about the last wild animals we eat

For most of the time since modern man stood up up and walked out of Africa we have been hunters and gatherers but nowadays for most people fish is the last wild food they ever eat. Apart from mushrooms, that is…

Mankind has been foraging for food in rivers and off beaches for about 150,000 years and we developed the first actual fishing techniques some 90,000 years ago.  Roughly 10,000 years ago came the switch to farming and the domestication of animals but until the 20th century there remained a single source of animal protein that throughout the ages seemed absolutely inexhaustable: the fish we were able to catch in the wild.


The advent of the industrial revolution did have an early impact on fishing stocks but that was merely local. In the North Sea, steam ships equipped with trawling nets reported catches more than six times greater than those of sailing ships. It is now understood that industrial fisheries require only 10–15 years to reduce fish populations to one-tenth of their pre-fishing size.

Yet it is a relatively recent development of only the last 50 years that mankind engaged in a mad scramble to ruthlessly over-exploit all that has been living much longer than us in the oceans anywhere on planet earth. Despite warnings of a slowdown in the marine catch in the 1970’s and 80’s, the global industry has continued to increase fishing efforts and technology kept advancing.  Boats are more powerful, fish are located electronically through sonar, larger trawling nets are used and longline hooks are dangling at greater depths. Industrial factory ships are going further offshore and have now even extended their operations throughout the vast expanses of the southern ocean.

Of course this is purely driven by the economics and the rampant overfishing is a direct result of the huge demand from the seven billion potential seafood consumers who are alive today. Worldwide, per capita consumption of seafood  has doubled since the 1960s and the inhabitants of the US now eat almost five times more fish than they did 100 years ago. In Asia, about 1 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein.

However the realities of the global fishing industry are mind boggling and the inefficiences  are bordering on the absurd. Today fishing fleets  are twice the  necessary size. The industry could go back to the smaller, fewer boats of 1970 and still produce the same yield. The overcapacity is global: Norway’s fleet  is 60 percent  larger than necessary, while the European Union is 40 percent over the top.  Meanwhile European fisheries are so depleted that in several member states it has been estimated that the cost of fishing to the public exceeds the total value of the catches. That means that more money is spent to keep the industry afloat than comes in from the resulting yield.

In the old days fishermen would return to harbor mainly with the fish they had targeted. Some specialized in herring or cod; others in tuna. Modern fishing methods are much more random so there is usually a large bycatch of other species. Drift nets are a spectacular example. These monster nets (50 feet by up to 65 km) kill all that they encounter. They are banned by every fishing country within its own territorial waters. However the combination of Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese drift nets cast every night in international waters reaches about 48,000 km–enough to encircle the globe.

The greatest paradox is in the fact that nowadays 36 percent of all captured wild fish is processed into fish meal. This in turn is partly used for fishfarming or other types of aquaculture  but ultimately the practice is inefficient. Farmed salmon consume more wild fish than they generate as a final product. Other negatives  regarding  the long-term sustainability of aquaculture include disease, genetic weakening of stocks and coastal habitat destruction. In the end the combined nonhuman appetite for fish equals our own. Chickens and pigs consume two times more seafood than the Japanese, six times more than the Americans…

The expansion of fishing activities into deeper waters is unquestionably one of the principal threats to the world’s ocean health.  Most deep-sea fisheries are unsustainable not only for target species but also for non-target fauna and their habitats. Unless some radical changes in governance and management are being made, damages to deep-sea ecosystems will soon be irreversible. The United Nations have recognized this issue and urged governments and Regional Fishery Management Organizations to assess the impact of deep-sea fisheries on vulnerable marine ecosystems.

Currently, more than 99% of the world’s oceans are open to fishing; this should be reversed, and the open ocean should be closed to industrial exploitation. The continental shelves and coastal waters should be the privileged reserve of the small-scale fishermen who use low-tech gear and are coast-bound.  It is estimated that the small-scale sector has the capacity to catch roughly the same amount as the industrial sector but it employs nearly 25 times more people.

Fishing should be the privilege of the poor rather than a right of the rich.

It is up to the Governments of the fishing nations to abolish subsidies and negotiate international agreements instead. Their common goal must be to downsize fleets and set catch limits. All we can do ourselves is to try and make a small difference by being well-informed consumers. Don’t buy species of fish that are over-exploited. If you have the time and patience for a long lecture on the subject  you will find it here: http://wgbhnews.org/post/jennifer-jacquet-how-you-can-help-save-sea-life







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