THIS week the US Commerce Department, declaring a state of emergency, banned all fishing on Georges Bank and in other defined New England waters.
Environmentalists have accustomed the public to hearing about the despoiling of forests, the endangering of wildlife species, even the dissipation of the ozone layer. Still, the news that the stock of ocean fish is not only dwindling but near the disappearing point comes as a shock. The self-perpetuating abundance of fish has always seemed as expansive as the ocean itself. Yet - to cite just one dismaying statistic - the haddock population on Georges Bank has shrunk by 75 percent in a little over 10 years.
Nor is the crisis limited to the North Atlantic. For Americans, two factors have contributed to the emergency - an increased demand for fish as recommended diet and increasingly sophisticated high-tech methods of fishing, vacuuming the ocean floors to satisfy the rise in consumer appetite. But in underdeveloped countries, from Bangladesh to Ecuador, the same shortage is occurring: the oceans are running dry of fish, and in these instances the fishermen and their families are not just going bankrupt but going hungry.
While state-of-the-art fishing fleets from the richer European and Asian countries roam the seven seas, the local fishermen of the third world are left to scrounge for remnants. Increasingly desperate for food, spear fishermen are diving deeper and deeper. Coral reefs - the achievement of years of natural accretion - are blown up to force fish to the surface.
Where will it end? According to a rough estimate, the world's 15 million fishermen have the capacity to fish out twice the renewable stock still available. Competition has become so fierce that more than 30 minor battles at sea flared up in the past year. International fishing rights are a lawyer's nightmare. Boundaries are hard to draw in water, and how does a country with an extended coastline patrol against the violators?
Yet the preservation of the world's reserves of fish is imperative - affecting in one way or another every human being on Earth's surface. The attitude of ``every fisherman for himself'' has created the problem.
Now only cooperation at every level - within the industry, among all nations - can reverse the damage. The fisherman's traditional virtue of patience will be needed as seldom before.