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The end of the line.

One out of every six humans depends on fish for protein needs, yet 75 percent of the world's fisheries are over-fished or fished at their biological limit. Factors that contribute to over-fishing are the lack of understanding of the ocean ecosystem, and a lack of a concensus on following a management plan among countries, or even among states and provinces within a country.

As with any overexploited resource, fish are fast disappearing. By 1992, the cod fishery was closed in much of Eastern Canada, leaving more than 30,000 people out of work. The federal government put up almost $4 billion to help. The idea was to diversify the economy and allow some people to stay in their communities until the stocks recover, but some think they never will.

By 2003, Canada's northern cod was so close to extinction that it was officially designated as endangered. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) noted that the northern cod population has collapsed more than 99 percent over 40 years. Canada's three other types of cod--the Laurentian, Arctic, and Maritime--were also listed as species at risk. Populations of Atlantic salmon, halibut, haddock, and walrus were also seen as seriously damaged.

Four centuries earlier, European explorers were astonished by the seemingly endless supply of cod along Canada's eastern shores. They could be caught simply by lowering buckets over the side of their ships. By the mid-1550s, more than 400 ships a season were crossing the Atlantic from Europe to take cod from the Grand Banks fishing grounds, one of the richest in the world. But, by the start of the 20th century, there were signs of trouble in the Atlantic fisheries, and elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, Atlantic halibut were so depleted that the commercial catch had to be stopped in the early 1900s, in an area that also had previously been teeming with fish.

In the 1980s, Canada's annual northern cod quotas were set at 220,000 to 230,000 tonnes. By 1992, the fishery had collapsed and the federal government closed it, thinking that it would recover within two years. It did not, but the government reopened the fishery in 1999 anyway, allowing a catch of 9,000 tonnes. In 2000, the quota was 7,000 tonnes. A year later, 5,600 tonnes, the same limit was set in 2002 but, by then, fishers couldn't find enough cod to fill the quota. In April 2003, the federal government finally announced the indefinite closing of the cod fishery off Newfoundland's northeast coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

On the West Coast in the 1930s, the legendary sardine fishery collapsed. Other countries also began to suffer the consequences of over-fishing. In the 1970s in Peru, the anchovy fishery, one of the largest in the world, plummeted from 12 million tonnes to two million tonnes. Off the coast of Namibia in the 1970s, pilchards, a mainstay of African fishing communities, were disappearing.

The second half of the 20th century brought more sophisticated fishing equipment such as echo sounders, radar, and even satellite tracking to help locate schools of fish. The fishing boats got bigger and so did their nets. Between 1950 and 1989, the annual world catch zoomed up from 22 million tonnes to 89 million tonnes. But the fish couldn't reproduce and grow fast enough to replace the ones being caught.

By the mid-1990s, the United Nations was warning that 70 percent of the world's fisheries were operating at an unsustainable level. The Worldwatch Institute said all fishing grounds in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean and Black Seas were in decline. "This is a global problem," the Institute wrote, "that has already caused armed confrontations between fishing nations, gunfire between fishers, and hunger in the developing world. If current mismanagement continues, we can expect a future in which millions of fishers are out of work, a future in which traditional fishing cultures from Nova Scotia to Malaysia disappear."

As Richard Ellis points out in his 2003 book, The Empty Ocean: Plundering the World's Marine Life (ISBN: 1559639741) not only have we nearly finished off the cod, sardines, and anchovies, we're working hard on scooping up the remaining tuna, swordfish, large sharks, Chilean sea bass, and Atlantic salmon. A recent study by marine biologists Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax and Boris Worm of the Institute for Marine Science in Kiel, Germany came to a similar conclusion. They found that industrialized fishing over the last 50 years has cleared the oceans of 90 percent of every species of large, wild fish. And, those that are left are one half to one fifth the size they were before industrialized fishing started around 1950.

The study took 10 years to complete and examined all major fisheries in the world in nine oceanic systems and on four continental shelves. It included the fish most prized as human food: tuna, marlin, swordfish, cod, and halibut. Some species, such as large sharks, are close to extinction, according to the report, unless the fishery catch falls by 50 percent to 60 percent.

