The anchovy connection

There's a connection, I guess, between the falloff in the anchovy catch off the coast of Peru and the drive in China for one-child families. All sorts of things come over the desk of a Washington reporter and sometimes they have a relationship and sometimes not.

For example, here is the 16-page pamphlet (in light blue) called ''INTERCOM'' from Population Reference Bureau Inc. telling about those anchovies. The anchovies are part of a larger issue, the world fish catch. I have always thought of the oceans as a symbol of unfailing replenishment - ''as many fish as there are in the sea,'' and that sort of thing. But here it says that ''in the early 1970s the growth of the world's ocean fishing catch slowed markedly.'' All sorts of new steam trawlers were in the waters, it seems. ''Whereas during the 1950s and 1960s it (the fish catch) had increased by 6 or 7 percent a year,'' the statistics indicate, ''during the 1970s the growth suddenly dropped to 1 and 2 percent annually.''

The comparison is certainly graphic in the anchovy catch. Results have fluctuated before, depending on tides and currents and the social life of anchovies which we don't understand. But in 1968-72 the ''annual world landings'' were around 10 million metric tons, and now they have recently dropped to 1.4 million.

There were declines in some of the other fish harvests, too. It may be too soon to draw conclusions. But since this particular publication deals with global population it naturally looks at it in those terms:

''The outlook is that, barring some technological breakthrough, the world will never be able to rely on the sea as the ultimate cornucopia of food.''

Maybe so and maybe not. But it is a rather arresting hint, I think, that some day the oceans themselves may be fished out. It naturally raises questions about how the hungry world population is coming along. This week the prestigious Overseas Development Council indirectly gave some information on the subject, sending out their ''Agenda 1982.'' It deals primarily with US foreign policy. In the 100 pages of tables and statistics at the back it also estimates population; it uses the figure for the world of 4,489,600,000. It estimates average life expectancy of 62 years at birth; sets global literacy at 65 percent and per capita military expenditures (1978) at $97. That's a lot of money spent on guns!

So what has all this to do with China's family planning programs? Well, it's not certain that the items are connected -- the fish catch, the world population , the sums for guns. Just the same here is a fourth study, put out from Johns Hopkins University. It says that the People's Republic of China, with a population of about a quarter of the Earth's total inhabitants in 1981, ''is the first country in the world to embark on a deliberate and comprehensive policy to reach zero population growth by the year 2000 or as soon as possible thereafter.''

As I read the 42-page Johns Hopkins study (''Population Report: Family Planning Programs''), which the authors say was prepared with the aid of scholarly Chinese groups, I am impressed by the elaborateness of the Chinese program. The so-called ''one-child family'' campaign started in 1979 and follows earlier, less drastic programs. Leaders simply argued that smaller families are better for the nation, and the code words are ''later, longer, fewer.'' Here is a nation combatting population growth. The state enters the campaign with extraordinary intimacy, offering exhortation, planning, assistance, punishment, and rewards. To the West it is a controversial subject at best of times, but of its importance there can be no doubt. Says the study of earlier experiments:

''The achievement of the People's Republic of China in cutting the birthrate in half in one decade and reaching a level below 20 (births) per 1,000 (population) is unprecedented among developing countries.''

In the new phase some 11 million couples, the report says, had made pledges by 1981 and received ''one-child certificates.'' For this they are entitled to increased income, lower-cost health care, better housing, larger pensions, and eventually preferential treatment in schooling and employment for their only child.

There are penalties, too. Surely this is one of the most extraordinary demographic experiments in human history.

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