Biology in the News Explained

We’re paying to destroy fisheries as fast as we can

A dispatch article from the September issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment shows that we have not at all changed our trajectory in the rapid destruction of our fisheries in the nearly three years since the fisheries crisis was last discussed on this biology blog. It highlights a recent UN Environment Programme report which not only reaffirms that stocks are being overfished to the tune of 1.8-2.8 times a sustainable level, but points out that one of the biggest reasons for this is actually subsidies.

There has been some debate (though not nearly enough) in this country and internationally about agricultural subsidies which cost money and result in crappy processed food that makes us sicker as a population, which costs more money. Clearly, however, there is not enough debate about fisheries subsidies, which total $27 billion per year currently, while supposedly adding only $17 billion of value to the global economy.

So, what we are doing is paying money hand over fist to destroy, as rapidly as possible, a food source that affects a substantial proportion of people on the planet, and an industry that supports an estimated half a billion people.

The problem, as pointed out by Pavan Sukhdev, Special Advisor and Head of the UNEP Green Economy Initiative, is that we are increasing economic investment not in the resource itself, the fish, but on increasing our fishing capacity, which only destroys the stocks more quickly. The report suggests that if $8 billion a year (less than a third of current subsidy levels) were spent on improving fisheries management, there might actually be some fish left for the next generation. By allowing stocks to recover judiciously, we could get back to a higher level of catch (112 million metric tons per year vs. current the level of 80), which ultimately would support a lot more people for a longer time.

And management in most cases isn’t rocket science. Sukhdev points out that Biologists already know that a female fish allowed to grow twice as large before capture could produce 10 to 100 times as many offspring before she becomes a meal.

There’s not much time left to alter course, folks. Just as we may have already missed the window for preventing severe climate change, we will almost certainly miss this one, because individual greed by some and utter dependence on a way of life that can’t be changed from the grass roots for most will maintain the political inertia that everyone knows will lead us to crisis in the near future, when we have to figure out what to do with a homeless fishing industry, and how to replace a staple protein in the diet of millions of people.

Reference info:
Unfortunately, the ESA article is restricted access, and the full report is available only for sale (Fisheries Subsidies, Sustainable Development and the WTO at Amazon), but, there is a pdf press release and a preview document summarizing it.

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