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Fishing industry on the verge of collapse

Ever since humans picked up their first fishing poles (or spears) the state of the world’s marine life has been in decline. The damage started slowly, but our technology evolved as we learned to use radar and scrape the sea floors with huge nets, yielding fantastic catches from the plentiful ocean.

Now, armed with unimaginable accuracy and efficiency, commercial fishing fleets are coming back to the docks with smaller catches. The reason: fish stocks have been plummeting worldwide for more than a decade.

The widespread use of unsustainable fishing practices is catching up to us and scientists are calling on world’s governments to take action before international fish stocks are completely diminished.

Here are a few key statistics to ponder:

  1. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, More than 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are now overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted or recovering from overexploitation.
  2. Ninety percent of all the “big fish” – large-bodied sharks, tuna, marlin and swordfish – have disappeared as a result of industrialized fishing according to this study.
  3. A study by a team of leading fishery scientists, published in 2006 in the journal Science, concluded that the world’s fisheries are in collapse and if current trends continue they will be beyond repair by 2048.

Declining fish stocks even have pushed European nations to make controversial deals with African nations, enabling them to fish in the waters of Northwest Africa, taking away jobs and food from the locals. The New York Times also reported that Europe’s insatiable appetite for seafood is promoting illegal trade.

But Europeans are only the beginning of the problem when you consider that fish serves as the primary source of protein for nearly a billion people, according to Oceana, an environmental group that focuses on marine life.

The Solution

In May 2007, 125 scientist from 25 countries, warned World Trade Organization Director Pascal Lamy in a letter that unless the WTO acts to significantly reduce worldwide subsidies to the fishing sector, destructive fishing practices will result in permanent damage of the ocean ecosystem and the entire fishing economy.

Global fisheries subsidies amount to an estimated $30-$34 billion annually, and at least $20 billion go directly towards supporting fishing capacity, such as boats, fuel, equipment and other operating costs, according to a recent report by the University of British Columbia. These subsidies equal about 25 percent of worldwide fishing revenue and have helped produce a global fishing fleet that is up to 250 percent larger than what is need to fish at sustainable levels, said Courtney Sakai, campaign director for Oceana.

“We are not anti-fishing, but the kind of commercial fishing that is taking place today just make sense ecologically and it doesn’t make sense economically,” Sakai said. “We need a more sustainable approach to fishing, one that allows fish stocks to regenerate themselves.”

In their letter to Lamy the scientists wrote:

“Fisheries subsidies are not only a major driver of overfishing, but promote other destructive fishing practices. For example, high seas bottom trawling, a practice so environmentally-destructive that the United Nations has called on nations to severely restrict it, would not be profitable without its large subsidies on fuel. Subsidies have also been documented to support illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing – a serious impediment to achieving sustainable fisheries.”

As Sakai works on Oceana’s campaign against these subsides, she still believes the marine life can recover from its dismal state.

“We may have reduced international fish stocks to horrible conditions, but they can rebound pretty quickly if we just give them a chance,” Sakai said.

The fishing industry is heading full speed into its own demise. It is clear that a broad prohibition of fisheries subsidies is the best way to reduce global overfishing.

[images from Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts]

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