Sunday, May 15, 2005

Our oceans are in trouble

My husband I were dining with a couple at a nearby restaurant that served mainly seafood. Our choice in finding a suitable entree was more difficult because we are vegetarian. The waitress responded to our inquiry about what on the menu would be suitable for vegetarian by asking, "Do you eat fish?" I chuckled and said, "No."

This began a conversation with my friend who questioned why we didn't eat fish. My response about the problem of over fishing and diminishing fish populations were some of my concerns. This was negated by a strong affirmation that there was no problem with eating fish because the fish reproduced prolifically. There would always be plenty of fish to eat. We were silly to think otherwise!

I do not try to convince anyone that they should become vegetarian. I will argue though that over fishing is a problem and that factory farming causes great harm to the environment. I will explain that it takes more land to produce a pound of meat and the large amounts of water we waste on trying to produce beef, poultry and pork to satisfy our desire for meat is going to be a big problem. These arguments alone should cause a sensible person to consider their options of alternative foods when dining.

Not our friend though. And like most Americans, we live our lives without really considering where our food comes from. We live by the false myth of infinite resources and that the more we consume the better it is for the economy.

I read the article: "Oceans in Trouble" today in the INSIGHT section of the Orlando Sentinel. When we kill the last fish and people starve because we have destroyed the ocean, land and the air, I wonder what we will say then.
Article posted in comment section.


Martie said...

Oceans of trouble
Are we stripping the world's oceans of their fish?
By Robert Ovetz
Special to the Sentinel

May 15, 2005

Until the mid-20th century, the ocean was a key watery terrain of conflict among competing states seeking to expand their control over territories and natural resources.

Today, the ocean is again a renewed place of conflict. This time it is small-scale subsistence fishermen battling governments and industrial fishing companies for the declining and increasingly precious resource of fish.

These battles, raging from Canada to Chile to Scotland to Taiwan, are the newest round of global-resource wars.

Late last year in Italy a fish war broke out when Italian boats surrounded and shot out portholes of a Croatian fishing vessel. The armed assault was retribution for the Croatian government setting up a "no go" area for foreign vessels. The closure was intended to protect local subsistence vessels and conserve local fisheries.

The fish wars are flaring out of control across our planet. In just the past few months, the Sri Lankan navy has attacked Indian fishing vessels, strikes have rocked India, local subsistence fishermen in the Philippines protested the loss of their traditional access rights to foreign vessels, angry clashes have broken out in Chile and Taiwan, a mutiny hit Papua New Guinea, and Australia has seized and burned illegal fishing vessels, just to name a few.

Just below the surface, a cold war is emerging as well. Environmental, recreational and industrial-fishing groups have filed countless lawsuits about fishing in the United States, anger has erupted about the European Union's sweeping changes in its fisheries policies, and a trade war has erupted between the United States and Thailand and Vietnam about the higher U.S. tariffs on imported farmed shrimp.

Fish wars' causes

What's behind the fish wars?

Increasing global demand, large subsidies, advancements in technology and inadequate regulation have led to the depletion of our fisheries. New developments in industrial fishing during the past few decades, supported by government tax breaks in the forms of subsidies, have led to a rapid oversupply of super-sized vessels equipped with advanced fish-finding radars and sonars plying the ocean. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, about 70 percent of our global fisheries are now being fished close to, at or beyond their capacity.

What does this global collapse of our fisheries mean?

Flush with subsidies, the growing global industrial-fishing fleet is rapidly outstripping the supply of fish. Scientists recently warned that large predatory-fish species such as shark and marlin have been depleted by as much as 99 percent in the past century. In the past month, recognizing that big-eye and albacore tuna may be overfished, the United States has implemented new restrictions on its own Pacific fleet.

This decline in marlin and other so-called billfish, a favorite among the lucrative recreational-fishing community, has caused widespread panic among not only the fishers. Hotels, tour-guide, charter-boat, restaurant and travel companies, not to mention local governments hemorrhaging jobs and tax revenues, also benefit from a healthy sport-fishing industry.

