Tears for the Magnificent and Shrinking Everglades, a ‘River of Grass’
All over the Everglades, efforts to save something rare are underway. Panthers are collared and tracked near Big Cypress Preserve, but 21 were hit by cars last year, out of an estimated statewide population of only 150.
Sections of Tamiami Trail — the main east-west road connecting Miami and Naples — are being turned into bridges to allow water to flow back into the sloughs to the south, bringing back native vegetation for the first time in a century. At least one river, the Kissimmee, straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers to benefit the northern farms, has been returned to its natural bed.
In 2000, the state and federal government agreed to a $4 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Twenty years on, a few of the major infrastructure projects have been built, but most are still on the drawing board, awaiting money. In a promising development, Congress just authorized $200 million to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Everglades restoration.
The Everglades Foundation is among many area nonprofits studying the effects of human activity on the fresh water flow, and advocating efforts to restore the ecosystem.
“We know what the consequences of inaction are, because we’ve already experienced it: polluted waterways, toxic algae, sea grass die-off, continued habitat loss, and even threats to imperiled species,” said Stephen Davis, a foundation scientist. “We simply cannot afford to wait any longer. Without Everglades restoration, Florida’s tourism-based economy is at risk.”
Paddling in Florida Bay one night at twilight, Garl trailed his hand in the warm salty water and pulled up some gray muck, let it drip back into the murk. “When I first came down, this water was clear, and I used to dip my hand in here and pull up a handful of sand and sea grass and find dozens of baby clams and tiny living shells,” he said. “It’s all gone. We’re in a dead zone now.” As he spoke, a full moon rose behind us and roseate spoonbills sailed in V-formation across pink cumulus clouds fading into periwinkle to the west.
Do we plan for a secure and better life, or carry on blindly toward a minefield of lethal limits?
By Brian McGavin, writer and environmentalist, is a director of Scientists Warning Europe.
Most people are left in ignorance by politicians and mainstream media, who rarely think beyond the here and now. When informed about unsustainable consumption and human population growth they are shocked or deny the depth of interconnected challenges and the steps we need to take for a sustainable future, that go well beyond action on climate change.
The media invariably cloak population growth in terms of ‘increased demand’ – which narrow thinking growth economists portray as ‘good’ for growth. The key driver of overpopulation is at best ignored for ‘downstream’ sticking plaster responses by politicians and too often by ‘Greens’ who target ‘rights’ over ecological and resource realities.
“There is no social justice on a wrecked planet” –Brian McGavin
The type of powerful question put to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – and his reply was notable. We need to frame more clear questions to our politicians like this.
“Human population growth has more than doubled in the past 50 years. The planet cannot sustain this growth. I realize this is a poisonous topic for politicians, but it’s crucial to face. Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact. Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?”
Sanders responded unambiguously: “Well, Martha, the answer is yes.”
A WWF reference to ‘mitigate human and elephant conflict’ in a newsletter doesn’t shout ever more human overpopulation pressure as a causal factor, or anything WWF wants to do about this. WWF advertising is a constant reset button of ‘save’ animals and give money so we can fight this decline – and it has been going on for over 50 years as our amazing bio-diversity crashes. NGOs and politicians need to engage in a much more honest dialog.
We face Systemic Population Denialism that is intellectually bankrupt and dangerously ignorant. Where drastic exaggeration is used by people resistant to reality. When we raise our voices, we are obstructed by ill-informed media commentators with predicable recycled challenges on ageing population scares and how we need to increase births and immigration. Low birth-rate countries like Japan are NOT suffering a socio-economic crisis – and there are still 38 million people in the Tokyo metropolis alone!
Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger observes:
‘Good democracy relies on good information’.
Professor John Beddington, UK Government Chief Scientist in March 2009 warned that:
“Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.”
In 2017 over 20,000 scientist in 189 countries signed a Second Warning to Humanity, warning that humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in solving foreseen environmental challenges and most of them are getting much worse.
We simply don’t have the time for a gradualist message and we have to speed up the timeframe for action in people’s minds. Simplistic propositions by ill-informed, growthist commentators that developed economies were ideally placed to take in Africa’s exploding populations need shredding. Nor are we facing a ‘fertility collapse’, as growth pundits try to claim.
If governments won’t talk population, then they are not serious about cutting emissions, ensuring food supplies and a secure quality of life for our future.
