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In The Odyssey, Homer depicts the cruel and vindictive nature of the sea through the figure of Poseidon. It’s the sea god who prevents Odysseus from returning home, provoking a severe storm with his trident after Odysseus has blinded his son, Polyphemus. Homer called Poseidon the “shaker of the earth” and the sea, and not insignificantly he was also a fertility spirit who dealt in the ocean’s barrenness.
If Poseidon was still a part of our climate, the depletion of the ocean’s fish would surely have earned his wrath, and he would likely wonder how we came to be so blind to this tragedy. More than a decade ago, Mark Kurlansky wrote a book that meticulously traced the collapse of one fish population: the North Atlantic cod. After the explorer John Cabot made his transatlantic voyages to North America in 1497, he observed that the coast of Newfoundland was so thick with cod that schools of them could be scooped up from the sea with weighted baskets. By the mid-1990s, as Kurlansky explains in Cod, Gloucester, Massachusetts, had only about 400 working fishermen, down from 2,000 in the 1950s, when cod were more plentiful. In 1994, having estimated that the current fleet was about twice as large as what the fish stocks could sustain, the National Marine Fisheries Service levied harsh regulations and strict catch quotas on cod fishermen. Two years earlier, the Canadian government had issued a complete moratorium on fishing cod in Newfoundland and Labrador. There were barely any cod left. Since then, there have been stirrings of a slightly revitalized population: the head of the fish conservation group at a Newfoundland university recently returned from a scientific voyage to cautiously report some healthy, promising behavior among cod. Still, it is hard to imagine how the species could return to the level of ubiquity it used to enjoy generations ago, let alone in Cabot’s day.
Tuna is another population blighted by overfishing. According to some estimates, commercial fishing of bluefin tuna has reduced populations by as much as 90 percent in the past thirty years. The insatiable sushi market in Japan and increasing popularity of the fish elsewhere is the main cause of the depletion; demand is so intense that a 350-pound bluefin will fetch $120 a pound at Japan’s biggest and most famous fish market, Tsukiji. The World Wildlife Fund called for an immediate closure of all Mediterranean tuna fisheries in the eastern Atlantic a couple of years ago because “Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks risk imminent commercial collapse.” The fishing industry, a business that employs 200 million people and brings in $71 billion a year, has ignored this plea. In today’s global economy, international fishing conglomerates, modern trade policy and fish markets and restaurants willing to pay exorbitant prices form the trident that rules the sea.
Fish consumption worldwide is double what it was three decades ago, and while it’s possible to track the volume of fish caught, sold and swallowed, it’s still impossible to determine with a high degree of certainty how much is left swimming free, since there has never been a fish census. But it’s hard to refute the fact that when the average catch dwindles to such a point as to put large sections of the industry out of business, fish populations are shrinking rapidly. As Kurlansky writes in his new book, The Last Fish Tale, “There is one certainty. Something huge–a massive shifting in the natural order of the planet–is occurring in the oceans, and with it will come tremendous biological and social changes.” Yet the mystery of the ocean and the lack of hard data allow vested interests to continue to insist–whether out of sincerity or willful ignorance–that this shift is just a blip on the radar. “Most fishermen, based on centuries of anecdotal family experience, believe that fish are cyclical,” Kurlansky writes. “They disappear for a time and then they come back.” But many experts believe that overfishing has been so costly that stocks will never fully recover. The Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported that 60 percent of the fish species studied by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are either fully exploited or depleted; one respected scientist estimates that most of the world’s fish stocks will be severely depleted by 2048. And with so few fish for the taking, what will become of the fishermen?