A headline that says fish stocks are declining rapidly is not very exciting, at least to most people. Those that are interested are generally focused on the sport of fishing rather than the process that puts fish on their dinner plates. The commercial side of fishing is just too remote and messy to be a popular topic of conversation. However, if more attention is not paid to this industry, we may well have no fish on our plates in the near future. That would be an economic disaster for the millions of people worldwide that rely on fish as a food source and it would rob the rest of us of a valuable contribution to our health. Even fish fingers might disappear, god forbid!

      World fish resources are generally described as fish “stocks” – the estimated number of fish of each species that exist in the oceans and seas. When “stocks” are described as “over-fished” it means that the size of the “catch” exceeds the depletion rate that natural reproduction can replace. Over-fishing, across species, has grown by 40% since the 1970’s. The percentage of fish stocks that are “fully fished” is 55% – the definition of “fully fished” is that natural reproduction can just keep up with the depletion rate caused by fishing.         

      Are you asleep yet? I said it wasn’t very exciting, but fish stocks declining rapidly is very important.

      Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing accounts for between 20% and 50% of the total world catch, which means half the commercial fishing is out of control.

      The combination of over-fishing and “out-of-control” fishing is drastically reducing the “stocks” and it will soon reach the minimum numbers needed to sustain the species. In other words, no more fish!

      I remember talking to Caribbean governments some years ago about their economies. The only renewable resources most islands have are tourism and fishing. They have some control over tourism but none over illegal fishing. Chinese and Japanese factory ships arrive off their shores and “bottom trawl” the off-shore fishing beds and reefs, destroying them completely. These ships operate at will because the local governments have no resources to stop them, regulate them or fine them. Standing on the beaches you can actually see these ships at times. The same wanton destruction of fish habitats is true in many other parts of the world. For example, Chinese factory ships, operating illegally inside territorial waters of West African nations, has been a major problem for years. They are not only stealing all the fish, they are destroying their breeding grounds in the process. It is rampant irresponsibility and criminal violation of international law.

      Technology can help curb this theft of national and worldwide resources: The illegal ships can be tracked by satellite; cameras can be installed to document what fish are caught, and where they are caught; and enforcement of transponder requirements for all ships to enable them to be tracking just like airplanes. However, all this requires governmental cooperation between nations, and that has proved extremely difficult to realize. It also takes a lot of money to police any enforcement system – ships, planes, electronics and man-power across oceans does not come cheap.

      According to an article in a recent edition of the Economist, there is a simpler approach. Cut the fuel subsidies enjoyed by fishing fleets, and abolish forced labour on the ships (another story completely). The article estimates that those two actions would eliminate half of high seas fishing fleets, notably the illegal ones, because it would no longer be profitable for them to operate. These two actions will not be easy to implement, but they are certainly easier and cheaper than deploying fleets of ships and planes twenty-four-seven all year round.

      All this maybe boring, but the creeping elimination of the world’s fish stocks will leave us with no fish fingers in the supermarket and no way to replace them. Sometimes we have to fight for boring changes in our world, before we wake up to an alarming reality.

      No more fish to eat, and more starving millions that we will need to support through aid programs. Fish stocks declining rapidly is serious business.

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