Net Loss

The Australian Financial Review Magazine | April 1999

Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

As the oceans run out of stocks, the world's fishing fleets are moving into southern waters, where the battle to save unexploited fisheries is raging, writes Wilson da Silva.

"You see the ways the fisherman doth take

To catch the fish; what engines doth he make?

Behold how he engageth all his wits;

Also his snares, lines, angles, hooks, and nets;

Yet fish there be, that neither hook, nor line,

Nor snare, nor net, nor engine can make thine.”

– John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

WHEN THE ENGLISH author and prisoner of conscience wrote his masterpiece in the 15th century, the oceans were a simile for the boundless, for the untameable. Even in the 19th century, Thomas Henry Huxley, the English biologist and most prominent exponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, believed fisheries were so vast as to be practically inexhaustible.

But only a century after the Huxley’s death, the voracious appetite of the human animal and the mechanised industry it brings to bear has finally made even this bastion of Nature teeter before it. 

Because the unthinkable is finally happening: we are running out of fish. The global catch of fish reached its peak in 1989. Every year that passes, another decline is recorded, and vessels have to ply the seas ever longer and cast their lines ever deeper. They have to go into new territories and catch unfamiliar species just to keep tonnages up. The world’s fisheries scientists are in agreement, and only recently have nation states reluctantly agreed: the oceans have reached their limit. 

And yet, it was only 20 years ago that the United Nations was predicting the oceans would be the food saviour of a burgeoning humanity, predicting that by the end of this century, some 500 million tonnes of seafood could be extracted from the sea. But then, off the coast of Canada, the world’s richest fishing grounds collapsed – and everyone got the fright of their lives.

THE GRAND BANKS is an underwater plateau with an extensive sweep of shoals in the western Atlantic Ocean, off the southeast coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Here, the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream mingle. Shallow and frequently fog-bound, the waters are rich in cod, halibut, haddock, as well as other marine life. Or at least, they were.

These days, Canadian research vessels sweep the seas in vain, finding not a single school of cod – a fish once so bountiful they could be caught by lowering baskets into the sea from the side of ships. After centuries of booming commercial exploitation, the haddock, cod and flounder have all but disappeared. Canadian governments, after years of setting quotas at the upper limits of scientific recommendations (and sometimes above), were forced to close the fisheries in 1992, a ban is likely to remain into the next century.

“The population crashed faster than I thought possible in 1990 – and I was a pessimist. The northern Banks are now a desert.”

The greatest fisheries ever seen has now come to a complete halt. Thirty thousand fishermen have been laid idle and hundreds of fish processing workers laid off. St John’s in Newfoundland, North America’s oldest city, has been in an economic slump ever since.

The Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and Canada's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Scientists suggest that 15 years may pass before there are enough old spawners to restore fish populations. But others are not so sure. Some scientists believe the cod and some other bottom-feeding species may never return; that their ecological niche, now vacated, will be filled by other less edible species, something often seen when populations shrink to the brink of extinction. The slipmouth, a commercial species fished to collapse in the Gulf of Thailand, was replaced by squid and has never recovered. In the Grand Banks, even five years after the ban was first imposed, cod numbers were still less than two per cent what they had been in the mid-1980s.

“The population crashed faster than I thought possible in 1990 – and I was a pessimist,” says Lesley Harris, former president of Newfoundland’s Memorial University and the man who chaired an inquiry into the fisheries in 1990. “The northern Banks are now a desert.”

EVERY MORNING, an abundant array of fresh catch arrives at the Sydney Fish Markets. Men in vinyl aprons unload crate after blue crate filled with whole tuna, marlin, mahi mahi and swordfish. The best and largest are picked out by a milieu of restaurant buyers, or packed up and sent off to the finest eateries with standing orders for the most prized species. In the midst of such industry and such plenty, it’s hard to believe there is a crisis in the oceans. But this is an illusion.

Seafood is popular and fish is still affordable, if a little pricey. In fact, seafood prices worldwide have risen faster than those for chicken, pork or beef, but intensive and more efficient farming practices on land have constrained price increases in the fishing sector.

