Feature

Emptying the oceans

A recent study found that 90 percent of the most prized fish in the oceans are gone. Could the world really run out of fish?

Why are the fish disappearing?
We’re eating them. A hungry planet, now populated with more than 6 billion human beings, has turned the world’s oceans into a vast, heaving farm. More than 3.5 million fishing vessels now scour the oceans for edible sea creatures, harvesting them with modern, brutally efficient techniques. These vessels track down dwindling stocks with sonar fish finders and satellite navigation systems. They haul them in with trawler nets that snare up to 120,000 pounds of fish in one scoop, and long-lines with baited hooks that are strung out for 50 miles. The biggest of the fishing vessels—modern “factory” trawlers with huge engines, processing facilities, and freezers on board—keep at this work for weeks and months at a time. Against such a foe, says Leon Panetta, head of the Pew Oceans Commission, the fish stand little chance. “What’s going on out there is the last buffalo hunt.”

Which fish are most endangered?
The tastiest ones. Wild Atlantic salmon have all but disappeared. North Atlantic cod, once among the sea’s most plentiful species, have become hard to find, and show little sign of recovery despite several years of restrictions on how many can be caught. Atlantic swordfish, which can grow to 1,400 pounds, have been so overfished that the average catch these days has fallen below 100 pounds. According to a recent study in Fisheries magazine, 82 species and subspecies of fish may be headed for extinction, including grouper, halibut, skate, sturgeon, and several species of sharks. Without drastic conservation measures, experts say, many species will disappear forever.

How do we know that?
Several scientific studies have confirmed what fishermen already knew: The massive schools of fish that once swarmed under the waves have been largely picked clean. The most recent study, published in Nature, looked at records of fish catches going back a half century. One key finding focused on Japanese long-liner boats, which string out hooked lines for miles. When the long-liners first began working in a region, the study found, they typically caught 10 fish per every 100 hooks. Within 10 years, the haul fell to about one fish per 100 hooks. After 15 years, the long-liners had wiped out so many of the big fish that they had to move on to a new part of the sea. The trouble now, according to marine biologists, is that decades of overfishing have depleted fish stocks all over the globe. There is nowhere left to go.

Who is catching all these fish?
Not surprisingly, the bulk are caught by nations in which fish are a central part of the diet. China catches 17 million tons of fish annually, and Japan hauls in 5 million tons. America takes 4.7 million tons. Peru, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and India are also major fishing nations.

Does anyone regulate the catch?
Not on a global scale. All nations have the exclusive right to regulate fishing within 200 miles of their shores, to keep their waters from being overfished. In practice, most countries are reluctant to order their own fishing fleets to stay in port, and are ineffective at keeping “pirate” trawlers from sneaking in and stealing fish. Regional organizations try to regulate the high seas more than 200 miles out, but catch limits in areas such as the North Atlantic and the Arctic are difficult to enforce. About 50 percent of all Chilean sea bass now reaching the market, fishery experts say, are caught illegally. In 1996, the United Nations passed a U.S.-backed treaty aimed at setting global conservation guidelines, to force industrial fishing fleets to give depleted stocks a chance to bounce back. But two-thirds of the nations that catch the most fish have failed to ratify the agreement.

Then why are markets still full of seafood?
Two reasons—imports and fish farms. With Americans willing to pay top dollar, the U.S. now gets as much as 80 percent of its seafood from abroad. Many very popular species that are not imported—such as shrimp, salmon, and catfish—are now raised in pens. Throughout the world, aquaculture now provides about a third of all seafood. But while aquaculture is growing, many large, predator species simply cannot be raised on farms, and fish farming will never provide enough fish to compensate for depleted ocean stocks.

Can’t anything else be done?
The only way to let fish species recover, marine biologists say, is to stop catching them. When protected for several years, endangered species generally do recover. Atlantic swordfish have bounced back to nearly healthy levels after teetering on the brink of extinction in the 1990s. The recovery was fueled by government restrictions and a boycott from 1998 to 2000 that exhorted consumers to “Give swordfish a break.” But so far, few nations have been willing to cooperate in limiting catches.

Do we face a future without seafood?
Probably not—but in the future, you might not always recognize the creature on your plate. As tasty predators disappear, chefs are moving further down the food chain to smaller fish and crustaceans. Barnacles, for example, are becoming a hot item in tony Manhattan eateries, U.S. News & World Report recently reported. Chef Rick Laakkonen of Ilo whips up a barnacle and sea urchin soup he calls “the tidal pool.” The innovation will continue, says marine ecologist Callum Roberts, and soon even the smaller fish will become scarce. “We will be converting plankton into crab sticks before long.”

The chef who doomed a fish
A famous chef from New Orleans, Paul Prudhomme, took the cooking world by storm in the 1980s with a signature dish called blackened redfish. Redfish—coated with cajun spices and blackened by a few minutes of high heat in a cast-iron skillet—appeared on menus across America, and fishermen scrambled to keep up with demand. They used spotter planes to pinpoint schools of redfish, then moved in with giant purse seine nets to catch 200,000 of them at a time. “They were in danger of total decimation,” says one Florida researcher. Tight government restrictions imposed since 1988 appear to have stopped the decline, but the future of the redfish remains in doubt.

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