Taking Stock – World Fisheries Collapse
By Kirk Owers | 22 November 2011
It’s time to get serious about Marine Reserves. Words by Kirk Owers.
The year 2048. That’s when some scientists predict a total collapse of all world fisheries if we continue on our current path of overfishing, ocean pollution and inadequate preservation. Wild fish will be off the menu, fishing itself will be endangered, but these will seem small inconveniences. If global fish stocks are allowed to collapse it will affect many other species who depend on fish for their survival: whales, dolphins, turtles, sharks, even sea birds. In addition, it will make the task of feeding 9 billion humans considerably more difficult.
The prospect of wiping out most of the planet’s edible sea life in the next 40 years is saved from being depressing only because it is unfathomable. Anyone who has dipped their toe in the ocean knows the definition of vast. A total of 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water and half of it is over three kilometres deep. We don’t even know what’s down there. How can we possibly be running out of fish?
Unfortunately, the 2048 prediction is not a crackpot theory. It is based on the findings of a comprehensive study by 14 international ecologists, marine biologists and economists. The research, published in 2006 in the journal Science, found that 91 percent of commercially important fish have seen their abundance halved, 38 percent have nearly disappeared and 7 percent have become extinct. When the decline was extrapolated into the future, commercial fish stocks disappear in the year 2048.
While the study is contestable (even its authors concede their conclusions are based on correlation) it is one of many which point in a similar direction. Altogether the bulk of accumulated data from around the world points to a serious decline. That decline is under increasing pressure by a growing world population, who are consuming more seafood, in the first world, or are more desperate to feed themselves, in the third world.
While the overall trends are grim there are areas of hope. There is now substantial evidence that marine ecosystems can rebound rapidly in protected areas. A study of 48 marine parks, also published in Science, showed a fourfold increase in available catch. A similar study of the Great Barrier Reef found that fish densities were about two times greater in no-take zones and that fish populations across the ecosystem had increased considerably. It concluded: “The network of marine reserves has brought major, sustained ecological benefits [and it is] an excellent investment in social, economic and environmental terms”.
More recently the Centre for Policy Development looked at the economic benefits of marine sanctuaries. According to their report uncounted “ecosystem services” provided by Australia’s marine life, fish stocks and ecosystems could be worth as much as 25 billion dollars. To highlight just one example, sea grasses store 10-40 times more carbon per hectare as forests. Australia’s sea grass meadows are the largest in the world and are estimated to be worth $15.8 billion a year in carbon storage.
The report concluded that Australian fisheries need a buffer against future pressures including rises in global demand, decline in ocean productivity and the risk of ecosystem collapse. This, it found, would not only be good for biodiversity it would support long-term jobs for the commercial fishing industry, and provide better catches for recreational fishers.
The CPD report, released in September, concludes that Australia needs to invest in marine protections that meet scientific recommendations. It comes at a crucial time because the Federal Government is currently deliberating on this very issue.
In May this year environment minister Tony Burke released a nationwide proposal for marine reserves which drew criticism from scientists and the public alike. A total of 170 marine scientists sent Burke a statement of concern highlighting multiple faults with the proposal. As many as 42,000 people called for a network of large marine sanctuaries for Australia’s wouth west, a record response for an Australian conservation issue.
A lot of the anger in the south west is focused on a plan to open an oil lease off the coast of Margaret River. The current boundaries set for the area avoid oil leases and critical breeding and feeding areas for blue whales and other marine life. The prospect of a Gulf of Mexico style oil disaster off the coast of Margies is a nightmare for all surfers.
Of course the interests of commercial and recreational fishermen need to be considered in all of this and our dependence on oil recognised. Finding a balance that pleases all vested interests will be impossible. The thing protection has in its favour is that it’s relatively easy to reverse if it goes too far. The same can’t be said for extinction.
The environment minister is due to make a final decision before the end of November. You can contact him here: firstname.lastname@example.org X