Vacuuming The Oceans
issue 234 - August 1992
Vacuuming the oceans
You can't treat the natural world like an economic equation and get
away with it - not for long anyway. James Carr and Kieran Mulvaney
chart the rise and fall of industrial fishing.
LI KAIYUAN / CAMERA PRESS
Halfway to the horizon on our port side is a Russian ship, close to 300 feet in length overall... Ships are all around us, near and far. I count some 33, it is a sight to see: a floating metropolis, a city at sea... How any fish can escape the hidden eyes of this armada, since every ship in the fleet is equipped with multiple underwater electronic fish-finders, is difficult to imagine.'1
This is the face of much of the commercial fishing industry today. The traditional image - of a few people in a small boat battling hard weather as they fish in coastal waters - is now largely outdated. Today, factory fishing fleets swarm over the ocean, from the coasts to the depths of the high seas, vacuuming up ever-increasing amounts of the world's marine resources.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirms the enormous growth in the size of commercial fisheries over the last 40 years. From a figure of 20 million tons in 1950, the total catch from commercial fisheries doubled to 40 million tons in 1960; by 1990 it had reached 100 million tons. But this growth has been far from steady. Instead, many fisheries have followed a 'boom and bust' pattern, with too many huge vessels crammed with state-of-the-art fish-finding technology being built to exploit limited fish stocks.
The result? A cycle of self-destructive exploitation. Rising prices for fish lead to more intense fishing and dwindling stocks, and this gives rise to still higher prices, and thus even more intense exploitation.
The inevitable consequence has been a spectacular collapse of many major fish stocks. For example, the maximum catch ever taken of mackerel in the North Sea - one million tons in 1967 - meant that the size of the mackerel stock fell by 1970 to about one-tenth of its original level. The Norwegian stock of spring-spawning herring collapsed from a total 10 million tons in the 1950s to virtually zero in 1970. Similarly, a period of intense exploitation of anchoveta stocks off Peru in the early 1970s caused a collapse in the stock and, in 1977, a temporary ban on fishing.2
As these stocks diminished, Northern fishing nations like Canada, Japan and the US began increasing and improving their distant-water fishing fleets. The construction of larger, longer-range vessels - particularly giant factory-freezer trawlers and purse-seiners - enabled ships to move further afield, mostly into Southern waters where stocks were not as heavily fished.
In response to the obvious dangers this presented, the UN Law of the Sea provided for the extension of national jurisdiction over coastal waters. The Convention itself was opened for signature in 1982, but many coastal states enacted national legislation prior to that on the basis of an agreed draft text. This resulted in the establishment, from 1977 onwards, of 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones. The idea was that empowering coastal states to assume control of the exploitation of their waters would provide them with a logical incentive to ensure that fish stocks and other marine resources in these waters were properly conserved and managed for their own long-term interest.
LI KAIYUAN / CAMERA PRESS
But in return for the extension of such national control, coastal states are obliged to provide other nations with access to 'surplus stocks' of fish - the portions which are deemed to be sustainably exploitable, but which the coastal states themselves do not have the capacity to harvest.
Anxious to earn hard currency to service their national debt, the governments of many Third World coastal nations decided to sell the right to fish in their waters to high-tech, foreign factory fleets. At the same time, many Southern countries also acquired their own 'modernized' fleets. With this enormous increase in fishing capacity it was only a matter of time before over-fishing began to chip away at fish stocks in Southern seas. The potential for total collapse was obvious.
Much of this fisheries 'development' in the South is the result of foreign aid. Fishing infrastructure (new wharfs, freezer plants and processing ports for example) is being promoted by the Asian Development Bank and by the FAG. The European Community and countries like Japan, the US and Norway are also getting in on the act. The rationale for these 'development' programmes is that increased fish production will help local economies by providing more jobs and more food. In fact, this super-efficient factory fishing does nothing of the kind. Instead it worsens the drain of resources from North to South: more fish from Third World waters winds up on the dinner tables and in the livestock feedlots of the North.
The maritime state of Kerala on the south-west tip of India is a classic example of this process.3 From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, most of the effort to boost fish harvests in Kerala was centred around helping small 'artisanal' fisherfolk use their traditional non-mechanized craft and a wide array of fishing gear and tackle. The focus worked: the overall fish harvest, especially the harvest of prawns, increased substantially. Then in the mid-1960s the international market for prawns suddenly took off. And fisheries 'development' in the waters off Kerala shifted accordingly; the main goal became increasing the prawn harvest to earn precious foreign exchange. The fishery was soon dominated by outside investors; small trawlers replaced the hand-rowed boats and traditional equipment of 'artisanal' fisherfolk.
For a decade all seemed fine. Then catches started to fall and by 1979 the once-rich waters off Kerala were showing all the signs of overfishing. An ecological crisis was in the works. The income and productivity of both small and larger-scale fisherfolk plummeted. More alarmingly still, villagers all over this traditionally fish-eating region began to go hungry. Fish disappeared from the markets and prices shot up beyond the reach of local people.
This depressing pattern - fisheries 'development' leading to increased exports and decreased local consumption - has been repeated again and again across the Third World, from the South Pacific to West Africa. And there are few signs this trend will change soon. Third World nations are being forced by powerful agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to 'pay their way' by exporting even more of their natural resources.
The fact is that much of the fish exported from the South ends up feeding not people, but animals. Only two-thirds of the global fish catch is consumed directly: the rest is converted into fish meal (to feed cattle, chickens and, ironically, penreared fish) and into fertilizer. In Thailand, the amount of fish processed into animal food increased by 25 per cent from 680,000 to 910,000 tons in the space of a decade.4
The major problem with factory fishing is that there is so far no effective way of controlling it. As well as depleting the once-fabulous bounty of the sea, the modern industrial fishing fleet contributes to a scandalous waste of resources in a world where all too many people go hungry.
How to resolve the problem? Restrictions and quotas are a start but they usually have the effect of shifting the problem elsewhere. Instead of runaway competition there needs to be greater co-ordination and co-operation by strengthening regional fisheries bodies. The size of the global fish catch and the now-common use of high-tech, destructive technologies must be brought into line with the imperatives of ecological sustainability.
Unless this happens soon marine fish harvests around the world will continue to dwindle. The future of the ocean ecosystem with its myriad interdependent species may be at stake. And what is now heralded as the 'last frontier' may become the 'lost frontier'.
James Carr and Kieran Mulvaney work for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam.
1 William A Warner, Distant Water: the fate of the North Atlantic fisherman, Little, Brown & Co, Boston, 1977.
2 G Seders et al, World Marine Fisheries Under the Exclusive Economic Zone Regime, Lisbon, 1989.
3 See J Kurien and TR Thankappen Achari, On Ruining the Commons and the Commoner: the political economy of overfishing, Centre for Development Studies, Ulloor.
4 E Laureti, Fish and fishery products: world apparent consumption statistics based on food balance sheets (1975-1986), FAO, Rome 1990.