Nevertheless, returns are good, and high prices – particularly for the giant oceanic predators – makes the species more desirable in premium markets, which in turn drives prices inexorably higher. And as prices go up, fishermen become bounty hunters. Take the bluefin tuna: it can grow to three metres in length, weigh more than 600 kg and travel at  speeds of 80 km/h. Its red oily flesh is prized in most affluent markets, but particularly in Japan where it is de riguer for gourmet sushi and sashimi. Thanks to a burgeoning seafood airfreight business, bluefin can be purchased by brokers at the dock and sent to the Tokyo market overnight, where a single fish can fetch US$80,000 at auction.

And yet, fishing is one of the world’s most subsidised and wasteful industries. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), almost US$54 billion is paid by governments in subsidies to their fishing industries; this includes fuel-tax exemptions, price controls, low interest loans as well as outright grants for gear and infrastructure. All of this to an industry that only catches US$70 billion worth of fish. 

Fishing is one of the world’s most subsidised and wasteful industries. According to the U.N., almost US$54 billion is paid by governments in subsidies to their fishing industries, for a catch worth just US$70 billion.

The European Union alone has 40 per cent more vessels at sea than is needed to catch fish on a sustainable basis. In 1996, the EU spent US$252 million – one-third of its annual fisheries budget – on access agreements for its distant water fleets, much of it in Third World countries with large maritime exclusive economic zones and little hard currency. According to a World Wide Fund for Nature report released last year, 90 per cent of subsidies to the fishing industry are in violation of international trade agreements.

Since the end of World War II, fishing has placed unprecedented pressure on the oceans: between 1950 and 1970, world catches tripled to 60 million tonnes a year. But in the 20 years to 1990, the annual catch has only risen by 54 per cent; yet the number of fishing vessels has doubled. Just in the past few years, another 136,000 vessels have been built and launched, while all the while annual catches have been falling. Subsidies for ship building in some developed countries ensure there is a constant supply of cheap vessels.

But it is not just the sheer number of this vast armada chasing wild fish across the world’s oceans: it is also the scale of the enterprise fishing has become. Worldwide, there are more than 38,000 ‘factory’ ships, large ponderous super-trawlers that ply the seas, using radar to sail through all weather, sonar to find fish schools, geo-positioning satellites to track them and lines stretching kilometres behind them with 10,000 baited hooks that can drop more than 1,000 meters below.

Some trail longlines stretching 129 kms, or trawls that could engulf 12 jumbo jets and seize 10 tonnes of fish an hour. These hulking industrial predators can stay out for months and process millions of fish, storing the catch in shipboard freezers for the journey to port. Although super-trawlers represent  roughly one per cent of the total commercial fishing fleet, they account for more than half of the world’s fishing capacity.

The Andrey Dolgov, a pirate vessel with links to Russian organised crime, in pursuit.

The industrial-scale fishing of today is also a wasteful endeavour. A quarter of all the fish caught never make it to market: an average 27 million tonnes of unwanted fish, known as bycatch, is thrown back each year, and most do not survive, according to the United Nations. This does not include the thousands of seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals and other ocean life that become accidentally entangled on hooks.

Take the case of trawlers in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, analysed in a 1994 study by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game. Factory trawlers caught 341,000 tonnes of edible fish. But they also dumped 7,700 tonnes of halibut, 1,800 tonnes of herring, as well as 200,000 salmon, 360,000 king crabs and 15 million tanner crabs. Other species gone to waste included pollock, cod, sole and other species of bottom-feeding fish. The study found that the fish discarded by the trawlers alone could have generated 50 million meals. 

“The fishing industry is over-capitalised,” says Dr Tony Koslow, a fisheries scientist at the CSIRO Marine Research in Hobart. “There’s a lot more vessels out there than are necessary to catch the number of fish that can be caught. It is an economic and ecological crisis. What will these boats do? In the end, if they can’t find new grounds they will just end up going belly up.”

The unrelenting pressure of mass-scale fishing has finally come up against the limits of the oceans: the global catch of fish peaked a decade ago and has been declining ever since.

