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Overfishing takes place when the fish are captured at a faster rate than they are able to reproduce. Today, 90 percent of the sea species at the top position in the marine ecosystems food chain or biggest predators, such as tuna, cod, sword fish and sharks have practically been eliminated or are in a situation of critical decline.
The result is an unstable ecosystem that involves the reorganisation of the seas ecosystems with unknown consequences of the oceans balance. Scientists estimate that if overfishing continues at this rate, certain fish will have become extinct by the year 2048.
Nowadays, between 50 and 70 percent of the biggest predators like the sword fish are being captured below the approved minimum size and at least one third are captured illegally worldwide. Bluefin tuna is at the brink of extinction with a population which makes their recovery practically irreversible, reminiscent of what has already happened to cod in the east coast of Canada in the 1990’s. Some countries believe that bluefin tuna, once the most common and popular species in the world, should be listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES. This proposal was recently rejected by the Mediterranean countries, amongst which includes Spain.
Dramatic alterations in the marine ecosystems
With the disappearance of the majority of the ocean’s main predators and the loss of their habitat, not only are we changing the relative balance of the ocean but also altering the evolutionary process of its species, forcing cycles of premature reproduction and contributing to the decrease in size of the individual fish.
But that isn’t all.
As the biggest predators diminish, the population of smaller fish such as sardines, pollack, mackerel, squid and anchovies escalates, that is, the food which the larger fish have always lived off. Currently, tones of these small fish are being captured and supplied to fish farms and about 7 out of the 10 biggest fisheries of the world, are barely leaving 20% of these species as food for their predators.
The mass killing of these little fish forces the surviving predators to compete against the enormous industrialised fishing vessels, and often become accidental victims in the search for shoals of fish.
The disappearance of vital species suggests the decrease of others, such as seabirds and sea mammals which are vulnerable to the lack of food. Scientists warned of a severe malnutrition caused by the lack of food for sea predators such as dolphins, whales, seals, sea lions and birds which is making them more susceptible to illnesses and leaving them without enough energy to reproduce. For example the case of the bottlenose dolphin in the Mediterranean Sea, whose population has dramatically decreased due to the overfishing of sardines and anchovies. Many sea birds like the puffin puffin in Scotland, the Balearic Shearwater, the Norwegian puffin and the Brünnich's Guillemot in Iceland have experienced decreases of up to 60 percent of their population for not being able to provide enough food for their chicks.
Industrial fishing: A lost battle for the ocean and its inhabitants
Fishermen have been able to keep up with seafood demand only by heading to new shores and deeper waters. Unfortunately, we're rapidly reaching the limits of the oceans. When fishermen first gap a fishery, they set their sights on big, valuable fish. After these grabs become scarce, fleets turn to previously spurned middle-sized species. To boost a dwindling catch, the fishermen reach deeper and deeper, their trawlers scraping the ocean floor, destroying the seabed and much of its life. This damage at the top and bottom of the food web has a cascading effect, allowing algae and jellyfish to take over once plentiful waters and creating oxygen-barren dead zones. Subsidies in the rich world only add to the mess, propping up a global fishing fleet that is now two to four times larger than is needed to net the world's current catch.
An enormous technological and deadly arsenal evolves every year to enable the fish to be located more effectively. For the fish, it’s a tale that has become a lost battle in the fight against technology such as GPS, radars, satellites and computerised information that enables them to locate the shoals of fish brought together to protect themselves against their natural predators. These last ocean survivors are under continuous pressure because of the use of helicopters and small planes which trawl the ocean floor with the use of satellites and sensors to capture them, turning the ocean floor into a three-dimensional projection aboard the vessels.
The deployment of fishing lines armed with thousands of large hooks can reach up to 120 km and the trawling vessels or machines which are ideal for major and promiscuous fishing, can reach 170 km long and are able to store aboard, a volume that amounts to 12 jumbo jets. These long distance trawlers employ powerful boats to drag the heavy nets weighed down by large pieces of lead along the sea floor. Each year, these colossal ships comb an area twice the size of the United States. Delicate seaweed such as posidonia and natural cathedrals like such as corals conceal the young and inquisitive species which are destroyed by the trawling vessels in oceans all around the world.
