Tag Archives: marine life

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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Pacific “Garbage Island” Stretches from Hawaii to Japan

A “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.

The vast expanse of debris – in effect the world’s largest rubbish dump – is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.

Charles Moore, an American oceanographer who discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “trash vortex”, believes that about 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the region. Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which Mr Moore founded, said yesterday: “The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and leading authority on flotsam, has tracked the build-up of plastics in the seas for more than 15 years and compares the trash vortex to a living entity: “It moves around like a big animal without a leash.” When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. “The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic,” he added.

The “soup” is actually two linked areas, either side of the islands of Hawaii, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches. About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

Mr Moore, a former sailor, came across the sea of waste by chance in 1997, while taking a short cut home from a Los Angeles to Hawaii yacht race. He had steered his craft into the “North Pacific gyre” – a vortex where the ocean circulates slowly because of little wind and extreme high pressure systems. Usually sailors avoid it.

He was astonished to find himself surrounded by rubbish, day after day, thousands of miles from land. “Every time I came on deck, there was trash floating by,” he said in an interview. “How could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for a week?”

Mr Moore, the heir to a family fortune from the oil industry, subsequently sold his business interests and became an environmental activist. He warned yesterday that unless consumers cut back on their use of disposable plastics, the plastic stew would double in size over the next decade.

Professor David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, said more research was needed to establish the size and nature of the plastic soup but that there was “no reason to doubt” Algalita’s findings.

“After all, the plastic trash is going somewhere and it is about time we get a full accounting of the distribution of plastic in the marine ecosystem and especially its fate and impact on marine ecosystems.”

Professor Karl is co-ordinating an expedition with Algalita in search of the garbage patch later this year and believes the expanse of junk actually represents a new habitat. Historically, rubbish that ends up in oceanic gyres has biodegraded. But modern plastics are so durable that objects half-a-century old have been found in the north Pacific dump. “Every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere,” said Tony Andrady, a chemist with the US-based Research Triangle Institute.

Mr Moore said that because the sea of rubbish is translucent and lies just below the water’s surface, it is not detectable in satellite photographs. “You only see it from the bows of ships,” he said.

According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.

Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic,

Dr Eriksen said the slowly rotating mass of rubbish-laden water poses a risk to human health, too. Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets, or nurdles – the raw materials for the plastic industry – are lost or spilled every year, working their way into the sea. These pollutants act as chemical sponges attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT. They then enter the food chain. “What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It’s that simple,” said Dr Eriksen.

– This aritcle originally appeared in The Independent and was written by Kathy Marks, Asia-Pacific Correspondent, and Daniel Howden

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