Fisheries in decline

July 29, 1994

It won't be news to Marylanders that the bounty of the ocean, like that of the Chesapeake Bay, has its limits -- and that those limits are being breached. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute, a non-profit environmental research organization, details the forces that are severely straining fisheries around the world.

The trends are not encouraging. After years of growth, the marine catch has stagnated or fallen in all but two of the 15 major fishing areas around the globe. Since 1989, the worldwide catch has declined by 5 percent and, for the first time since World War II, has fallen behind the increase in population.

Those figures translate into human hardship. Already, some 100,000 fishing jobs have been lost, and under current conditions those losses will only accelerate. The loss of protein is also significant. In affluent countries, seafood lovers can easily turn to other foods, but that's not true for many people in poorer regions of the world.

Is this a story of inevitable scarcity, a case in which the oceans' resources simply cannot keep up with pressing human needs? In fact, there is much that could be done to help marine life replenish itself -- if only governments could take a longer view of the public interest than current economic and political pressures.

Actually, it is government agreements and regulations -- or lack of them -- that encourages overfishing and enables huge, but environmentally disastrous fishing enterprises to sail the world. To get an idea of the skewed economics of the fishing industry, consider that in 1989, the global seafood catch sold for $70 billion, while fishers spent some $124 billion to bring that catch in. The difference -- $54 billion -- is roughly the amount of government subsidies for fishing enterprises. Most subsidies are directed toward the large, industrialized fishing operations that are often the most inefficient and ecologically destructive.

The Worldwatch report lays out a case that the most effective step in reversing the decline in fish stocks would be the elimination of government subsidies -- and that such a move would save tax dollars around the world, while also saving the jobs and communities of millions of small-scale fishers around the world and allowing fishing stocks to replenish. If logical solutions were enough to stiffen political will, the future of the oceans, and the marine life that stems from them, would be much brighter.

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