Ocean Solitaire: The Story of Declining Fish Populations

Exactly 500 years ago, the Italian mariner Giovanni Caboto (more commonly known as John Cabot) stood on the tip of Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland and looked out over a teeming new world. Like his countryman Columbus, who had reached Hispaniola five years earlier, Cabot was looking for a route to Asia. Instead he rediscovered North America and perhaps the richest fishery on earth–a place where cod were so plenteous that by some accounts you needed only to dip a basket into the water to haul up a catch. There were cod five and six feet long, cod that weighed 150 and 200 pounds. Half a century later, 60 percent of all the fish eaten in Europe was cod. Cabot had found a new world of sheer abundance, a world of the passenger pigeon and the buffalo and an inexhaustible profusion of fish.

If you stand on the tip of Cape Bonavista today, up on the pedestal with your arm around the statue of John Cabot, you can look out on the remnants of that world. Few fishing boats head out from Bonavista anymore, and none that fish for cod–there has been a near-total ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland since 1992, when stocks finally collapsed completely. Before the ban, virtually every family in this town of 4,500 souls made its living from the cod fishery, either directly or indirectly, but when a researcher recently interviewed 84 parents in Bonavista, none of them thought their children would find jobs catching fish.You’ve heard this story before, of course–the story of recklessness, mismanagement, and human folly that have devastated fisheries here and elsewhere. You’ve read about pitched battles over declining catches: Canadians have seized Spanish vessels and blockaded American ferries. Icelandic boats have rammed British trawlers. Tunisians have traded shots with Italians, as have Thais with Vietnamese. A wave of books spelling out tales of fishy doom and a steady drumbeat of newspaper coverage have raised gloomy prospects of an unfolding crisis. Last year, for example, a Pulitzer Prize went to the New Orleans Times-Picayune for its 50,000-word series on the Gulf of Mexico’s wrecked fishing grounds and the wrecked lives that go with them.

But like the now-familiar sagas of tropical rainforests, global warming, and the earth’s fragmenting wilderness habitats, these tales of depleted fisheries and disappearing wild salmon somehow manage to seem both dire and irrelevant. No matter how often we hear about limits, they never really seem to impinge on our lives. And fish are no different: Our supermarkets and restaurants are still full of seafood; a cornucopian avalanche of fast-food lobster and shrimp cascades across our TV screens; Alaskan fishermen catch so many salmon that low prices make it nearly impossible for them to make a profit. The fisheries in crisis seem to exist on another planet, even while the suspicion persists that the sum of these isolated tragedies and feuds–the salmon, the cod, the whales, the redfish–should add up to something more than a sense of vague guilt and disquiet.

The tip of Cape Bonavista is a good place to start unraveling this mystery–to start figuring out how the world can be so damaged and our lives so little changed. But the view from that rocky headland, I warn you now, is sobering. At the very least, it looks out on a world far more daunting than the one in which the cod swam by the tens of millions.

Just as the sun comes up, a little wind ruffles the swells. “The old guys call that wind ‘the pride of the morning,’ ” says Bill Donovan, who grew up fishing the North Atlantic with his dad. “It’s just to let you know not to get too cocky.”

We’re aboard Donovan’s boat, the Danni J., a few miles down the Newfoundland coast from Bonavista, plying the water off the tiny town of Melrose. Donovan is using his handheld Global Positioning System unit to steer toward the spot where he has a line of crab pots. “I like this gadget because those satellites cost somebody $26 billion,” he tells me, “but I can use it for free.” Soon the winch is hauling up 150 fathoms of line, starting to strain as the first of the pots nears the surface. Donovan grins at the squeal it makes–“sounds like a few bucks to me”–and indeed, when the crew of three pulls the first pot aboard and opens the bottom, 30 or 40 long-legged snow crabs spill out across the deck. Perhaps half are both big enough and hard enough to keep; the small ones and those that are molting get tossed back overboard. When we return to Donovan’s hand-built wharf to unload, he’s got 2,600 pounds of crab, which will fetch about 80 cents a pound, or more than $2,000.

Which is not to say that Donovan is happy. He’s a big, genial, 44-year-old native of Melrose, and he clearly enjoyed the sunrise this morning (“Same as drugs, it is”), and the puffins that flew by in a little squadron, and the minke whale that sounded off the starboard rail. But whenever he sits down for a smoke and a talk, he shakes his head. For one thing, he’s not making any money: His crab license lets him take only 13,300 pounds in a season, and so he’s slipping further behind in the payments on his small boat.

And he’s watching his community crumble–when we return to the dock, almost everyone in Melrose is there to help haul the crab boxes up to the scales, which seems a pathetic reminder of how little there is to do now that cod fishing is banned. “Two years ago we had 118 guys in our bar baseball league,” he says. “Forty-eight of them don’t play anymore. They’ve moved away.”

