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Why the Nets Are Empty

Why the Nets Are Empty

 Why the Nets Are Empty

“I have seen good years and bad years, but I have never seen a crisis in fishing such as we have now,” says 65-year-old George, who fishes England’s northeastern coast. “Everything is depleted​—salmon, whitefish, cod, lobster—​everything.”

GEORGE’S concern is far from unique; similar disturbing reports come from the seven seas. In Peru, Agustín is the captain of a 350-ton fishing vessel. “The sardine shortage began about 12 years ago,” he says. “In Peru there was an abundance of fish all year round, but now we are often idle for months on end. We never used to fish more than 15 miles [25 km] from shore, but now we sail up to 200 miles [300 km] to find a catch.”

Antonio, who lives in Galicia, Spain, says: “I have been fishing for more than 20 years. Little by little, I have seen the sea’s resources consumed. We are taking more out of the sea than it can produce.”

Overfished oceans cannot be photographed as dramatically as bulldozed rain forests, but the devastation is just as real. A recent warning from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on overfishing said: “The situation is particularly grave and forbidding given that some 75 per cent of world fisheries are already being fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.”

Fish are the main source of animal protein for a fifth of mankind. Therefore, the security of one of our most important foods is at stake. Fish are not uniformly abundant in the seas. In fact, as far as life is concerned, most of the open ocean is like a desert. The most  productive fishing grounds tend to be near the coast and in areas where there are upwellings of water rich in nutrients. The nutrients feed phytoplankton, which is at the base of the marine food chain. In what way are fishermen destroying the very fisheries on which they depend for a living? The history of one particular fishery provides some answers.

The Grand Banks​—The Destruction Begins

Something similar to a gold rush began when Italian-born navigator and explorer John Cabot * crossed the Atlantic from England and discovered the Grand Banks fishery, in an area of shallow seas off the coast of Canada. This was just five years after the historic voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Soon hundreds of fishermen were braving the Atlantic to fish the Grand Banks. No European had ever seen water so full of cod.

Cod was as good as gold. Prized for its white, virtually fat-free flesh, it is still the favorite of the world market. An Atlantic cod usually weighs between 3 and 20 pounds [1.4 and 9 kg], but some on the Grand Banks were as big as a man. In succeeding centuries fishermen increased their catches as they learned to use trawl nets and longlines with thousands of hooks.

The Impact of Industrial Fishing

By the 19th century, some Europeans began to voice concern over fish stocks, especially in regard to herring. However, Professor Thomas Huxley, president of the British Royal Society, declared at London’s 1883 International Fisheries Exhibition: “The multitudes of these fishes is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant . . . I believe, then, that the cod fishery . . . and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible.”

Few people doubted Huxley’s view even after steam-powered, industrial fishing began on the Grand Banks. Demand for cod increased, especially after 1925 when Clarence Birdseye of Massachusetts, U.S.A., invented a quick-freezing process for fish. Using diesel-powered trawlers, fishermen responded by landing even greater catches. But further exploitation was to come.

In 1951 an odd-looking ship from Britain arrived to fish the Grand Banks. It was 280 feet [85 m] in length and had a capacity of 2,600 gross tons. This was the world’s first factory-freezer trawler. It had a ramp at the stern, where winches could haul in its vast net, and on the lower decks, it had banks of automatic filleting machines and freezers. Using radar, fish-finders, and echolocators, the ship could hunt down shoals of fish day and night for weeks on end.

Other nations recognized the commercial potential, and soon hundreds of similar vessels were trawling the seas, hauling in up to 200 tons of fish an hour. Some ships had a  capacity of 8,000 tons and had nets that were large enough to engulf a jumbo jet.

A Final Blow

“In the late 1970’s,” says the book Ocean’s End, “most people still clung to the delusion that the ocean’s bounty was infinite.” A growing fleet of giant trawlers worked the Grand Banks through the 1980’s. Scientists warned that cod populations were on the verge of collapse. But tens of thousands of people now depended on this fishery for a livelihood, and politicians balked at making an unpopular decision. Finally, in 1992, scientists showed that in 30 years the population of cod had been reduced by a shocking 98.9 percent. Cod fishing on the Grand Banks was banned. But it was too late. Five hundred years after its discovery, one of the world’s richest fisheries had been fished to destruction.

Fishermen hoped that the cod would soon return. But cod live for more than 20 years and are slow to mature. In the years since 1992, the hoped-for recovery has still not occurred.

Worldwide Crisis in Fishing

What happened on the Grand Banks is a disturbing example of the global problem in the fishing industry. In 2002, Britain’s minister for the environment said that “60 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are now being fished to destruction.” Tuna, swordfish, shark, and rockfish are among the many species at risk.

Many prosperous nations, having already ruined their own fishing grounds, are now looking for distant fisheries to exploit. The coasts of Africa, for example, have some of the world’s most fertile fishing grounds. Many African rulers can ill afford to deny fishing licenses, which are a major source of foreign currency for government coffers. Not surprisingly, local people are angry about the depletion of their fish stocks.

Why Does Overfishing Continue?

To an outsider, the solution seems simple​—stop overfishing. But it is not that simple. Commercial fishing requires a massive investment in equipment. Thus, each fisherman hopes that others will stop fishing so that he can continue. As a result, usually no one stops. Moreover, governments are often the biggest investors in fishing, which makes them part of the problem. The magazine Issues in Science and Technology says: “Nations often viewed [UN] goals for fisheries conservation as a moral code that other nations should meet but that they themselves were prepared to violate.”

Sport fishermen also share responsibility. Reporting on a U.S. study, the journal New Scientist said: “Recreational fishing accounts for 64 per cent of the reported catch of overfished species along the Gulf of Mexico.” Since both sport and commercial fishermen have powerful influence, politicians tend to do what promotes their popularity rather than what protects fish stocks.

Can the world’s fisheries be protected? Boyce Thorne-Miller says in his book The Living Ocean: “Nothing specific can save ocean species until a sweeping change in human attitudes is realized.” Happily, the Creator, Jehovah God, has established a Kingdom that will ensure the future security of the entire earth.​—Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:10.


^ par. 8 John Cabot was born in Italy, where he was called Giovanni Caboto. He moved to Bristol, England, in the 1480’s and departed from there on his voyage in 1497.

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Like bulldozed rain forests, overfished seas have been devastated

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“Some 75 per cent of world fisheries are already being fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.”​—United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

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Fish are the main source of animal protein for a fifth of mankind

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Commercial fishing, Alaska

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Democratic Republic of Congo

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© Janis Miglavs/​

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Top: © Mikkel Ostergaard/​Panos Pictures; middle: © Steven Kazlowski/​; bottom: © Tim Dirven/​Panos Pictures