Our Empty Oceans
The decline of terrestrial species is highly documented and evident as we are bombarded on a daily basis with images of endangered pandas or threatened songbirds. The causes of these mass declines are often cited as starting with mankind’s industrialisation of the land, from the development of agriculture, to pollution from industry and the overconsumption of resources it would be ignorant to disregard industrialization as a chief cause of terrestrial species decline. Marine species have fared significantly better with the proportion of these going extinct since 1500 being much smaller, but what if the oceans became industrialized too?
Fish is becoming an increasingly important part of humans diet, with fish accounting for around 16% of the global populations protein intake in 2011. As many countries wealth has risen, so too has their protein intake causing fish to be a more abundantly consumed commodity, and as such a booming industry is supporting this consumption.
Arguably the problem of overfishing may not be limited to the 21st Century however the way in which we use the oceans has changed a lot over the last 200 years has changed dramatically. The creation of a global market has caused fishing to become increasingly industrialized to meet the demands of consumers; in other words fisherman are no longer fishing to feed their local communities using traditional technologies.
More than 50 per cent of the seafood we consume is farmed. The majority of Atlantic Salmon and Rainbow Trout are intensively farmed whilst shrimp farms are destroying the mangroves at a rapid rate. The rate at which the ocean use is changing is akin to the way terrestrial farming engulfed forests and changed the landscape. Moreover much like intensive agriculture, intensive fish farms have given rise to welfare concerns.
As a species we have come a long way from traditional fishing methods. When we aren’t farming our fish, we can make use of helicopters, satellite-guided super trawlers up to 750 foot long and vastly long lines to harvest fish on an epic scale from the ocean floor. This advancement in technology has allowed us to be much more efficient in the sheer numbers of fish we catch, much like the advancement in technology during the industrial revolution allowed us to destroy habitats on a much larger scale. To put it into perspective, this advancement has caused us to drive cod stocks down to unfishable levels; stocks of predatory fish such as tuna, cod and rays have fallen by 90 per cent since the 1950’s. The figures are dramatic enough without mentioning the impact which bycatch can have on other species such as dolphins.
There is an unfortunate pattern emerging whereby it looks like we are set to emulate the devastating impacts we had upon terrestrial species as a result of the industrial revolution. Scientists have reported that currently marine populations are as healthy as terrestrial ones were a few hundred years ago, yet the relatively new pressures which we are currently putting them under may cause havoc within the next hundred years.
Unless the way we use the oceans undergoes a new management style to minimise the seemingly limitless extraction of resources, we might not only be facing a collapse in wildlife populations but also a humanitarian crisis. Around a billion people depend upon seafood as their main source of protein; with majority of these people in developing countries it is imperative that we safeguard their food source, possibly through the use of Marine Protected Areas, improved management and new policies.
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