And many have. But the failure rate of companies running super-trawlers, and the eventual re-sale of the vessels at bargain prices, has driven down the cost of acquiring boats by competitors. A few years ago, six of the seven super-trawlers fishing the North Pacific out of Seattle were in various stages of bankruptcy proceedings. One of the chief lenders to the factory trawler fleet of the region, Christiana Bank of Norway, had a US$127 million loan portfolio in the red and the bank was eventually nationalised by the Norwegian government. In the wash-up, the vessels changed hands at much reduced prices, and the fishing went on.

The unrelenting pressure of mass-scale fishing has finally come up against the limits of the oceans. The global catch of fish peaked a decade ago and has been declining ever since; 13 of the world’s 17 major fisheries are either depleted or in steep decline. The United Nations estimates that 66 per cent of the world’s commercially important marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished or so depleted as to be commercially extinct. The FAO also estimates that the total amount of fish that can be sustainably taken from the world’s oceans is 82 million tonnes a year. This figure was actually reached five years ago – the world catch is now estimated at 110 million tonnes. It is unsustainable.

This depletion has set off three trends, each compounding the problem: fishermen are upgrading shipboard technologies to allow them to catch fish in deeper waters; they are fishing lower down the food chain; and as each fishery is depleted, they are moving to new grounds where the cycle can begin again. This has staved off a wholesale collapse of fisheries, but each year it takes more effort, more technology and more boats to catch the same number of fish. And digging deeper into the food chain as each species dries up only exacerbates the problem: as the lower levels of the food chain decline, the chances of revival of larger species at the top are diminished even further.

“It is likely that continuation of present trends will lead to widespread fisheries collapses,” said Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia in a special report on fisheries in the journal Science last year. Within three or four decades, most fisheries would “collapse in on themselves”, he added.

“It is likely that continuation of present trends will lead to widespread fisheries collapses,” said Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia in a special report on fisheries in the journal Science.

Pauly was one of 1,600 scientists from 65 countries who issued a call for immediate action from the world’s governments last year. In order to prevent a wholesale collapse of the ocean ecosystem, they said, governments should eliminate subsidies that encourage overfishing and establish an effective system of marine protected areas to allow struggling marine species to repopulate. Less than one per cent of the world’s oceans are now protected from fishing. 

“To ensure the greatest benefit to depleted fish stocks, many more protected areas should be set aside in regions that are – or once were – active and productive fishing areas,” said a U.S. National Research Council report in October last year. “Creating these areas has quickly restored populations of fish, snails, and crabs, reduced pollution, and provided habitats for other marine organisms.” 

AS MARINE STOCKS decline around the world, fishing fleets have headed south: to the waters around Antarctica and the Australia’s southern possessions. The freezing temperatures, wild seas and sheer distance from port had limited the amount of fishing in the region. But now there is a goldrush. What may be the last act in the global drama of overfishing is being played out in our neighbourhood. For the world’s distant water fleets have come to the last remaining, undeveloped fisheries. And they have stumbled across a prey that is large, fleshy, easy to catch and fetches a high price on premium markets: the Patagonian toothfish.

These deepwater creatures, swimming between one and two kilometres beneath the icy seas, can grow two meters in length and weigh 100 kgs. They are thought to live 20 to 40 years, but no-one knows when they reach sexual maturity and spawn. A decade ago, hardly anyone fished it. Now, as other major species decline elsewhere, the toothfish has suddenly become a prime commercial target. This deepwater creature, still a mystery to science, is already worth an estimated US$270 million annually and the fish can fetch US$11 a kilo in Japan. 

The Patagonian toothfish is found in cold waters at depths of up 3,850 metres and are highly prized by poachers

“When I was a graduate student, the idea that there would be fisheries at a 1,000 metres – it just wasn’t taken seriously,” says the CSIRO’s Dr Koslow, who grew up on the warm Pacific coast of Canada. “Most of the life in the sea declines pretty much exponentially with depth – life just becomes sparser and sparser. But within the last 10 or 20 years, as traditional fisheries have declined, fishing fleets have been moving out into non-traditional grounds. And they’ve been going much, much deeper.”

But, as Dr Koslow points out, the fishing grounds around Australia and Antarctica are different from others. For some reason no-one quite understands, the southern hemisphere is less populated with fish per square kilometre of ocean than the northern hemisphere. And much less diverse; of the 20,000 known fish species, only 120 inhabit waters around the Antarctic.

