(Deejpilot/istock, boesephoto/istock)
(Deejpilot/istock, boesephoto/istock)

Where Have All the Fish Gone?

The collapse of America’s West Coast salmon fishery has an eerily familiar ring to it. Are the oceans dying?

When explorer John Cabot discovered mainland North America in 1497—touching down in what is probably Newfoundland or Labrador today—he found the most fantastic fishing grounds the world has ever seen. The waters teemed with ocean life.

When Cabot returned with stories of the Grand Banks, where cod appeared so thick that a person “could walk across their backs” and they could be caught by just scooping them out of the water with wicker baskets, the news sparked a mania. The Northwest Atlantic fishery was born, an industry that would help feed the world for centuries to come. Besides the fact that whole provinces of the New World were settled just to harvest this seemingly limitless bounty, this food source eventually fostered in the tiny island nation of England the wealth, skills and shipbuilding capacity that would help transform it into a global empire and change the world forever.

Today, the Grand Banks are fished out. The cod are gone, and so are the commercial stocks of flounder, Greenland halibut, and redfish.

The story of the Grand Banks is not as isolated as one might hope. Industrialized fishing and poor environmental stewardship are destroying the planet’s biggest resource—its oceans. Ocean fisheries could be facing collapse. Ninety years of methodical, mechanized overfishing have left many of the world’s most productive fishing zones dead, dying or on the edge of ecological disintegration.

“We Are at the Tipping Point”

On May 1, U.S. federal authorities declared the West Coast ocean salmon fishery a failure. The declaration opened the way for Congress to provide economic aid for California, Oregon and Washington.

The declaration stemmed from the sudden collapse of the Chinook salmon in California’s Sacramento River. According to the National Post, the closure of both the commercial and recreational Chinook salmon fishery was the first such ban in 160 years (May 3).

Unfortunately, the Sacramento River system is not alone. Fisheries up and down the U.S. West Coast are experiencing similar conditions, as few fish seem to be returning to the rivers to spawn. No more than 60,000 salmon are expected to return to the Sacramento River this year—barely half the minimum that fishery managers say are required to ensure the next generation (Newsday.com, May 21). At one time, more than 750,000 fish were returning annually.

“It breaks my heart to report this,” said author and fisheries sustainability expert Alex Rose. “I believe we are at the tipping point. The Pacific salmon fishery may very well go the way of the Grand Banks cod” (PRWeb, May 20).

Further north, in the Strait of Georgia, sports fishermen used to hook an astounding 1 million coho salmon per year. But by 2000, anglers were only pulling in a paltry 10,000. Rose said that he is no “doom and gloom person,” but for the first time he can envision a day when the wild salmon in the Strait go extinct.

“[T]here are so many eerie and ominous parallels” with the Grand Banks, he said. “[I]n a generation we’ve gone from unbelievable abundance to a crisis” (ibid.).

Salmon numbers have dropped so precipitously that Washington and Oregon started a sea lion extermination program designed to reduce predation pressure on remaining salmon stocks. Environmental activists, however, raised so much stink that the culling program was quickly terminated, even though the number of sea lions has mushroomed into the hundreds of thousands and adult sea lions eat up to seven fish per day. The hypocrisy of some environmental groups as they favor cute and cuddly, but non-threatened sea lions over endangered fish populations is amazing.

But America is not alone in its fishing problems. Collapsing fisheries are also common in other parts of the world.

The $150,000 Fish

Last November, in a report published for Australia’s Lowy Institute, Meryl Williams, chair of the Commission of the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research, said the livelihoods of 100 million people were at risk in Southeast Asia due to the overfishing of local waters. Gulf of Thailand fish density had reportedly declined by 86 percent from 1961 to 1991; between 1966 and 1994 the catch per hour dropped the same amount. In the Gulf of Tonkin, the sea body shared by Vietnam and China, the catch per hour in 1997 was only one quarter of the catch in 1985. In Vietnamese waters, the total fishing haul between 1981 and 1999 doubled, but to accomplish that, it took a tripling of the existing fishing fleet—a sure sign those fisheries are nearing maximum capacity, according to Williams. Waters off the coast of the Philippines by the 1980s were only producing 10 percent of former levels.

