WHILE nations fight it out for control of the Pacific, below the waves there are other problems that demand attention. I am speaking of the eminent collapse of the marine life. Hopefully, over the years, I have established a reputation of being level-headed, not prone to rush judgments or scare-mongering, but in this case a little mongering might be just what is needed to address the situation.
Pacific fish stocks are plummeting and if something is not done to alter course, they may fall to levels from which they cannot recover. By some counts, the oceans supply 30% of our protein so this is no small matter. What is causing this, and what can be done about it?
IUU fishing. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is one cause of falling fish stocks. Some IUU fishing is done on a small scale, that is, private fishermen who work from shore or from small boats. Some of it is done by state-sponsored fleets of ships who turn off their locators and fish in areas that are off limits or carefully controlled. As an example, China recently sent a fleet of dozens of modern fishing vessels to the Galapagos Islands, an area strictly regulated. It may take decades for the local waters to recover from this one incident. There are many reasons why IIU fishing occurs. Some do it because they are fishing in waters where they should not, others because they are catching more than they are allowed, still others because they are using methods that are prohibited.
Dynamite and cyanide fishing has grown in popularity in some places because it reduces the amount of labor involved. A few people can catch what used to take many, thereby making fishing more efficient. But the harm done to reefs and underwater ecosystems in beyond measure. I have seen places in Indonesia where lush coral reefs used to thrive but are now barren wastelands, underwater deserts devoid of life. Fish will take decades to repopulate such areas, if they come back at all, so fishermen must work further and further from home. This is utterly senseless.
Legal but destructive fishing practices. Modern technology has enabled us to build what are called factory ships, vessels which collect and process fish on such a massive scale that even one such ship can sweep an entire area clean in a matter of days, as if a giant vacuum cleaner just sucked all the life out of the ocean. In addition to factory ships, giant purse seiners collect all life forms, the desirable along with the undesirable, and throw away the unwanted, which they innocently call by-catch. Dolphins, sharks, turtles and other aquatic life are slaughtered for the sake of efficiency.
Bottom dredging is another popular fishing method because it is efficient. A large vessel drags a net along the sea floor, scraping up everything and bringing it to the surface. Fishermen take what they want and throw the rest overboard, but by then the damage is done. Fish nesting grounds are wiped out, coral is destroyed, carbon stored in biomass that rests on the ocean floor is released back into the environment. To list the negative effects of bottom dredging would take an entire book.
Pollution. Plastics and other man-made pollutants have turned the ocean into the best kind of landfill, one you cannot sea or smell. We will not have to wait centuries; soon we will see that industrialization was one of the worst things that happened to the oceans.
Truly, mankind has been a very poor steward of the oceans. We must do better. Our very lives depend on it and the oceans depend on it. Unfortunately, preserving the ocean requires a quality that has been sorely lacking lately: cooperation.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.