The region is also a global commons and patrolling is itself a scarce activity. Catches are governed by 22-nation treaty organisation known as CCAMLR, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. It sets quotas annually, based on limited survey data collected by British and Australian scientists around three Antarctic islands some years ago. Ecologists then use computer models to extrapolate known populations around these islands across to similar submarine terrain in Antarctic waters.

“When I was a graduate student, the idea that there would be fisheries at a 1,000 metres – it just wasn’t taken seriously. But within the last 10 or 20 years, as traditional fisheries have declined, they’ve been going much, much deeper.”

They then estimate total populations, the average rate of recruitment, and come up with a figure for the amount that can be fished without destroying the stock. But to avoid the embarrassment of the Grand Banks, they add a large ‘uncertainty factor’ to the quotas: they get the estimated sustainable catch figure and halve it. If they know less about a fish species than they would like, they reduce it again. Or increase it, if scientific data – after a few years of monitored fishing – shows a species to be more abundant than first thought.

Aboard every legal vessel operating in the region is a scientific observer who logs tonnages and rate of catch. In this way, every year a picture builds of how the stocks are reacting to fishing activity. In addition, scientific surveys are conducted every few years, outside of the areas where the fish congregate.

But even these measures are considered minimal by scientists seeking to truly understand a fishery, particularly a new one. “It’s a bit like trying to survey a population on a mountain by flying over in a helicopter and dangling a camera or dangling other instruments and trying to estimate what size of the bird populations are,” says Dr Koslow, who lead a survey to Antarctic waters earlier this year. “Each of the various techniques we use has biases and problems. In fact, in this survey we didn’t find a major aggregation toothfish around Macquarie Island. But there was one recorded two years ago by the fishing fleet which was estimated at maybe several tens of thousands of tonnes. They didn’t find it last year and we didn’t find it again this year.”

This doesn’t mean the toothfish is gone, he explains: it could just mean that the populations fluctuate in ways we don’t understand. It’s this lack of a more complete understanding that makes the setting of quotas so fraught. And who will fund the annual, month-long, equipment-laden trawls filled with the kind of PhD-wielding crew needed to build a more-than-cursory picture of a fishing ground? Particularly one shared by so many nations?

“There’s a great difference, a vast difference, between the amount of toothfish which has been traded and that which has been calculated to be sustainable."

Nevertheless, the scientific effort that goes into producing the CCAMLR quotas is highly regarded and considered some of the best sustainable fishing ecology work in the business. Many point to it as a sign of how fisheries could be managed in the future. 

And yet, it is a sham. Illegal fishing is rampant in these waters, and pirate vessels care little about the quotas. While CCAMLR sets an annual sustainable quota of 28,000 tonnes for the toothfish, more than 100,000 tonnes is actually landed in ports around the world.

“There’s a great difference, a vast difference between the amount of toothfish which has been traded and that which has been calculated to be sustainable,” says Dr Andrew Constable, an ecologist at the Australian Antarctic Division who helps set the quotas for CCAMLR.  “The tonnage that we think has been taken out is in the order of 100,000 tonnes per annum, and it may be more than that. It’s quite clear that the total catch is not sustainable.”

The CCAMLR Area with the authorised fisheries for Patagonian toothfish and Antarctic toothfish marked

At this rate of intensive fishing, even CCAMLR scientists agree that the toothfish could be commercially extinct in the next three years. Nations with territories with CCAMLR treaty area, such as Australia, France and New Zealand, have sent warships to chase the pirates, and have in a handful of cases seized cargo and impounded vessels. In one case, two vessels – one registered in Panama, the other in Belize – were charged and their captains fined hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1997. But the trade is so profitable that one of the ships, now known to be Spanish-owned, was sighted again this year poaching toothfish in Antarctic waters.

“One of the difficulties in the Antarctic is being able to enforce any of the regulations,” says Dr Constable. “It’s far away and an expensive area to have a ship in. A lot of the most productive grounds are far away from even the islands where there are stations such as Kerguylen Island where the French are. It’s very easy for illegal vessels to get into the area, poach the fish and get out again.”

