On emptying seas, a vanishing way of life
Overfishing on the Mediterranean is threatening artisanal fishermen and endangering more than 100 marine species.
Seven hours after setting out into the inky 3 a.m. blackness, the Crazy Horse's two-man crew pulls back into port with the fruits of their morning's labor: just a few small buckets of fish, worth maybe $60.Skip to next paragraph
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"That's the average now," sighs Gianni Pisanu, whose boat is docked nearby, as he helps his neighbors tie up. "The sea is impoverished now."
For more than 50 years, the nearly two dozen countries bordering the Mediterranean have struggled to jointly manage the shared bounty of the sea, whose uniqueness makes managing this crisis both unusually difficult and extremely important.
But their efforts have stalled often amid the conflicting political and economic interests in this diverse region, which contains everything from the heavily subsidized Italian fleet – one of the biggest in the sea with more than 14,000 boats – to thousands of subsistence fishermen in Morocco.
The benefits of preservation are manifold, however, in this marine ecosystem, whose share of global biodiversity is eight times greater than its size.
Now, that diversity is threatened. According to the United Nations, 85 percent of species in the sea are already being fished at or above sustainable levels. Some are near commercial extinction.
Other species, like turtles, dolphins, and sharks, often caught accidentally in fishermen's nets, are also being driven toward extinction. A recent report by the World Conservation Union, which monitors endangered species, found that 42 percent of the sea's 71 shark and ray species are threatened or endangered – a global high. Fishing is the most serious threat, the report found.
As his friends untangle the last fish from their nets, Mr. Pisanu watches a large vessel with a giant metal apparatus on its stern chug out to sea. "A bottom trawler," he explains, describing a kind of boat that arrived here two decades ago, dragging weighted nets. "Before trawling, the catches would have been 80 percent bigger."
Double the catch levels of 1950
Twice as many fish are caught in the Mediterranean today than in 1950. The Mediterranean alone cannot provide enough fish to meet local needs. Southern Europeans eat significantly more fish than the global average of 35 pounds per person annually. Spaniards consume 90 pounds a year, while Italians, French, and Greeks, eat almost 45 pounds – much of which is imported. Though catches are down from their mid-1980s peak, the fact that fishermen expend greater effort to catch fewer fish indicates that stocks are overexploited. Trawling has been identified as the most environmentally destructive type of fishing here.
"The fundamental problem is that the sea is not managed with the objective of conservation, or rational management of the resource, but mostly in the short-term interest of those few fishermen who take as much as they can," says Alessandro Gianni, a fisheries campaigner with Greenpeace, whom Pisanu contacted for help. "The more economically profitable ... [push] out the smaller artisanal fishermen."
Gianni Usai, regional director of Legapesca, the largest local fisherman's cooperative in Cabras, was one of the first locals to recognize that there was a problem. Twenty years ago, he began to notice that lobster catches were declining, from 10 tons a year in the mid-1980s to between 3 and 4 tons in the early 1990s. Today, local fishermen catch less than half a ton. But for years, his warnings were ignored.