Oceans Without Fish
by Peter Montague
Over-fishing is taking an enormous toll on
fish stocks, threatening to turn the world's
oceans into a marine junkyard.
The destruction of life in the oceans has
progressed farther than anyone had suspected,
according to a new report in Science magazine.
The causes are overfishing and pollution,
but the focus of the new report is overfishing
alone. Science is the voice of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science
The world's catch of ocean fish peaked in
1989 and has been declining since.
In the early 1990s, scientists reported that
13 of the world's 17 major fisheries were
depleted or in steep decline. Typical is
the Grand Banks fishery off the shallow coast
of Newfoundland in the north Atlantic.
There, after 350 years of commercial exploitation,
the haddock, cod and flounder have all but
disappeared and the fishery was officially
closed a few years ago.
The depletion of the world's most popular
fish species has set off three trends, each
of which is adding to the oceans' troubles:
(1) fisherman are adopting new technologies
that (2) allow them to fish in deeper waters,
and (3) they are fishing lower on the food
Don Tyson, the Arkansas chicken magnate and
supporter of Bill Clinton, has gone into the
fishing business in a big way. Commercial
fishing can be very profitable if conducted
on a grand scale. In 1992, Tyson bought
the Arctic-Alaska Fisheries Company, and three
other fishing companies. They operate
a fleet of industrial super-trawlers that
each cost $40 million to build and reach the
length of a football field. These trawlers
pull nylon nets thousands of feet long through
the water, capturing everything in their path
—400 tons of fish at a single netting.
These super-trawlers stay off-shore for months
at a time, processing and freezing their catch
as they go, thus giving them a major advantage
over smaller land-based boats.
Approximately 40 percent of what these super-trawlers
catch is considered trash and is ground up
and thrown back into the ocean. They call
it "bycatch" and, according to investigative
reporter Jeffrey St. Clair, it can include
endangered sea lions, and seals, as well as
unwanted fish. (In the northeast
Atlantic alone, the bycatch in a year's time
amounts to 3.7 million tons.)
Trawlers are now using technology developed
by the military to fish waters as deep as
a mile, catching species that few would have
considered edible or useful a decade ago.
Now that the shallow fisheries are in serious
decline, trawl nets fitted with wheels and
rollers are dragged across the bottom of the
deep oceans, removing everything of any size.
Squid, skate, rattails, hoki, blue ling, black
scabbard, red crabs, black oreos, smooth oreos,
deep shrimp, chimeras, slackjaw eels, blue
hake, southern blue whiting, sablefish, spiny
dogfish, and orange roughy are now being harvested
from the deep ocean and sold in seafood stores,
cooked into "fish sticks" at McDonald's,
or processed into fake "crab meat"
for seafood salads.
Part of the problem is consumer ignorance.
For example, orange roughy began to appear
in fish stores and on the menus at fancy restaurants
in the U.S. just a decade ago. Yet in
that short time the species has become threatened
with extinction. The orange roughy lives
up to a mile deep in cold waters off New Zealand.
Now scientists have learned that species living
in deep, cold waters grow and reproduce very
slowly. The orange roughy, for example,
lives to be 150 years old and only begins
to reproduce at age 30. Recently, the
principal stocks of orange roughy around New
Zealand collapsed. Still, today in Annapolis,
Maryland, fish stores, orange roughy is available
for $8.99 per pound, and there's no sign telling
consumers that the species is threatened.
"People wouldn't eat rhinoceros or any
other land creature that they knew was threatened
with extinction. But they're eating
fish like orange roughy without a clue to
what's happening," says Greenpeace fisheries
expert Mike Hagler in Auckland, New Zealand.
Radar allows ships to operate in the fog and
the dark; sonar locates the fish precisely;
and GPS (geographical positioning system)
satellites pinpoint locations so that ships
can return to productive spots. Formerly-secret
military maps reveal hidden deep-sea features,
such as mountains, which are associated with
upwelling currents of nutrient-rich water,
where fish thrive. Combined with larger nets
made from new, stronger materials, modern
fishing vessels guided electronically can
sweep the oceans clean —and that is
precisely what is happening. As a result,
the ocean's fish are disappearing, and so
are the family-scale fishing operations that
used to dominate the industry.
Because modern fishing equipment is immensely
expensive, the stakes are high. With
big money on the line, the fishing industry
has curried political favor. As a result,
modern fishing factories like Tyson's are
subsidized by federal and state governments.
Tyson's company has received more than $65
million in low-interest loans from the federal
government, to help build 10 of these super-trawlers.
According to Jeffrey St. Clair, the Seattle-based
factory-trawler fleet has received $200 million
in federal subsidies.
Furthermore, because so much is at stake,
deep-water factory trawlers cannot afford
to let up. They must keep fishing until
the last fish is gone.
But it gets worse. The new report in
Science shows that humans are now fishing
not only in deeper waters, but also lower
on the food chain.This has ominous implications,
because as the lower levels of the food chain
decline, the chances of revival at the top
of the food chain are diminished even further.
Scientists are now discussing the "wholesale
collapse" of marine ecosystems.
"It is likely that continuation of present
trends will lead to widespread fisheries collapses...,"
says Daniel Pauly, the author of the new study."If
things go unchecked, we might end up with
a marine junkyard dominated by plankton,"
Pauly's new study examined the diets of 220
fish species, then gave each species a numerical
ranking in the food web, between 1 and 5.