Another problem is that even if the seas are better patrolled, as they have been on a sporadic basis since 1997, outside of the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of Antarctic territories like Australia’s Heard Island, CCAMLR nations are powerless to seize pirates. “Obviously these guys are thinking twice about whether they target the Australian EEZ or the French EEZ which are now more regularly patrolled,” says Frank Meere, acting managing director of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. “But in some places it’s already too late, because they have been in there and done enormous damage already.”

Most of the poachers are actually from countries that are party to the CCAMLR treaty, the major culprits being fishing conglomerates in Spain, Norway and Korea. But the vessels are always registered in countries like Belize or Panama, and their ownership difficult to trace. However, patience is running out. Australia has been leading a push in CCAMLR to introduce a system of catch certification. In this way, only vessels that can certify their catch of toothfish was obtained legally would be able to unload their cargo, and the 22 nations that make up CCAMLR – which are also the fish’s biggest consumers – would ban the importation of uncertified catches. The measure could well be introduced next year.

Measures such as these may well slow the seemingly inexorable grind toward commercial extinction, but they do not address the core problem of overfishing. “How do you control high seas fishing fleets? How do you stop them moving from one ground to another, essentially sending all of those grounds into commercial extinction in their wake?” asks Dr Constable. “Until we stop trying to just simply regulate where fishing can be undertaken and get to the nub of the problem, which is to control the number of vessels, I don’t think that there will be much progress.”

“One of the difficulties in the Antarctic is being able to enforce any of the regulations. It’s very easy for illegal vessels to get into the area, poach the fish and get out again."

The nations of the world seem to have reached the same conclusion. Earlier this year, member nations of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation agreed to address fleet capacity in their countries and control the size of distant-water fishing fleets. A target date of 2005 was set, with the possibility of introducing the measure by 2003. It is the first time an international agreement has committed nations to review the size of their fishing fleets and develop plans for reducing them. Few doubt that reductions are needed: a study released last year by the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that nearly two thirds of the fishing fleet worldwide could be eliminated and there would still be enough fishing vessels to catch all the fish that can be sustainably harvested. 

Some nations have already bitten the bullet: Japan has scrapped 130 vessels in the last six months. Large sums were paid in compensation to the communities affected and the vessels were not just bought out by the government, they were actually turned into scrap metal. Despite this, the Japanese fishing effort remains over-capitalised.

“By and large Australian fisheries are nowhere near as over-capitalised as elsewhere in the world,” says AFMA’s Meere. “But we do have our problems. From an economic efficiency point-of-view, we could probably harvest fish in all our fisheries with fewer boats than we currently have. And that’s the dilemma with fisheries management – we have not sent operators the right signals.”

AFMA has also been whittling down capacity, buying out 27 fishing permits in the crowded southeast fishery (off NSW and Victoria) and compensating the operators. More may be needed (see panel3). Meere says that AFMA’s system of individual transferable quotas – in which total sustainable catch is set for a fishery, and then divided into licences that each represent a portion of the total – is the way fisheries management has to go. “Fishing operators don’t have to catch their share tomorrow. They are not in a race to fish.”

Depletions and extinctions are natural, and no species has anything but the most fragile toe-hold in the moving pantheon of life on the planet. It has to be acknowledged, however, that the rate of depletions and extinctions has accelerated dramatically since humans learned to hunt with devastating efficiency (see panel 5) and more recently with the arrival of industrialisation. 

While the oceans may be too vast for humans to cause a wholesale extinction of a fish species, we certainly have the power to hunt a species down to such a remnant population that it never returns in enough numbers to sustain a commercial fishery; its ecological niche swallowed up by a competitor species. And as the demand for seafood grows, and our technology improves, we could go on and on down the food chain, catching all that can be caught. As the fisheries shrink, more effort and more technology could be brought to bear, driven by intense competition and the higher and higher prices for the fewer and fewer fish reaching the market. Until eventually, all the big fish are so few in number they are essentially gone. Already, some scientists suspect that within a generation, this forecast will prove true: most of the world’s fishing grounds will have become commercially extinct.

“If things go unchecked, we might end up with a marine junkyard dominated by plankton,” quips Dr Daniel Pauly. 

He could be right. 