At the heart of green politics is the simple premise that our prosperity depends completely on a healthy, functioning planet. Go on abusing the planet, go on ignoring climate change, go on ignoring population growth, and all else fails – including our deepest yearning for human rights. (Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist)
We face huge interconnected challenges but it is easier to attract support for simple projects like saving a forest, than addressing ‘big-picture’ global problems. Major environmental groups keep their marketing too simple for the scale of the problems. Many environmental problems impact poor communities, but the social justice movement shows little interest in working with environmentalists on key challenges like biodiversity, resource depletion and overpopulation, deeming the latter as a racist agenda. We need to be clear and assertive not apologetic.
Environmental groups like XR and WWF talk about climate breakdown and ecological collapse but refuse to acknowledge the underlying over population demand driver, as they see it as ‘divisive, threatening or toxic’.
Unless we work collectively and stop creating wilful barriers of ignorance, because it might disturb people’s beliefs and comfort zones, we are leading our children to the abyss. A toxic intergenerational contract.
The ‘coercion’ taboo
Population concern organisations often run scared of any hint of population coercion. This can’t be sustained much longer as key resources decline and societies start to fall apart. In fact, society readily accepts values that could be interpreted as ‘coercive’ for the common good, with legal sanctions on the ‘freedom’ to drive at high speed in built up areas and fiscal incentives to discourage harmful behaviour. If we are to have any chance of a sustainable future we need to ‘incentivise’ fewer births rather than more, through the tax system and increase understanding so people make informed, socially responsible decisions in family size rather than merely saying it’s an individual choice.
Many people driven by self-centred beliefs will completely ignore calls for socially responsible decisions if this is all we are prepared to say. Yet social justice lobbies call for us to change to a vegan diet and travel less to compensate for ‘unavoidable’ population growth pressures.
A long-term sustainable population is a ‘life-affirming’ message with many benefits for living standards and reduced infrastructure pressures.
Several countries, like Taiwan, Japan, Iran and Bangladesh) have transitioned to lower birth rates without coercion.
What about the rights of children to a sustainable future, rather than the ‘rights’ of parents to have large families?
The Ageing Population Scare – a transition not a crisis. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasized. We spend more on cosmetics than we will need to support a temporary rise in older people. It is a phony argument that we need more people and more immigration to support ageing populations. Young people generally cost society more – in crime, in education and other ways. With typical short-term vision, we forget that all these extra young people get old too and will need support. The media and politicians never highlight this.
Mainstream media invariably frames any population decline as a ‘bad’ that has to be reversed for our continued well-being and economic growth.
A typical example appeared in The Times (UK) July 4, 2019 headlining Italian birth rates fall to lowest since 1861, “Prompting fears that the country is facing a sharp demographic decline.” “Russia is facing an even graver demographic crisis after the UN warned that its population could fall to half the present level by the end of the century.”
Another country with a ‘worryingly’ declining population is ‘stagnant’ Japan. Yet the greater Tokyo metropolis is currently the world’s most populated city at around 38 million. Japan is well organised and on current fertility rates is projected to leave the list of world’s largest cities to be replaced before 2100 by Lagos at 88 million, Kinshasa 83m and Kabul in 10th place at 50m. (Population predictions for the world’s largest cities in the 21st century, Daniel Hoornweg, University of Ontario and Kevin Pope) 2017). These cities are already chaotic at their current populations. Imagine them facing such numbers.
Sustainable numbers and UN Goals
The Second Scientists Warning to Humanity in 2017 listed 13 action points. The last point (m) said: “estimating a scientifically defensible sustainable human population size for the long term. Rallying nations is the UN’s job, but how do we define a long-term sustainable population?
Global population is still growing at 1.036% a year and consumption at 3% a year, with resources declining rapidly.
Using Global Footprint data, the current average ecological footprint per capita would mean a sustainable population size for the long term would now be around 4.4 billion. But since there is no allowance made in this regularly updated snapshot for leaving any bio-capacity to conserve biodiversity, or depletion of non-renewable resources and enabling developing countries to reach more equitable living standards, we have to look at a lower population stabilisation nearer 3 billion – a number endorsed by respected ecologists like David Pimentel and Paul Ehrlich.
Unless we work collectively and stop creating wilful barriers of ignorance, because it might ‘disturb people’s beliefs and comfort zones’, our society and much of the planet’s bio-diversity will collapse before the end of the century, as critical food, energy and water resources become ever scarcer. Some might survive in an oppressive dystopia. We must plan for an equitable and responsible transition that preserves much of the diversity of our planet and a viable future for our children.
Cycle of silence.
