[Marxism] Is there any hope for our overfished oceans?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 26 07:19:08 MDT 2010

The Scales Fall
Is there any hope for our overfished oceans?
by Elizabeth Kolbert August 2, 2010

     “Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish” (St. Martin’s; $25.99);
     David Helvarg;
     “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod 
Collapse” (University of British Columbia; $94)

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is shaped like a child’s idea of a fish, with 
a pointy snout, two dorsal fins, and a rounded belly that gradually 
tapers toward the back. It is gunmetal blue on top, and silvery on the 
underside, and its tail looks like a sickle. The Atlantic bluefin is one 
of the fastest swimmers in the sea, reaching speeds of fifty-five miles 
an hour. This is an achievement that scientists have sought to 
understand but have never quite mastered; a robo-tuna, built by a team 
of engineers at M.I.T., was unable to outswim a real one. (The word 
“tuna” is derived from the Greek thuno, meaning “to rush.”) Atlantic 
bluefins are voracious carnivores—they feed on squid, crustaceans, and 
other fish—and can grow to be fifteen feet long.

At one time, Atlantic bluefins were common from the coast of Maine to 
the Black Sea, and from Norway to Brazil. In the Mediterranean, they 
have been prized for millennia—in an ode from the second century, the 
poet Oppian describes the Romans catching bluefins in “nets arranged 
like a city”—but they are unusually bloody fish, and in most of the rest 
of the world there was little market for them. (Among English speakers, 
they were long known as “horse mackerel.”) As recently as the late 
nineteen-sixties, bluefin in the United States sold for only a few 
pennies a pound, if there were any buyers, and frequently ended up being 
ground into cat food. Then, in the nineteen-seventies, the Japanese 
developed a taste for sushi made with bluefin, or hon-maguro. This new 
preference, it’s been hypothesized, arose from their exposure, following 
the Second World War, to American-style fatty foods. The taste for 
hon-maguro was, in turn, imported back to the U.S. Soon, fishing for 
bluefin became so lucrative that the sale of a single animal could feed 
a family for a year. (Earlier this year, a five-hundred-pound Pacific 
bluefin went for an astonishing three hundred and forty dollars a pound 
at a Tokyo fish auction.) First, the big bluefins were fished out, then 
the smaller ones, too, became hard to find. Tuna “ranching,” a practice 
by which the fish are herded into huge circular nets and fattened up 
before slaughter, was for a time seen as a solution until it was shown 
to be part of the problem: as fewer bluefins were allowed to reach 
spawning age, there were fewer and fewer new fish to fatten.

Bluefin catches are managed—the word is used here loosely—by the 
International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The 
commission, known by the acronym ICCAT—pronounced “eye-cat”—is based in 
Madrid, and its members include the U.S., the European Union, Japan, 
Canada, and Brazil. In 2008, ICCAT scientists recommended that the 
bluefin catch in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean be limited 
to between eighty-five hundred and fifteen thousand tons. ICCAT instead 
adopted a quota of twenty-two thousand tons. That same year, a panel of 
independent reviewers, hired by the commission to assess its 
performance, observed that ICCAT “is widely regarded as an international 
disgrace.” (Carl Safina, the noted marine conservationist, has nicknamed 
the group the International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas.) By most 
estimates, bluefin stocks have fallen by eighty per cent in the past 
forty years. According to other assessments, the situation is even 
grimmer. Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at England’s 
University of York, has calculated that there is now only one bluefin 
left for every fifty that were swimming in the Atlantic in 1940.

Last year, in an effort to save the Atlantic bluefin from annihilation, 
Monaco proposed that the fish join animals like the giant panda and the 
Asian elephant on a list of creatures that cannot be traded—either alive 
or cut up for parts—across international borders. When the proposal came 
up for a vote at a U.N. meeting in Doha this past March, the U.S. voted 
in favor of it. “The science is compelling,” Tom Strickland, the 
Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, told 
the Times. “That species is in spectacular decline.” Nevertheless, the 
measure was defeated. (The vote—sixty-eight to twenty, with thirty 
nations abstaining—was widely seen as a victory for Japan.) The 
following month, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, and oil began 
gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is one of only two known 
Atlantic-bluefin spawning sites, and April is the start of the spawning 

If the Atlantic bluefin tuna were the first species to be fished into 
oblivion, its destruction would be shameful. But, of course, its story 
has become routine. Cod, once so plentiful off the coast of Newfoundland 
that they could be scooped up in baskets, are now scarce. The same goes 
for halibut, haddock, swordfish, marlin, and skate; it’s been calculated 
that stocks of large predatory fish have declined by ninety per cent in 
the past half century. In 1943, Rachel Carson was a young biologist 
working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when she wrote a booklet 
titled “Food from the Sea.” The point of the boosterish guide was to 
convince American consumers of the delectableness of fish like the 
wolffish, an enormous creature with a bulbous head, big teeth, and an 
eel-like body. Wolffish is “one of New England’s underexploited fishes, 
a condition that will be corrected when housewives discover its 
excellence,” Carson wrote. Apparently, she was so persuasive—and bottom 
trawling so wrecked its habitat—that the wolffish is now considered a 
threatened species.

