How to Rebuild the Fish Stocks?
...This is the original article that I wrote in 1998 (based, really, only on
logic and common sense). I sent it far and wide trying to interest marine
scientists and the media in the idea. But I had no success. It was almost a
year later that I started to search for the supporting data. After doing the
research, my ideas changed only slightly on two points: what is
“overfishing”, and the consistency of the food that should be given to the fish
(now “chunky” vs “compost” as suggested in this article.) Also of note: this
idea was not original to me - my father first explained it to me, hence he was
co-author of this first article.
“How to Rebuild the Fish Stocks - A New Strategy”
Concern for the environment is increasing; the ocean everywhere is in
crisis, in fact it is reported to be rapidly “dying.” Worldwide,
environmentalists, oceanographers and fishermen are becoming increasingly
alarmed at the rapid disappearance of marine life forms. There have been
some attempts to deflect the blame from ourselves (e.g. “the seals are eating
too many codfish.”) But most of us recognize the fact that this trend is a
direct result of reckless overfishing by men.
In the last few centuries we have removed from the oceans an
incredible quantity of animal life (known to scientists as “biomass”).
Twenty-five years ago Jacques Cousteau estimated that one third of the
marine biomass had disappeared. It is reasonable to conclude that the missing
fraction is now significantly larger than that. Numerous species of marine life
(including fish, seabirds and marine mammals, which all have their natural
places in the ocean ecosystem) have been devastated. A number of species
have been driven to extinction by shortsighted people who, even today, seem
intent on catching the last fish in the sea. Lately in Atlantic Canada we have
seen the dramatic collapse of the cod fishery, along with rapid declines in
other fish that we have tried to catch (the so-called “underutilized” ones). We
are very worried.
Recently scientists have been puzzled by the mysterious disappearance
of fish species that we have never actually targeted with our fishing efforts.
An example is the “barndoor” skate, which is in decline along with many
other species even though we have never fished for it. A similar observation
can be made virtually anywhere along the coastline: all of the little lifeforms
that one can see swimming and crawling on the bottom (crabs, little flatfish,
minnows, etc.) are remarkably less numerous than they were only a few
decades ago. This statement is not based on a formal study, but the fact is
obvious to coastal dwellers, especially older individuals, who remember a
constant abundance of these little sea creatures living in the shallows when
they were children. Now is it hard to spot anything moving in the water.
So what is happening to the barndoor skate and the other disappearing
sea creatures that have never been specific human targets? The answer is
simple: they are starving! Due to the incredible bulk of animal life that man
has managed to pull out of the ocean, the entire ecosystem is now suffering
from a shortage of nutrients. Every level is hungry. The marine creatures
maintained a balance for eons before we entered the picture and physically
removed too many of them. Because they lived and died in the ocean, the
nutrients (or basic building blocks for these creatures) were recycled
constantly through the food chain. Their dead bodies continually replenished
the system by providing food for other mouths. But then men unwisely
removed from the ecosystem everything they could catch. Initially the ocean
was so full of life that it seemed to withstand our “fishing pressure” for a
while. But as the number of fish decreased, we improved the “efficiency” of
our fishing technology and the downward spiral for all marine species is now
rapidly speeding up. If we do not do something now to reverse this trend the
whole thing may drop past the point of no return. Ultimately all forms of
marine life will “sink or swim” together. Therefore “conservation” policies
that call for the protection of some species and allow continued killing of
others are futile. If we continue to remove fish from the sea, any fish, the
problem of declining populations will steadily worsen. Man is the only
harmful predator at sea because he is the only one who takes without giving
something useful back.
Populations of wild animals are widely known to be affected by two
simple and obvious environmental factors. One is the level of predation that
they are subjected to (high predation = declining numbers, low predation =
increasing numbers). The other is the availability of food (food scarcity =
declining numbers, food surplus = increasing numbers). Marine creatures are
in decline because they are suffering from both high predation and low food
supply, resulting from human activity. These two problems are correctable if
the human will can be found to reverse both of these trends. Other factors,
like levels of pollutants also affect populations of animals, but the two simple
factors described above are the major ones affecting marine lifeforms today.