Media coverage of environmental issues varies but remains historically low given its critical importance. There has been an upswing of concern with climate change and Extinction Rebellion protests but the media soon drifts back to celebrity gossip, economic growth and sport.
Today’s social media, with its narrow-framed ‘follow’ tags and identity politics, too often fails to see a wider connected picture. Dealing with complex issues on Twitter in 140 characters is practically impossible in a chain of slogans and responses. Celebrity manufactured social media gossip is off the scale of any proportionality and meaning. The baby boomer generation, not content with hoovering up household wealth and pensions of the generations below them are stealing from the future to pay for the present, while millennial media bubbles obsess with identity politics and seeking ‘safe space’. What matters is shaping the complex interactions and events we are all living through – absurd house prices, growing ecological collapse and the declining hope that tomorrow will be better than today
We are facing multiple and urgent global challenges, while the sheer stupidity of global turf wars for domination in fragile countries across the Middle East and Africa continue. We must appeal to sanity and the wider issues we must tackle.
Overpopulation and demand drives people to destroy the very resources they need to survive – freshwater, soils and forests. The social justice movement shows no interest in working with environmentalists. They simply have no concept of the impact of endless growth in our numbers and demand on biodiversity, infrastructure pressures and food security.
Religious extremism, from fundamentalist Christians, to ultra-orthodox Jews, to patriarchal Muslim cultures who all believe large families are integral to their beliefs and ignore the multiple environmental and social impacts is another barrier to sustainability. The denial of fertility management support translates into coercive child-bearing.
Given the immense challenges that will likely see starvation and conflict over remaining resources in the lifetime of people alive today, why would we think it better to create energy shortages, food shortages, lowered quality of life, a housing crisis, grid-locked traffic, bio-diversity loss, and many more calamities caused by ever increasing population pressures?
A lower population offers an enormous upside to environmental and social problems.
We avoid awful things like mass starvation, resource wars, rising pollution and catastrophic bio-diversity loss.
Small families in developing countries helps parents to afford their children’s education.
Ever more people simply drives humanity to a lower and lower standard of living.
Climate breakdown is an acknowledged danger, yet governments ignore the simple, most cost effective step we can take to reduce emissions – having fewer children. Several studies have shown this. (See drawdown.org and Wynes and Nicholas).
A number of tactics are widely used to grossly exaggerate claims and suppress discussion. There are common sense answers to all these challenges.
Population shaming Worrying about population growth and advocating for stabilisation and reduction is motivated by morally reprehensible characteristics like racism.
Population growth is good. Economies thrive with more people – increasing consumption. Population and technology gamble will resolve environmental problems of more people. Population fatalism Population may be a problem but there’s nothing we can do about it. Don’t scare the kids is a new media angle since climate warnings by teen activists.
Large families are caused by poverty. But large families amongst the rich go unnoticed. Regular TV shows showcase large families without any thought of the impact on others.
Lack of infrastructure is the fault of austerity not demand. Lack of housing and hospital beds is blamed on government cutbacks. We simply turn swords into ploughshares and infrastructure will be delivered. But the need to reduce total throughput and impact is ignored.
China’s former One-Child policy was coercive and denied ‘human rights’. In fact, China’s one-child policy was widely supported by the people because they were well informed by the government on the benefits. It lifted millions out poverty, helped China’s spectacular rise in living standard and only applied to people in cities. People in rural areas could have two children. Now China has dropped the limit, with a still huge population because it swallowed the scare that there will be too few young people to support the transient phenomenon of an ageing population.
The Ageing Population Scare – a transition not a crisis. The challenge of supporting aging populations is grossly over emphasized. We spend more on cosmetics than we will need to support a temporary rise in older people. It is a phony argument that we need more young people and more immigration to support an ageing population. Young people generally cost society more – in crime, in education and many other ways. We forget they get old too and will need support. The media and politicians never highlight this.
Malthus was wrong. We are doing fine. Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798 on the Principle ofPopulation, predicting mass starvation if human numbers kept on rising, was only wrong in his timing. He couldn’t then know of the one-time binge the discovery of fossil fuels would give to global economic growth and how oil enabled the development of intensive agriculture.
Population Ignorant statements
Many media commentators ignore “doomsday” warnings, not because there is no supporting evidence, but because it does not fit with their long-held convictions of how the world works. Other tactics include ‘the practice of ‘Defamation’ to censor inconvenient truths.
Being a ‘National Treasure’ appears to be a license to talk rot. (Alex Massie. The Spectator, 26/9/2013). Take the case of Sir David Attenborough. The poor booby is another neo-Malthusian. Which is another reminder that expertise in one area is no guarantee of good sense in another.