Most of all, though, he seems blue because he’s not fishing for cod. He takes me into his workshop at the end of the wharf and picks up a wad of black netting. “Smell that,” he says, thrusting it toward my nose. It smells like new plastic. “That’s a cod trap,” he tells me. “It’s never been in the water. I spent $4,000 on them the winter before the moratorium. It’s like to turn your stomach upside down.”

But again, it’s not the money–it’s the not fishing. Donovan worked on freighters for a few years when he was in his 20s, but fishing is all he’s ever wanted to do. “Hey, crabbing’s the easiest fishing you’ll ever do,” he grants. “It’s the cleanest. But we count crabs. With cod, we’d go to fish six or eight rocks [fishing grounds] in a day, try to find the best-aged fish before the other guy.” Donovan’s father, Phillip, who’s still alive and clear-eyed and has a new small skiff on order, was born in Melrose in 1911 and fished his whole life. “His planet was these five miles out from shore,” says Donovan. “Cod’s what we were made for. That’s why we’re here.”

If you understand what happened to the codfish, you’ll more or less know what happened to the redfish and the swordfish and the bluefin tuna and the orange roughy, a list that grows longer and longer after each fishing season. But the cod will do. For that story, I visit Richard Haedrich, a fish biologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital, where he sits me down in his office with a small mountain of charts and begins to talk.

“For about 300 years after Cabot, fishermen took between 100,000 and 200,000 tons of cod a year, caught by hook and line from small dories,” Haedrich begins. “Then, in the 1870s, the cod trap was invented–a piece of fixed net that was very effective. There were big debates in Newfoundland: Would this wipe out the cod? For two years it was banned.”

But the net slowly became the backbone of the industry–it was the tool Donovan and his dad used to make their living. And the catch stayed about the same, slowly increasing toward 200,000 tons a year. “Even with the nets, it was very seasonal,” Haedrich says. “You’d wait for the capelin to come, and then the cod to chase them. The cod were landed in these tiny ports and split and dried there, and the company boat would eventually come along to pick them up.” When the cod weren’t in season, something else was; many fishermen hunted seals in the winter for cash, cut firewood, grew small gardens. It was a rugged, poor, rich life, but it was kept alive by the prodigious cod.

Then, in the 1960s, the distant-water fleet appeared–the draggers that could hunt the cod down out at sea and fish year round. The catch suddenly quadrupled, to 800,000 tons, most of it going to European boats that didn’t even have to dock in Newfoundland before the voyage home. Canada, along with many other nations, quickly declared a 200-mile limit, effectively pushing the foreigners off the richest shelves and banks. “The idea was that the streets were paved with fish and that now that the Europeans were gone it would come to the Canadians,” says Haedrich.

Ottawa started subsidizing boatbuilders, erecting fish-processing plants, establishing a huge fishery. Quasi-public companies built fleets of trawlers, and for a few years jobs were easy to find and life was cushy. “But as a result of all the capital investment, the fishing couldn’t be seasonal anymore,” Haedrich tells me. “And there were new advances in fish-finding technology, every couple of months.” Once the dragger captains were able to locate the nurseries where the cod mated, they discovered that the fish were in prime condition just before they spawned–so that’s when they started taking them, tearing up the ocean floor in the process. Government biologists had been assigned to regulate the catch, but bad news never gained credence. “The setting of quotas always seemed to err on the high side,” Haedrich recalls. Enforcement was lax. As one of Bill Donovan’s friends, a former crew member on one of the draggers, put it, “The last two years before the ban, all we did was steal fish, just to make a living. You’d get a piece of paper telling you where to fish, but there weren’t no fish there. So you fished where there were fish.”

Until 1992. That’s when, all of a sudden, the boats went out and came back–empty. No fish. At all. What had happened, apparently, was that the success of the new technologies had disguised the decline of the cod. As the electronics got better and better, the fleet had managed to search out the fish wherever they were, so the catch had remained steady year after year even though the fleets were beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

And now Canada pays out millions in welfare checks–via the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy, a program expected to expire this summer–buys up boats, and retrains fishermen to operate computers or style hair. The dragger boats have been sent farther afield by the big Canadian companies that own them. “A guy I know is fishing off Namibia this year,” Donovan says.

But the cod aren’t coming back–not yet, anyway. “There’s a certain amount of theoretical support for the idea that they might never come back, at least in their former abundance,” Haedrich tells me. The sea-floor ecology has been altered in many places by all the draggers, and new, less valuable fish such as skates and dogfish are thriving where the cod once reigned. The most prudent course of action would be to bar any kind of fishing entirely for a few decades, argues Haedrich–but by then, of course, a way of life would be destroyed.

