Ecocide in the Oceans

29 May 2007

Ecocide in the Oceans

By Gwynne Dyer

When the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission opened in Alaska on Monday (28 May), Japan declared that it planned to kill fifty humpback whales as well as the usual minke and fin whales next year in its “scientific” whale-hunt (catch them, count them, and sell them as food). Humpbacks were heading for extinction when the IWC agreed a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986, so the place erupted in protests.

Australian Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull called it “a highly provocative act,” but it is also a carefully calculated one. Japan’s real goal is to get commercial whaling re-started, and it offered to drop the plan to kill humpbacks if the IWC approves a return to “limited commercial whaling” by four Japanese coastal villages. Just four little villages for now, and strictly limited numbers of whales — but the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling would have been broken.

The pro-moratorium countries at the IWC understand Japan’s tactics and will not make that deal, reckoning the lives of fifty humpbacks are less important than the principle of no commercial whaling. The killing of fifty humpbacks is regrettable, but it will not endanger a species that has gradually recovered to perhaps sixty or seventy thousand since the moratorium was imposed.

Which is not to say that the humpbacks have really recovered from the carnage of the whaling era. The IWC estimates that there were only 115,000 humpbacks before whaling began, but in a 2005 study marine biologist Steve Palumbi of Stanford University examined genetic diversity among humpbacks, which is directly related to the size of the ancestral population, and concluded that there used to be between 750,000 and two million of them. At best, humpback whales have only recovered to eight percent of their former numbers, and it may be as little as three percent.

We care about whales now (call it mammalian solidarity, if you like), but the fish of the oceans benefit from no such sentiment, and they are now going as fast as the whales once were. In fact, according to a report last year in “Nature,” the scientific journal, ninety percent of the really big fish — tuna, marlin, swordfish and the like — are already gone, and the middle-sized fish are following.

The codfish are gone on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, once the richest fishery in the world, and show little sign of recovery despite an absolute ban on cod-fishing for the past fifteen years. They are declining rapidly in the North Sea, too. In the 1980s the annual catch was about 300,000 tonnes. The European Union quota for codfish was cut to 80,000 tonnes in 2005 — and EU fishermen only managed to catch two-thirds of that quota. Nevertheless, they will probably keep on fishing, with gradually reducing quotas, until the stock is completely eliminated.

The problem is global. As human numbers have soared and fishing technologies have been industrialised, fishing has been mutated from the maritime equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture to a process more like strip-mining. The schools of fish are located electronically, few individuals escape the huge nets, and no area of the ocean is left alone long enough for the stocks to recover.

“At this point, 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed; that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent,” explained Prof. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University late last year. “It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating.” If the trend continues, he predicted, ALL fish and seafood species that are fished commercially will collapse by 2048.

Individual fishermen, up to their ears in debt for their high-tech boats and equipment, cannot reverse this trend because they HAVE to go on fishing. Governments could cut the huge subsidies they give to their fishermen, and above all to the bottom-trawlers that are systematically turning the floors of the world’s oceans to mud, but they are unwilling to face the political protests of well-organised fishing lobbies. The systematic destruction of the world’s fisheries will continue unless some body equivalent to the International Whaling Commission takes charge, and how likely is that?

Not very. Or at least, an International Fisheries Commission with global regulatory authority is only likely to be accepted, as the IWC was, when all the commercial stocks have already collapsed. Yet fast-breeding fish can recover far faster than whales: as little as five years would allow most fish stocks to recover if a moratorium is imposed before total population collapse occurs. And you don’t have to do it in every area at once; most stocks are quite local.

A major human food source — the principal source of protein for one-fifth of the human race — is going to collapse in the next generation unless drastic measures are taken. The world’s fishing fleet needs to be reduced by at least two-thirds, bottom-trawling must be banned outright, and widespread fishing moratoriums for endangered species and even for whole areas need to be imposed for periods of five or even ten years.

Unfortunately, the minimum measures needed to prevent ecocide in the oceans would cause major short-term disruption and throw millions out of work, so they probably won’t be taken. It will be much easier politically to ignore what is happening now and let the collapse happen later, on somebody else’s watch.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Which…percent”; and”The problem…recover”)