Australian bishop raps Green Party campaign on population fears 19/8/ 2010. Bishop Anthony Fisher. “The fears of a population explosion are absurd. Australia has close to the lowest population density in the world. Most of our country by far is uninhabited.” (Yes – it’s desert!)
We have to change the mind-set of political leaders. Swedish Minister Ylva Johansson said her country “would take in refugees and “improve its population demographics with a smile.”
Brian McGavin, writer and environmentalist, is a director of Scientists Warning Europe.
How lab-grown meat could be in UK restaurants in just two years’ time – and the firms bringing it to the table
Biotechnology company CellulaREvolution is developing new processes to speed up and cut the cost of cultured meat production
By Claudia Tanner
August 26, 2021 6:00 am
The Government’s Build Back Better campaign has seen £4bn of taxpayer cash pledged to create 250,000 “green jobs” in the drive to cut carbon emissions by 2050. With the so-called “green industrial revolution” now officially under way, this special iMoney series looks at what qualifies as a green job.
Leo Groenewegen, co-founder of biotechnology company CellulaREvolution in Newcastle upon Tyne, is developing new processes to speed up and cut the cost of cultured meat production – a revolution that could significantly help the environment.
Feeding the world’s growing population with finite resources is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Livestock accounts for 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change hit the headlines recently after a major United Nations scientific report warned of “a code red for humanity” and that human activity is causing harm in unprecedented, sometimes irreversible ways.
Scientists warn that we cannot sustain our current demand for meat. The National Food Strategy, a review commissioned by the Government, recently urged that the UK’s meat consumption has to fall by 30 per cent in the next decade to reach targets related to health and climate change.
The industry causes major pressing environmental problems, including deforestation, biodiversity loss and air and water pollution.
Cultivated – or lab-grown – meat could address these challenges by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using less land and water, preserving habitat and preventing manure pollution and antibiotic overuse.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured meat, sometimes called lab-grown, clean or cultivated meat, is grown in a lab from cells extracted from animals.
“Cultured beef molecularly is exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow,” said Mr Groenewegen, whose company started in 2019 as a spin-off from Newcastle University.
“There is no need to slaughter the animals. You take a small sample or biopsy from the animal. It’s non-invasive, it’s the same as taking a blood sample. The cells are placed in a bioreactor and there they proliferate and differentiate to form tissue.”
He explains that mimicking more complex cuts of meat – a filet mignon, for instance – requires additional techniques, such as growing muscle and fat cells on “scaffolds” made of a material such as gelatin or collagen.
What benefits does lab-grown meat potentially bring?
Recent studies by independent research firm CE Delft show that, compared with conventional beef, meat cultivated directly from cells may cause up to 92 per cent less global warming and 93 per cent less air pollution, and use up to 95 per cent less land and 78 per cent less water.
According to the Good Food Institute, cultivated meat can be produced more quickly and efficiently, with little waste.
“In the seven weeks it takes a farmer to raise a flock of 20,000 chickens, a meat cultivation facility could theoretically produce a million times as much meat from a starter culture the size of a single egg,” it explains.
But while veganism is a growing trend in the UK, many doubt whether people are motivated to cut back their meat consumption enough to help save the planet.
Cultivated meat has the potential to help us achieve climate goals without dramatic shifts in consumption patterns.
Additionally, cultured meat could be healthier for us, says Mr Groenewegen. “You can modify it as you want, for example its fat content. There are no microplastics in your fish and no antibiotics. There’s no bacteria – E. coli or salmonella which can occur in slaughtered animals. It also reduces the risk of zoonotic disease like Covid because there’s less interaction between factory farms and humans.”
What are the challenges?
The cost of producing lab-grown meat has been the main hurdle. The first dish-grown beef burger in 2013 cost $330,000, or around £240,000, and took a Netherlands company over two years to produce. The cost of an individual lab burger is expected to fall to around £7.50 this year.
“The price has really gone down, really rapidly,” said Mr Groenewegen. “It’s still too expensive for the everyday consumer at the moment and not quite as competitive as a standard burger. That’s what we are working on with our technology.”
And of course, if you want to sell a product, there’s one group you need to convince: consumers. “I think younger people are going to lead the way in embracing cultured meat.”
How can these challenges be overcome?
“We are developing enabling technologies, which will allow other companies to scale up their production,” said Mr Groenewegen. “Specifically, we are developing multiple types of bioreactors.”
