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Good Cod Almighty: The Global Fishing Crisis

By Keith Farnish

From the Community Blogs

Cod. Good Cod. Good Cod Almighty. It is possible that there is nothing more symbolic of the English seaside than this once ubiquitous fish. “Cod and chips twice” has been heard across the land for decades, and it even caused a war of sorts between two fishing nations! But who would have guessed that this animal, more than any other, would also provide the loudest shout of evidence for the unsustainable manner in which civilized humans were pillaging the oceans in search of cheap and plentiful protein? With a length of a metre or more, for the North Atlantic species, it was obvious which organism would have to be the subject of Chapter 5 of “Time’s Up!”, not only for its cultural importance, but also the route it would provide into the arcane world of feedback loops.

Before making any bold statements about the nature of the fishing industry, I had to get the facts. A handy piece of software called Fishstats was used, and the results that appeared on my screen were dreadful: there was a crisis, entirely of civilization’s making, and yet we were still pulling fish out of the sea like we owned the oceans.

Looking back to the beginnings of the mass fishing industry, one is filled with a sense that something was bound to go wrong. Tales of being able to drop buckets into the sea off Newfoundland, the edge of the now defunct Grand Banks fishery, and bring them back up full to the brim with fish may not have been far off of the mark during the spawning season – although the explorer John Cabot, who pondered whether he could have walked from one side of the Atlantic to the other on the backs of the cod, would almost certainly have come to grief. The point is, though, that the fishermen (and they were all men up to only a few years ago) really thought that there was an endless marine bounty. Fishing has always had an air of sentimentality, courage and permanence to it: men were made and broken, in dreadful conditions of isolation, wild storms, tiredness and constant pressure, only partly eased by songs, whisky and the thoughts of the family back home. Yet it most certainly was, and is a way of life: “Some guys couldn’t wait ’til the last day of school so they could join the boat,” says Michael Coe, a former trawler skipper at Peterhead in the north-east of Scotland, with genuine excitement. A way of life, but nevertheless an industry, partaken of by thousands of boats across the great fishing grounds of the North Atlantic, Southern Ocean, Arabian Sea, Mediterranean and wherever a mass of marine life is there for the taking.

But business and especially the search for profit now take precedence in almost all formerly traditional and self-sustaining occupations. Whereas the shops and restaurants would in the past have paid the going rate for fish and kept the industry alive for another season, it is now the supermarkets and fish-processors who call the shots – culling prices and progressively smaller fish until the skippers have no choice but to search deeper, further and with more technology; in the sad knowledge that their search for a high-volume, low-price resource is destroying the very thing that kept them going for countless generations.

In the last 35 years…the volume of Atlantic Cod retrieved from the water has plummeted from a high (for that period) of two million tonnes, to less than half that. The type of fish now being caught disguises the real volume – the smaller, immature fish may keep the industry ticking over for a few years, but the future looks barren. Fish colonies are in jeopardy around the world, with over half of all ‘stocks’ (a term used by governments to imply humans own these natural habitats!) fished to full capacity, and a quarter in decline or endangered. There is such a fine line between ‘near’ capacity and ‘over’ capacity that it is fair to say that three-quarters of the world’s major fish colonies are in an unsustainable state: they are not self-regulating – their numbers are being regulated by humans.

Talk about the thin end of the wedge! Once I went exploring the oceans, I found that even more than nematodes (see Chapter 4), the plunder of marine ecosystems was an analogue for the unsustainable civilized culture — cheap energy leads to “development”, leads to efficiency improvements, leads to even greater plunder…and this cheap energy (in the form of fish protein) gets used for a wider and wider range of things including, most notoriously, feeding animals for meat. How absurd is that: catching fish with which to fatten animals to eat!

It was also while writing about the oceans that I had to introduce the concept of Albedo; the amount of electromagnetic energy that something reflects, and something that is critical to the future of the planet. If something absorbs more energy than it emits then it will get hotter, and although the vast oceans will take a long time to get significantly warmer, once they start warming up then they take an awful long time to stop. Furthermore, if a body of water changes its function from being a reflector of energy (in the form of ice) to an absorber of energy (open water), then the way that it interacts with the rest of the atmospheric-oceanic system changes fundamentally.

Feedback loops are fascinating, vital and utterly terrifying when combined with albedo.

