On September 28, 2009, marine ecologist Daniel Pauly published an article in The New Republic called Aquacalypse Now, subtitled The End Of Fish. This article is now over three years old, but it should not be forgotten. Therefore, I will reprint the first few pages here today.
If humans had vivid memories of the ocean's abundance as it was in 1750, or even 1950, perhaps they would be more concerned about the current and probable future state of marine fisheries. Alas, the human enterprise is largely carried out without memory and without any significant historical sense—Homo sapiens lives in an eternal present. The world reached "peak wild-caught fish" in the late 1980s.
Graph from the FAO's The State Of World Fisheries And Aquaculture 2012. Capture production is shown in light blue, fish farming in dark blue. Includes inland (freshwater) capture fisheries, which have shown gains in recent years due to intensive fish stocking.
As Pauly will explain, the world's "capture" production has remained in a long plateau despite all the desperate measures taken to increase it. Looking at this graph, and considering those measures, it is easy to see that the world's marine fisheries could reach a "tipping point" where wild-caught fish production goes into precipitous decline, creating a deficit that aquaculture would never be able to fill. Worse yet, such a collapse would have a devastating effect on marine ecosystems generally.
Once we have reached the end of fish, the end of Homo sapiens will surely follow. Pauly concludes his essay on this note—
The truth is that governments are the only entities that can prevent the end of fish...
There is no need for an end to fish, or to fishing for that matter. But there is an urgent need for governments to free themselves from the fishing-industrial complex and its Ponzi scheme, to stop subsidizing the fishing-industrial complex and awarding it fishing rights, when it should in fact pay for the privilege to fish. If we can do this, then we will have fish forever.
Unfortunately, governments are not dedicated to sustainable anything. On the contrary, they are dedicated to endless growth and the ever-greater exploitation of the natural world required to support it.Daniel Pauly's Aquacalypse Now
Our oceans have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme, waged with Bernie Madoff-like callousness by the world’s fisheries. Beginning in the 1950s, as their operations became increasingly industrialized — with onboard refrigeration, acoustic fish-finders, and, later, GPS — they first depleted stocks of cod, hake, flounder, sole, and halibut in the Northern Hemisphere. As those stocks disappeared, the fleets moved southward, to the coasts of developing nations and, ultimately, all the way to the shores of Antarctica, searching for icefishes and rockcods, and, more recently, for small, shrimplike krill. As the bounty of coastal waters dropped, fisheries moved further offshore, to deeper waters. And, finally, as the larger fish began to disappear, boats began to catch fish that were smaller and uglier—fish never before considered fit for human consumption. Many were renamed so that they could be marketed: The suspicious slimehead became the delicious orange roughy, while the worrisome Patagonian toothfish became the wholesome Chilean seabass. Others, like the homely hoki, were cut up so they could be sold sight-unseen as fish sticks and filets in fast-food restaurants and the frozen-food aisle.
The scheme was carried out by nothing less than a fishing-industrial complex—an alliance of corporate fishing fleets, lobbyists, parliamentary representatives, and fisheries economists. By hiding behind the romantic image of the small-scale, independent fisherman, they secured political influence and government subsidies far in excess of what would be expected, given their minuscule contribution to the GDP of advanced economies—in the United States, even less than that of the hair salon industry. In Japan, for example, huge, vertically integrated conglomerates, such as Taiyo or the better-known Mitsubishi, lobby their friends in the Japanese Fisheries Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help them gain access to the few remaining plentiful stocks of tuna, like those in the waters surrounding South Pacific countries. Beginning in the early 1980s, the United States, which had not traditionally been much of a fishing country, began heavily subsidizing U.S. fleets, producing its own fishing-industrial complex, dominated by large processors and retail chains. Today, governments provide nearly $30 billion in subsidies each year—about one-third of the value of the global catch—that keep fisheries going, even when they have overexploited their resource base. As a result, there are between two and four times as many boats as the annual catch requires, and yet, the funds to “build capacity” keep coming.
The jig, however, is nearly up. In 1950, the newly constituted Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that, globally, we were catching about 20 million metric tons of fish (cod, mackerel, tuna, etc.) and invertebrates (lobster, squid, clams, etc.). That catch peaked at 90 million tons per year in the late 1980s, and it has been declining ever since. Much like Madoff’s infamous operation, which required a constant influx of new investments to generate “revenue” for past investors, the global fishing-industrial complex has required a constant influx of new stocks to continue operation. Instead of restricting its catches so that fish can reproduce and maintain their populations, the industry has simply fished until a stock is depleted and then moved on to new or deeper waters, and to smaller and stranger fish. And, just as a Ponzi scheme will collapse once the pool of potential investors has been drained, so too will the fishing industry collapse as the oceans are drained of life.
Unfortunately, it is not just the future of the fishing industry that is at stake, but also the continued health of the world’s largest ecosystem. While the climate crisis gathers front-page attention on a regular basis, people—even those who profess great environmental consciousness—continue to eat fish as if it were a sustainable practice. But eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee. In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod, and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent. One study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have “collapsed,” meaning that they will be generating 10 percent or less of their peak catches. Whether or not that particular year, or even decade, is correct, one thing is clear: Fish are in dire peril, and, if they are, then so are we.
The extent of the fisheries’ Ponzi scheme eluded government scientists for many years. They had long studied the health of fish populations, of course, but typically, laboratories would focus only on the species in their nation’s waters. And those studying a particular species in one country would communicate only with those studying that same species in another. Thus, they failed to notice an important pattern: Popular species were sequentially replacing each other in the catches that fisheries were reporting, and, when a species faded, scientific attention shifted to the replacement species. At any given moment, scientists might acknowledge that one-half or two-thirds of fisheries were being overfished, but, when the stock of a particular fish was used up, it was simply removed from the denominator of the fraction. For example, the Hudson River sturgeon wasn’t counted as an overfished stock once it disappeared from New York waters; it simply became an anecdote in the historical record. The baselines just kept shifting, allowing us to continue blithely damaging marine ecosystems.
It was not until the 1990s that a series of high-profile scientific papers demonstrated that we needed to study, and mitigate, fish depletions at the global level. They showed that phenomena previously observed at local levels—for example, the disappearance of large species from fisheries’ catches and their replacement by smaller species—were also occurring globally. It was a realization akin to understanding that the financial meltdown was due not to the failure of a single bank, but, rather, to the failure of the entire banking system—and it drew a lot of controversy.
The notion that fish are globally imperiled has been challenged in many ways—perhaps most notably by fisheries biologists, who have questioned the facts, the tone, and even the integrity of those making such allegations. Fisheries biologists are different than marine ecologists like myself. Marine ecologists are concerned mainly with threats to the diversity of the ecosystems that they study, and so, they frequently work in concert with environmental NGOs and are often funded by philanthropic foundations. By contrast, fisheries biologists traditionally work for government agencies, like the National Marine Fisheries Service at the Commerce Department, or as consultants to the fishing industry, and their chief goal is to protect fisheries and the fishermen they employ. I myself was trained as a fisheries biologist in Germany, and, while they would dispute this, the agencies for which many of my former classmates work clearly have been captured by the industry they are supposed to regulate. Thus, there are fisheries scientists who, for example, write that cod have “recovered” or even “doubled” their numbers when, in fact, they have increased merely from 1 percent to 2 percent of their original abundance in the 1950s...