Thursday, 10 April 2008

Callum Roberts,The Unnatural History of the Sea

(Island Press/Shearwater, 2007) is an enthralling history and an appalling eco-history of man's hunting marine species to extinction, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. According to official data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 11 of the world’s 15 most important fishing areas and 60% of major fish species are being destroyed. According to Roberts, half of the real world catch is by pirate fleets, heavily financed by Northern and Asian interests, under flags of convenience (p.285). Fishing effort increases with unpredented technological efficiency as fish stocks dwindle. It is a war against nature, and it is almost over.

graph: fishing effort
Dr. Roberts, a marine biologist at the University of York, is one of the world's leading experts. He has been a consultant to the US, UK and Caribbean governments. His history shows that fisheries laws have always open to political abuse. Too many people gain by flouting the rules -- the classic tragedy of the commons. Kings in medieval Europe tried to prohibit the overfishing of estuaries. The UN Law of the Sea, which finally came into force in 1994, extended national boundaries by 200 miles but failed in its main aim of inducing responsible catch limits. Two centuries of hearings into ocean trawling produced mountains of evidence which investors and legislators (often the same people) studiously doubted and wilfully ignored. Statistics were fudged. Political parties were bought off. Indeed, it was thought to be in the national interest to kill fish as fast as possible. Cod collapsed, the roughy and sea bass have been almost exterminated, the Black Sea so overfished that it has been invaded by comb jellies, to cite only a few examples. The desertification of the sea continues to the very end, with the abuse of fishing rights purchased from weak Third World countries, by million-dollar ships equipped with the latest technology, desperately trying to pay off their financial backers.

Roberts' history ranges from medieval Europe, the 15th century discovery of the Caribbean and Newfoundland stocks, whaling, sea mammal hunts, to modern long lining, seining, gill netting and trawling. Curiously, he has nothing to say about fish farming. He does not fail to point out the recurrence of piracy, greed, chicanery, and falsification of data. In modern times, this includes unrealistic TAC goals, cheating on landing quotas, the deliberate waste of bycatch, and the games played by politicians to please well-connected fish financiers, often sacrificing the long term interests of the citizens who elected them. Like the fish, future generations lose out. Canada's role last year in blocking a world ban on trawling is one more example in a long list.

Roberts claims the restoration of world fish stocks is still possible. The world must:
1. Reduce the total amount of fishing by cutting the size of the fleet, including adjustments for technological change;
2. Put fisheries management in the hands of independent experts;
3. Eliminate catch quotas;
4. Make fishers keep their entire catch;
5. Reduce bycatch by using the best available technology;
6. Ban or restrict the most damaging technology, for instance, trawling in habitat needed by other species;
7. Set up marine reserves in biological hotspots worldwide -- a measure which has had some success in New Zealand. However, he argues that the reserves are only part of a pyramid of governance that must supervise much larger areas;
8. Sustain fish populations at more than one third of their unexploited size (he cites much scientific data to to support this position, which politicians have deliberately called unproven);
9. Pay for effective surveillance and enforcement, particularly against the pirate fleets.

See Roberts' website with historical photos and action plans, Wikipedia on overfishing and its environmental effects, Encyclopedia of Earth, Shifting Baselines videos, the Greenpeace plan for marine reserves, Fiona Gell and Callum Roberts study of The Fishery Effects of Marine Reserves and Fishery Closures (2003), Callum Roberts and Julie Hawkins introductory guide to Fully Protected Marine Reserves (2000), and estimated costs of a global marine protected area network. Currently, less than .006% of the ocean is protected.

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