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April 11, 2007

Vacuuming The Oceans Environment

Stories like the following make me despair for our prospects. If humans manage to survive the coming century, we are likely to find ourselves on a planet very different from the one we now know. And we are likely to find ourselves increasingly alone, having killed off many of the large vertebrate species with whom we currently share our Earth.

Last year we noted that nearly a third of fish and seafood species have collapsed: i.e., declined by 90% or more. For many large predators, we now read, the numbers are even worse. The oceans are being vacuumed, and the fish will be gone in the lifetimes of most people now living. George Monbiot:

If these animals lived on land there would be a global outcry. But the great beasts roaming the savannahs of the open seas summon no such support. Big sharks, giant tuna, marlin and swordfish should have the conservation status of the giant panda or the snow leopard. Yet still we believe it is acceptable for fishmongers to sell them and celebrity chefs to teach us how to cook them.

A study in this week's edition of Science reveals the disastrous collapse of the ocean’s megafauna. The great sharks are now wobbling on the edge of extinction. Since 1972 the number of blacktip sharks has fallen by 93%, tiger sharks by 97% and bull sharks, dusky sharks and smooth hammerheads by 99%. Just about every population of major predators is now in freefall. Another paper, published in Nature four years ago, shows that over 90% of large predatory fishes throughout the global oceans have gone. [...]

In terms of its impact on both ecology and animal welfare, shark fishing could be the planet's most brutal industry. While some sharks are taken whole, around 70 million are caught every year for their fins. In many cases the fins are cut off and the shark is dumped, alive, back into the sea. It can take several weeks to die. The longlines and gillnets used to catch them snare whales, dolphins, turtles and albatrosses. The new paper shows that shark catching also causes a cascade of disasters through the foodchain. Since the large sharks were removed from coastal waters in the western Atlantic, the rays they preyed on have multiplied tenfold and have wiped out all the main commercial species of shellfish. [...]

In 2001 the British government promised to protect a critically endangered species called the angel shark, whose population in British waters was collapsing. It ducked and dithered until there was no longer a problem: the shark is now extinct in the North Sea.

Why do we find it so hard to stand up to fishermen? This tiny industrial lobby seems to have governments in the palm of its hand. Every year, the European Union sets catch limits for all species way above the levels its scientists recommend. Governments know that they are allowing the fishing industry to destroy itself and to destroy the ecosystem on which it depends. But nothing is sacred, as long as it is underwater. In November the United Nations failed even to produce a resolution urging a halt to trawling on the sea mounts at the bottom of the ocean. These ecosystems, which are only just beginning to be explored, harbour great forests of deepwater corals and sponges, in which thousands of unearthly species hide. But we can't summon the will to stop the handful of boats that are ripping them to shreds. [...]

Though fish species far outnumber mammal species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species protects 654 kinds of mammal and just 77 kinds of fish. Trade in only 9 of these is subject to a complete ban. [...]

The rules that do get passed are ignored by both fishermen and governments. [...]

Of course, governments plead poverty. Which makes you wonder why they decided last year to allocate €3.8 billion to the destruction of the marine environment. This is what you and I are now paying in subsidies to keep the ocean wreckers afloat. The money buys new engines, and boats for young fishermen hoping to expand their business. For the same cost you could put a permanent inspector on every large fishing vessel in European waters.

If we don't act, we know what will happen. Another paper published in Science suggests that on current trends we'll see the global collapse of all the species currently caught by commercial fishermen by 2048. Yet, if we catch the ecosystems in time – with temporary fishing bans and the creation of large marine reserves – they can recover with remarkable speed. [...]

But beyond a certain point the collapse is likely to be permanent. Off the coast of Namibia, where the fishery has crashed as a result of over-harvesting, we have a glimpse of the future. A paper in Current Biology reports that the ecosystem is approaching a "trophic dead-end". As the fish have been mopped up they have been replaced by jellyfish, which now outweigh them by three to one. The jellyfish eat the eggs and larvae of the fish, so the switch is probably irreversible. We have entered, the paper tells us, the "era of jellyfish ascendancy".

It's a good symbol. The jellyfish represents the collapse of the ecosystem and the spinelessness of the people charged with protecting it. [Emphasis added]

If space aliens, say, invaded and occupied the earth and proceeded to vacuum the planet's oceans, we would recognize it for the unspeakable crime it is. And we would fight it.

Derrick Jensen writes:

We have been too kind to those who are destroying the planet. We have been inexcusably, unforgivably, insanely kind.

Who would argue with him?

Posted by Jonathan at April 11, 2007 08:21 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

Comments

Lets remember Zapata Protein (now Omega Protein) and how its start was tied to George HW Bush.

Just because the circle of life is not the same without 'em.

Posted by: at April 11, 2007 11:05 PM