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Seven Billion Reasons for a Fisheries Collapse

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Sharon LaFraniere’s article for the New York Times, Empty Seas, is subtitled Europe Takes Africa’s Fish, and Boatloads of Migrants Follow. It’s another well documented piece about world fisheries collapsing and the roundup of suspects is (as usual) greed, politics (greed in another form) and overfishing.

But the world has always been greedy.

The facts seem simple to me, seen from the unscientific perspective of the commentator, that the true cause of collapse is too many people eating fish. Well, duh! What would I have them eat, turkey-loaf instead?

That’s not the point. The point is, when I was a kid there were three billion people in the world and fishing was a viable livelihood for people across the planet, wherever there was access to the sea and a boat. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, you name it; Mediterranean, Caribbean, Nova Scotia, the coastal areas adjoining the four-fifths of the planet that is water enjoyed the bounty of sustainable fisheries.
(January 14, 2008) KAYAR, Senegal — Ale Nodye, the son and grandson of fishermen in this northern Senegalese village, said that for the past six years he netted barely enough fish to buy fuel for his boat. So he jumped at the chance for a new beginning. He volunteered to captain a wooden canoe full of 87 Africans to the Canary Islands in the hopes of making their way illegally to Europe.
The 2006 voyage ended badly. He and his passengers were arrested and deported. His cousin died on a similar mission not long afterward.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nodye, 27, said he intended to try again.
“I could be a fisherman there,” he said. “Life is better there. There are no fish in the sea here anymore.”

There are no fish in Europe either, Ale.

I have a personal prejudice about fishing, which is (for me) the brother of hunting.

It is this; we hunter-gatherers were forced to give up hunting wild game for sustenance because the one-fifth of the planet upon which we habituated became too small to sustain game in the amounts necessary to established community. So we adapted to farming and the raising of domestic animals for food. No one today would seriously argue that commercial meat industries might as well ravage the last remaining forests for wild game.

Fishing—which is essentially the hunting of wild fish—lasted longer, merely because the hunting oceans were four times the size of the hunting lands and harbored no human communities within them. Coincidentally with the petering-out of the ‘easier’ coastal fisheries, industrialized fish-hunting became possible to lengthen the reach of fishermen. But it was still (and remains today) hunting in the wild.

Whether we are able to replicate the domestication of fish-foods with something that approaches domesticated meat production remains to be seen. Ale Nodye’s ancestral fish-hunting grounds have been picked clean by an industrialized fishing industry that takes everything—metaphorically burning down the forests to harvest the last deer.

That model will collapse, is indeed collapsing today. It is a truism that man moves incrementally until there are no more increments.
Many scientists agree. A vast flotilla of industrial trawlers from the European Union, China, Russia and elsewhere, together with an abundance of local boats, have so thoroughly scoured northwest Africa’s ocean floor that major fish populations are collapsing.

That has crippled coastal economies and added to the surge of illegal migrants who brave the high seas in wooden pirogues hoping to reach Europe. While reasons for immigration are as varied as fish species, Europe’s lure has clearly intensified as northwest Africa’s fish population has dwindled.

All this happened in the fifty years since I was young. An eyewink in human history, no more than a pimple on the ass of modern prosperity. And yet we find ourselves collapsing like the fisheries we strive to regulate.

Only beginning to understand global warming, our attention is elsewhere. Is it too much to ask that we take the temperature of our own survival?

A case could be made that, as Ale Nodye abandons his hereditary life as a fisherman, his hunting-waters will recover and his grandson may find a way back to such a life. But I will not make it, for it’s a poor case.

His grandson will face a world struggling under the strain of feeding fifteen billion and nowhere in the world has a hunter-gatherer society successfully gone back to hunting and gathering.

I have no scientific evidence for this opinion, so sharpen your PHDs and have at me. Yet I believe it and would have you believe it as well. That’s the conceit we commentators allow ourselves, the freedom to express our prejudices and let the reader sort them out for himself. It is in some ways less obtrusive to considered opinion than is the scientist, who insists on having his way.

So we must lay up the scavenging factory trawlers and go to farming the seas—or else cure the planetary cancer that is population-growth before it overwhelms the patient.
Overfishing is hardly limited to African waters. Worldwide, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75 percent of fish stocks are overfished or fished to their maximum. But in a poor region like northwest Africa, the consequences are particularly stark.

Fish are the main source of protein for much of the region, but some species are now so scarce that the poor can no longer afford them, said Pierre Failler, senior research fellow for the British Center for Economics and Management of Aquatic Resources.

Which may be of academic interest to senior research fellows, but I suspect in the meantime they are eating three meals a day. Just as it makes no sense to argue the caliber of the bullet with which the last wild land-animal will be killed, it hardly serves the hungry to talk to death the planet's already-collapsing fisheries.
Studies dating to 1991 indicated that Senegal’s fishery was in trouble. In 2002, a scientific report commissioned by the European Union stated that the biomass of important species had declined by three-fourths in 15 years — a finding the authors said should “cause significant alarm.”

But the week the report was issued, European Union officials signed a new four-year fishing deal with Senegal, agreeing to pay $16 million a year to fish for bottom-dwelling species and tuna.

And so Brussels’ elegantly commissioned report lies a-moldering in the archives and in the intervening years decline has become collapse and another billion and a half have added themselves to the rolls of the world’s hungry.

It fascinates me that man is an animal blessed with the academic means as well as the intellectual curiosity essential to understanding the roots of his own demise. Yet he is so consumer-centric as to be incapable of restraining himself from his own assured destruction. His long term well-being is forever captive to his short term sense of entitlement.

I am the same. I have my little guarded and conspiratorially secreted portion of the Earth’s last-best-places staked out and, from there, I am able to comfortably pontificate upon the shortcomings of my peers. It pains me to see the direction in which we are headed and yet the choices we debate and the time-frame within which we debate them are absurd.

There is no road map to the consensus politics of a promised land. It does not exist. Road maps to this or that hoped-for conclusion are all the rage today, but we have over-bred ourselves into a corner from which there is no plausible escape except to reverse that direction, as have some of the more enlightened countries such as Italy.

We know what we need. We need to fight our way back to a sustainable world population and disown the call to cheap labor, ever-expanding markets and exploding pockets of human misery they bring. The goal is (or should be) equitable labor spread across a supportable system of producers and consumers. I don't mean capitalism is dead. Freedom to self-interest is a benchmark human trait, but the market serves its own interest and it's not done us well.

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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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