Fished Out

To early humans, the oceans seemed vast, without limit, their bounty unfathomable. Today, the seas that cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface seem very finite indeed, as more than one million fishing vessels worldwide—double the 1970 total—try to keep from running into each other as they pursue a dwindling catch.

The world’s big industrial fishing powers—Japan, China, Peru, Chile, Russia and the U.S.—are catching more fish than ever because of highly efficient, mega-scale technology. The seafood haul has quadrupled since 1950 and now stands at an incredible 78 million metric tons. But even as the fleet reaches a peak of proficiency, the resources it depends on are disappearing. It’s no accident that, as popular species like cod and haddock become scarce, seafood restaurants from Bombay to New York are serving up once-disdained fish like orange roughy and seabream.

According to Suzanne’s Fowle’s Fish For the Future report prepared for the Center for Marine Conservation, “With sonar fish finders, hydraulic gear, spotter planes, on-board processing equipment and satellite communications systems, we now have the ability to find and kill every last fish in some fisheries.” And that’s basically been done with such species as the Atlantic halibut and Pacific Ocean perch, which have not yet recovered despite a long moratorium on catching them commercially. New England fishermen are now spending twice as much time at sea and are catching half of what they did as recently as 15 years ago.

The problem isn’t limited to the world’s oceans. Relentless damming of rivers has endangered scores of freshwater fish, including salmon, striped bass, the Colorado River squawfish and the razorback sucker.

Coastal wetland pollution—which finds its way into fish tissue—is a severe problem as well, calling into question the continued safety of seafood for human consumption.

Dick Russell’s cover story, “Vacuuming the Seas,” the first in a series, is an in-depth overview of the world’s fishing crisis. In addition to compiling the numbing statistics, Russell also offers some practical, workable solutions to preserving the oceans’ bounty. Unless commercial fishing is to disappear as a viable option in the 21st century, the world’s fishing nations have to cooperate, limit their catches, and observe conservation measures. No other solution is possible.

Also in this issue, E goes beyond the headlines about “mad cow” disease, pointing out that the beef industry’s latest crisis is not an isolated outbreak limited to England, but the inevitable result of factory farming methods that turn cows into cannibals. New evidence shows that “mad cow” and its variants can all-too-easily “jump species” from animal to human. Can it happen here? Yes, indeed, since the practices that led to 10 new cases of brain-wasting disease in Great Britain are alive and well in the U.S.

In two gigantic industries—fishing and farming—modern technology has threatened the very existence of resources once believed to be without limit.