This equipment will allow companies to change from producing the cultured meat in time-consuming batch methods and switch to continuous production. This will increase their yield and bring down manufacturing costs.
“For example, a small steak will contain 10 billion cells and using traditional batch processes this could take a single bioreactor one month to produce. Our technology could shorten that to a few days.”
Mr Groenewegen predicts that far from being a thing of science fiction, lab-grown meat is definitely on the near horizon. He expects CellulaREvolution, which has 10 employees, to at least triple its workforce in the next few years.
“I think that we are two to three years away from seeing cultured meat in high-end restaurants,” he said. “For it to go mainstream and be available on supermarket shelves, I think is four to five years away.”
Mr Groenewegen said that to bring down the cost, we will likely see products that contain a blend of cultured meat and plant-based ingredients.
“An alternative to the current system is one that balances the need for fish as a global protein source with a long-term view of the ecosystem, planning for having as many fish tomorrow as there are today and thus, a sustainable model for feeding the world and providing jobs. One way to do this would be to tie subsidies to conservation and sustainability efforts, rather than simply writing checks to large commercial fishing operations to build new boats and buy new equipment. Such a scheme would also prize smaller scale operations over larger ones. A more diversified source of the world’s fish would also be more resilient.”
The man-made problems with the ocean like acidification, plastic pollution, and overfishing have never been more serious — we’re killing our oceans and we know it.
To sum it up, I think governments aren’t doing enough to help and they’re actually contributing to overfishing through their subsidies that usually end up in the hands of big commercial fishing companies – not the small fishermen they’re meant for. I believe that technological solutions (such as Fishtek Marine) and the use of territorial use rights in fisheries management (TURF) will have a bigger impact on our oceans than our governments can and I go into detail on all this and more in my article.
Overfishing, Conservation, Sustainability, and Farmed Fish
As with many other aspects of government policy, overfishing and other fishing-related environmental issues are a real problem, but it’s not clear that government intervention is the solution. Indeed, it might be one of the main drivers of overfishing and other conservation and sustainability issues stemming from commercial fishing. Much like drone fishing, there are serious ethical issues of interest to the average angler.
There’s another commonality that overfishing has with environmental issues more broadly: The Western companies primarily concerned with serious efforts to curb overfishing are not the ones who are most guilty of overfishing. What this means is that the costs of overfishing are disproportionately borne by the countries least engaged in practices that are counter to efforts to make commercial fishing more sustainable while also promoting conservation of fish biodiversity.
All of these are important issues not just for commercial fishermen, but also those interested in questions of conservation and sustainability in general, as well as recreational fisherman and basically anyone who uses fish as a food source. As the ocean goes, so goes the planet, so it is of paramount importance for everyone to educate themselves on what is driving overfishing, what its consequences are, and what meaningful steps — not simply theater to feel as if “something is being done” — can be taken.
First, take heart: As a recreational fisherman you are almost certainly not guilty of “overfishing.” This is an issue for commercial fishermen in the fishing industry who are trawling the ocean depths with massive nets to catch enough fish to make a living for themselves and their families, not the angler who enjoys a little peace and quiet on the weekends.
Overfishing is, in some sense, a rational reaction to increasing market needs for fish. Most people consume approximately twice as much fish as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30 percent of commercially fished waters being classified as “overfished.” This means that the stock of available fishing waters are being depleted faster than they can be replaced.
There is a simple and straightforward definition of when an area is being “overfished” and it’s not simply about catching “too many” fish. Overfishing occurs when the breeding stock of an area becomes so depleted that the fish in the area cannot replenish themselves.
At best, this means fewer fish next year than there are this year. At worst, it means that a species of fish cannot be fished out of a specific area anymore. This also goes hand-in-hand with wasteful forms of fishing that harvest not just the fish the trawler is looking for, but just about every other organism big enough to be caught in a net. Over 80 percent of fish are caught in these kinds of nets but fish aren’t the only things caught in nets.
What’s more, there are a number of wide-reaching consequences of overfishing. It’s not simply bad because it depletes the fish stocks of available resources, though that certainly is one reason why it’s bad. Others include:
Increased Algae in the Water: Like many other things, algae is great but too much of it is very bad. When there are fewer fish in the water, algae doesn’t get eaten. This increases the acidity in the world’s oceans, which negatively impacts not only the remaining fish, but also the reefs and plankton.
