result entire communities are dying. Have died.
posted by erlking at 6:40 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


You know, humans suck. Even when compared to geese, humans suck.

Let's not overstate things, now. All things considered, geese are _much_ more likely to shit on my personal belongings than humans, except when I go to see certain bands perform live.
posted by delfin at 7:51 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Not all aquaculture is high-tech and evil. Tilapia and shrimp polyculture by small-scale farmers is a thing in Southeast Asia, and they feed regular not-rich people in their community. The problems they run into locally are 1. Typhoons! 2. Harvesting and selling all at the same time, driving prices down (everyone else in town is happy, but you know, not their family).

Aquaculture's been growing but global consumption of fish oil and fish meal has remained the same for the past 7+ years. They're expensive raw materials, so the industry's been forced to use less of it. I'm all down for farmed seafood as long as it is monitored, regulated, and traceable. I just can't imagine Southeast Asian cuisine without seafood. That would be the saddest thing ever. We all need to get our shrimp paste from someplace.
posted by Hawk V at 7:54 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


If anyone wants to parse out the whole fish meal/fish oil thing, you can look at this FAO report here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i2727e/i2727e.pdf Page 174 and 176 of the booklet.
posted by Hawk V at 8:06 AM on March 24


Does every mefi single thread have to turn in to a geese hatefest???
posted by Theta States at 8:38 AM on March 24


So long as we don't find a way to harvest these deep fish on a big scale the oceans may remain healthier than we deserve.

Shhhhhhhhhhhhh. These aren't the deep-water fish you're looking for.
posted by limeonaire at 9:53 AM on March 24


YAMWAK: " I can only see it stopping when stocks absolutely collapse - a very very nasty bubble."

Mother Earth is not in danger. She is in a state of change - as she always is.

The various groups that make up Pisces - lampreys, sharks, rays, bony fish, and icky things that swim in the dark, deep, unseen waters (official sciencey name) - will likely all survive.

Fish genera and species that WE as a species care about - groupers, tuna, salmon, large sharks - are headed for trouble. But they will be replaced in the ecosystem by other, more successfully-adapted species.

In the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, large animals that required giant, lush forests to sustain them were removed by Earth-altering climate change. Itty-bitty mammals, tiny flighted dinosaurian descendents, and the teeniest of insects survived - as did the fish, though not the aquatic tetrapods (huge, and therefore vulnerable).

In the hominid-caused Global Warming Extinction that we are currently living in, wild food animals - which are mostly fish - are threatened.

When they drop precipitously beyond a certain point, so will the hominids.

But Fish will survive.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:09 PM on March 24


Mother Earth is not in danger. She is in a state of change - as she always is.

What a trite and useless statement.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:25 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


We ought to devote a few billion dollars to developing synthetic fish and meat products.

See, this doesn't make sense to me. Wouldn't it be more effective to devote a few billion dollars to learn to "manage" natural systems in a way that people can sustainably harvest some groups of animals? And avoids destroying vast swaths of land and ocean for short-term profit.

That includes research on how to build a mature, comprehensive framework of Law of the Sea regulations to lay out the boundaries of what's acceptable behaviour.

Because right now this is a political problem. If countries like the US (and lots of others) weren't so concerned about somebody else getting the upper hand in these negotiations and stonewalling (because that always works) any agreement, while commercial bandits are free to pillage and ruin. Meanwhile, Conservative think-tanks devote millions (maybe billions) of dollars to promote free-market solutions because that's always the best way to manage anything.
posted by sneebler at 9:48 AM on March 25


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