Through 1989, when the annual global fish catch peaked at 86.1 million metric tons—a nearly fivefold increase over the recorded haul in 1950—the notion of unlimited bounty prevailed. Since then, we’ve witnessed a precipitous decline, especially in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. Canada’s Grand Banks and New England’s Georges Banks—once among the most plentiful fishing grounds anywhere—have undergone complete collapse. With the virtual disappearance of haddock, cod and yellowtail flounder, an emergency federal closure of more than 6,000 square miles off the Massachusetts coast was ordered late in 1994, shutting down a $200-million-a-year industry.
And that’s only part of the problem. The population of the majestic Atlantic bluefin tuna stands at less than 20 percent of its 1970 abundance. Large swordfish are so depleted that many restaurant steaks are likely to have been filleted from a juvenile that hasn’t yet had a chance to spawn. Several salmon species are on the brink of commercial extinction. Pollock in Russia, redfish in the Carribean, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico—the list of troubled waters goes on and on.
At the top of the food chain, sharks play a pivotal role, affecting every marine creature below them. When overfishing depleted sharks in Tasmania some years back, their main prey—octopus—boomed and devoured so many spiny lobsters that it caused the fishery to crash. A recent marked increase in the numbers of stingrays and jellyfish along the Florida Panhandle has been attributed to a dearth of sharks, which between 1985 and 1990 became the state’s fourth largest commercial fishing industry.
Industries have capitalized on lucrative new markets for shark meat, and fins exported to the Orient for shark-fin soup. And shark cartilage is being put into pill form and touted in health-food stores as a possible “cancer preventative.” The cartilage trade has taken a heavy toll, notes Dr. Robert Hueter of Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory, “In Costa Rica, they are harvesting more sharks in one area in a single month than are allowed under the quota for the U.S. East Coast fishery in a year—literally hundreds of thousands. It’s a real slash-and-burn mentality of the worst kind.”
The result of all this? Large coastal sharks like the sandbar that migrate along the Atlantic coast are down to only 15 to 20 percent of their numbers of only 15 years ago; pelagic species such as the mako aren’t faring much better. Things are so bad that Dr. Jack Musick of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science believes that many large shark varieties ought to be classified as “threatened” or “endangered” species. But the warnings of Musick and other scientists are still being given short shrift by the federal managers.
While fish can become scarce, species have seldom disappeared entirely. The exact populations of many fish, from minnows to sharks, remains somewhat mysterious, and therefore out of the glare of publicity given to the fading tiger, rhinoceros and whale. But if we continue to vacuum the seas with nets that scoop up everything in their path, the oceans will soon be as empty as a college campus in August.