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Where did all the fish go?

The sea was not so vast, once we deployed an industrial armada against it.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2008

A pile of fish lies at a harbour in the southern Indian city of Chennai.

REUTERS/Babu

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Early European explorers to the Americas encountered an astounding abundance of marine life. White beluga whales, now limited to the arctic, swam as far south as Boston Bay. Cod off Newfoundland were so plentiful that fishermen could catch them with nothing more than a weighted basket lowered into the water. As late as the mid-19th century, river herring ran so thick in the eastern United States that wading across certain waterways meant treading on fish. And everywhere sharks were so numerous that, after hauling in their catches, fishers often found them stripped to the bone.

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“It completely bowled me over when I started reading some of these early accounts,” says Cal­lum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York, England, and author of “The Unnatural History of the Sea,” which tells much of this tale. “The picture painted is one of an abundance of life which is very hard for us to grasp today.”

Hundreds of years of fishing – and especially the last half century of industrialized fishing – have drastically altered the oceans. Measured by weight, only 1/10th of the large predators that once swam the seas – the big fish and sharks that shape the entire ecosystem – is estimated to remain. And many of these changes have occurred relatively recently. Any middle-aged fisherman will wax nostalgic about the catches of just 20 years ago. Any marine scientist will glumly check off reefs they once studied that are now bleached and overgrown with algae as a result of overfishing and pollution, and the marine life that’s simply disappeared.

“Today’s oceans have got far less in the way of biomass than they used to,” says Professor Roberts. “We’re altering ecosystems in a way that reduces the level of productivity they can support.”

After millenniums of a free-for-all, many foresee the era of open access to the ocean formally coming to a close.

World catches have steadily declined since peaking in the late 1980s. Everyone, from scientists to fishermen, is alarmed. And in the US, all quarters are pushing to develop solutions before the problem becomes unfixable. Fishermen and fishery managers are rethinking management to encourage stewardship. Scientists now say that fish stocks can’t be viewed in isolation; they must be managed in the context of the greater ecosystem. Many, even some fishermen begrudgingly, realize the importance of having some areas completely off-limits to fishing in order to keep ecosystems healthy. And increasingly, a new argument is heard in the debate over fisheries: Marine ecosystems should be preserved not just for their economic value, but also because, like the wilderness preserved in the national forest system, they are part of humankind’s natural heritage.

The debate comes at a time when, driven by both health trends and increasing prosperity in countries like China, demand for fish is rising. In industrialized countries, fish consumption doubled, to 27 million metric tons, between 1961 and 2003, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Per capita, that’s an increase of one-third, to 29.7 kg (65.5 lbs.) per person yearly. (Much of the increased demand is being met by a growing aquaculture industry.) In developing countries, fish continue to provide an important source of protein. The average African gets 17 percent of his protein from fish; for Asians, it’s 26 percent. The typical North American gets only 7 percent of his protein from fish.

Fishery managers have a name for what can be removed without causing stocks to fall: the maximum sustainable yield. In theory, a well-managed fishery should provide free food – save for the cost of catching it – year after year.

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