The Blue Void
Close your eyes and try to imagine a world without fish. The famous blue planet, with all the ocean life gone... That is what scientists are predicting, and it's coming sooner than you think.
By the year 2050, just a few decades from now, scientists predict fishless oceans.
According to Pavan Sukhdev, head of the UN Environment Program's green economy initiative, "If the various estimates we have received... come true, then we are in the situation where 40 years down the line we, effectively, are out of fish."
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) “More than 30 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic blue fin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened.” The UN adds to this by stating "virtually all fisheries risk running out of commercially viable catches by 2050."
But what exactly are the implications of an empty ocean?
One of the first things that springs to many peoples minds is the massive amount of people who depend on fishing for their livelihood. Globally around 170 million people rely on the fishing industry for employment directly with many of them having dependents be that children, extended family or aging parents. Not only would this have huge implications on millions of people who rely on this industry for food and income, but it would have serious implications for the economies of many countries around the world.
Setting money aside and looking at the ecological and environmental implications things get even crazier.
Commercially the fishing industry is responsible for catching 93 million tonnes of wild fish and for cultivating around 48 million tonnes of farmed fish every year. In terms of the quantity of individual fish, this weight is estimated to be somewhere between .97 and 2.7 trillion. And that doesn't even take into account the millions more fish that are caught illegally or fished by individuals all over the globe. As it stands the world fishing fleet is two to three times larger than the oceans can support with 85 percent of the world’s fish populations being described as nearly extinct, on the way to extinction or brought to an unsustainable population size. With collapsing numbers of fish, and species going extinct the oceans food chains begin to disintegrate. With predators disappearing at certain key stages resulting in other population booms and the knock on effect this population has on it's primary food source. Within generations the entire system falls apart.
An ocean with no sea life has terrible consequences on the planet as a whole. The oceans are the cradles of life" on earth according to legendary scientist Sylvia Earle. They supply between 50-85% of the ocean we breath, (depending on which report you look at) either way that is a huge figure. Most of this oxygen is produced by photosynthesizing plankton which form the base of the larger food chains. Mess with the oceans balance and you begin to mess with the entire planets systems, not only oxygen, but carbon emissions, water cycle and more. When it comes to a carbon sink again this is a crucial topic that needs to be addressed. With fears rising with the temperatures, climate change is fast becoming an irreversible reality, but the oceans hold one of the keys to security. Along with the 50-85% of the worlds oxygen that the phytoplankton produce, they also consume up to 25% of the carbon in the atmosphere, and that is not even mentioning the huge amounts of carbon held in other sea plants such as the vast kelp forests, sea weed meadows and other grasses plants under the sea. So it is not only to ensure the atmosphere is breathable, but to help combat climate change that the oceans need to be protected and allowed to recover.
Not only do humans who rely on fish for food suffer, but so to do the billions of animals who need fish to survive, sharks, dolphins, whales, seals, walruses, penguins, many sea birds and countless other species would be affected. With their food chain disrupted or destroyed they turn to other food sources and the knock on effect continues.
Where did all the fish go?
One huge factor in the destruction of the oceans is the methods being used by the industry. The scale of the operation means fishing vessels no longer target specific species but catch anything in their path and discard what they do not need. These discarded fish, known as by catch account for 40% of the 2.7 trillion fish caught every year. They will never be sent to market, and most are discarded or tossed overboard, dead or dying. By catch is caused mainly due to the forms of fishing gear used today, which is referred to as non-selective, meaning any species can be caught, including non-target species. Longlines, trawling and the use of gill nets are the fishing methods that most commonly result in bycatch. Longlining is a commercial fishing method used for catching swordfish, tuna and halibut, where hundreds or thousands of baited hooks hang at intervals along a single fishing line. The hooks cause problems for marine turtles when swallowed, usually resulting in death. Sharks, non-target billfishes and juvenile tunas are often hooked as well. Another method is trawling where boats drag large nets along the seabed, catching almost everything in their path. They can damage coral reefs and at shallow depths, catch marine turtles. Gillnets are mesh nets that allow fish to pass their heads and gill coverings through a hole in the mesh and then get stuck when they try to back out. They can be several miles long and up to 100 feet deep. Bycatch occurs because the nets also trap everything larger than the net’s mesh, which includes juvenile fish, sharks, seabirds, marine turtles and cetaceans (whales and dolphins). The nets are very hard to see, blending in perfectly with the water and difficult for cetaceans to detect by echolocation. Many gillnets that are lost at sea are rarely recovered and can continue to capture marine animals for many years. This ghost fishing gear is a huge problem, killing and drowning more than 100,000 cetaceans every year.