The Grand Banks off the eastern coast of Canada were the greatest fishing grounds ever known. They had been fished at least since 1000 AD, mostly in secret, by Basque fishermen who dominated the market for that most favoured of European fish species, the Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua. The cod could be salted or dried without spoilage, lasting long voyages across sea and land, and it became a favoured meal across Europe. Catholics who refrained from eating meat on Fridays and for the 40 days of Lent, created a huge market, for which the Basque became the Continent’s principal suppliers.

And yet, the fish is not found in Basque or Spanish waters, and although British fishermen in the 14th century discovered rich grounds off Iceland, none ever saw Basque fishing fleets there. The source of Basque plenty remained a mystery until 1534, when Jacques Cartier arrived at the mouth of the St Lawrence River. He planted a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula, claiming the bold headlands and mountainous wilderness for France in what is today eastern Québec.

As author Mark Kurlansky writes in his readable book on the history of the fish, Cod, Cartier also noted that he had been preceded by a flotilla of 1,000 Basque fishing vessels: “But the Basque, wanting to keep a good secret, had never claimed it for anyone”.

Europeans marvelled at the tales of plenty brought back by early explorers. Milan’s envoy to London wrote to his duke about the British expedition led by John Cabot, which reported that “the sea is swarming with fish that can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone”.

The Grand Banks fisheries – which also included mackerel, herring, haddock and flounder – seemed inexhaustible, a view that prevailed in the centuries that followed. An 1885 report by the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture dismissed the prospect fish depletions, with its author, L.Z. Zoncas, writing: “I say it is impossible, not merely to exhaust them, but even noticeably to lessen their number ... For the last 300 years fishing has gone on in the Gulf of St Lawrence and along the coast of our Maritime Provinces, and although enormous quantities of fish have been caught, there are no indications of exhaustion”.

“The sea is swarming with fish that can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone.”

After World War II, the global fishing effort went into overdrive and the number of vessels trawling the seas exploded. Canadian officials, keen to protect their grounds and the large Canadian fishing industry, conceded the fisheries might be affected without some management. Scientists were employed to set ‘safe’ quotas for both Canadian and foreign fleets. The quotas were high, and the scientific assumptions upon which they were based rudimentary, but the catch continued to grow and there seemed no end to what the sea would yield.

Between 1805 and 1850, the annual catch of codfish was between 100,000 and 150,000 tonnes. By 1960, it occasionally hit 250,000 tonnes. But eight years later, it had reached an impressive 810,000 tonnes. In the years that followed, this began to drop off. Few were concerned, as fish populations are known to fluctuate over long periods of time, and even the Grand Banks had seen sporadic disappearances from certain grounds that would last years. And anyway, there was still plenty of fish for everyone. 

By 1977 things had turned decidedly sour: the cod catch had fallen to 150,000 tonnes. Canada blamed massive quota violations by  foreign fleets, extended its jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles offshore and sent in the navy to evict foreign vessels. Scientists at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans took more time analysing populations, and set a ‘total allowable catch’ pegged at 16 per cent of the estimated fish population, which would in theory allow stocks to slowly increase. These mathematical models assumed that the size of fish populations was dominated by the survival rate of young fish, a number that is hard to determine accurately and can vary widely and unpredictably. And the majority of their data came from catch figures reported by the commercial fishing fleets. They also assumed that a slow recovery rate was an aberration that would only last a few years, allowing cod populations to pick up by 1990, and permitting annual catches of 400,000 tonnes by then. 

In anticipation, the Canadian government, which faced a slowdown in the fishing industry across its Atlantic provinces, offered incentives to buy new boats and build fish processing factories. Fishermen invested in bigger, more powerful vessels with highly accurate sonar and other equipment designed to increase the catch per unit. No account of this improvement in technology was taken when calculating the new cod quotas.

“You see some cod and you assume that this is the tip of the iceberg. But it could be the whole iceberg.”

The recovery never did come: even with the closing of Canadian ports to foreign fleets in 1986, the cod quota peaked at only 266,000 tonnes in 1988 and again began to be wound back. Worrying signs were emerging: inshore fishermen reported declining catches; offshore fishermen, with their high-tech boats, reported smaller and smaller fish were being taken and that catches were occurring in fewer and fewer areas of ocean. 

