SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 163 November 2012

Not so many fish in the sea

FISHERIES ARE the main source of protein for a billion people worldwide and provide a livelihood for hundreds of millions. The world’s seas are home to countless species. They make a massive contribution to the rich and vital diversity of life on Earth, provide innumerable products, invaluable scientific data, and store a potential treasure trove of as yet undiscovered applications.

However, 85% of the world’s fisheries are estimated to be at or over a sustainable limit. The European Commission says that 82% of Mediterranean fish stocks are overfished, 63% in the Atlantic. Many fisheries are close to collapse, and stocks of large fish have been reduced by up to 90%. (BBC News online, 13 July 2011)

Chris Costello and Steve Gaines of the University of California researched more than 7,000 fisheries, representing around 80% of the global catch. Their study, currently under peer review for Science magazine, states that previously unassessed fisheries are also gravely depleted with, on average, about half the biomass they need to remain sustainable. Reports of collapsing fisheries are rising. Although some fish stocks can recover relatively quickly, that is not always the case. Shoals of northern cod, for instance, have not yet returned to the Grand Banks fishery off Newfoundland, which collapsed in 1992. (The Economist, 25 February)

There are a number of interconnected reasons for overfishing. The root cause, however, is the nature of the economic system that dominates the globe. The constant drive for profits ensures a race to exploit the world’s resources with little or no incentive to plan their use. The capitalist economy’s addiction to oil, coal and cars is fuelling global warming. Along the way, technological innovation is directed at ever more efficient (ruthless) exploitation, rather than towards environmental and ecological research, the planned management of fish stocks, and ensuring the wellbeing of fishing communities.

There has been a remorseless drive to build ever larger boats capable of covering far greater distances to haul in bigger catches. Battlefield technology has been harnessed to make shoals easier to hunt down. Bottom trawlers scrape their heavy gear across the seabed, tearing up coral and anything else in their way. Deep-sea trawlers net huge amounts of undesired catch, invariably thrown back dead.

The impacts of climate change, such as the acidification and warming of the oceans, could decrease fish stocks in other ways. A report by a team led by professor William Cheung, from the University of British Columbia, says that the size of more than 600 species of fish is likely to shrink by 14-24% by 2050, especially in tropical regions. That is because warmer water raises the metabolic rate of fish which then require more oxygen. Warm water, however, holds less oxygen than colder water, thus limiting the growth of the fish. Furthermore, as levels of carbon dioxide rise in the atmosphere, more of the gas dissolves in the oceans, increasing their acidity. That makes it much harder for tiny plankton and marine protozoa to grow chalky skeletons. These organisms play a major role at the base of the marine food chain. (The Guardian, 1 October)

The North Pacific Transition Zone, where cold, nutrient-rich polar water meets warmer, nutrient-poor water, is likely to shift dramatically as a result – by as much as 600 miles to the north during most seasons. According to Cheung’s team, this migration corridor, which stretches from California to Japan, could lose as much as 20% of its species diversity.

It would appear that this effect is already being felt in the Atlantic. A dispute between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, on one side, and the EU, Ireland and Norway, on the other, has led to severe overfishing of mackerel. The Irish government accuses Iceland of defying an EU-agreed quota. The Icelandic government counters that rising sea temperatures have changed the mackerels’ migration route – into Icelandic territorial waters and Icelanders’ nets. (The Guardian, 25 August)

Commercial fishing for sardines, herring, anchovies and other forage fish is also soaring. A report, Little Fish, Big Impact, by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, details how this category of fish now accounts for 37% by weight of all fish harvested worldwide, up from about 8% fifty years ago. (New York Times, 2 April)

Forage fish are another essential link in the food chain, eating plankton and being consumed by large fish like tuna and cod, as well as by seabirds and marine mammals. The report estimates that, as a source of food in the wild for larger commercially valuable fish, forage fish are worth more than $11 billion (£6.8bn), twice as much as their worth when processed for fish meal or oil.

The so-called ‘logic’ of the capitalist system, however, does not see things as a whole. So long as there are short-term profits to be made catching forage fish – even if they are overfished and contribute to the collapse of stocks of larger species – the practice will continue.

The price of fish meal has risen from $1,300 (£806) a tonne at the beginning of this year to $1,700 (£1,054) in August. This is due to the explosive growth in farmed fish (the aquaculture industry now produces about half of all the fish and shellfish people eat), and the substitution of fish meal as animal feed because of record-high corn prices (primarily due to drought in the US). Meanwhile, the rise in the price of fish oil, from $1,500 (£930) a tonne to $2,000 (£1,239), is fuelled by the rise in human consumption of Omega 3 nutrition supplements – to 14% of global fish oil production, from 2-3% five years ago. (The Guardian, 25 August)

Ordinarily, the soaring price of fish meal would force up farmed-salmon prices. However, global salmon production is up 30% in the first half of this year, and prices have actually fallen by 35-40%. This has boosted dramatically the sale of salmon, even in recession-ravaged countries such as Portugal, Spain and Greece.

One of the consequences is that cheaper, largely imported fish are displacing locally caught fish. In Spain, this has added to the devastation of much of its coastal economy, already ravaged by the sharp economic downturn. It is commonplace to hear of fishermen whose boats have been repossessed by the banks, victims of the property bubble and the slump in demand for their produce.

Of course, in these times of savage cut-backs politicians and capitalist economists invariably point the finger at fishing industry subsidies. Spain is, after all, the largest recipient of European fisheries fund money, receiving just over a quarter of its $5.5 billion (£3.4bn). But, as Manuel Varela Lafuente, from the University of Vigo, Spain’s biggest fishing port, points out, this is "a country full of small fishing communities that simply cannot survive the current economic crisis without subsidies". (New York Times, 29 September)

It is essential that living standards in fishing communities are safeguarded. It is also vital that fish stocks are allowed to recover and the seas are used in a sustainable manner. But how can this be achieved on the basis of a profit-driven system, where company competes against company, nation state against nation state?

The parlous state of the world’s seas sums up the inability of capitalism to deal with worldwide problems. The greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the atmosphere by industrial development and vehicles past and present do not respect national boundaries. The same goes for pollution. Fish stocks, too, do not recognise the arbitrary, imaginary lines drawn in the sea.

Global crises require global answers. A socialist system is required, in which the vast majority of people can plan democratically the world’s resources. It would take a long-term view of the production and distribution of goods and services, eliminating the waste, duplication and conflict inherent in capitalism. On that basis we could safeguard the diversity of life on this planet and ensure a world fit for future generations.

Manny Thain


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