English mathematician William Forster Lloyd had a theory about this type of plunder 180 years ago: in an 1833 essay he noted that in a common pasture owned by all the villagers, each villager overgrazed the pasture, ultimately ruining it for everyone. The idea of overusing a collective resource became known as the Tragedy of the Commons. Our oceans and lakes are today's pastures, and we have fished them to death.

According to one estimate, modern, industrial fishing took as many northern cod in the 15 years between 1960 and 1975 as had been caught in the 250 years after explorer John Cabot's arrival.

The fisheries crisis is not limited to Canada. It's a global problem, affecting millions of people who depend on fish for their livelihood and their main source of protein.

A recent article in The Economist pointed out that most efforts to manage fish stocks or control over-fishing have failed. "When rich or big countries, whether Japan, China, or various members of the European Union, exhaust their traditional fisheries, they move on to new ones," explains the article (a review of Charles Clover's 2004 book, The End of the lane: How Over-Fishing is Changing the World and What We Eat ISBN: 0091897807). "With the (European Union's) blessing, European countries--Spain is the most rapacious--buy fishing rights from African states for trifling sums and then set about their predations. They, and others, have also moved on to deplete the stocks in the world's last waters to be exploited--round Antarctica, in the Indian Ocean, and in the South Atlantic, just as they have fished out the stocks in the North Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Grand Banks off Canada."

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) catalogs the rise and fall of the fishing industry over the last half century: "For the two decades following 1950, world marine and inland capture fisheries production increased on average by as much as six percent per year, trebling from 18 million tonnes in 1950 to 56 million tonnes in 1969. During the 1970s and 1980s, the average rate of increase declined to two percent per year, falling to almost zero in the 1990s. This levelling off of the total catch follows the general trend of most of the world's fishing areas, which have apparently reached their maximum potential for capture fisheries production, with the majority of stocks being fully exploited. It is therefore very unlikely that substantial increases in total catch will be obtained."

In an article in May 2003, Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee commented that governments have encouraged over-fishing by heavily subsidizing the industry. "Subsidies worldwide amount to between $14 billion and $20 billion (U.S.)," he writes. "After Canada established a 200-mile fishing zone in the 1970s, governments funnelled millions in low-cost loans to fishermen for the purchase of bigger boats and better equipment and to fish processors for bigger, more efficient plants." As a result, he says, "the world's fishing fleet grew by 322 percent between 1979 and 1989 alone ... (and) over-fishing was the inevitable result ..."

Canada cracked down on over-fishing in May 2004 when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans committed an additional $15 million to surveillance. It also increased its patrol vessels to three from one. The following September, Canada's federal fisheries minister said the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization rules had loopholes that needed to be closed. The 15-nation group sets catch limits for the international waters outside Canada's 200-mile economic zone, but fishing industry experts have long said the agency has little muscle. The federal government agreed that European nations showed little willingness to en force rules aimed at preventing over-fishing. It says the main problem is that the agency's rules can simply be ignored: for example, if a country doesn't agree with agency-set limits, it can set its own catch limits.


1. Pacific salmon have disappeared from almost half their original range along the northwest coast of North America within the past century. The salmon fishery peaked in the early 1990s, but then started to decline rapidly. By 2001, a third of the Fraser River Sockeye salmon were missing along with 56 percent of the Chinook salmon. The David Suzuki Foundation said the Canadian government's attempts to manage the declining salmon fisheries made matters worse. It spent about $200 million between 1996 and 2001 to buy back more than 1,500 fishing licenses. But, the Foundation says this strategy removed mostly the older, smaller, less efficient boats, which weren't catching many fish anyway, and left the large, efficient vessels that can catch more fish in a day than smaller boats might catch in a year. Do a report on the current status of Pacific salmon.

