Despite monumental technology advancements, the returns of commercial fishing continue to diminish. Sonar location, powerful boats, and thousands of miles of nets are producing today what a simple boat and net setup produced in 1850. It’s no mystery, there are fewer fish out there these days. Depending on the ocean, commercial overfishing has been in effect since the early 1900’s. Hundreds of studies have analyzed and confirmed the state of danger the industry is in and the eventual collapse of the fishing industry. Fishermen these days cannot even turn a profit. The industry is heavily subsidized—only high-tech equipment and long voyages get the fish, while market profits from fish remain low. Today, the fishing industry supplies about 200 million jobs worldwide—the industry is artificially about twice as large as sustainably recommended.
The main issue with commercial fishing is overharvesting. Any species of fish has a natural rate of reproduction. Harvest stock within the fish species maximum threshold and the species has a chance to replenish the lost fish, but overharvest and the population do not have numbers to reproduce to cover the loss.
The global economics of commercial fishing can be simplified into a single pond. Say the pond has a stock of 50 fish, and produces five new fish per year. This means, the maximum threshold of harvest is five fish. Catch five fish per year out of the pond and the population is sustained. But, if six fish are caught in a year, and only five fish are reproduced, the population is unsustainable. This is overfishing. The pond fisherman will need to cut back his catch to even fewer than five fish to recover from the extra loss, or the population will decline to zero.
This issue is only complicated by multiple parties. Say 10 fishermen were fishing the pond for their livelihood—without rules and regulations, the pond would quickly be exhausted of its fish and turned barren, collapsing the “pond fishing industry.” Each fisherman has his own incentive to catch as many fish as possible. Any fish he doesn’t catch, his competitor will.
Perhaps Joe sees the future collapse coming, and tries to convince the others to come to an agreement to cut back on harvests. In a perfect world, the group listens and is trustworthy, providing a sustainable solution. But we are far from a perfect world. Bill, another fisherman at the pond, cannot agree to the terms. He cannot afford to cut back on his stock because he has 10 mouths to feed! So while the rest of the group keeps its promises, he fishes without regulation–and makes a killing! Joe and the group just lost out to the tragedy of the commons. Agreements to sustainability created opportunity for Bill, and he made record catches while the others tried to sustain for the future. In this situation, nobody owns the pond, and nobody makes or enforces the rules. The agreement was paper thin.
Expand this pond metaphor out and you have 196 countries—all with different needs—trying to decide how to sustain the fish stock. Countries can make their own laws for their own waters, but most of the oceans are international waters—where laws are few and far between. International waters run into similar issues that carbon laws run into—nobody owns the air or the water. Pollution and overfishing have a lot in common. When the resource is unowned, it is painfully difficult to regulate who does what.
This is where governments come in to solve conflicts of interest. An overarching international government organization that every country agrees to would help regulate and punish offenders of agreements. The problem is that many countries simply will not agree to such rules. Thus we have the same problem as the pond example.
The bottom line is that 200 million jobs rely on commercial fishing; there will be no meaningful cutbacks until the environment forces them. Just the same as our emissions, we head down the same path with commercial overfishing. Putting millions out of employment is not worth the economic troubles that it solves for the oceanic ecosystems. Being a human being, it honestly is difficult to tell many millions of people they need to quit their jobs, and tough luck for their families. The economic development in this industry has spun out of control, and turning back is so much harder than ignorance.
In yet another chapter of earth’s harvestation, the environment must take a back seat to people, and future generations.
This post was contributed by Zach Semago, an outdoorsman, writer, and conservationist who writes about all things fishing on his fishing reports blog.
Image Credit: Fish via Shutterstock