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 do is:
- 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 turn.
- 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


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