Fishing in the Pacific

Fishing for tuna in the Pacific (picture US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Two things caught my eye in a report in the Financial Times today about the decline of fish stocks in the Pacific Ocean. (Read the report here.)

The first is the sense that the depletion of fish stocks is a global problem. (It sounds obvious, but to British Eurosceptics, it is something caused only by the EU, and is something that we British would never do.) All around the world, the stocks of the easiest fish to catch – those in the surface waters – have been severely depleted and trawlers are now chasing fish at deeper and deeper depths.

This poses a profound ecological problem, in that the water in those depths is dark and cold and the fish that live there grow very slowly. A typical orange roughy might live for a century or more, and does not reach sexual maturity until about aged 30. What this means is that if the stocks of such fish are damaged, they will take a long time to repair. Faster-growing fish in warmer, shallower waters might bounce back more quickly, not so these exotic deep water fish.

Most of these fish live out in the far ocean in international waters. The regulation of fishing in these areas is very limited, and that is a profound institutional problem. It turned out to be relatively easy to divide the land area of the planet into different national sovereignties (although not nearly as easy as some people like to pretend, and it is becoming harder again with the rise of interdependence) but dividing up the sea is impossible. The freedom of the seas is a long-standing principle – it was number 2 of Wilson’s 14 points – and is a rejection of the application of sovereignty at sea. Marine resources such as fish and birds cross any maritime boundaries quite happily. There is controversy about what constitutes a marine resource: I will write a blog entry about whaling another time. And there is the important question of enforcement.

Solving the problem of over-fishing requires a new type of relationship between states at sea, and also a new kind of relationship between generations. Fish stocks destroyed now may never come back: the Grand Banks cod or the Black Sea anchovy. Fishing quotas reduced now might save fish stocks for the future: the North Sea herring. But what kind of political leadership is required to reduce the allowable catches when fishing communities are already beleaguered? Hardly the sort of leadership that wishes to reject the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy in the first place. This is a profound political problem.

Secondly, there is the description, by Robert Steneck of the University of Maine in the FT article, of the need to manage “the shallow waters where fish live fast and die young but ecosystems have a greater potential for resilience.” I love that phrase. In my mind’s eye, rebellious young fish are saying to each other “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking fillet.”

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