When it comes to a well known fish, the blue fin tuna, it is suffering at a huge rate because of the impacts of economics and increasing demand for its flesh. With global stock levels falling by 96% in the last 50 years. Mitsubishi, reportedly have a 15 year supply of frozen blue fin tuna in their warehouses, meaning they could cease fishing this species for 15 years to give it a chance to recover, but instead, due to ever increasing market prices for the fish, continues to fish this threatened species regardless. With just one fish selling at a Japanese market in 2013 for $1.7 million.
Another big factor is the meat dairy and egg industries which purchase over 800 billion fish each year to feed to animals, so much so that chickens, pigs and cows are now the worlds leading oceanic predators, with fish being mixed and ground up into feed pellets. At the same time the sewage and waste these land animals produce has polluted waterways and led tot he formation of more than 500 nitrogen flooded oceanic dead zones around the world, where no fish or other creatures can survive, totaling 95,000 square miles of areas devoid of life in the oceans.
Another problem is the sky rocketing demands for shark fins especially in the Asian markets, with over 73 million sharks being killed each year for their fins, many of which are cast back into the oceans, helpless and bleeding after their fins are removed.
Not only that but it is estimated that a many as 650,000 dolphins, whales and seals are killed by fishing vessels every year, creating a huge imbalance in their food chains and irreversibly affecting the ecosystems they inhabit. In both cases this elimination of top level predators is damaging and often a critical factor in the collapse of the ecosystem.
But regardless of who is to blame for the decline, or what specific issue needs to be addressed there is another critical note that needs to be seen, and that is the suffering of trillions of animals every year. Since 2003 it has been known in the scientific community that Fish have pain receptors and feel pain, with Penn State University biologist Victoria Braithwaite stating. “Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain." For many people however we do not consider it, they cannot scream, or make the expressions we recognise as pain or fear, but they beyond any doubt feel. Imagine the agony of being hooked through the mouth and dragged though the water, suffocating slowly to death as you gulp for oxygen and find none, having your fins or limbs sliced off and then being thrown back into the salty water to die as you hit the sea floor miles below. They are just like any other creature on this planet, and they deserve to be protected and respected as individuals.
Whats more scientists have repeatedly shown that fish form complex relationships, have incredible memories and can recognise up to 500 individuals at a time.
What can we do?
One of the most critical things to do is to allow a long period of restoration to occur in the oceans. Which means that in effect, man needs to step aside and leave the oceans at peace. They cannot sustain the current level of fishing, and with current market trends and estimates leading to complete collapse in the next 30 years, we have little choice in the matter.
Sustainable farming is also no longer an option, not only is it almost impossible at this point, but the cost of the catch would be so high that true sustainable fishing would be out of the price range of many who would consider it an option.
The main thing we as consumers can do is stop paying for the fish to be caught. Industry listens to demand, as demand drops the industry declines. So the best thing you as a consumer can do is stop buying fish. Not only are you saving the lives and ecosystems of these animals but you are also not funding the industry that is coming ever closer to wiping out all life in the oceans.
When you consider too the huge impacts of animal agriculture and the demands that livestock feed place on the oceans then the next logical step would be to adopt a plant based diet, cutting out all forms of meat, dairy and eggs. This way you eliminate the demand for wild caught fish instead of simply switching it to a different sector.
What's more many of us are in the extremely lucky position of being able to walk into a supermarket or store every week to pick our food. Meaning we have more than one option when it comes to what we eat every day. Fish is not our only source of nutrition, we are not living of scraps or fishing to survive. Choosing to ditch fish and animal products is a huge step towards healthy oceans and helps to ensure the survival of many unique species that live in the blue depths. It is something we can all do, and something we must do in order to protect this planet and all life on it.
Many of us are willing to do o many things to help protect the planet, we want to reduce our energy use, cut out fossil fuels, ban plastic straws and other single use plastics. if we are willing to do all of these things to save the oceans, then this is the next and best step you can take.
STOP EATING FISH.