2. Birgir Runolfsson, associate professor of economics and director of the Centre for Rights-Based Fishing at the University of Iceland, says privatizing fishing is one way to save the industry. In an article published by The Cato Institute called Fencing the Oceans, a Rights-Based Approach to Privatizing Fisheries, Prof. Runolfsson says that "many countries have experimented with property4ights-based management including Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the United States. But, New Zealand and Icelandic fisheries offer the best examples since both have used properly rights management more extensively than other countries." Establishing a system of fishing properly rights involves granting individual transferable quotas (ITQs) by which fishers are initially given or sold a percentage of the catch. Supporters say ownership promotes conservation. Explore this approach by researching the details of fisheries in New Zealand and Iceland. (Try Environment Probe at http://www. evpub.htm#fisheries, as well as The Cato Institute at regulation/reg20n3f.html.)


A direct side effect of over-fishing is what is known as "by-catch." By-catch refers to the fish, mammals, and other animals that are caught even though they are not the target of the fishers. Turtles, marine mammals, unwanted fish, and even birds are sometimes caught in the fishing nets.

For every four kilos of fish caught one kilo of by-catch is rejected. And in some types of gear, like shrimp trawls, the ratio is even worse: for every kilo of shrimp, four or more kilos of unwanted animals die. From sea turtles to sharks, commercial fishing kills millions of animals each year as by-catch. As much as 85 percent of the take of Spanish prawn fishermen may be by-catch, according to one estimate.


As wild fish become scarce, a for of people think the answer to a shortage is fish farming. But, critics say farmed fish is fatty, dyed, polluting, and stuffed with antibiotics, according to The Economist. While many see it as an environmental and health hazard, the article points out that commercial aquaculture is only about 30 years old and "new technologies, new breeds, and newly domesticated species of fish offer great hope for the future ... a blue revolution in this century to match the green revolution of the last."

Shrimp and salmon aquaculture have shown astounding double-digit growth in the past decade, but have presented environmental challenges too.

Salmon was first farmed in the 1970s.

In 2000, aquaculture industry produced 36 million tonnes of fish and shellfish. Since 1990 the industry has been growing about 10 percent a year on average, and some suggest it's probably the world's fastest growing form of food production, predicting that by 2030 aquaculture will supply most of the fish people eat.

Some fish are better farmed than others: according to fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia the good forms of aquaculture (which represented 80 percent of global fish farming in 2003) include plant-eating creatures such as tilapia and fitter-feeding fish such as scallops, mussels, and oysters. He says salmon and sea bass (as welt as shrimp) are poor choices because they feed on wild fish caught in the ocean. These carnivorous fish require large amounts of fishmeal, which makes for very inefficient aquaculture: for every kilo of shrimp and salmon produced in fish farms, a bit more than two kilos of fishmeal are required as input. And, of course, the source of the fishmeal is the endangered wild species. Yet, most of the salmon we eat are farmed. Salmon farms in countries such as Canada, Norway, Chile, and the United States produce most of the salmon sold on the world market.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, about 80 percent of the fish produced by aquaculture are herbivorous or omnivorous, mostly produced in low-intensity systems for local consumption.


By 2003, the number of northern cod of spawning age in Atlantic Canadian waters was only two percent of what they were in the 1980s.


In 2003; former fisheries minister John Crosbie (in the Conservative Brian Mulroney government), predicted that by the end of the century there wit not be a wild fish harvest anywhere on Earth.


By 2002, Canada's cod industry was not alone in its demise: Pacific sardine, haddock, Bering wolfish, Atlantic halibut, and yellowtail flounder all were on the international endangered-species list.


A decade ago, Costco, a large retailer, did not even stock fresh fish; now it sells 15,000 tonnes of farmed salmon fillets a year in North America.


Although the impacts of predators such as seals, and cold-water temperatures are thought to have contributed to the depletion of the cod stock in Atlantic Canada, it is widely accepted that heavy over-fishing by both Canadian and foreign fleets in the late 1980s killed off most of the mature cod.


Atlantic Institute for Market Studies--http:// cmPageID=167

World Resources Institute--http:// pubs_description.cfm? PubID=3866

People & the Planet--http:// pdoc.php?id=429
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Title Annotation:depletion of world fisheries due to over-fishing
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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