ON a visit to the Oregon coast recently, our family had some wonderful seafood. Snapper, swordfish, tuna, salmon, prawns. It was a great way to fortify ourselves between whale-watching forays and rock collecting on the beach.
But our feasting brought a bit of ethical indigestion. Those meals were at least the symbol of a global problem that is having massive environmental, social, political, and economic repercussions.
This is the perilous decline in world fisheries, now the subject of an international conference at United Nations headquarters in New York.
Recent confrontations between Canadian and Spanish vessels have spotlighted the issue. But the flap involving gunboats, net-cutters, and ruffled diplomatic feathers is just the most obvious evidence of trouble.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization warns that 70 percent of world fish stocks are either commercially extinct (like the North Atlantic cod) or at dangerously low levels. Over the past 20 years, stocks of bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic have plummeted 90 percent. Oysters in Chesapeake Bay are at just four percent of their former level.
The reason for such decline is no mystery. The world fishing fleet has nearly doubled since 1970 -- to more than 3 million vessels. Many of these ships are huge, and their nets can bring in 20 or 30 tons at a haul.
Outfitted with sophisticated sonar, radar, and computers (and sometimes working along with aircraft), they easily track down schools of fish. They keep the best and throw away the rest as ''incidental bycatch'' -- an average of 27 million tons a year, or one-third the global marine catch, turned into garbage.
For most Americans, eating fish is not part of the regular diet. But that is not true of the rest of the world. Fish provides 12 percent of Europeans' animal protein (nearly twice as much as in the United States). In Africa, the figure is 19 percent; in Asia, 29 percent.
Fishing and fish-related industries also are economically important around the world. Some 200 million people rely on fish as their main source of income. But in recent years, more than 100,000 have lost their jobs due to declining catches -- some 40,000 in Canada's Atlantic provinces alone.
In a paper published by the Worldwatch Institute last summer, researcher Peter Weber warned: ''If current mismanagement continues, we can expect a future in which millions of fishers are out of work. A future in which fish consumers -- especially in the developing world -- lose access to their main source of protein. A future in which traditional fishing cultures from Nova Scotia to Malaysia disappear.''
Pollution, destruction of habitat through commercial development (such as hydropower dams in the Columbia River basin in North America), and the introduction of nonnative species are all part of the problem.
But the main issue remains overfishing, particularly since governments now provide $54 billion in annual subsidies to fishing fleets -- the kind of ''corporate welfare'' conservatives and liberals alike are railing about.
There may be international agreements on ocean-resource management, and 90 percent of the fish are found within the 200-mile territorial limit -- where sovereign nations presumably would have an interest in protecting resources.
But many of the commercially attractive species either straddle the line or migrate onto the high seas. And with fishing vessels operating thousands of miles away from their nation of registry, enforcement is pretty much up to ship captains whose inclination is to catch as much as possible in a highly competitive business. That's what the Canada-Spain confrontation is all about.
''Finding the political will to change will be hard,'' Peter Weber observed. But it has to happen if the world's fisheries are to recover -- and families like mine can enjoy trips to the Oregon coast without having to worry about it.