Many concerned voices have called for a stop to our more destructive
fishing methods. This is critically important and an obvious starting point. If
we want to see life increasing in the oceans we must stop all “high tech”
fishing. It would be ideal to stop fishing completely but since this is
unrealistic, perhaps we could restrain ourselves to a limited amount of hook
and line fishing.
The other logical thing for us to do, probably more importantly, is to
put as much organic material as possible into the ocean to replace the
enormous biomass that we have removed. Any of our waste products that can
be used as food at any point in the marine food chain should be disposed of
in the ocean. It goes against the grain of current “wisdom” to recommend
disposing of anything in the ocean, but it is exactly what we should be doing
if we ever hope to see the return of disappearing marine species.
We must stop polluting the ocean (with industrial wastes, pesticides
and the like) and start feeding it (with organic waste products of animal and
plant origin.) This distinction between what pollutes the ocean and what
nourishes is does not seem to be widely understood (if at all!). Fishermen and
environmentalists are often heard to lament the “terrible waste” when they are
forced to dump their “bycatch” at sea. When this “accidental” catch is thrown
back, it is the best thing that can be done with it because that way, at least, it
provides food for other fish. Groups dedicated to protecting marine
environments seem to insist, in the name of stopping pollution, that we must
never put anything into the ocean. If we do not put anything back, the fish
stocks are unlikely to return to healthy levels for centuries to come. Scientific
publications document in great detail the declining fish stocks but admit that
“efforts to restore depleted populations are slow and ineffective” (Marine
Fish Conservation Network). This organization has an eight point
management plan with the top objective being to “rebuild depleted fish
populations.” But they never suggest what these fish might be “built” from.
One thing is certain: fish will not spontaneously generate from seawater and
sunshine. Adequate levels of nutrients need to be in the water for marine
species to grow and increase in number.
Our food-garbage is the only obvious and convenient source of
nutrition that we can offer. The only thriving sea bird population on our coast
is the sea gull, whose success is largely due to the fact that they learned to
scavenge food from our open garbage dumps. This and other examples (rats,
raccoons, etc.) show that animals can readily make good use of the food that
we throw away.
A simple analogy can be drawn between the ocean and a vegetable
garden. We know that we cannot harvest produce repeatedly from a garden
without replenishing the organic material. Broken down organic material
(animal or vegetable origin) must also be present for the marine creatures to
be able to grow.
Therefore, besides putting an end to fishing (with the possible
exception of some hook and line as previously mentioned), what we need to
- Divert all organic waste from our garbage stream (which we have
already started to do) and dump (scatter) it into the ocean, either as is, or after
the initial stage of the composting process. Either way it will be usable by
some marine life form. The exact point at which this material enters the food
chain is not critical; eventually the benefits will be noticeable throughout as
the creatures find their natural balance. Microscopic life forms and
scavengers will be the first consumers but they will feed the other levels in
- Large obsolete fishing vessels should be converted to fish-feeding
boats. It will be desirable to dump the waste-food far enough from the
coastline so that we will not offend any people by “fouling” the beaches.
- If we adopt this strategy we will need patience. No doubt it will take
several decades of putting biomass into the ocean, in amounts significantly
higher than what we are taking out, before any improvements will be visible.
Failure to do this will result in the ocean environment becoming increasingly
more sterile and lifeless.
If we intend to continue living on this planet, and ever hope to achieve
a long-term sustainable relationship with the ocean dwellers, it will have to
look like this. We need to replace what we remove to enable the wild species
to live in the face of our harvesting any of them for food, and it goes without
saying that we must stop destroying their habitat (polluting and tearing up the
bottom of the sea).
This plan to rebuild the fish stocks will require a major change in our
thinking and behavior, but if we implement it now and give it time to work,
the rewards will be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren as they see the
return of the “living” sea.
- co-authored by Douglas Brennan and Debbie MacKenzie