Friday, 6 July 2012

Comment #7: -- Say Goodbye To All The Fish

It looks like Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's going to need a re-write. When the dolphins leave, they're actually going to say:

"Thanks for nothing! You porked your way through all the fish, yourselves"

The reason:

From 2019, it will be illegal to return excess fish biomass -- the consequence of over-fishing – back to the oceans.

This will have three effects:

- Fishers will no longer be held to fishing quotas because they can just ‘accidentally’ fish as much as they like.
- Biomass in the sea will drop, providing less energy to return to the fish populations, via the food web.
- Fish populations will decline to beyond their tolerance threshold, and they will go extinct, destroying the very same industry that self-interestedly lobbied so hard to ban the ‘waste’ of fish
- Any genuine efforts to save fish and the fishing industry will be one more piece-of-legislation-to-overturn further away

“EU fish discard ban agreed -- for 2019”

Well, this is all very doom and gloom. But why’s it even happening?

To understand this, we have to understand the motives of those who are doing the fishing.

Anybody who is interested in fishing solely for the sake of fishing would not be so careless as to doom the very future of their occupation. Fish stocks are threatened because too many fish have been extracted from the seas. That is obvious. But instead of supporting State and supra-State mandates and moratoriums that prohibit over-fishing, which would ensure that they could continue fishing, into the future, the fishing industry rails against them. They claim the quotas are undermining their industry. Why?

They do this because their aim is not the acquisition of fish – it is the acquisition of money. The acquisition of fish is merely a mechanism by which to attain money, and so they make efforts to maximise their profit margin, at the expense of their livelihood, into the future.

Smaller businesses, and lone fishermen, are aware of only their own fishing activity, and the availability of fish. People within larger businesses suffer from peer affirmation, which, in this case, is to their and our detriment. Instead of realising that they must do less fishing, which would necessitate some people being laid off, seeing profit margins shrink, and the business generally going into decline, they encourage each other to think that they can carry on the way they are, and to externalise the blame. This is why they rail against legislation that, in reality, would save their business. In the short-term, the communities within the fishing industry are less tolerant of ideas like industry recession, which are met with emotional depression. And nobody likes to feel depressed.

This is not hypothetical. Smaller businesses and local fishermen, when given more power to govern their own stocks, are actually higher achievers when it comes to sustaining stocks:

One solution to global overfishing seems to be the reconnection between local communities and local fish stocks, and the mean-time strong regulation of fisheries.

"What we've found is that effective solutions require both top-down and bottom-up approaches with a foundation of community-based management."

There’s way too much jargon in that ^ sentence!

“The study's main finding is that co-management has been largely successful in sustaining fisheries and improving people's livelihoods... A comparison of co-managed reefs with other reefs showed that co-managed reefs were half as likely to be heavily overfished, which can lead to damaged ecosystems.”

“However we also found that where fisheries are closest to big, hungry markets, they tend to be in worse shape... This strongly suggests globalized food chains can undermine local, democratic efforts to manage fisheries better.”

When the industries are motivated by money – even when committed by fishing families – the whole operation becomes a whole lot less sustainable:

Scores of sharks are ploughed out of the waters off west Africa, sometimes for their fins alone. The sharks can not live without them, and so they die, but what the fishers really want are the fins, so sometimes that is all they take.

But why do they do this?

"The fins don't stay here, they are worth a lot of money," says Fall.

Yup – they sell them on.

“Spurring these fishermen on is the insatiable Asian appetite for shark fins, which make their way onto ostentatious dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.” ... “Some restaurants charge more than $100 for a bowl of sharc [sic] fin soup.”

They do it purely because there is an external demand. And the consequence? Many species have gone already:

“The sawfish -- printed on the back of Senegalese bank notes -- hasn't been seen since the early 1990s in coastal waters from Mauritania to Sierra Leone, except for Guinea-Bissau.”

Denmark (Greenland, specifically) has been refused the permission to continue whaling, because Greenland’s whalers have been deceiving the EU.

Like in Japan, whalers are permitted a certain quantity; in Japan, for research; in Greenland, for indigenous peoples’ use; in both countries, whale meat has appeared on supermarket shelves.

Like Canada, which routinely brutalises seals, Greenland has plenty of farming space, but continues to push the idea that they are reliant on whale catches – this is pure propaganda for the whaling industry, which is motivated, not by whaling itself, but by the money that can be hoarded via whaling.

The European fishing industry has grown so large and obviously money-motivated, that it has started gorging on the stocks of other seas, around the world:

'The EU underpays Madagascar for access to fish: research'

EU fishing businesses, having pushed European stocks to the limit, are now plundering the seas around other countries. Madagascar being one.