Destruction of Fishing Communities: Overfishing can completely destroy fish populations and communities that once relied upon the fish that were there. This is particularly true for island communities. And it’s worth remembering that there are many isolated points on the globe where fishing isn’t just the driver of the economy, but also the primary source of protein for the population. When either or both of these disappear, the community disappears along with it.
Tougher Fishing for Small Vessels: If you’re a fan of small business, you ought to be concerned about overfishing. That’s because overfishing is mostly done by large vessels and makes it harder for smaller ones to meet their quotas. With over 40 million people around the world getting their food and livelihood from fishing, this is a serious problem.
Ghost Fishing: Ghost fishing refers to abandoned man-made fishing gear that is left behind. It’s believed that an estimated 25,000 nets float throughout the Northeast Atlantic. This left behind gear becomes a death trap for all marine life that swim through that area. While much of this is caused due to storms and natural disasters, much of it is the result of ignorance and neglect on behalf of commercial fishermen.
Species Pushed to Near Extinction: When we hear that a fish species is being depleted, we often think it’s fine because they can be found somewhere else. However, many species of fish are being pushed close to extinction by overfishing, such as several species of cod, tuna, halibut and even lobster.
Bycatch: If you’re old enough to remember people being concerned about dolphins caught in tuna nets, you know what bycatch is: It’s when marine life that is not being sought by commercial fishermen is caught in their nets as a byproduct. The possibility of bycatch increases dramatically with overfishing.
Waste: Overfishing creates waste in the supply chain. Approximately 20 percent of all fish in the United States is lost in the supply chain due to overfishing. In the Third World this rises to 30 percent thanks to a lack of available freezing devices. What this means is that even though there are more fish being caught than ever, there is also massive waste of harvested fish.
Mystery Fish: Because of overfishing, there are a significant amount of fish at your local fish market and on the shelves of your local grocery store that aren’t what they are labelled as. Just because something says that it’s cod doesn’t mean that it actually is. To give you an idea of the scope of this problem, only 13 percent of the “red snapper” on the market is actually red snapper. Most of this is unintentional due to the scale of fishing done today, but much of it is not, hiding behind the unfortunate realities of mass scale fishing to pass off inferior products to unwitting customers.
So why is overfishing happening? There are a variety of factors driving overfishing that we will delve into here, the bird’s eye view is below.
Regulation: Regulations are incredibly difficult to enforce even when they are carefully crafted, which they often are not. The worst offenders have little regulations in place and none of these regulations apply in international waters, which are effectively a Wild West.
Unreported Fishing: Existing regulations force many fisherman to do their fishing “off the books” if they wish to turn a profit. This is especially true in developing nations.
Mobile Processing: Mobile processing is when fish are processed before even returning to port. They are canned while still out at sea. Canned fish is increasingly taking up the fish consumption market at the expense of fresh fish.
Subsidies: Anyone familiar with farm subsidies knows that these are actually bad for the production of healthy food. Subsidies for fishing are similar. They don’t generally go to small fisherman whom one would think are most in need, but rather to massive vessels doing fuel-intensive shipping.
What’s more, subsidies encourage overfishing because the money keeps flowing no matter what — the more fish you catch, the more money you get, with no caps influenced by environmental impact fishing regulation.
Of these, the main driver of overfishing is, predictably, government subsidies. So it is worth taking a few minutes to separate that out from the rest of these issues and give it some special attention.
More on Overfishing and Government Subsidies
The subsidies that drive overfishing are highly lucrative: The governments of the world are giving away over $35 billion every year to fishermen. That’s about 20 percent of the value of all the commercially caught fish in the world every year. Subsidies are often directed at reducing the costs for megafishing companies — things like paying for their massive fuel budgets, the gear they need to catch fish, or even the vessels themselves.
This effectively allows for large commercial fishing operations to take over the market or recapitalize at rates significantly below that of the market, disproportionately favoring them over their smaller competitors.
It is this advantage that drives large mega fishing companies into unsustainable fishing practices. The end result of this is not just depleted stocks, but also lower yields due to long-term overfishing, as well as lowered costs of fish at market, which has some advantages for the consumer, but also makes it significantly harder for smaller operations to turn a profit.
Such government subsidies could provide assistance to smaller fishermen, but are generally structured in a way that favors consolidation of the market and efforts counterproductive to conservation efforts.
What Role Do Farmed Fish Play?
Farmed fish is a phenomenon that we take for granted today, but is actually a revolutionary method of bringing fish out of the water and onto our dinner tables. Originally, it was seen as a way of preserving the population of wild fish. The thinking was this: We could eat fish from fish farming while the wild stock replenished itself.