And when one area gets fished out, the thousands of deep-sea fishing vessels just move to the next.

“From giant blue marlin to mighty bluefin tuna, and from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left,” wrote Ransom Myers, a world-leading fisheries biologist based at Dalhousie University in Canada. “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles” (Nature, May 15, 2003). Bluefin tuna, once plentiful, are now so rare that earlier this year a Hong Kong-based trader bought one fish for about the same price as a top-of-the-line Mercedes. On the Tokyo market, a single fish can sell for $150,000. That is a good indication of a rarity bordering on extinction. But still many proceed with business as usual. Just a few years ago, scientists warned that large predatory fish species had been depleted by as much as 99 percent over the past century.

One Too Many Species Lost

Dr. Daniel Pauly, director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, also sees a looming problem. He says the world has reached what is referred to as “peak fish”—the peak in total weight of fish caught from the world’s oceans. The world passed peak fish in the late 1980s, Dr. Pauly says. Since then, despite more advanced fishing methods, the global fish haul has been flat or sinking.

“There’s no doubt about this,” said Pauly. “We’re in a phase where increasing fishing effort produces less catch” (National Science Engineering Research Council of Canada, Feb. 16, 2006).

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization report titled “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006″ confirms Meryl Williams’s findings. This report said that a quarter of the world’s fish are either overexploited or depleted, and that over half are fully exploited (meaning that if the amount of the fish caught grew, that fish would decline in numbers). The report also said that only 3 percent of fish stocks are underexploited and might yield significantly more fish in the future.

Ecological communities are a balancing act of symbiotic organisms that rely upon each other. Remove one species from the food web and the community may be able to adjust—other organisms may be able to take up the slack and fill the missing niche. But when you start removing multiple fish species, there are bound to be consequences. The destruction of one too many species could bring the whole ecosystem tumbling down.

Just look at the Grand Banks. For 500 years, the Atlantic cod was one of the great natural wonders of the world. Then, during the 1990s, the stocks catastrophically collapsed—and today there remains little to no evidence of any return of the fish. Once species dip below a certain critical level, scientists believe that stocks may never recover because the entire ecosystem is altered.

Solutions That Create Problems

Unfortunately, the reality is that mankind seems to mismanage just about everything it puts its hands to. Yes, increasing knowledge and advancing technology have led to increased fish captures, food consumption and living standards for many of the world’s people. Advanced sonar, gps-driven, computerized oceangoing behemoths have learned to efficiently comb the seas and maximize fish capture—but at what cost? Have we sacrificed our future food supply for short-term abundance?

What a paradox. Increasing knowledge and scientific advancement not only aren’t keeping current problems in check, they are helping create new ones. We build bigger, more efficient ships to capture more fish to feed the world, and we end up destroying our fisheries.

Herbert W. Armstrong, in an August-September 1970 Plain Truth article, referred to this paradox: “Knowledge production is supposed to be the way to cure all our evils. Given sufficient knowledge, the great minds have assured us, we shall have the solution to all humanity’s problems, ills and evils.”

But more knowledge is not solving the world’s problems because modern scientific understanding has rejected God’s revealed knowledge.

A Prophecy Fulfilled!

In the book of Hosea, God says His people are destroyed because of a lack of the right kind of knowledge—God’s knowledge (Hosea 4:6). As a consequence, God is cursing the Earth: “Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away” (verse 3).

The fish are being taken away before our very eyes—and sadly, we are creating the problem ourselves!

Unfortunately, man always has to learn things the hard way. Overexploitation of resources and the destruction of the environment is the story of mankind—it is the story of our cod, our forests and soils, our fresh water. If things don’t change, it will be the story of the oceans.

The world’s fisheries are a sad example: Greater technology and greater knowledge are actually helping humankind damage the environment faster than ever.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! The Earth is being cursed for a reason: to wake us up! God wants all mankind to turn to Him. Then we can personally and nationally come under the blessings that are a result of obedience to His laws. The oceans can teem with life again.

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