Seven Billion Reasons for a Fisheries Collapse

Sharon LaFraniere’s article for the New York Times, Empty Seas, is subtitled Europe Takes Africa’s Fish, and Boatloads of Migrants Follow. It’s another well documented piece about world fisheries collapsing and the roundup of suspects
is (as usual) greed, politics (greed in another form) and overfishing.

Sharon LaFraniere’s article for the New York Times, Empty Seas, is subtitled Europe Takes Africa’s Fish, and Boatloads of Migrants Follow. It’s another well documented piece about world fisheries collapsing and the roundup of suspects is (as usual) greed, politics (greed in another form) and overfishing.
But the world has always been greedy.
The facts seem simple to me, seen from the unscientific perspective of the commentator, that the true cause of collapse is too many people eating fish.
Well, duh! What would I have them eat, turkey-loaf instead?
That’s not the point. The point is, when I was a kid there were
three billion people in the world and fishing was a viable livelihood
for people across the planet, wherever there was access to the sea and
a boat. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, you name it;
Mediterranean, Caribbean, Nova Scotia, the coastal areas adjoining the
four-fifths of the planet that is water enjoyed the bounty of
sustainable fisheries.

(January 14, 2008) KAYAR,
Senegal — Ale Nodye, the son and grandson of fishermen in this northern
Senegalese village, said that for the past six years he netted barely
enough fish to buy fuel for his boat. So he jumped at the chance for a
new beginning. He volunteered to captain a wooden canoe full of 87
Africans to the Canary Islands in the hopes of making their way
illegally to Europe.
The 2006 voyage ended badly. He and his
passengers were arrested and deported. His cousin died on a similar
mission not long afterward.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nodye, 27, said he intended to try again.
“I could be a fisherman there,” he said. “Life is better there. There are no fish in the sea here anymore.”

There are no fish in Europe either, Ale.
I have a personal prejudice about fishing, which is (for me) the brother of hunting.
It is this; we hunter-gatherers were forced to give up hunting wild game for sustenance
because the one-fifth of the planet upon which we habituated became too
small to sustain game in the amounts necessary to established
community. So we adapted to farming and the raising of domestic animals
for food. No one today would seriously argue that commercial meat
industries might as well ravage the last remaining forests for wild
Fishing—which is essentially the hunting of wild fish—lasted longer, merely because the hunting oceans were four times the size of the hunting lands
and harbored no human communities within them. Coincidentally with the
petering-out of the ‘easier’ coastal fisheries, industrialized
fish-hunting became possible to lengthen the reach of fishermen. But it
was still (and remains today) hunting in the wild.
Whether we are able to replicate the domestication of fish-foods with
something that approaches domesticated meat production remains to be
seen. Ale Nodye’s ancestral fish-hunting grounds have been picked clean
by an industrialized fishing industry that takes
everything—metaphorically burning down the forests to harvest the last deer.
That model will collapse, is indeed collapsing today. It is a truism
that man moves incrementally until there are no more increments.

scientists agree. A vast flotilla of industrial trawlers from the
European Union, China, Russia and elsewhere, together with an abundance
of local boats, have so thoroughly scoured northwest Africa’s ocean
floor that major fish populations are collapsing.

That has
crippled coastal economies and added to the surge of illegal migrants
who brave the high seas in wooden pirogues hoping to reach Europe.
While reasons for immigration are as varied as fish species, Europe’s
lure has clearly intensified as northwest Africa’s fish population has

All this happened in the fifty years
since I was young. An eyewink in human history, no  more than a pimple
on the ass of modern prosperity. And yet we find ourselves collapsing
like the fisheries we strive to regulate.
Only beginning to understand global warming, our attention is
elsewhere. Is it too much to ask that we take the temperature of our
own survival?
A case could be made that, as Ale Nodye abandons his hereditary life as
a fisherman, his hunting-waters will recover and his grandson may find
a way back to such a life. But I will not make it, for it’s a poor
His grandson will face a world struggling under the strain of
feeding fifteen billion and nowhere in the world has a hunter-gatherer
society successfully gone back to hunting and gathering.
I have no scientific evidence for this opinion, so sharpen your PHDs
and have at me. Yet I believe it and would have you believe it as well.
That’s the conceit we commentators allow ourselves, the freedom to
express our prejudices and let the reader sort them out for himself. It
is in some ways less obtrusive to considered opinion than is the
scientist, who insists on having his way.
So we must lay up the scavenging factory trawlers and go to farming
the seas—or else cure the planetary cancer that is population-growth
before it overwhelms the patient.

Overfishing is
hardly limited to African waters. Worldwide, the United Nations Food
and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75 percent of fish stocks
are overfished or fished to their maximum. But in a poor region like
northwest Africa, the consequences are particularly stark.

are the main source of protein for much of the region, but some species
are now so scarce that the poor can no longer afford them, said Pierre
Failler, senior research fellow for the British Center for Economics
and Management of Aquatic Resources.

Which may be of academic interest to senior research fellows, but I
suspect in the meantime they are eating three meals a day. Just as it
makes no sense to argue the caliber of the bullet with which the last
wild land-animal will be killed, it hardly serves the hungry to talk
to death the planet’s already-collapsing fisheries.

dating to 1991 indicated that Senegal’s fishery was in trouble. In
2002, a scientific report commissioned by the European Union stated
that the biomass of important species had declined by three-fourths in
15 years — a finding the authors said should “cause significant alarm.”

the week the report was issued, European Union officials signed a new
four-year fishing deal with Senegal, agreeing to pay $16 million a year
to fish for bottom-dwelling species and tuna.

And so Brussels’ elegantly commissioned report lies a-moldering in the archives and in the intervening years decline has become collapse and another billion and a half have added themselves to the rolls of the world’s hungry.
It fascinates me that man is an animal blessed with the academic
means as well as the  intellectual curiosity essential to understanding
the roots of his own demise. Yet he is so consumer-centric as to be
incapable of restraining himself from his own assured destruction. His
long term well-being is forever captive to his short term sense of
I am the same. I have my little guarded and conspiratorially
secreted portion of the Earth’s last-best-places staked out and, from
there, I am able to comfortably pontificate upon the shortcomings of my
peers. It pains me to see the direction in which we are headed and yet
the choices we debate and the time-frame within which we debate them
are absurd.
There is no road map to the consensus politics of a promised land. It
does not exist. Road maps to this or that hoped-for conclusion are all
the rage today, but we have over-bred ourselves into a corner from
which there is no plausible escape except to reverse that direction, as
have some of the more enlightened countries such as Italy.
We know what we need. We need to fight our way back to a
sustainable world population and disown the call to cheap labor,
ever-expanding markets and exploding pockets of human misery they
bring. The goal is (or should be) equitable labor spread across a
supportable system of producers and consumers. I don’t mean capitalism
is dead. Freedom to self-interest is a benchmark human trait, but the
market serves its own interest and it’s not done us well.
Consumerism holds a gun to our heads, threatening social and
economic collapse if we do not buy and waste and scatter ever more
resources. Politicians exhort us to produce children to support the
retirees for whom they were too short-sighted to provide. The European
Union commissions reports it immediately discards and the seas as well
as African stomachs get only more empty.
My personal choice is for the three billion world population of my youth.
But you and I both know I’m not going to get it.
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