At the same time, communities impacted by overfishing would find new ways to get income in an increasingly difficult market. Third world countries would have their protein needs met in a manner that did not negatively impact the environment. It was considered a big, easy win for the entire world.
The reality, as is often the case, turned out to be a little different. Crowding thousands of fish together in small areas away from their natural habitat turns out to have a number of detrimental effects. Waste products, primarily fish poop, excess food and dead fish, begin to contaminate the areas around fish farms. What’s more, like other factory farms, fish farms require lots of pesticides and drugs thanks to the high concentrations of fish and the parasites and diseases that spread in these kinds of areas.
Predictably, the chemicals used in making farmed fish possible are not contained in the areas where they are initially used. They spread into the surrounding waters and then simply become part of the water of the world, building up over time. In many cases, farmed fish are farmed in areas that are already heavily polluted. This is where the admonition to avoid eating too much fish for fear of contaminants like mercury has come from.
What’s more, the fish that we eat are not the only fish that are living at the fisheries. Often times, the preferred fish of the human consumer are carnivores that must eat lots of other fish to get up to an appropriate size to be part of the market. These fish, known as “reduction fish” or “trash fish” require the same kind of treatment that the larger fish they feed do.
All told, it takes 26 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of tuna, making farmed fishing an incredibly inefficient way of bringing food to market. Indeed, 37 percent of all seafood globally is now fed for farmed fish, up dramatically from 7.7 percent in 1948.
Salmon, for example, is only healthy when it is caught in the wild. Farmed salmon is essentially a form of junk food. This is in large part due to the diet that the fish eat in fish farms, which is high in fat and uses soy as a primary source of protein. Toxins at the farms concentrate in the fatty tissue of the salmon. Concentrations of the harmful chemical PCB are found in concentrations eight times higher in farmed fish than traditionally caught wild salmon.
The pesticides, of course, are not used for no reason, but because of the proliferation of pests due to the high concentrations of fish in the fisheries. Sea lice are one example of such pests, which can eat a live salmon down to the bone.
These pests do not stay in the fisheries, but quickly spread to the surrounding waters and infect wild salmon as well as their farmed counterparts. The pests aren’t the only ones escaping: Farmed fish often escape from their habitats and compete with the native fish for resources, becoming an invasive species.
Subsidies vary from one country to another and specific statistics about how much goes to fish farms is generally not forthcoming. But fish farms effectively move the problem of overfishing from the wild oceans and into more enclosed areas. This does not solve any of the problems of overfishing. It merely creates new ones with no less impact on the environment.
Which Countries Are Overfishing?
As stated above, the main offenders with regard to overfishing tend to not be developed Western countries, but countries from the undeveloped world and parts of Asia. Sadly, the United States is the only Western nation that appeared on a “shame list” put out by Pew Charitable Trusts. This is known as the Pacific Six. The other members include Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Indonesia.
The list only refers to overfishing with regard to bluefin tuna, but it provides a snapshot of the face of overfishing internationally. Overfishing facts say that these six countries are fishing 80 percent of the world’s bluefin tuna. These countries took collectively 111,482 metric tons of bluefin tuna out of the waters in 2011 alone.
However, when it comes to harmful subsidies there is a clear leader: China. A University of British Columbia study found that China provided more in the way of harmful subsidies encouraging overfishing than any other country on earth — $7.2 billion in 2018 or 21 percent of all global support. What’s more, subsidies that are more beneficial than harmful dropped by 73 percent.
The negative effects of overfishing are not taking place far away and in very abstract ways. They are causing communities right here in the United States to collapse. In the early 1990s, overfishing of cod caused entire communities in New England to collapse. Once this happens, it is very difficult to reverse. The effects are felt by the marine ecosystem but also by the people whose livelihoods depend on fishing.
Another example of economic instability is the Japanese fish market. Japanese fishermen are able to catch far less fish than they used to, meaning that the Japanese are now eating more imported fish, often from the United States, than ever before. This creates a perverse situation where America exports most of its best salmon to other countries, but consumes some of the worst farmed salmon in the world today.
Just How Bad Is Overfishing?
Surely overfishing can’t be that bad, right? The seas are just filled with tons of fish and it would take us forever to overfish to the point that they began to disappear entirely, right?
Think again. Overfishing is happening at biologically unsustainable levels. Pacific bluefin tuna, the type of fish discussed in the section above, has seen a 97 percent decline in overall population. This is important because the Pacific bluefin tuna is one of the most important predators in the ocean food chain. If it goes extinct the entire aquaculture will be irreparably disturbed.
