Ocean

Exploitation of resources

In barely five decades, how has humanity managed to quadruple the amount of fish taken from the sea to the current unprecedented total of 90 million tonnes per year?

Green algae on mussels at Saint-Brieuc bay, Côtes- d'Armor, France (48°32’ N, 2°40’ W). © Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Altitude Paris

Mother Ocean

The fishing and aquaculture industry is dependent on coastal settlement. It generated 106 billion dollars in 2008 and provided employment for 540 million people worldwide. In the same year, fish comprised 15% of the animal protein intake for 3 billion people. In some areas, fishing is done the traditional way, with small boats and inherited techniques that have barely changed over the years. The industrialised countries, however, have launched factory ships which comb the seas over vast distances across the globe and are largely responsible for overfishing.

As far as aquaculture is concerned, this now accounts for more than half of the fish sold worldwide. There are 11 million seafood farms, 90% of which are in Asia. While most Asian farms operate in fresh water, marine fish farms are almost exclusively situated on the coast, where they pose a pollution risk. The industry grew by 245% between 1992 and 2009.

Over the last fifty years, in other words in a very short period of time, fishing has changed rapidly in both scale and nature, seriously weakening the world’s oceans. Unfortunately, as this activity takes place beneath the surface and far from the coasts, the extent of the resulting disruption often goes unnoticed: in the supermarkets, the counters are always well stocked. To get a true picture of the crisis, we need to look at the global statistics provided by the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation). These statistics, often deemed conservative as they rely on government declarations and, in addition, take no account of recreational fishing or that intended for home consumption, nevertheless show that between 1950 and 1990 the volume of fishing worldwide more than quadrupled, rising from 20 million tonnes to 90 million tonnes per year.

Traditional fishing method, between Abidjan and Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast © Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Altitude Paris

In barely five decades, how has humanity managed to quadruple the amount of fish taken from the sea to the current unprecedented total of 90 million tonnes per year? As illustrated by the example of cod, the reason behind this figure is the methodical industrialisation of fishing, very generously subsidised (currently between 20 and 30 billion dollars of annual subsidies) and served by rapid technological advances, as well as the low price of hydrocarbons. The largest boats have been transformed into floating factories, constantly increasing in size, consuming vast amounts of energy, while also being capable of packing fish as soon as they are caught and remaining at sea for very long periods. This system allows ships to travel further from their home ports, exploiting new fishing areas and following large shoals of fish for considerable periods, sometimes until they have all been caught. The global fishing fleet now amounts to some 4.3 million boats. However, only 2% of them – the largest measuring more than 25 metres in length and over 100 GRT– are the true vanguard of this mechanised army deployed by mankind against fish, with these thousands of vessels awarding themselves the lion’s share, leading to most of the ecological debates.

The increasing size of the boats is accompanied by particularly destructive technological innovations. The use of nylon and other polymers to make nets has increased their size and longevity while reducing their price. Remote sensing systems for fish and navigation aids (sonars, radars and, more recently, GPS), which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, are used by fishermen to detect shoals, stay above them and accurately pinpoint target areas. Above all, the increased power of the boats gives them the ability to tow much larger nets and reach unprecedented depths, enabling the widespread use of one of the most ecologically destructive practices: deep-sea trawling, which consists of scraping the seabed with wide weighted nets of a heavy metal structure. This practice obviously requires a considerable towing capacity, meaning that, on average, global fishing consumes half a ton of fuel to catch one ton of fish…

From an industrial perspective, these practices are quite ‘anti-economical’. The global fleet is disturbingly oversized as a result of the competition between too many fishermen in pursuit of increasingly scarce fish, a situation which gives rise to an orgy of fuel consumption, with everyone attempting to secure the largest possible share of the resource. Without subsidies, in particular on fuel, the current model could not last.

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Tuna in a Japanese vessel, Japan (Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Altitudes Paris)
Tuna in a Japanese vessel, Japan © Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Altitude Paris

By these actions, the fishing industry is gradually committing suicide: there are a growing number of signs warning of the downfall of the resource. Global fishing has been slowly declining for twenty years and the trend continues, in spite of the increased efforts made (technology, number and power of vessels) and the unrelenting and unprecedented transfer of these efforts to new areas and new, even more vulnerable, species. A drastic collapse could therefore be imminent, with the example of Newfoundland (among others) showing that there are often real thresholds below which species can no longer reproduce and that, once these thresholds have been reached, the populations suddenly collapse.

In its latest report, the cautious FAO warns that the situation has never been so bad. According to this institution, more than half of fish stocks are currently being exploited to their maximum potential – catches cannot therefore be further increased without risk. One-third of fisheries are in a state of overexploitation, meaning that they are threatened with failure if there is not a very rapid reduction in the rate of extraction. Barely 15% of them would be able to survive increased fishing pressure! We have almost 3 billion people taking 15% or more of their animal protein from fish, while the fishing and aquaculture industries provide a living for around 54.8 million people. This means that the collapse of the fishing industry would also have tragic human consequences.

AQUACULTURE: A SOLUTION?

Faced with this situation, there was hope in some circles that mankind could nevertheless protect the essential supply of protein from fish by developing aquaculture. This sector has expanded rapidly, particularly in Asia, to the point where approximately 50% of the fish consumed by humans across the globe is farmed. If the consumption of fish per person continues to grow despite the stagnation of capture fisheries, it is because the increase in aquaculture has compensated for this… at least until now, as the growth rate of aquaculture is also slowing down.

In reality, aquaculture’s margin for progression is not unlimited, particularly for carnivorous fish farming (salmon, tuna, sea bass, sea bream, etc.). Indeed, to remain in good health and preserve their taste, these species need to eat… fish, which is usually provided to them in the form of meal prepared from small fish such as sardines, anchovies, herring, etc. On average, 3 to 5 kilogrammes of these small species are needed to raise 1 kilo of carnivorous fish! To some extent, therefore, aquaculture is contributing to a transfer of natural riches to northern countries: most meal is produced from fish caught in southern waters, where the species concerned were part of the human food chain, while farmed carnivorous fish are eaten by consumers in wealthy countries. What is more, in terms of pollution, fish breeding poses problems analogous to those of intensive farming: strong concentrations of nitrogen, vulnerability to diseases, the use of antibiotics to fight infections, and sometimes even hormones or other harmful additives.

In response to these issues, fish farmers are endeavouring to develop procedures to minimise their environmental impact. One option is to prioritise herbivorous or omnivorous species (carp, tilapias, catfish, sheatfish, etc.) over strict carnivores (salmonids, sea bass, sea bream, etc.), resulting in an increase in the proportion of plant proteins (often soya currently) in the fish diet and reducing the pressure on the ocean. In addition, current scientific research is exploring different solutions to introduce a plant element into the diet of carnivores by testing unexpected plants like potatoes in combination with other plants. Organic fish farms are also beginning to appear, as well as all sorts of initiatives aimed at optimising the use of resources. In Asia, the practice of extensive fish farming in rice fields, which use fish waste as a fertiliser, appears promising. We are also seeing producers combine seawater fish farming with oyster farming, as the latter filter the water of particles not eaten by the fish… Only time will tell if these various options will enable aquaculture to overcome the runaway growth in global demand.

We must hope that an answer is found soon. For each year that goes by, the situation of the oceans deteriorates and we are nearing a disastrous collapse.

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