"In the case of Madagascar, the European Union pays less than it did two decades ago while catching more fish.
Since 1986, the EU's quotas for catching fish in Madagascar's waters have increased by 30 per cent while its access fees have decreased by 20 per cent. As a result, the total annual income for Madagascar decreased by almost 90 per cent between 1986 and 2010."

"Currently, EU countries pay fees equivalent to less than three per cent of the landed value of the catch to access Madagascar's resources with highly subsidized fishing fleets, creating high profit margins for privately held companies, despite the EU's previous commitment to channel such profits back to developing countries."

"With three quarters of the EU's domestic fish stocks now overfished, these agreements are increasingly important to EU fishing businesses. Currently, more than half of EU catches come from outside EU waters."

Right – so now we know why it’s happening. But how’s this going to hurt? Fish stocks should last us out, right?


Experimental validation of the hypothesis that populations collapse when they fall below a threshold, beneath which they can not sustain their numbers:

Even though it’s technically still a hypothesis (it’s very difficult to gather data for this subject, from the wild, and scientific standards for theories are high), it’s a very old one. I remember a BBC Learning Zone programme, from the Open University, decades ago, detailing the populo-dynamics of fish and whales, when subject to fishing pressure, which covered the phenomenon.

“... in populations of yeast subject to increasingly stressful conditions, populations became less and less resilient to new disturbances until they reached a tipping point at which any small disruption could wipe out a population.”

If there are 1000 units of fish left, and we fish 10 more per year than they reproduce, they won’t last 100 years. Populations have limits, below which they find it very difficult to sustain themselves:

Biodiversity; population dynamics – shoaling, breeding; numerical tolerance to predation by other species; all come in to play with dangerously low populations.

And this isn’t a recently born problem, either:

It seems overfishing began way back in the 19th century.

“This week ((in May 2010)), ministers trying to reform the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy will hear that 88 per cent of Europe's stocks are overfished, but more than half of these could recover to 1970s levels if fishing lets up for a few years. Yet this assumes that stocks were healthy 40 years ago.”

“A team led by Ruth Thurston at the University of York, UK, calculated the amount of fish, such as cod, British trawlers caught between 1889 and 2007 per unit of "fishing power". This is a measure based on factors such as the boat's horsepower and the size of nets. They found that this dropped 17-fold in this period, suggesting that stocks had already fallen by over 90 per cent by the 1970s”

Assuming that a recovery to 1970s population sizes would be ‘healthy’ is like assuming that the patient would be healthy if they were sitting up in bed, again, because that’s how you saw them first. The fishing industry, however, has been plundering the oceans for more than a century, and the ravages have left fish populations far from what should be deemed ‘healthy’.

And on top of the fishing itself, global fish species will have climatic changes to adapt to. This is something that it’s much easier to do in large numbers, because each population then has more chances of finding a ‘winning combination’ of phenotypes (characteristics) which will suit it to the new environmental conditions:

In the future, as the climate changes, warming high-latitude seas will become more productive, but mid-latitude seas will become less productive, with an overall decrease in phytoplankton populations.

Phytoplanktons are the little critters that are the seas' equivalents of plants. Nutrients from which feed up through the trophic layers, to the top predators, like tuna. This might sound like good news for fishing industries that fish predative species like tuna (and most do, because the predators are the biggest), but a shift to food-webs more similar to the contemporary mid-latitudes’ means a squatter-looking trophic pyramid. And a squatter trophic pyramid actually means fewer big fish that are worth catching.

'West coast experiencing decreasing trends in salmon spawning'

Environmental changes are only putting further pressure on the remaining fish populations. It looks like climatic changes, manifesting in altered ocean currents, are causing fewer North American salmon to reach maturity, per spawning mother.

Because of all of this, oceanographic scientists are right to be very cautious about exposing any fish populations to the fishing industry:

 Scientists exercise the precautionary principle in calling for an Arctic fishing moratorium, in light of the fragile condition of global fish stocks:

"in the absence of scientific data and a robust management system" for the entire region, "depletion of fishery resources and damage to other components of the ecosystem are likely to result if fisheries commence."

The fish that will move into the ice-freed waters are likely to be migrant populations, that would have been fished from other areas. Double fishing these populations would finish them off doubly fast. More than double, in fact, because populations collapse before they reach zero.

And what does this all add up to:

‘A sea of broken promises: Avoiding empty ocean commitments at Rio+20’

“Global depletion of fish stocks is threatening the integrity of ocean ecosystems. Risks posed by climate change, disease, and other pressures will have a huge impact on ecosystems already destabilized by overfishing, pollution, and other damaging activities. Collapses such as the Newfoundland cod fishery – once the largest in the world – came as a complete surprise to most people and has not recovered in the 20 years since the population crashed.”

Bye, bye fish....

I’ll miss you:

- In your battery husks

- Complementing lemon, tarragon and green beans

- Being used as props in TV comedies

- With cucumber, in sandwiches

- Grilled, on toast


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