The oceans are exhaustible, much to our surprise. The vast seas once reportedly contained so much cod that a man off the coast of New England in the seventeenth century could walk from one fish to the next without touching water. By the start of the twenty-first century, north Atlantic cod populations had dropped so much that commercial fisheries were closed. The populations of other fish, including tuna, are also in danger of collapse. More than seventy percent of world fisheries are depleted or nearly depleted with governments unable to stop overfishing. Too many ships are chasing too few fish.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
Although commercial fishing is age-old, overfishing only became recognized as a problem in the twentieth century. The migratory nature of fish requires that nations collaborate to protect fish stock. However, agreement has been difficult to achieve because of the economic stakes involved. In 1947 the London Conference on Overfishing attempted to establish sustainable commercial fisheries. However, no action resulted from the meeting with the result that fishing stocks were gradually depleted over the next decades.
In response to fears about the overuse of commercial fisheries in the 1970s, nations considered imposing various management restrictions. By 1979 many coastal nations had established exclusive fishing zones of 200 nautical miles in traditional fishing grounds. The zone around Iceland, as one example, led to a vigorous dispute with the United Kingdom since British ships brought in about 25% of the catch from this fishery. The United Nations held a Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 to create a consensus about the use of fish stocks. The convention did not achieve its goals, with little change evident in the attitude of fishers toward commercial fisheries. Cod, the most popular fish throughout world history, became the most famous casualty of over-fishing. By 1992 the north Atlantic cod fishery, one of the world’s oldest and best-known commercial fisheries, had collapsed. In 2000 the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations warned that there had been little change in the status of commercial fish-ries despite strong international efforts to promote more responsible fishing.
By the start of the twenty-first century, the Pacific Ocean ranked as the most important area of fish production followed by the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The Southern Ocean, in global production terms, was insignificant. China and Peru have the largest commercial catches. Although demand for fish is steadily rising, partly because of the health benefits of fish consumption, overall catches have remained static or trended downward. About half of world marine fish stocks are fully exploited with no room available for expansion while 15% suffer from overfishing.
Impacts and Issues
Although some fish populations could face extinction without bans on commercial fishing, such moves are politically unpopular. A ban on trawling for cod in the North Sea, proposed in 2002, would cost about 20,000 jobs in the United Kingdom alone. According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), a total ban on fishing would allow the cod to recover to sustainable levels in about five years whereas a partial ban would extend the recovery period to more than a decade.
However, fishing for other species, such as haddock and whiting, often inadvertently results in unexpected catches, such as cod. A 2008 University of Calgary (Alberta, Canada) study also concluded that the north Atlantic cod population is not recovering as quickly as expected because aggressive, fast-growing fish have been removed from the gene pool since they were caught more often than timid fish, who are generally less fit for breeding. The same conclusion may be applied to other fish populations. There is no guarantee that a total ban on commercial fishing will result in the recovery of any population since external factors cannot be controlled.
Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. “Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.” 2008. http://www.fao.org/fishery/ (accessed February 25, 2008).
WORDS TO KNOW
FISHERY: An industry devoted to the harvesting and selling of fish, shellfish, or other aquatic animals.
FISHING STOCK: A subpopulation of fish occupying a certain area that is in reproductive isolation from the rest of its species.
MIGRATORY: Traveling from one place to another at regular times of year, often over long distances.
OVERFISHING: Overharvesting applied to fish.
U.S. State Department. “Senior Officials’ Meeting of the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security.” December 7, 2007. http://www.state.gov/g/oes/rls/rm/2007/96747.htm (accessed February 25, 2008).