Those assigned a 1 are plankton—tiny
floating plants that photosynthesize, using
the energy of sunlight to convert water and
carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, thus forming
the bottom of all aquatic food chains.
Level 2 is zooplankton —tiny floating
animals that eat plankton. Top predators,
such as the snappers inhabiting the continental
shelf off Yucatan, Mexico, receive a ranking
These data were combined with Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) data on fish landings worldwide.
The result is an estimate of the average place
in the oceanic food web (the average "trophic
level") where humans are harvesting fish.
The new study reveals that the average trophic
level has been steadily declining for 45 years,
meaning that humans are progressively taking
fish from lower on the food chain. The steady
decline has been about 0.1 trophic levels
per decade. "Present fishing policy is
unsustainable," says Pauly. Of
the 220 species studied, at least 60% are
being overfished, or fished to the limit.
Pauly believes that the true situation is
somewhat worse than his study indicated, principally
because many countries under-report their
Even if a fishery does not collapse completely,
fishing down the food chain can have serious
consequences. In the north sea, the
cod population has been so depleted that fishermen
are now concentrating on a second-level species
called pout, which the cod used to eat.
The pout, in turn, eat tiny organisms called
copepods and krill. Krill also eat copepods.
As the pout are removed, the krill population
expands and then the copepod population declines
drastically. Because copepods are the
main food of young cod, the cod population
Fish farming might seem like a way out of
this problem, but it is not —at least
not as presently practiced —because
farmed fish are fed fish meal made from unpopular
fish such as herring or menhaden.
It would seem to be only a matter of time
before the herring and menhaden too are depleted.
Dr. Pauly believes that in 3 or 4 decades,
many oceanic fisheries will "collapse
in on themselves." The result will
be a loss of high-quality protein for humans,
even before the fisheries collapse completely.
Humans eat somewhere between trophic levels
2.5 and 4. Lower then that, there isn't
much that people eat. "There is a lower
limit for what can be caught and marketed,
and zooplankton [at trophic level 2] is not
going to be reaching our dinner plates in
the foreseeable future," Dr. Pauly wrote
Government could limit the kinds of fishing
technology that are allowed —to give
the fish a chance —but this would put
"the public interest" up against
the likes of Don Tyson. In today's political
climate, with private money dominating our
elections, Don Tyson would win because he's
wealthy and he supports all the right politicians.
Dr. Pauly believes there is an urgent need
to create protected areas where fishing is
simply not allowed. He sees no-fishing
zones as easier to implement and enforce than
fishing quotas, limiting fishing time at sea,
restrictions on allowable fishing gear, and
controls on pollution —though these
steps, too, are needed, he believes.
No-fishing zones can be created quickly and
can be enforced. In Britain, the fishing
industry has begun to accept no-fishing zones
as a way to save the industry in the face
of declining fish stocks.
The most important idea, proposed in Science
magazine February 6th, would be to shift the
burden of proof onto the fishing industry.
Those who profit from public resources such
as the oceans should have to demonstrate,
before they can begin fishing, that their
activities will not harm the public resource.
At present, it is assumed that fishing will
not damage life in the oceans, and the burden
is on the general public to prove otherwise.
At this point, abundant evidence has come
to light indicating damage, so it is definitely
time to shift the burden of proof onto the
fishing industry. For example, owners
of super-trawlers should have to show that
their yield will be sustainable before their
ships can put to sea.
Here again, it seems unlikely that the present
Congress —snuffling around in a trough
of filthy lucre, as it is —will act
to protect the public interest. Therefore,
it is urgent that we get private money out
of our elections completely. Elected
officials need to be answerable to the people
who elected them, not to wealthy benefactors.
Otherwise our children will inherit oceans
1 Daniel Pauly and others, "Fishing Down
Marine Food Webs," SCIENCE Vol. 279 (February
6, 1998), pgs. 860-863.
2 Timothy Egan, "U.S. Fishing Fleet Trawling
Coastal Water Without Fish," NEW YORK
TIMES March 7, 1994, pgs. A1, B7.
3 William J. Broad, "Creatures of the
Deep Find Their Way to the Table," NEW
YORK TIMES December 26, 1995, pgs. C1, C5.
4 Jeffrey St. Clair, "Fishy Business,"
IN THESE TIMES May 26, 1997, pgs. 14-16, 36.
5 William K. Stevens, "Man Moves Down
the Marine Food Chain, Creating Havoc,"
NEW YORK TIMES February 10, 1998, pg. C3.
6 Susan Diesenhouse, "In New England,
Battle Plans for Survival at Sea," NEW
YORK TIMES April 24, 1994, pg. F7.
7 Nigel Williams, "Overfishing Disrupts
Entire Ecosystems," SCIENCE Vol. 279
(February 6, 1998), pg. 809.
8 Paul K. Dayton, "Reversal of the Burden
of Proof in Fisheries Management," SCIENCE
Vol. 279 (February 6, 1998), pgs. 821-822.
Peter Montague is the editor of Rachel's
Environmental Weekly, in which this article
originally apeared. He can be reached
at: Environmental Research Foundation,
P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036