The same story, in different accents, is told on every seacoast on earth. In 1990 the London Daily Telegraph reported that every square meter of the sea bottom in the Dutch region of the North Sea was being dragged by a beam trawler at least once each year–some spots were hit seven times–and the trawling chains were plowing the bottom into a virtual desert. In Indonesia, “fishermen” routinely kill miles of coral reef with blasts of dynamite, and some even pour cyanide into the water and collect the poison-stunned fish for sale to fancy restaurants. Around the world, huge nets bring up millions of tons of “bycatch” each year–“trash fish” that are tossed back overboard, usually to die, because their swim bladders burst during the quick ascent in the net. Meanwhile, the most expensive fish bring out every technological marvel. Spotter airplanes circle the North Atlantic, calling in boats as soon as they find bluefin tuna; one 750-pound specimen sold for $83,500 in the Tokyo market in 1992. When the Japanese squid fleet turns on its high-powered lights at night to lure the creatures to its nets, you can see the flash from space.

In his book Song for the Blue Ocean, Carl Safina, director of the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program, uses the past tense to describe our time: “The last buffalo hunt was occurring on the rolling blue prairies of the ocean.”

If you want to fathom this sea change, you need to take off your rubber boots and oilskins and trade in your skiff for a shuttle flight to Washington, D.C., where the Worldwatch Institute has its headquarters.

At the long, wild economic party we’ve been throwing on this planet, Worldwatch has volunteered to be the unwelcome guest who reminds us about the morning after. For years, in a dispassionate series of annuals called The State of the World, it has tracked the steady decline in many of the planet’s natural-resource systems–the chainsawed forests, the eroded soils, the polluted waters.

It’s a grim accounting, but it’s a chronicle that has never really seemed to matter; for all the damage we’ve done, we’ve not yet run out of food or oil or much of anything else. Ever since the first Earth Day, in 1970, there has been the nervous sense that we’re getting close to certain limits, but for 30 years we haven’t quite reached them–which has led some to doubt whether physical limits really exist and others to propose that we’re so clever as a species that we’ll simply be able to evade them.

So here’s the fish story, at its most schematic. Decide for yourself whether the numbers lie.

In 1900 the world caught 3 million tons of fish. As we reached new seas and developed new technologies, that number grew steadily through the century–grew by more than 25 times. Between 1950 and 1970, the annual catch rose 6 percent a year, reaching 80 million tons. And then, in the early 1970s, the Peruvian anchovy catch, in what was then the largest fishery in the world, collapsed from 12 million tons to 2 million over the course of three years–a crash that signaled the start of a new era.

For the next two decades, the global catch grew much more slowly–just over 2 percent a year. In 1989 it peaked at 86 million tons and then fell by 7 percent over the next three years. Since 1992 it has hovered at about 80 million tons. We are, in other words, catching less fish now than we did 10 years ago–and because over the past decade the human population has increased by 800 million, to nearly 6 billion, that means there’s a lot less fish to go around.

If you look behind the numbers, it gets even worse. To catch that 80 million tons, fishing fleets are working harder each year, employing more expensive technology and more extreme measures. And these fleets aren’t netting the same kinds of fish they once did. By the 1990s, as cod and haddock fisheries declined, the trawlers were keeping the catch at the same level only by hauling in huge amounts of Chilean jack mackerel, Japanese and South American pilchard, and various species of anchovy. Cod and haddock you eat, and eat happily; anchovy and pilchard you mostly grind up for animal feed or fertilizer.

According to the United Nations, all 17 of the world’s major fishing regions are now fished at or above sustainable levels. If we go through all the pain of buying back licenses and decommissioning trawlers and enforcing sound limits, and if nature cooperates by allowing these damaged systems to recover completely, the situation may not get any worse. But it’s not going to get better any time soon. Building bigger boats, adding more shifts, baiting more hooks–they’ll only add up to fewer fish, not more.

That’s the new world you contemplate from the tip of Cape Bonavista–the end of abundance, the end of growth. “I think that the world fish catch is the first global limit we’ve reached,” Lester Brown, Worldwatch’s founder, remarked as we sat eating crab cakes in a Washington restaurant. The questions, then, are these: How could we afford to eat crab cakes for lunch? Why is there still seafood in your supermarket? Why, in fact, are Alaskan salmon fishermen getting less per pound for their catch now than they did a few years ago?

A large part of the answer is that we’ve learned to farm many species that we used to catch at sea–learned to grow big fish in small ponds. Aquaculture produces nearly 20 million tons of fish a year now, which means that even with the declines in the marine catch, we’re consuming more fish than we ever have before.

