A World Without Fish
One billion people rely on seafood for their primary source of sustenance, and many millions of coastal people rely upon sea life for their primary livelihood.
The rapid spread of industrial fishing since the 1950s, however, has decimated this vital source of nutrient-rich food and sustainable income.The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that nearly 80% of the world’s fisheries are either over-exploited, fully-exploited or have already collapsed, and large predator fish such as sharks, tuna, cod, marlin, halibut, grouper and swordfish have lost 90% of their populations in the last 60 years.
Industrial fishing methods like trawling, drift nets and long line combined with sonar, GPS and increasing demand from a growing global population have led to this massive disappearance of life in our oceans. Policy has not helped; governments subsidize their fishing fleets at a rate of $35 billion per year, and the lack of national jurisdiction in the majority of the world’s oceans has made proper management of fisheries on the high seas difficult.
The oceans are not infinite in their abundance. As large, highly sought-after fish like bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon are depleted in the wild, fishing fleets keep moving down the food chain to take the next largest species. Effectively, heavily-subsidized, unregulated and technologically advanced fleets are systematically emptying the ocean of its life; a 2006 study in Science journal predicted the entire world’s fisheries will have collapsed by 2048.
What would a world without fish look like?
In Newfoundland, generations of abundant cod catch created the belief that populations would continually bounce back, and led to overfishing being institutionalized as the de facto management regime.
In 1992, the cod simply did not appear. The fishery had collapsed entirely. Forty-thousand people in Newfoundland’s fishing industry lost their jobs, leaving both the economy and the coastal ecosystem in ruin. Over twenty years later, the cod still have not recovered enough to end the moratorium on fishing there.
Marine Protected Areas
The best way to restore life in our seas, according to Cambridge’s Conservation Science Group, is through the creation of marine parks where extractive industries like mining, drilling and fishing would be banned. These marine protected areas, or MPAs, would cover 20-30% of the world’s oceans, focusing on key areas that serve as breeding and feeding grounds or nurseries for young species.
The study, led by Dr. Andrew Balmford, found that these MPAs would cost between $6-$23 billion annually to maintain, while creating about 1 million new jobs. This, in contrast to the $35 billion spent subsidizing a global fishing fleet that dwarfs the ocean’s sustainable yield two-fold, and threatens to undermine employment and sustenance for millions if unchecked.
MPAs would provide a safe haven for fish to recover their populations, whose effect would eventually spill over into open fisheries nearby. Over the long term, MPAs would increase catch, create and sustain jobs, and continue feeding much of the world.
Though creating a global network of ocean sanctuaries will require the coordination of the international community, we can envision how the infrastructure akin to what is proposed here could be utilized within a larger strategy of oceanic conservation and protection.
The Nexus could be the centerpiece of a marine park surrounding its island chains, reefs and breakwaters. The habitats of the Nexus would serve to safeguard and nurture young fish to maturity, and the islands could be used a base by government agencies and conservation groups for monitoring and enforcing protection of the marine park.
This is not to advocate for saving fish at the cost of losing our fishermen and women. Generations of people in both hemispheres and on nearly every coast trace their livelihoods and traditions back to catch from the sea. We ought to develop a truly mindful, inclusive and long-term approach to managing the seas responsibly and in a way that benefit both fish and people.
Restricting fishing in many key areas will probably be necessary for some time, given the damage done. Even once populations recover, sustainably harvesting fisheries will mean reduced catch in comparison with the present free for all of overexploitation.
In the place of reduced wild catch, perhaps we can turn to farmed to fill the gap.
Globally, this has largely been the case. While wild catch has largely leveled off since the late 1980s at about 90 million tonnes, aquaculture has grown rapidly to fill supply, with harvests reaching almost 67 million tonnes in 2012, according to the U.N FAO.
Aquaculture, like biofuel, has a few major problems that have understandably cast skepticism on its ability to be truly sustainable or environmentally beneficial.
First, aquaculture operations often feed their farmed fish with pellets derived in part from wild fish, unfortunately. To farm fish, then, often means catching others in the wild first.
Second, many aquaculture farms are created on top of the ruined landscapes of valuable coastal ecosystems like wetlands and mangroves. Over half the world’s mangroves have been lost in the last fifty years, with shrimp farming being a major culprit.
Third, farming masses of fish intensively within a small area leads to large levels of fish manure depositing on the ocean floor, which chokes out life below and causes toxic algal blooms.
We may not be able to completely eliminate the impact of aquaculture, but here are some brief ideas on how we might minimize the damage.
For feedstock, we can harness a rapid, sustainable and nutritious source by employing the small but mighty black soldier fly. Black soldier fly larvae are voracious devourers of any organic waste matter, whether manure, food scraps or bones. The larvae eat twice their own weight every day, and boast 42% protein and 35% fat content, which makes them ideal for feeding to fish, chickens or hogs.
Aquaculture farms could link with land-based entrepreneurs dedicated to cultivating black soldier flies as a new form of fish meal. These entrepreneurs could siphon off organic waste, such as kitchen scraps, that are typically sent to landfills, and instead use this wasted resource as food for soldier fly larvae. In this way, kitchen scraps become grubs which then nourish nutrient-rich fish and are fed to people.
For cities with solid waste disposal, the potential is to reduce up to 30% of the total material sent to landfills, which is the share of organic, compostable waste in refuse bins that is trucked away. These cities would benefit from saving money landfill dumping fees and transportation costs (New York City spends $1.1 million per day to haul waste to landfills), reducing greenhouse gas emissions from less trucking and potent methane no longer being released by landfills. New businesses would be created, and aquaculture would have a new source of sustainable feed.
Moving aquaculture offshore would address the problems of coastal habitat destruction and fish manure pollution. Offshore farms would mean mangroves or wetlands would no longer need to be sacrificed, and the strong currents of deep waters offshore would more effectively disperse fish waste.
InnovaSea is one of many innovative companies looking to make the promise of offshore, deepwater aquaculture technically and commercially viable. Their Aquapod is created out of individual triangle pieces, similar to a geodesic dome except that it is a complete sphere. The triangular panels, which are made of 80% recycled, high density polyethylene, can be replaced individually as needed, and are tailored accommodate “access, feeding, fish transfer, grading, and harvesting” according to Ocean Farm Tech.
The Aquapod is designed to handle the rough, turbulent nature of open ocean. It can be raised, lowered and even rotated as needed for maintenance and cleaning.
The Coastal Communities Nexus could host Aquapods or other forms of deepwater aquaculture, providing structural and logistical support for these operations.
In terms of economic equity, jobs in aquaculture enterprises could be channeled first towards fisherwomen and men otherwise impacted by marine protected areas and other fisheries conservation measures. Training may be needed to translate skills from essentially hunting to farming instead, but at the end of the day it is a fish-centric enterprise whose ins and outs can be learned.
Restoring, protecting and effectively stewarding the seas will be a major, decades-long effort. There is not a single answer or tool that works in all environments, or for all cultures and people. Sacrifices will have to be made, while collaboration and dialogue between stakeholders and communities will be vital. We must remember what is stake, so that we can ensure the gifts of the ocean continue to be enjoyed by our children and far into the future.