Long-line fishing at fault

The most significant cause of the decline of sharks and marlin is industrial long-line fishing. "Dirty" fishing gear such as long lines, monofilament lines stretching up to 60 miles and baited with thousands of hooks, catch and kill large numbers of nontarget catch. Most of the world's long-line vessels originate from Taiwan and Japan, although dozens of other countries, including the United States, also have much smaller fleets.

Long-line fishing for tuna and swordfish just doesn't come close to recreational angling when it comes to generating cash. According to the U.S. government, in the late 1990s in Hawaii, industrial long-line fishing generated $47.4 million, compared with recreational-fishing-trip-related expenditures ranging from $130 million to $347 million.

Scientists warn that the rapid decline of these top-of-the-food chain species such as tuna, shark and billfish may have far-reaching consequences for the collapse of the ocean ecosystem. With these predators out of the way, new species such as stingrays are moving into their niches, causing a wide range of new, unforeseen problems. In addition to a significant decline in population, the actual size of fish caught has declined by more than 50 percent.

The first to suffer the consequences are ocean wildlife and local subsistence fishermen.

A recent report estimates that long lines catch and kill an estimated 4.4 million sharks, sea turtles, seabirds, billfish and marine mammals in the Pacific each year. Scientists warn that the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, often caught on long lines, could go extinct in the next five to 30 years unless the threat of long lines is reversed.

Environmentalists and small-scale fishing people have responded with protests, lawsuits and extensive campaigns for reform. Likewise, recreational fishermen, faced with a threat to their lucrative industry, worth many times more than revenues from industrial fishing, have likewise responded in kind.

Pressed for export revenues to repay mounting debts, developing countries push local subsistence-fishing communities out of waters that have sustained their families and local communities for centuries. Access to these waters are then leased to foreign industrial vessels that rapidly deplete the fisheries and move on.

Fishing subsidies

In the race for the last fish, industrialized nations are subsidizing access to the $2 billion annual tuna market for their fleets in the territorial waters of developing nations. While the EU spends as much as $1 billion per year on fishing subsidies, annual subsidies for industrial fishing are estimated to be as much as $50 billion worldwide.

In exchange, small island nations in the South Pacific have signed access agreements giving them 2 percent to 5.5 percent, worth only about $60 million a year. Because nearly all the tuna from the region is exported to the EU, United States and Japan, there are few economic spin-offs to the local economies.

Rather, the costs are staggering. As Jean Ziegler, a U.N. expert on the right to food, said in a recent report to the Geneva-based U.N. Commission on Human Rights, "In the drive to industrialize, privatize and orient fish production towards exports, poor fishing and fish-farming communities are often left behind."

The consequences are not surprising. Job losses are mounting among coastal fishing communities already hit hard by erosion and climate change. In Fiji, tuna canneries are finding themselves laying off workers and shortening the workweek because of a lack of tuna.

Supply falls, prices rise

The bitter irony is that these subsidies are not directed toward helping these developing nations set up and run their own sustainable fisheries so that they can continue fishing long into the future. Rather, this money is underwriting a new race for the last fish, plagued with the intrigue of scandals, bribes and corruption.

As foreign vessels export fish once destined for local markets, local prices have shot up at the same time quality has declined. Local communities in the Philippines and Kiribati have reported significant declines in local supply and quality.

The declining supply of fish and the sale of traditional fishing grounds to the highest bidder is stripping small fishermen of their livelihood. Unlike past fish wars that pitted colonial powers against one another for a cheap food source, the new fish wars are being fought over the ability to feed one's family and maintain a way of life crucial to their communities.

Despite the explosion of conflicts around the globe, the fish wars have yet to make the spotlight. Most resource wars receiving coverage downplay coverage of issues pertaining to the ocean, which covers about 70 percent of our blue planet.

Hopefully, this is all about to change. Faced with calls for moratoriums on destructive fishing such as industrial long lines, the United Nations has called for prohibitions of destructive fishing techniques.

Let's hope the United Nations and its member nations will do more than talk. The survival of the ocean and the people that depend on it for their survival is at risk.

Robert Ovetz, Ph.D., is the Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the U.S.-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project, which is calling for a moratorium on industrial long-line fishing in the Pacific. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2005, Orlando Sentinel |

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