Nets from 50 metres long and a diameter of 4 metres pull out the weight of a medium sized plane and when the ships are full, the fish are simply transferred onto refrigerated vessels in the middle of the ocean which they process for later consumption. This way, the ships can continue taking from the sea without having to go back to the port.
The annual total global catch of fish (124 millions metric tons) is equal in weight to 378 Empire State Buildings.
The Organisation for the Food and Agriculture of the United Nations, FAO, pointed out that 25 percent of the world captured fish (around 29 million tonnes) end up thrown overboard and its usually those caught unintentionally, illegal market species, those with inferior quality or under the permitted size. 95 percent of the fish caught unintentionally are thrown away amongst which include endangered species and those which are over exploited.
More worrying is the fact that industrial fishing barely takes between 10 and 15 years to wipe out a tenth of whichever species it finds. The FAO estimates that currently 80 percent of the 523 species of the world’s fish are completely exploited, over-exploited or extinct. The situation appears more critical for some species which are highly migratory and for other species that are only or partially exploited in the deep sea. For example, half of population of the highly migratory oceanic sharks appear to be over exploited or extinct, according to the available information.
All these causes should be a reason of concern and it should trigger an immediate action, but the reality is that most of the people and governments remain inactive in view of the ecological disaster. Some of them don’t want to see the reality, and others just turn down the advice from ecological and scientist organizations (like the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna, ICCAT), breaking their regulations, avoiding international conventions, negotiating them with other countries or subsidized, with millionaire amounts, fishing fleets. Not forgetting that Spain is one of the countries that most subventions receive from the EU. These subventions are often addressed to build bigger fishing vessels to contribute with the overfishing.
According to Oceana, the fishing companies of the lobby known as the G-10 (Pescanoca, Freimae, Pescapuerta,...) register most of their vessels in developing countries like Namibia, Senegal and Mozambique, which are lacking in scientist assessments, fishing management or controls like the ones require in Europe. The most revealing point about the agreements between the European Union and Senegal is that they don’t impose catch fees in order to preserve stocks. Spain is the biggest consumer of hake from Namibia, receiving 61 percent of the countries entire hake exports.
Almost 77 percent of the world consumption of fish comes from developing countries. 80 percent of the fish caught in 2006 came from the developing world and were consumed in the rich world.
Today, the number of fish we pull in is actually shrinking. Illegal and unreported fishing, whose magnitude has only recently been estimated by researchers, has contributed massively to the depletion of the oceans, accounting for an estimated 30 per cent of global annual catches in recent years.
Roughly two thirds of the ocean is practically free of laws and the vessels only follow the laws ratified for their flag country. However many fishing countries have not ratified any international convention to protect the sea. Currently, 170 vessels with flag of convenience have a European charterer, half of them are Spanish and, in addition, 600 illegal vessels fish in the Mediterranean Sea.
At present 200 Spanish trawlers fish along the West Africa coast.
The European Union’s favourite strategy is fishing in territorial water of countries which are politically unstable. The Spanish and French tuna fleets take advantage of Somalia’s political situation, which is the only one in the world which does not have a legitimate government, by regularly looting their waters. Recently the European Commission resumed the fishing agreement with Cote d’Ivoire when this country was suffering a terrible civil war.
Angola, where millions of people die from famine, is one of the countries which the European Union has signed agreements with. The country’s elite receive 32 million dollars to allow 82 EU vessels fish tuna, prawns and deep-sea species in its waters.
The destructive fishing in the coastal coral which is situated in the south-east of Asia, the illegal fishing in marine reserves like the Galapagos Island Marine Reserve, the destruction of vital important areas of spawning like mangroves and krill fishing is an essential part in the food chain that sustains the biomass. This acts in the same way as the illegal whales hunting in areas declared international sanctuaries like the Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary which add more pressure to the already exploited oceans and to the food chain.
The fish farm myth as a solution
The most misguided proposals for solving the overfishing problem, promote the fish farm construction as a sustainable and eco-friendly solution, which is already at its peak in China, Norway, Chile, Japan as well as in the Spanish coast, mainly in Galicia and in the East coast of Murcia.
