What a fish could have done

April 17, 2002

WE PICKED UP two out-of-town newspapers one day recently and both had front-page stories about fish. One said eating certain kinds of fish can be about the best thing imaginable for your health. The other pointed out that soon there won't be any more fish, because we're wiping them out.

Talk about genius and folly!

In two painstaking and ambitious studies that tracked tens of thousands of doctors and nurses over decades, researchers found that those who had higher amounts of n-3 fatty acids in their bloodstreams -- substances that come primarily from oily fish -- were considerably less likely to suffer sudden death from cardiac arrhythmia. The studies showed further that adults who ate fish at least once a week had a 30 percent lower risk of heart attack.

Now step back for a moment. Let's remind ourselves how remarkable it is that we as a society have been able to learn so much about the intricacies of our own biology. From a fish in the sea to a beating heart -- the trail is found, then traced, then explained. It's astounding, in its own small way. Yet the advances of scientific knowledge have become so routine that we often forget to pay them much attention. We just assume they'll keep coming.

Well, that's not all we take for granted.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, the global commercial fishing catch increased four times over. Russians, Japanese, Americans, Icelanders and everyone else just kept raking in the fish. The oceans' bounty beckoned. Of course people recognized the problem even then. But if entire fisheries were in danger of being wiped out, the thinking went, it was better to get your boats in there while you still could before someone else beat you to it.

And then you could always go somewhere else.

So the North Sea was fished out. The great shoals of anchovies disappeared from the Mediterranean. Then came the Grand Banks, where, in a few years, factory ships finished off what had been a commercial cod fishery going back for centuries. Rockfish virtually vanished from the Chesapeake, because of overfishing and nitrogen runoff. The Baltic was overfished and then killed off by pollution. Sturgeon, already extinct or close to it in the Hudson, Delaware and Columbia rivers, have become an endangered species in the Volga, thanks to caviar poachers.

And now it's the Gulf of California. Everything's going -- sharks, sardines, sailfish, tuna, marlin. Mexico, so we learn, decided to "deregulate" the fishermen, who responded by taking everything in sight. It was the free market at its finest.

This is the human conundrum, isn't it? Even as we learn how to save our own skins, temptation and greed keep driving us in other directions. We parse the mysteries of the human heart until they lead us to -- where? The ocean. And it turns out we've already trashed it.

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