By 1989, the scientists were becoming uneasy. Research vessels cruising a random course across the Grand Banks, trawling and counting how many fish were caught of different ages, and how long they took to catch, found an ocean almost devoid of fish. But catch data from commercial fishing vessels pointed the other way; when schools of cod were found, catches were plentiful and the data suggested twice as many fish as the models indicated. The scientists were reluctant to cry wolf based on a single research cruise, when the fishing fleet data came from hundreds of vessels. And to do so would mean questioning the whole theoretical basis for their modelling. So they compromised, setting a quota midway between the survey and the commercial data. Psychologically, they were already in retreat; they had lost faith in their models.

A haul of cod from Newfoundland in 1921, when the Grand Banks was a bountiful fishery

The fishing industry rebelled, saying scientists thought cod stocks were low because they didn't “go where the fish are”.

Canadian fisheries minister John Crosbie agreed, setting a higher quota. At a Canadian fisheries inquiry that followed in 1990, the scientists – their confidence in their models now ebbing away – declined to make firm statements. It was the kind of uncertainty that was exploited by the industry and the government to set catches that were as high as possible.

The fisheries scientists finally rang alarm bells in 1992. Survey after survey was showing depletions. And they had, too late, come to understand the nature of their quarry. Fish like cod and haddock, they proclaimed, huddle together as they deplete. Fishermen reporting the best ever catches were getting a false impression because they were fishing only the ‘hot spots’, areas where the fish congregated. As fish were caught in the ‘hot spots’, fish in other areas closed in, emptying the surrounding sea. Catch figures were therefore an inaccurate measure of overall fish populations. “You see some cod and you assume that this is the tip of the iceberg,” says Ralph Mayo, who was a marine biologist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts at the time. “But it could be the whole iceberg.”

In January that year, the Canadian scientists recommended a quota of 185,000 tonnes, then quickly trimmed this to 120,000 following another barren cruise. By June, no cod old enough to spawn could be found. Fishermen, too, were experiencing a rapid decline in catches. The scientists recommended a moratorium in the Grand Banks and adjacent fisheries, and a worried fisheries minister agreed. Stricter quotas were placed on other bottom-feeding fish like haddock and flounder, which were also showing massive declines. 

In January 1994, the moratorium was extended indefinitely.



Fishermen are hunters and fish are their wild prey. When trawlers descend on a fishery, they make no provision for next year’s take or leave behind enough fish to breed the next generation. They fill their holds with what they can take and return to port. Fishermen take from the sea, but return nothing. 

In this, fishermen are not unusual. Throughout the history, the arrival of humans has always precipitated large-scale depletions of animal species, and eventually, extinctions. This is not just a product of Western capitalism or a Judeo-Christian ethos. It seems to be a byproduct of human expansion, whether by Europeans in the New Worlds or ancient tribesmen at the dawn of human history.

Take the Americas, once home to elephants, mastodons, giant sloths, and lumbering glyptodonts, horses and camels. We know that humans arrived in North America 11,500 years ago, crossing the Bering Strait from Asia into Alaska and migrating south, reaching Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, only a 1,000 years later. By the end of this rapid expansion, 57 large mammalian species in North America ceased to exist. It’s estimated that the human population of the Americas quickly jumped to several million. “This explosive expansion was facilitated by unlimited resources – land and prey – opening up before an inexorable advance,” says Richard Leakey, the eminent palaeontologist. “(It) left a trail of destruction, as hunters were easily able to kill large, lumbering prey unused to a new kind of predator.” 

The animals had no innate fear of humans and no strategies to deal with such a new and efficient super-predator. Soon, American lions and sabre-tooth tigers also passed into history as numbers of their prey dwindled dramatically as a result of human predation. It was a tragedy for the hunters too, so unused to the strange new prey and, never having seen such plenty, that they were perhaps freed from the usual hunter’s constraint against mass slaughter.

History is littered with similar examples, in Europe (where elephants once roamed), in Papua New Guinea (where seven species of giant marsupials disappeared shortly after humans arrived), in Australia with the arrival of Aborigines and most recently in New Zealand. None has been better documented than the extinction of the moa.

