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Good Cod Almighty, We've Got a Global Fishing Crisis

Cos is providing the most evidence for the unsustainable manner in which civilized humans are pillaging the oceans in search of cheap and plentiful protein.

From the Community Blogs.

Cod. Good Cod. Good Cod Almighty. It is possible that there is nothing more symbolic of the English seaside than this once ubiquitous fish. “Cod and chips twice” has been heard across the land for decades, and it even caused a war of sorts between two fishing nations! But who would have guessed that this animal, more than any other, would also provide the loudest shout of evidence for the unsustainable manner in which civilized humans were pillaging the oceans in search of cheap and plentiful protein? With a length of a metre or more, for the North Atlantic species, it was obvious which organism would have to be the subject of Chapter 5 of “Time’s Up!”, not only for its cultural importance, but also the route it would provide into the arcane world of feedback loops.

Before making any bold statements about the nature of the fishing industry, I had to get the facts. A handy piece of software called Fishstats was used, and the results that appeared on my screen were dreadful: there was a crisis, entirely of civilization’s making, and yet we were still pulling fish out of the sea like we owned the oceans.

Looking back to the beginnings of the mass fishing industry, one is filled with a sense that something was bound to go wrong. Tales of being able to drop buckets into the sea off Newfoundland, the edge of the now defunct Grand Banks fishery, and bring them back up full to the brim with fish may not have been far off of the mark during the spawning season – although the explorer John Cabot, who pondered whether he could have walked from one side of the Atlantic to the other on the backs of the cod, would almost certainly have come to grief. The point is, though, that the fishermen (and they were all men up to only a few years ago) really thought that there was an endless marine bounty. Fishing has always had an air of sentimentality, courage and permanence to it: men were made and broken, in dreadful conditions of isolation, wild storms, tiredness and constant pressure, only partly eased by songs, whisky and the thoughts of the family back home. Yet it most certainly was, and is a way of life: “Some guys couldn’t wait ’til the last day of school so they could join the boat,” says Michael Coe, a former trawler skipper at Peterhead in the north-east of Scotland, with genuine excitement. A way of life, but nevertheless an industry, partaken of by thousands of boats across the great fishing grounds of the North Atlantic, Southern Ocean, Arabian Sea, Mediterranean and wherever a mass of marine life is there for the taking.

But business and especially the search for profit now take precedence in almost all formerly traditional and self-sustaining occupations. Whereas the shops and restaurants would in the past have paid the going rate for fish and kept the industry alive for another season, it is now the supermarkets and fish-processors who call the shots – culling prices and progressively smaller fish until the skippers have no choice but to search deeper, further and with more technology; in the sad knowledge that their search for a high-volume, low-price resource is destroying the very thing that kept them going for countless generations.

In the last 35 years…the volume of Atlantic Cod retrieved from the water has plummeted from a high (for that period) of two million tonnes, to less than half that. The type of fish now being caught disguises the real volume – the smaller, immature fish may keep the industry ticking over for a few years, but the future looks barren. Fish colonies are in jeopardy around the world, with over half of all ‘stocks’ (a term used by governments to imply humans own these natural habitats!) fished to full capacity, and a quarter in decline or endangered. There is such a fine line between ‘near’ capacity and ‘over’ capacity that it is fair to say that three-quarters of the world’s major fish colonies are in an unsustainable state: they are not self-regulating – their numbers are being regulated by humans.

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