Commercial fishing & the tragedy of the global commons

There is no shortage of activist-geared, heart-wrenching documentaries off the ground these days. But The Cove is especially gripping. Most of us aren’t down with dolphin-slaughtering, unless you happen to be a cash-strapped Japanese fisherman living in Taijei. As my friend Molly summed up, “No matter what your denomination of life is, nobody likes Flipper-killers.” Dolphins are an endangered species. But maybe you’re not radically into animal rights. (Really?) Nevertheless, captivity isn’t the answer:  their sonar  abilities make them hyper-sensitive to sound, especially when the sounds are yelling, cheering tourists at Sea World. It’s no place for them and it considerably shortens their life-spans. Find other ways to entertain your family – seeing dolphins in the wild is far more awe-inspiring anyways.  Secondly, dolphins also have obscene amounts of mercury in them, making the health risks of eating dolphin meat equally obscene. Stick to sushi.

So why kill them? There is no reason, anthropocentric or non-anthropocentric. End of argument. But there is more at issue than the inhumane butchering & capturing of intelligent life-forms, which feeds both a multi-million dollar “dolphinarium” entertainment industry and unsuspecting Japanese schoolchildren. It’s the sheer fact that we can’t get governments and international organizations to pass legislation regarding the global commons. Negotiating forums, like the IWC, are as sluggish and weighed down by rhetorical and lobbylike undertones as the U.S Congress. With the Japanese paying other small island developing nations millions to vote in favor of Japanese “cultural traditions” (e.g. a heavily subsidized lucrative fishing industry), the practice of whaling and dolphin-hunting is safeguarded. Some progress has been made, but NGOs have rarely been afforded a lofty place in the upper echelons of international law or policymaking.

If we can’t make progress on an issue like dolphin-slaughtering, what are we going to do about depleting global fish stocks?

Well over half of the 600 fisheries monitored by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) are “fully utilized”, meaning there’s no room for more fishing in the high seas. Meaning: full capacity. 17% of the total fisheries are over-exploited and 7% are “depleting”. This is alarming. Fish is a staple in the diets of nearly 1 billion people, mostly in the developing world. Ironically, as more fish are caught, less people are fed. Why? Two reasons. #1: waste. Much of what is caught spoils and is thrown away. #2: Commercial fishing has completely overtaken small-scale fishers – those who depend on their trade not only for food, but for pay from local markets. Just this past year, in a conversation with a South African businessman working to open a few coastal restaurants in the touristy niches of central Mozambique, I learned that the Chinese government is trying to broker a deal in which it would buy fishing rights for the entire Mozambican coast. The implications go further than simply 1,000 miles of the rich Agulhas current. Hundreds of local fishermen would suddenly find their means of subsistence illegal to engage in, or discover in due time that their fish supply is rapidly depleting. Downstream, the fishing industry in South Africa would likewise be affected.

And what does the Mozambique government get in return? A new north-south highway that spans the provinces. Built not by Mozambican workers, but Chinese contractors and their imported personnel.

This is an urgent issue and faces many of the same challenges that any hearty piece of climate change legislation faces. Cooperation amongst sovereignty-crazed governments is not impossible, but if Japan is paying off governments to maintain its iron grip on the whaling and dolphin industry, imagine what China will do.  (Side note: China is#1 on list of countries with largest fishing enterprises, measured by tons caught/year) If we could pass regulations to slow the pace of commercial fishing or at least downsize the fleets, there may be more hope for a future that, well, still involves fish. The UN estimates that we may inherit a relatively fishless ocean as soon as  2050, if we don’t put a leash on the industry. Even if you don’t enjoy fish in the nourishment sense (I had a delightful crab feast last night), the absence of marine life and its effects on marine ecology on the whole should grind your gears. In the strictly economical sense, depleted fish stocks would engender joblessness for over 20 million people. So get on board! But not on a fishing boat.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s