Weighing between 20 and 250 kg, these large flightless birds dominated New Zealand until Maoris arrived about 1100. By 1400, they were extinct. Analysis of ancient earth ovens reveal a wastage of meat that was enormous, “which indicates that protein was available in surplus at the time,” reports Tim Flannery in his seminal book, The Future Eaters. At least, it was for a while. Possessed of a tropical agriculture that failed them in temperate latitudes, food sources became scarce. By the time Europeans began arriving in the 17th century, cannibalism was not uncommon and “certainly by the late 18th century, the bodies of those killed in war were a prized source of food”, write Flannery.

It is not therefore surprising that this grand human narrative of the past 60,000 or so years is now finally being played out in the oceans. It seems the only reason it had not occurred before was that humans didn’t have the technology. Now we do. And there are so many more humans: the six billion people alive today represent the greatest proportion of living protoplasm to ever exist on the Earth. And it needs to be fed every day. 



In a world rapidly running out of fish, aquaculture would seem a godsend. And it is certainly booming. In 1984, fish and shellfish farming generated 6.9 million tonnes worldwide; a decade later, this had almost tripled to 18.5 million tonnes. In fact, had it not been for the dramatic rise in aquaculture, the total tonnage of fish would have been declining. 

Global aquaculture now accounts for one-quarter of all fish eaten; almost half of the salmon and a fourth of the shrimp consumed come from fish farms. Shrimp, cultivated mostly in Asia, is a business valued at US$6 billion a year, and salmon at US$2 billion dollar crop. In all, aquaculture is estimated to be US$36 billion a year, an industry that is growing at between five and 10 per cent a year. 

In Australia, the industry is largely made up of oyster, tuna, salmon and prawn farms, generating $491 million in revenue and accounting for 25% of the country’s fisheries production by value. The fastest growing subgroup of this booming sector is Southern Bluefin Tuna culturing, which began in 1991 and is now worth $130 million.

“Aquaculture is often seen as a panacea, the solution to relieve fishing pressure on the oceans and feed the world. But it’s a losing proposition if what you are trying to do is decrease the pressure on wild-caught fish.”

But as is the case with most aquaculture, the fish are not farmed from cradle to plate; the tuna are captured in the wild, fattened and then ‘harvested’ six months later, largely for the profitable sashimi market in Japan. The pressure on the ocean fisheries is still present: like prawns and salmon aquaculture, the tuna have to be fed large quantities of wild fish such as pilchards before they are ready for market. Even then, source stocks of Southern Bluefin Tuna are already overfished, and the quota ceiling is unlikely to be lifted from the present 5,265 tonnes a year if the fishery is to last.

Most farmed fish require a great deal more seafood as meal for the fish than the process supplies in final product. The worst is shrimp and salmon aquaculture: almost triple the quantity of wild-caught fish is consumed as food as aquaculture produces. They are also considered by scientists to be the most environmentally pernicious, accused not only of depleting fisheries, but also disrupting coastal ecosystems and polluting oceans with an abundance of nutrients and pesticides.

Global standards to address the negative environmental impacts from aquaculture are under development

“Aquaculture is often seen as a panacea, the solution to relieve fishing pressure on the oceans and feed the world,” says Professor Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished zoologist at Oregon State University and co-author of a major report into aquaculture published in the journal Science last year. “But it’s a losing proposition if what you are trying to do is decrease the pressure on wild-caught fish.”

Lubchenco says that some species such as carp, oysters and mussels can be sustainable and have a low impact on surrounding marine environments. Sturgeon is another, says Dr Serge Doroshov of University of California at Davis. “The fish is a very efficient converter of food. Sturgeon requires less than a one-to-one ratio of the dry food that produce one body of weight. They utilise protein very well.” 

But scientists point out that there is no incentive to raise fish in a way that is sustainable, or to encourage diversity in aquaculture rather than a mono-culture that has to be maintained through the use of pesticides and drugs like antibiotics. In Asia, which produces 85 per cent of the world’s aquacultured shrimp, farming grounds often have to be abandoned after five years as the discharge of waste and pesticides from farm ponds into the open ocean damages the habitats. 

“What we’re finding is that, unless it is done right, some aquaculture is causing more problems than it solves, and doing nothing to increase the world’s overall food supply,” says Lubchenco.

Wilson da Silva is a science journalist on ABC TV's Quantum science program.

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