A fascinating study recently published in Nature shows that the amount of fish landed in England and Wales per unit of fishing power has declined more than 90% over the past 120 years. Increases in fishing power of new boats and equipment do not result in additional landings because the fish are gone. We ate them.
Landings per unit power figures suggest that the availability of bottom-living fish for the fleet fell by 94% from 1889 to 2007. This implies a massive loss of biomass of commercially fished bottom-living fish from seas exploited by the UK fleet. The loss is particularly serious as it encompasses an entire component of the marine ecosystem rather than a single species.The Nature paper cites a number of other studies using various methods, all of which conclude that the particular fish stocks they analyzed have declined 90% or more over the period they studied.
The collapse in fisheries productivity is brought into sharp relief by the landings data. In 1889, a largely sail-powered fleet landed twice as many fish into the United Kingdom than the present-day fleet of technologically sophisticated vessels. One hundred years ago, in 1910, the fleet landed four times more fish into the United Kingdom than it does today.
What about other fish--are they gone too?
Separately a recent UN Environmental Program study says that 30% of all fish stocks are classified as "collapsed"--they yield less than 10% of their former potential.
Only around 25 per cent of commercial stocks--mostly of low-priced species--are considered to be in a healthy or reasonably healthy state.Will governments and fishers get together and set up management systems that could allow stocks to recover, or avoid wiping out remaining stocks? On past form, don't bet on it. The UNEP study says better management could allow stocks to recover, would increase landings, and would increase the total value of landings and fishing household incomes substantially. But . . .
On current trends, some researchers estimate that virtually all commercial fisheries will have collapsed by 2050 unless urgent action is taken to bring far more intelligent management to fisheries north and south.
The study also estimates that the total value of the 80 million tonnes of fish caught is about US$85 billion annually. Of this fishing households see income of about US$35 billion. But governments dole out subsidies totaling over US$27 billion, three-quarters of all fishing household income!
Governments and fishing organizations are willing to take $27 billion of taxpayers' money to be sure that in a few decades there will be practically no fish left in any major fishery. Ten percent or less of the quantity of fish that were there 100 years ago is not much.
Here is a Reuters story about the results of the study from Nature.
[photo of fishing boat from adstream via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/adstream/1537402364/]