At the End of the Line

Food for thought: Earth's fish stocks are finite. Scientists recently estimated that 90% of all oceanic predators have been wiped out. Fortunately, changing the way we look at seafood might just help us secure fish forever. (Illustration by Jam Plopinio)

Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.”

Ah, if only this still held true.

Humans first looked to the sea for food some 40,000 years ago. In the mid 20th century, fishers were reeling in about 16 million metric tons of savory seafood entrées yearly. By the 1990s fishing had become a global industry. 

Through modern technology, we learned more efficient ways to hunt our quarry–with fishing fleets employing helicopters, sonar trackers, GPS devices and massive seine nets to scour not just coasts, but also the vast oceans. Yearly hauls bloated fivefold to 80 million tons. It seemed then that the big blue truly was our Cornucopian Horn, that oceans could forever gift humanity with freedom from hunger. We were so wrong.

Now, despite bigger boats, longer fishing hours and better technology–wild seafood yields are tanking. Take that delectable deepwater giant, the bluefin tuna. There are actually three types, so let’s zoom in on the so-called least endangered one, the Pacific bluefin, known to science as Thunnus orientalis and to gourmands as maguro. So prized are they that one 222-kilogram fish sold last January 5 for a mind-blowing $1.76 million (PHP 71 million). No critter that commands this price is safe, so fishers stake life and limb scouring the sea for blue-finned bounty.

Pacific bluefin stocks are thus taking a nosedive. The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC) says that the global population has shrunk by 96.4 percent compared with unfished levels. Wild fisheries just can’t keep up with demand, so hold off the sushi for now. 

In 2009 University of British Columbia fisheries researchers pegged the total fish biomass of the world’s oceans at two billion tons. Fleets annually catch about 77 million tons, about a 25th of the global total. A 2003 report chronicled how 90 percent of Earth’s oceanic predators have already landed on our plates.

One in three tuna are caught in the Indo-Pacific Region. To ease pressure on flagging stocks while retaining profit, many fishermen are turning to low-impact systems. A yellowfin tuna handliner brings in the catch of the day in Mindoro, Philippines. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Sure, we can’t expect the depths to be limitless–but these waning numbers wouldn’t warrant worry until we realize that 50 years ago, in 1963, there were only three billion people on Earth. Today there are more than seven billion. Given the ongoing decline of wild fisheries and the mounting effects of climate change, how do we feed all these people? 

To tread the path to eternal seafood security, we must produce more food with fewer resources. To do this, we need to revamp the industry. 

Waning wild fisheries can obviously no longer supply 100 percent of demand–but in baby steps, the transformation of our seas into farms had already begun.  

Seafood typically has a better feed-to-mass ratio than cattle, hogs and poultry. Entrepreneurs first experimented with aquaculture around 5,500 years ago, when the Chinese chucked common carp into stagnant pools. Today, fish farms are Earth’s fastest-growing food production systems, supplying half the world’s seafood. Not all operations are sustainable though: Too many discharge pollutants into local waters, many fish are fattened using low-value or trash fish and some species like tilapia have escaped their pens to completely lord over local rivers and lakes. 

In Indonesia, a tilapia farming venture owned by Regal Springs was certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) as responsibly farmed. Grown in Asia, the fish will be exported to Austria, Belgium, Canada and seven other high-rolling nations. Markets for sustainably cultured pangasius catfish and sea bass are already sprouting up, with a whopping 90 percent of all aquaculture products hailing from Asia.

Properly managed, wild fisheries too can be sustainable. In Pasuquin, a small town in the Philippine province of Ilocos Norte, artisanal fishermen are rediscovering efficient ways to catch tuna. Shunning large-scale operations, about 200 small boats brave truck-size waves to deploy tuna handlines. The economical contraptions regularly hook export-quality yellowfin tuna. 

Wild fisheries just can’t keep up with demand, so hold off the sushi for now.

The enhancement of local fisheries governance and meat handling practices is improving product exports enough that fishers only really need to catch two to three tuna fish per trip to turn a profit. Backed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Philippines-based Century Tuna, the three-year initiative promotes less fishing effort and ecological impacts for higher economic returns. 

WWF-Philippines CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, says, “The oceanic food web is continuously evolving. Humans rose to become Earth’s apex beings because of our ability to adapt to change. To avert a future food crisis, it is imperative that we harvest food sustainably and conscientiously.”

Already our world is beset by the twin evils of overpopulation and climate change. With coral bleaching, marine acidification and El Niño effects eroding oceanic productivity, sitting on the problem means more people go hungry tomorrow. 

Whether farmed or wild-caught, offering sustainable seafood alternatives shall one day offer cheap and efficient sources of protein–and for many developing nations, cheap protein is a future commodity. 

That’s food for thought. 

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan serves as the Communications and Media Manager for WWF-Philippines. He has written hundreds of stories on the environment, ranging from renewable energy shifts to satellite tagging for whale sharks. His goal is to convince people that sustainable living offers excellent economic and holistic returns. For more information, add him up on Facebook.