The first fish that disappear from an ecosystem are larger fish with a longer lifespan and reach reproductive age later in life. These are also the most desirable fish on the open market. When these fish disappear, the destructive fishing operations do not leave the area: They simply move down the food chain to less desirable catches like squid and sardines. This is called “fishing down the web” and it slowly destroys the entire ecosystem removing first the predator fish and then the prey.
There are broader effects on the ecosystem beyond just the fish, effects that resonate throughout the entire Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Many of the smaller fish eat algae that grows on coral reefs. When these fish become overfished, the algae grows uncontrolled and the reefs suffer as a result. That deprives many marine life forms of their natural habitat, creating extreme disruption in the ocean ecosystem.
What Are Some Alternatives to Government-Driven Overfishing?
While there are certainly policy solutions to rampant overfishing, not all solutions will come from government. For example, there are emerging technological solutions that will make bycatching and other forms of waste less prevalent and harmful.
Simple innovations based on existing technologies, such as Fishtek Marine seek to save sea mammals from the nets of commercial fishermen while also increasing profit margins for these companies in a win-win scenario. Their device is small and inexpensive and thus does not present an undue burden to either the large-scale commercial fishing vessels or small fishermen looking to eke out a living in an increasingly difficult market.
We must also recognize that current regulations simply do not work. In one extreme case, governments restricted fishing for certain forms of tuna for three days a year. This did absolutely nothing for the population of tuna, as the big commercial fishing companies simply employed methods to harvest as many fish in three days as they were previously getting in any entire year.
This, in turn, led to a greater amount of bycatch and waste. Because the fishing operations didn’t have the luxury of time to ensure that they were only catching what they sought to catch, their truncated fishing season prized quantity over quality with predictable results.
Quotas, specifically the “individual transferable quota” scheme used by New Zealand and many other countries does not seem to work as intended for a number of reasons. First, these quotas are, as the name might suggest, transferable. This means that little fishermen might consider it a better deal to simply sell their quota to a large commercial fishing operation rather than go to work for themselves and we’re back to square one.
More generally speaking, quotas seem to be a source of waste. Here’s how they work: A fishing operation is given a specific tonnage of fish from a specific species that they can catch. However, not all fish are created equally. So when commercial fishing operations look at their catch and see that some of it is of higher quality than others, they discard the lower-quality fish in favor of higher-quality fish creating large amounts of waste. These discards can sometimes make up 40 percent of the catch.
An alternative to the current system is one that balances the need for fish as a global protein source with a long-term view of the ecosystem, planning for having as many fish tomorrow as there are today and thus, a sustainable model for feeding the world and providing jobs. One way to do this would be to tie subsidies to conservation and sustainability efforts, rather than simply writing checks to large commercial fishing operations to build new boats and buy new equipment. Such a scheme would also prize smaller scale operations over larger ones. A more diversified source of the world’s fish would also be more resilient.
One such alternative is called territorial use rights in fisheries management (TURF). In this case, individual fishermen or collectives of them are provided with long-term rights to fish in a specific area. This means that they have skin in the game. They don’t want to overfish the area because to do so would be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. So they catch as many fish as is sustainable and no more. They have a vested, long-term interest in making sure that there is no overfishing in the fisheries that have been allotted to them.
Not only does this make sustainable fishing more attractive, it also means that there is less government bureaucracy and red tape involved. Fishermen with TURF are allowed to catch as much as they like. It is assumed that sustainability is baked into the equation because the fishermen with rights want to preserve the fishing not just for the next year, but for the next generation and the one after that. This model has been used successfully by Chile, one of the most economically free countries in the world (more economically free, in fact, than the United States), to prevent overfishing and create sustainability. It is a market-driven model that prizes small producers with skin in the game over massive, transnational conglomerates with none.
While it’s nice to support the little guy over Big Fishing and we certainly support sustainability and conservation efforts, there’s another, perhaps more important and direct reason to support reforms designed to eliminate overfishing: food security. When bluefin tuna, for example, goes extinct, it’s not coming back. That means no more cans of tuna on the shelves of your local supermarket.
That’s a big deal for people in developed, first world countries, but a much bigger deal in developing countries. When major protein sources are depleted forever, there will be intensified competition for the resources that remain. This also creates unrest in the countries that are less able to compete in a global market due to issues of capital and scale. Even if you’re not concerned with overfishing, overfishing and the problems it creates will soon be on your doorstep unless corrective measures are taken before it’s too late.