The sorry state of ocean life has led to a new kind of fish story—a 
lament not for the one that got away but for the countless others that 
didn’t. In “Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish” (St. Martin’s; 
$25.99), David Helvarg notes that each year sharks kill some five to 
eight humans worldwide; meanwhile we kill a hundred million of them. 
Dean Bavington, the author of “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural 
History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse” (University of British 
Columbia; $94), observes that two hundred billion pounds’ worth of cod 
were taken from Canada’s Grand Banks before 1992, when the cod simply 
ran out. In “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” (Penguin 
Press; $25.95), Paul Greenberg estimates that somewhere in the range of 
a hundred million salmon larvae used to hatch in the Connecticut River 
each year. Now the number’s a lot easier to pin down: it’s zero. “The 
broad, complex genetic potential of the Connecticut River salmon,” 
Greenberg writes, has “vanished from the face of the earth.”

The Great International Fisheries Exhibition, which took place in London 
in 1883, was a celebration of all things piscatorial. More than two 
thousand exhibitors from around the world displayed herring nets and 
salmon ladders, trout rods and eel spears, life buoys and lamprey 
baskets. Awards—dozens of them were bestowed—included twenty pounds 
sterling for the best collection of smoked fish, twenty-five pounds for 
the best model of a sailing trawler, and ten pounds for the “best 
Apparatus for, or Method of, protecting Young Brood and Oysters against 
Dog Whelks and other natural enemies.”

Thomas Huxley, who is now mostly remembered for being an early supporter 
of Charles Darwin, was at the time the president of Britain’s Royal 
Society, and he delivered the exhibition’s opening address. As his 
topic, Huxley chose the question “Are fisheries exhaustible? That is to 
say, can all the fish which naturally inhabit a given area be extirpated 
by the agency of man?” The answer, Huxley decided, was a qualified no. 
Although people might be able to wipe out the salmon in a certain stream 
by throwing a net across it “in such a manner as to catch every salmon 
that tries to go up and every smolt that tries to go down,” conditions 
in the ocean were altogether different.

“Probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say 
that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish,” Huxley 
declared. To the extent that there was a problem with the fishing 
industry, it was due to its “relative backwardness.” Fishing, Huxley 
said, had failed “to keep pace with the rapid improvement of almost 
every other branch of industrial occupation in modern times” and still 
lagged “very far behind scientific agriculture . . . as to the 
application of machinery.”

Huxley’s views dominated thinking about fisheries for most of the next 
century. In 1955, Francis Minot, the director of the Marine and 
Fisheries Engineering Research Institute, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 
co-wrote a book titled “The Inexhaustible Sea.” As yet, he observed, “we 
do not know the ocean well enough. Much must still be learned. 
Nevertheless, we are already beginning to understand that what it has to 
offer extends beyond the limits of our imagination.” In 1964, the annual 
global catch totalled around fifty million tons; a U.S. Interior 
Department report from that year predicted that it could be “increased 
at least tenfold without endangering aquatic stocks.” Three years later, 
the department revised its estimate; the catch could be increased not by 
a factor of ten but by a factor of forty, to two billion tons a year. 
This, it noted, would be enough to feed the world’s population ten times 
over. Michael L. Weber observes, in “From Abundance to Scarcity” (2002), 
that as recently as the nineteen-nineties U.S. policy was predicated “on 
the belief that the ocean’s productivity was almost limitless.”

In the meantime, “machinery” beyond Huxley’s wildest imagining was being 
developed. Purse seines were introduced in the nineteen-thirties. These 
giant nets can be played out around entire schools of fish, then 
gathered up with drawstrings, like huge laundry bags. Factory freezer 
trawlers, developed after the Second World War, grew to be so gargantuan 
that they amounted to, in effect, seafaring towns. In the 
nineteen-fifties, many fleets added echo-sounding sonar, which can 
detect fish schools long before they surface. Today, specially designed 
buoys known as “fish aggregating devices,” or FADs, are deployed to 
attract species like yellowfin tuna and blue marlin. So-called “smart” 
FADs come equipped with sonar and G.P.S., so operators can detect from 
afar whether they are, in fact, surrounded by fish.

In the short term, the new technology worked, much as Huxley had 
predicted, to swell catches. But only in the short term. In the late 
nineteen-eighties, the total world catch topped out at around 
eighty-five million tons, which is to say, roughly 1.9 billion tons 
short of the Interior Department’s most lunatic estimate. This 
milestone—the point of what might be called “peak fish”—was passed 
without anyone’s quite realizing it, owing to inflated catch figures 
from the Chinese. (These fishy figures were later exposed as politically 
motivated fabrications.) For the past two decades, the global catch has 
been steadily declining. It is estimated that the total take is dropping 
by around five hundred thousand tons a year.