The “cornucopian” theorists hold up fish farming as a proof of their theory that there are no limits we can’t overcome. Julian Simon, a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland who is known as a pro­population growth “doomslayer,” is the granddaddy of this argument. One of his intellectual heirs is Mark Sagoff, a researcher for the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy who wrote in The Atlantic Monthly last year that aquaculture shows that “our economy depends far more on the progress of technology than on the exploitation of nature, [and] resource scarcities do not exist or are easily averted.” Sure, people may deplete the oceans, and our populations may outstrip their capacity to provide us with food. We are, after all, giants–a modern American uses as many calories of energy each day as a sperm whale. But giant people possess giant brains, big enough to figure out ways around any of our problems. And what better way than farming fish? It allows us to bypass the messy problems of trying to control an almost uncontrollable industry and instead raise our “seafood” in ponds, under nice controlled conditions.

Maybe so–maybe fish farming is proof that we don’t really need to worry much. But fish farming is not exactly carefree and benign. Fish farmers often devastate the places where they grow their crops. Great swaths of the world’s coastal mangrove forests, for instance, have been cut down to build shrimp farms. By one recent estimate, Thailand harvested 120,000 tons of shrimp from its fish farms between 1985 and 1990, but lost a potential fish harvest of 800,000 tons because the spawning grounds in the mangrove swamps had been eradicated.

And you’ve got to feed the fish. Many fish–salmon, for instance–are carnivorous foragers high on the ocean’s food chain. If you want to raise them in a pond, you need to dump in fish meal for them to eat. That’s what’s happening to a lot of that pilchard and anchovy that fishermen have been hauling in; they’ve become Salmon Chow. The marine food chain has been changed so that now we perform for the salmon the job of catching their dinner, a job they used to do for free. Meanwhile, by continuing to take so many forage fish out of the water, we reduce the chance that wild stocks will ever recover. It’s like clear-cutting a forest and then making mulch for tree farms by grinding up whatever saplings poke their heads above the ground.

Some species can be farmed more efficiently; certain carp, for instance, eat weeds that can be grown in ponds with animal-waste fertilizer. Two species of carp, mostly grown in China for domestic consumption, are already on the top-10 list of the world’s most consumed species. But an awful lot of fish farming aims at higher-value species such as catfish, which thrive on a nice diet of cornmeal. Which means that a catfish farm is exactly like a huge chicken farm, except that the chickens swim.

But why should anyone worry about dumping cornmeal into a Delta catfish pond? Well, that’s where the story takes a sudden twist. Because it’s possible–indeed, according to experts like Cornell biologist David Pimentel it’s highly likely–that the wall we’ve hit with fisheries is just the first of a series of walls. And that we may, before much longer, be running short of cornmeal, too, not to mention wheat and rice and soybeans. That we may, as a world, be a little short on dinner.

So it’s not a great moment to be going in for fish farming. “Aquaculture is now big enough that it makes a measurable claim on the world’s grain supplies,” says Lester Brown. “If oceanic fish catches are no longer increasing, then we need 2 million more tons of protein each year just to supply the growth in population. One way or another, that 2 million tons has to come from land, and if it’s going to get to people by way of fish farms, that will cost 4 million more tons of grain feed each year.”

It’s possible that these calculations are too gloomy. The Chinese government insists it will increase crop yields enough to feed its people; in other places around the globe, birth rates have begun to fall, leading some demographers to predict that the world population may peak late in the next century at just over 10 billion. There may be technical marvels on the horizon: emission-free hydrogen-fueled cars, for instance, which would help solve the greenhouse mess.

At the very least, however, it’s clear that the next 50 years will be a tight squeeze. Many forms of toxic pollution will hit their zenith, as will carbon emissions, deforestation, and perhaps species extinction. And virtually everyone agrees we’ll have a few billion more mouths to feed–a few billion. The math is no fun to do. Among other things, it translates into relentless pressure on the remaining fish in the sea.

We aren’t going to find more oceans brimming with fish, just as we’re not going to come across extra continents covered with fertile fields. Not for us the get-rich-quick excitement of Cabot’s day; for us, there is the hard and patient work of protecting the resources we still have and of finding ways to make sure our populations don’t overwhelm the sustenance this blue globe provides.

But if we happen to have been born at a narrowing moment in human history, we nonetheless possess certain consolations. Denied the experience of abundance–denied the passenger pigeon blackening the skies, the buffalo shaking the prairie, the cod choking the surf–we have instead been granted a sense of preciousness.

Out on Bill Donovan’s boat, when we saw that minke whale to starboard, we all stopped what we were doing and watched, watching and rocking on the slow and queasy swells. Not to calculate the price the whale might fetch, or to wonder if it indicated a school of fish we might chase, but merely to participate for a moment in its grace. If we are no longer granted the fearlessness that abundance breeds, perhaps we can yet draw some strength from the exquisiteness that comes with rarity.

Bill McKibben’s most recent book is Hope, Human and Wild (Little Brown). Reprinted with permission from Outside (Dec. 1997). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (12 issues) from Box 54729, Boulder, CO 80322-4729.

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