I often make the mistake of wearing a particular t-shirt I like on sunny days; it is grey, but with thousands of flecks of black, and those black flecks absorb solar energy (solar radiation) very effectively, leaving me hot and bothered. The difference between black and white is simply that black absorbs every wavelength of visible light (if it is truly black it also absorbs infra-red radiation, which makes things particularly hot) and white reflects every wavelength. Blue-coloured objects only reflect blue light and absorb everything else, green objects reflect green light, and so on. The more solar radiation absorbed by an object, the more energy is being forced into it, causing it to heat up. Albedo is a measure of how much radiation is reflected by something: the higher the number, the more reflective it is.

Fresh snow has an albedo of 0.8 to 0.9 – it reflects 80% to 90% of the radiation. Green grass has an albedo of 0.25, and soil has an albedo of about 0.2. In other words, the melting of snow increases the amount of energy taken into the ground by a factor of four. Now, compare this to what is happening in the Arctic Ocean. Bare ice, which is typically what floats on water, reflects 60% to 70% of the solar radiation falling on it, whereas open sea may reflect almost nothing, depending on the angle of the sun. This huge difference in absorption can make the difference between the temperature of the sea being below freezing – so the ice doesn’t melt – or above freezing. Once the sea gets above freezing-point, that heat energy spreads out with the movement of the ocean currents, melting more and more ice, which in turn causes the sea to heat up. This is a dramatic positive feedback loop and it is happening right now.

While writing this chapter I kept in mind the work being carried out by David Wasdell, among others, into the nature of feedback loops, and the dreadful truth is that we might have been OK without the myriad positive feedback loops that are operating, and still emerging, in the natural systems we depend upon for our survival. Included in these are the melting permafrosts which are starting to exude methane from the northern wildernesses of Siberia and Canada and the movement of the boreal forests northwards into former bare landscapes — both of which I discuss at some length in Chapter 6.

As for the cod, and the rest of the marine ecosystem, it turns out that as the ocean warms up then the ability of water to absorb oxygen goes down; this has a direct effect on all animal life from the smallest zooplankton to the largest gill-breathing sharks. Yet, and tragically, the warming effect may be the equivalent of feeding a child while enclosing it in a straight-jacket:

Cod grow tremendously fast at higher temperatures. At 14°C the growth of cod larvae is up to five times quicker than at 4°C. The problem with any fast-growing animal is that it requires lots of food, and a baby growing five times as fast as normal requires at least five times the normal amount of food. In a sea with unlimited food then that isn’t much of a problem, but in a sea where the amount of food is also being affected by the increase in temperature that is a huge problem; especially when that baby is near the top of the food chain. If a baby’s metabolism is fast but it can’t get the food it needs, then it will die.

Another part of the picture…is that oxygen can cause a ‘squeeze’ if there is not enough to match the metabolism of an animal. The amount of oxygen required by an animal relates directly to the speed and efficiency of its natural processes – breathing, digestion, growth etc. – so if the amount of oxygen available is not sufficient for that animal’s metabolism then its metabolism will have to slow down or the animal cannot survive. Just like when you reach the top of a steep hill and you have to stop for air, if you keep running or walking without a break then you will eventually collapse. Recent NASA data shows at least a 4°C increase in the temperature of some Arctic waters compared to the 20th-century average. If we use the figures from a couple of pages back, this means that the amount of oxygen the ocean can dissolve has dropped by 10% across significant parts of the ocean.

The final part of the picture is that the amount of phytoplankton, the primary source of food for the oceans, is being badly affected by oceanic heating. This is nothing to do with the increased ‘acidity’ of the oceans caused by growing levels of carbon dioxide being drawn into the sea, which in turn causes the shells of zooplankton (tiny floating animals) to dissolve; instead, the warming of the ocean surface means that cold water is not descending as rapidly as it needs to in order to refresh the levels of nutrients close to the surface. Cold water is heavier than warm water, so warm water will always reach the surface eventually; but if the air above the water is warmer than the water itself, then the surface of the water is not cooled down, mixing cannot take place, and nutrients essential to the survival of phytoplankton stay where they are – out of the reach of the plankton. The impact of this is far-reaching, and is bound to affect both the amount of prey available to cod, and the ability of the cod to catch their prey in the first place.

To say we have a poor understanding of the oceans is an understatement, to say the least, yet Industrial Civilization seems to use that lack of understanding as a reason to continue its assault on the greatest climate control mechanism on Earth, and one of the most important sources of food. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

Photo: Cod at MacDuff Aquarium by Bruce McAdam.

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