Meanwhile, as the size of the catch has fallen, so, too, has the size of 
the creatures being caught. This phenomenon, which has become known as 
“fishing down the food web,” was first identified by Daniel Pauly, a 
fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia. In “Five Easy 
Pieces: How Fishing Impacts Marine Ecosystems” (Island Press; $50), 
Pauly follows this trend to its logical—or, if you prefer, 
illogical—conclusion. Eventually, all that will be left in the oceans 
are organisms that people won’t, or can’t, consume, like sea slugs and 
toxic algae. It’s been argued that humans have become such a dominant 
force on the planet that we’ve ushered in a new geological epoch. Pauly 
proposes that this new epoch be called the Myxocene, from the Greek 
muxa, meaning “slime.”

The new fish stories can be read as parables about technology. What was, 
once upon a time, a stable relationship between predator and prey was 
transformed by new “machinery” into a deadly mismatch. This reading 
isn’t so much wrong as misleading. To paraphrase the old N.R.A. 
favorite, FADs don’t kill fish, people do.

In an effort to figure out what ocean life was like before the modern 
era, marine scientists have, in the past few decades, cored through 
seafloor sediments, measured the size of fish bones tossed out at 
ancient banquets, and combed through the logs of early explorers. As 
Callum Roberts reports in “The Unnatural History of the Sea” (2007), the 
work suggests that humans have been wreaking havoc in the oceans for 

Consider the example of Britain. Archeological deposits show that around 
the year 1000 Europe’s freshwater fisheries were already in decline, 
perhaps owing to overfishing or perhaps to the erection of dams and 
mills that impeded river flows. To make a living, British fishermen set 
out to sea. Initially, the marine catch appears to have been bountiful; 
analysis of what might be described as eleventh-century garbage shows 
that people in what is now Scotland dined on four-foot-long cod and 
five-foot-long pollack. But gradually local stocks were fished down, and 
by the fifteenth century British ships were venturing as far away as 
Norway and Iceland. (The Danes, who claimed Iceland for themselves, 
complained that the English were setting up entire villages on the 
island, “putting up tents, digging ditches, working away.”) When, in the 
early sixteenth century, British fishermen turned their attention to the 
newly discovered fisheries off Newfoundland, they encountered, in the 
words of one early settler, “Cods so thicke by the shoare that we 
heardlie have been able to row a Boate through them,” and the cycle 
began all over again.

At this point, there are probably no new fishing grounds to be 
discovered, or, to use Rachel Carson’s phrase, any “underexploited 
fishes” to start serving for dinner. (In parts of Asia, jellyfish are 
already considered a delicacy.) After the collapse of so many freshwater 
fish, migratory fish, oceanic fish, and groundfish, like the wolffish, 
it might seem that we’ve finally reached the end of the line.

And yet this is never where the new fish stories, or stories about the 
fish stories, wind up. Just when things seem bleakest, 
hope—dolphinlike—swims into the picture. David Helvarg concludes his 
memoir-cum-ecological-disaster narrative “Saved by the Sea” by declaring 
that, owing to a new attitude in Washington, things seem “to be looking 
up for the ocean.” Similarly, Roberts closes his chronicle of more than 
a millennium of overfishing by asserting, “We can restore the life and 
habits of the sea because it is in everyone’s interest that we do so.”

The way to keep fishing, according to Roberts, lies in not fishing—or, 
at least, in not fishing everywhere. He proposes that huge swaths of the 
sea be set aside as so-called “marine protected areas,” or M.P.A.s, 
where most commercial activity would be prohibited. In “Four Fish,” Paul 
Greenberg argues that the salvation of wild fish lies in farmed ones, 
though not in the kind you’ll find on ice at Stop & Shop. (Today, most 
farmed fish are fed on wild-caught fish, a practice that only 
exacerbates the problem.) Greenberg is a believer in what’s sometimes 
called “smart aquaculture,” and thinks we should be eating species like 
Pangasius hypophthalmus, commonly known as tra. Tra happily feed on 
human waste and were originally kept in Southeast Asia to dispose of the 
contents of outhouses. Michael Weber, the author of “From Abundance to 
Scarcity,” is encouraged by the introduction of new regulatory 
mechanisms such as “individual transferable quotas,” or I.T.Q.s. The 
idea behind I.T.Q.s is that if fishermen are granted a marketable stake 
in the catch they will have a greater economic interest in preserving it.

M.P.A.s, smart aquaculture, and I.T.Q.s—these are all worthy proposals 
that, if instituted on a large enough scale, would probably make a 
difference. As Roberts notes, it is in “everyone’s interest” to take the 
steps needed to prevent an ocean-wide slide into slime. But it is also 
in everyone’s interest to save the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Still, it is 
being fished to the edge of extinction, which is why a hopeful ending is 
not always the most convincing one. ♦

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