In fact, they do just the opposite due to the fact that they consist basically in catching wild fish to feed farm fish. There is no productivity but certainly an ecological disaster.
Besides the ecological and environmental risks like the fish escaping and crossbreeding between wild and farm species, an increase in diseases such as parasite infections or lice, can pass on to wild fish from farm fish as a result of massive confinement. Not forgetting the loss of coastal environment and the mangroves destruction, of vitally importance for the spawning and breeding of many species. These fish farms don’t help, but add serious threat for the survival wild species.
The confined growth of every one of these carnivores requires between 2 and 10 percent of their weight in little fish, which are usually crushed to be poured into these marine cages which hold around 225.000 metric tonnes of little wild fish every year. This increases the pressure on wild predators like dolphins, sea lions, seals, and sea birds, whose depend on these minor species to survive.
Today, fish farms have probably become the main culprits in the overfishing of minor species, with over 81 percent of capture (a 40 percent of the worldwide fishing), being turned into flour or oil as a basic food for farm fish. The remaining 19 percent is used by fodder manufactures for farm birds, pigs, cattle and pets.
The president of Pescanova believes the aquaculture to be the future because of the rise in fish consumption. This increase, that is about 25 percent every 6 years, will accumulate to 160 millions of tonnes, of which 60 million tonnes will come from fish farms, and 100 million will be caught.
We will soon see if this argument can hold up:
'The End of the Line'' Preview
Radical solution to a critical problem
As a conclusion, we are killing the oceans.
Since forgotten times, the fishing communities, governments and in generally, every fish consumer, have fiercely believed that the oceans contain inexhaustible resources.
Have we ever thought of what a marine animal really is? It is a wild animal, not a vegetable, despite the widespread belief of many so-called vegetarians.
If we come to an understanding once and for all, that a marine being requires the same necessities and protection than that of a land being, and that the extinction of the marine ecosystems as we know it, including the extinction of our own kind, maybe then, we react faster in favour of their conservation.
The truth is that, there aren’t enough fish in the oceans for a worldwide fishing fleet of over 4 million ships (with a 75 percent increase in the last 30 years) which feeds our forever increasing human population, which is at present, almost 7 billion.
Nowadays, stop eating fish is not just a choice to protect animal rights but an environmental friendly option to protect the whole marine world which we are killing.
Campaign against overfishing
Paul Watson, We Need to Stop Eating the Oceans, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, <http://www.seashepherd.org/news-and-media/editorial-090407-1.html>, Abr. 2009, (Consultado Jul. 2009)
G. Giuliani, A. De Bono,S. Kluser, P. Peduzzi, Overfishing, a major threat to the global marine ecology , UNEP, <http://www.grid.unep.ch/product/publication/download/ew_overfishing.en.pdf>, Ago. 2004, (Consultado Ago. 2009)
Margot L. Stiles, Laure Katz, Tess Geers, Sarah Winter, Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb, Andrew Collier, Ben Enticknap,E. Kate Barnes,Sarah Hale, Prisca Faure, Jaroslava Waters, Michael F. HirshfieldHungry Oceans, What happens when the prey is gone, Oceana, <http://oceana.org/fileadmin/oceana/uploads/Hungry_oceans/hungry_oceans_OCEANA_01.pdf>, 2008, (Consultado Jul. 2009)
Climate Change and Overfishing among key issues for the Pacific Islands, UNEP News Release, <http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=421&ArticleID=4695&l=en>, 2005, (Consultado Jul. 2009)
Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities, Nature 423, 280-283, May. 2003, (Consultado Jul. 2009)
Charles Clover, The End of the Line – How overfishing is changing the world and what we eat, University of California Press, Mar. 2008,
Lars Abromeit, Torsen Hample y Katja Trippel, Alerta Roja- La pesca esquilma los mares, Revista GEO, 69-89, May. 2009
Pauly, D. 2009. Prime Numbers: Sushinomics. Foreign Policy. March/April 2009.
Review of Fisheries in OECD Countries – Policies and Summery Statistics, OECD, OECD Publishing, 2009