Where Have All the Fish Gone?

In March 2005 the United Nations “Food and Agriculture” arm issued a warning to all nations that “world stocks of many fish are stretched to their limit”. This was a signal to all fishing nations to try and cut back on the amount of fish being pulled from the oceans. At the time a number of fish species were considered to be close to or on the precipice of no return; meaning that if their numbers were further reduced there would not be a large enough population of that species left in the oceans for them to recover (breed their numbers back).

The amount of fish we pull from the oceans is almost incomprehensible. In 2000, China—who pull out more fish than any other country—pulled 17 million tonnes of fish from the oceans. Not 17 million fish—17 million tonnes of fish. This is about 5.5 billion fish. That was in 2000; and that is just China.

The total estimated world ocean catch for 2000, according to the World Fish Stocks site, was 67.9 million tonnes or a staggering 22 billion fish. Note that this does not include aquaculture production (i.e. fish from fish farming). Also, this number is the lower estimate of those estimates I could find on the Web. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) put the 2000 combined fish catch at a much higher 98 million tonnes (again, excluding aquaculture fish), which would be 33 billion fish.

Back in the early to mid 80s when this issue of the disappearing ocean fish stocks became a real concern there was a rush by many countries to set up fish farms in order to grow fish to supplement the fish catch taken from the oceans. However in 2005, about 25 years later, aquaculture farmed fish only contributed about 8 percent to the world-wide consumption of table fish.

Given this information in 2005 one would expect that the fishing nations of the world would do whatever they could to cut back on their fish take from the oceans. Sadly this is not what happened. The World Fish Stocks estimated ocean word catch for 2008, three years after the warning was issued, was 76.2 million tonnes; a whopping 12.2 percent more than the year 2000 catch. This is due to bigger nets, longer fishing seasons, bigger faster shipping vessels with better equipment able to stay out longer and go further, and more sophisticated electronic gadgets to help locate fish deeper in the water.

If something does not change very quickly, like in the next five to eight years, there will be two outcomes of this insane massive overfishing of the oceans. The first and probably the least important is that, as fish get harder to find and catch, the cost of eating fish will ratchet up until getting to eat almost any kind of fish becomes a rare and very costly event. The second and harder to understand outcome will be the impact of this huge change on the ecological balance in the oceans, and the flow-on impact to the ecological balance of the planet.

What happens when there are no more fish?