Fishing for a Solution to the Population Problem

In a small Mexican town called Punta Allen, on the Yucatan Peninsula, residents have a strong understanding of how family size impacts their livelihoods. The village economy transitioned to one that relies primarily on fishing when a cooperative was founded by 49 fishermen in 1968. Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 devastated the lobster industry, dealing a blow to the local economy. The success of lobster harvests can be highly variable, but Punta Allen’s population size did not have to be. After suffering through the economic damage of natural disasters, Punta Alleños came to the realization that a smaller population lessened pressure on the lobster population, ensured better harvests, and helped secure long-term investments. Punta Allen invested in family planning efforts, and as of 2009, family planning was universal in Punta Allen. Their financial success and small families are not coincidence, according to local residents. “Having fewer [children] means giving them more,” they say, noting that the seafood catch from their regional waters can either inadequately support a large population or enable a smaller population to thrive.

At the same time that birth control options expanded in their town, Punta Allen residents began stringent management of when lobsters could be caught and which ones—particularly those with eggs— should be left in the sea. The town’s strict regulations have made it the highest yielding cooperative along the Yucatan coast. The results of this conservation initiative reveal the most critical lesson in sustainable fishing: preserving a healthy population of sea life requires maintaining a stable population of humans.

Although coastal areas make up only 20 percent of the earth’s landmass, over 45 percent of the global population lives by the sea. As the human population has skyrocketed from 1 billion in the early 1800s to more than 7 billion in 2011, the number of people living near and depending on the ocean for food and livelihoods has also soared.

For low-income food-deficit countries, fish provides for about 24 percent of animal protein intake. In some countries, fish protein can make up more than 50 percent of a person’s protein intake. In addition, one in five people depends on fish as his or her primary source of protein. This dependence on fish will soon be problematic, as overfishing becomes an even more pertinent global problem.

Beyond the Limits

Throughout the world, fisheries are teetering on the brink of collapse. Experts estimate that as of 2009, 57 percent of marine fisheries were fully exploited, and around 30 percent of assessed marine stocks were over-exploited. The majority of the top ten species – species that account for 30 percent of the world’s capture fisheries production– are fully exploited. This means that no increases in catch will be possible. Many are overexploited, and production expansion will not be possible without stock collapse.

While the exact prevalence of overfishing may be uncertain, a common trend is clear—overfishing has increased over time, and it has had a sizable impact on ecosystems and the people who depend on them. Experts predict that unless we change our habits, we may lose 90 percent of the ocean’s edible fish and shellfish species by 2048.

The decline in fish stocks has led to exorbitant prices for some species. In January of 2013, a 489 pound Bluefin tuna was sold for nearly $1.8 million – the highest price set at Tokyo’s fish market auction. Record prices have been set during these New Year’s auctions, in part as a way to celebrate the new year or to attract publicity, but also in response to the alarming decline in fish stocks. Between 1997 and 2007, Atlantic and Mediterranean Bluefin tuna stocks fell by 60 percent. Since Bluefin tuna fishing began, the population of fish at a reproductive age has dropped by 96.4 percent. The Bluefin tuna is on the “critically endangered” list, and experts say that current fishing levels are too high to help the species recover. “The science is compelling,” said Tom Strickland, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. “That species is in spectacular decline.” The overall annual wild marine catch has hovered between 80 and 90 million tons for a decade, with production trends varying by species and fishing area.

Are Fish Farms the Answer?

Despite rampant overfishing, total seafood output continues to increase, largely because of the rise in aquaculture (fish farms). Just a few decades ago, in 1980, aquaculture contributed to just 8 percent of the world’s fish production intended for human consumption. This has since climbed up to 47 percent of production in 2010.

Though aquaculture plays an important role in meeting worldwide demand for fish protein, this process is not without environmental challenges. Aquaculture leads to the production of solid waste that can cause oxygen depletion and toxicity. Aquaculture also destroys wildlife habitats and mangrove forests, which are carbon absorbing powerhouses and also serve as a coastal barrier against tropical storms. Although aquaculture will likely continue to expand as seafood demands increase, as they stand today, fish farms are not a sustainable practice.

The ocean is a source of life on which all of us depend. Phytoplankton produce oxygen for us to breathe; fish and other animals feed us; and biotechnology companies develop medical treatments from life on the seabed. Marine ecosystems are vital, and yet are being decimated by human activity, and conditions will continue to worsen with consumption and climate change pressures. “The disturbing truth is that humans are having unrecognized impacts on every part of the ocean, and there is much we have not seen that will disappear before we ever get a chance,” said senior scientist at the Census of Marine Life Ron O’Dor. Marine conservation biologist Callum Roberts warns that a change in ocean practices is necessary before ocean ecosystems fall into disarray: “This change of course will see us rebuild the abundance, variety and vitality of life in the sea which will give the oceans the resilience they need to weather the difficult times ahead,” says Roberts. “Without such action, our future is bleak.”

What Can We Do?

At the individual level, consumers can make responsible choices about the seafood they eat, decreasing market pressure that leads to overfishing. “It’s the average citizen who has the power to change things, according to Philippe Vallette, co-President of the World Ocean Network. “The consumer is the final link in the chain, and when the consumer changes his or her behavior, the whole chain has to follow—from the bottom up.” Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is one of the most well-respected programs promoting sustainable consumption. As of 2011, the organization had already distributed almost 40 million pocket guides identifying which species are plentiful and sustainably harvested, and which species are the product of environmentally harmful practices.

Ultimately, balancing population size with available resources is the only way to ensure the survival of ocean ecosystems and a good quality of life for human communities.

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