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I was 7 when I first read “Captains Courageous.” Kipling gave an accurate account of Gloucester fishermen, their almost mythical schooners, and the seemingly endless bounty of Georgian and Grand Banks cod. Iron men in sleek dories baited hooks and pulled hand lines until they were awash with flapping tails. The dories fed the schooners where the fish were processed, salted and put into the hold until they would hold no more. The schooners called “knockabouts” were also fast, really fast. They had sails measuring tens of thousands of square feet. Once filled to the gunwales with cod, they sped to be first to market. Those that arrived first could ask the highest price.

Bluenose sailing ship, 1938. (Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA)

Bluenose sailing ship, 1938. (Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA)

Knockabouts were so quick, they took on the best international yacht racing could offer. Perhaps the most famous of these working class schooners was the “Bluenose.” For two decades no other design could compete. One yachtsman was asked why he lost the America’s Cup to the “Bluenose.” He replied that he raced for fun. These fishermen do it for a living.

Cod was nearly a staple in the American diet. North Atlantic cod fishing had flourished for nearly 500 years. Fisheries like the Grand Banks were considered inexhaustible. Cod fish oil was considered a miracle cure and source of vitality and long life. Each season as many as 400 “knockabout schooners” went to sea. A “knockabout” could hold up to 250,000 pounds of cod in their hold. Each year a dozen or more of these sleek craft never returned.

Fishing vessels and equipment made a great leap forward when power replaced sail. More vessels brought in more fish. Gradually a decline became apparent. By 1970 foreign fishing vessels were banned, but American fishing continued to harvest with even more efficient technologies. By the 1990s, both Canada and the U.S. agreed to close fishing for all bottom-dwelling species, including cod. There were hopes that the fishery would recover. Full recovery has not happened. Warming waters in the Atlantic further compromise the resilience of cod stocks. The cod fishery remains threatened. The demand for cod remains high and the same pressures on global stocks continue.

Atlantic Cod. (Photo Credit: Hans-Petter field)

Atlantic Cod. (Photo Credit: Hans-Petter field)

What Caused the Commercial Fishery Collapse?

The history of cod and the Grand Banks serves as a lesson for fisheries generally.

Four factors appear to be responsible for commercial fishery collapse:

  1. Improvements in fishing technology allow more fish to be caught despite diminishing stocks.
  2. There is Uncertainty in the extremely complex task of assessing a fishery resource. There is insufficient funding for research.
  3. Socioeconomic factors are in conflict with fishery management. Overfishing is necessary to pay for advanced technology and cost of living.
  4. Government oversight to exercise regulatory authority lags far behind the need to stop overfishing. This is partly due to strong lobbies by commercial fishers who feel their livelihoods are threatened. When the Canadian government finally declared a moratorium, it was too late.

How Nations Are Trying to “Fix” the Problem

Nations are expanding their territorial waters to protect vital protein resources. It remains to be seen how long those fisheries will last under the ever-increasing demand for fish protein.

Map showing territorial claims in South China Sea. (Image Credit: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency / Perry-Castañeda Map Collection)

Map showing territorial claims in South China Sea. (Image Credit: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency / Perry-Castañeda Map Collection)

China has turned undersea mounts called “guyots” into islands. This is taking place in the Spratly Island area of the South China Sea, over 500 miles from the China mainland. China now claims that these new islands justify a claim to most of the South China Sea. The speed and scale of China’s effort has alarmed the international community and surrounding nations of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Japan. Access to productive fisheries and free passage for trade is threatened. Satellite surveillance shows the construction of airstrips, port facilities and military buildings.

Other nations are more covert. U.S. territorial waters have been invaded by foreign fishing vessels for more than a century. When they are pursued, they drop their nets and skedaddle. The abandoned nets continue to kill fish for decades, further depleting fish stocks. These Ghost-nets make up approximately 10 percent of all marine litter. They are also a hazard to marine navigation.

A core problem in fisheries management is that economic pressure often has greater influence on governance than the science. Illegal fishing by developing countries has contributed to depleted stocks. Fish stocks in many parts of the world are unsustainable because of a lack of oversight, regulatory control and sound policy.

Sunset on the South China Sea off Mũi Né village on the south-east coast of Vietnam. (Photo Credit: Mike Russia / WikiMedia Commons)

Sunset on the South China Sea off Mũi Né village on the south-east coast of Vietnam. (Photo Credit: Mike Russia / WikiMedia Commons)

Waste, bycatch and mismanagement threaten the entire global fishing industry. Some smaller fisheries can be saved by proper regulatory oversight. With proper management, their recovery could even be seen in a few years rather than decades. The large fisheries, however, are in more serious trouble and some areas have collapsed and may never recover.

Note: Bycatch refers to other marine species that are caught unintentionally. It is either of a different species, the wrong sex, undersized or juveniles of the target species.

The Fish Are Disappearing

At least a quarter of all fish stocks are overexploited or dangerously depleted. Nearly 80 percent of larger predatory fish species are already endangered. Vessels are having to travel farther and invasions of the territorial waters of other nations is a common complaint. Fishing techniques have become more efficient at catching one species but often kill other species that are simply treated as waste. Bottom dredging destroys bottom habitat that may not recover for years, if ever. Without habitat native species are unlikely to ever recover.

Fish bycatch from a shrimping vessel. (Image Credit: NOAA)

Fish bycatch from a shrimping vessel. (Image Credit: NOAA)

The demand for fish protein continues to rise as the human population increases and standards of living improve. The pressure to catch more falls on the fishing industry as well as the social structures that establish fisheries policy. A deterioration in native fish stocks t hreatens an ancient economy and livelihood for tens of millions.

Wild fisheries are under enormous pressure. To supply the demand for fish protein, markets have increasingly turned to aquaculture. Replacing wild production with aquaculture places new demands on both the economy and natural systems. In the wild, species like cod are part of an ecosystem involving many species and bio-geochemical systems we still don’t fully understand. When we remove one part of that web we alter the entire system. Aquaculture presents a host of new management problems. What do we do with fish waste? Are hatchery-raised species as nutritious and robust as wild species? Are they more prone to disease? Where do we get the nutrients to feed hatchery fish? By taking a species out of an ecosystem we disrupt the entire ecology.

What once seemed inexhaustible has proven vulnerable. The story of cod is happening with thousands of marine species. We are at an apex where we have to choose between stewardship and running the whole show. Dominion can be a bugger.

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