The traditional image of the bearded fisherman in a yellow sou’wester is far from today’s reality. The pressures of industrialization and commercialization have taken over—ever larger boats, more sophisticated nets, subsurface sonar, GPS coordinates to mark previously successful locations, teams of helicopters and small planes from which to spot schools of fish, satellite phones for communication; it’s a far cry from The Old Man and the Sea.
Humankind has moved from just a lucky catcher of river fish to a highly sophisticated hunter and, as stocks are becoming depleted, even to a scientific farmer of aquatic life.
How far down have stocks come? Some of the first European settlers in the New World documented the bounty they found; in 1608 Captain John Smith reported an “abundance of fish, lying so thick with their heads above the water [that] for want of nets . . . we attempted to catch them with a frying pan. But we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with. Neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish, had any of us ever seen in any place so swimming in the water.”
Such eyewitness accounts are difficult to extrapolate into accurate population counts. Based on a review of detailed logbooks from the 1850s, marine scientist Andrew Rosenberg estimates that over the next 150 years, cod numbers declined by 96 percent. This startling figure appears to be appropriate for most commercially fished populations: “Since the mid-nineteenth century, more than 90 percent of the preindustrial population of large, spawning fish has disappeared,” declares Charles Clover in The End of the Line.
While some species have seen a slight recovery since the onset of stricter regulation in the early 1990s, many have not, and most likely will not return to preindustrial levels. But surely we catch only what we eat. If water covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface, how can we catch all the fish in the oceans? Is this just environmental alarmism?
That this self-destructive process is real and why it might proceed so quickly is addressed by “the Tragedy of the Commons,” a phrase coined by microbiologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968 paper. The usual vignette for illustrating the concept centers on sheep: Imagine you are one of several shepherds with freedom to graze sheep on public land. It is to everyone’s benefit to limit your flocks’ time on the free grass so the public land is preserved for everyone’s use. But the economic drive is to get as much free grazing in as you can, with the result that the land is inevitably overgrazed by everyone. “The minute one of the other shepherds keeps his sheep out in the pasture an hour longer than necessary,” writes Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, “the only power you have is to retaliate by doing the same. And this is the Tragedy of the Commons: while each person can agree that all would benefit from common restraint, the incentives of the individuals are arrayed against that outcome.”
Selfishness, then, is the base reason for these kinds of resources being overexploited.
One of the biggest causes of the decline is the industrial method of fishing. Clover opens his book with the following analogy: “Imagine what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa. This fantastical assemblage, like something from a Mad Max movie, would scoop up everything in its way: predators such as lions and cheetahs, lumbering endangered herbivores such as rhinos and elephants, herds of impala and wildebeest, family groups of warthogs and wild dogs. Pregnant females would be swept up and carried along, with only the smallest juveniles able to wriggle through the mesh.”
Horrifying as it seems, this is a fair analogy for what is done in pursuit of fish that live on or near the ocean floor. It's the fishing method called trawling. In bottom trawling, iron bars or rollers at the front of the net scare fish up off the bottom where they can be caught, damaging the seabed itself as well as corals and plants—the vibrant habitat these fish need to live and reproduce.
Then there’s the problem of bycatch, a problem not unique to trawling. The term may sound harmless enough, but the industrial net does not play favorites; a large percentage of any catch is species other than those being sought. On each trip, unwanted, unmarketable or simply unprofitable fish pulled from the sea are typically shoveled back over the side, dead or dying.
How serious a problem is bycatch? It varies, but in 2007 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated annual discards at about 7 million tonnes. The worst offenders are shrimp trawlers, which according to the same report accounted for about 27 percent of all bycatch. Those numbers actually represent an improvement over the numbers from a few years earlier, thanks to various bycatch-reduction measures that have been put in place. Yet the discards still consist of hundreds of marine species including turtles, sharks, seahorses and coral and may actually outweigh the shrimp by 20 to 1, says the FAO.
Measures are also being taken to limit bycatch in tuna fisheries. “Dolphin-safe” nets, for example, allow most of the dolphins to escape to the surface before the net is tightened around the tuna. But this is not 100 percent effective; it is still typical for a few thousand dolphins to be killed each year, and bycatch of other nontarget species in dolphin-safe nets has increased.
The problem of bycatch is not limited to net fishing. Another primary method of tuna fishing is called longlining: a single boat will release as much as 60 miles of line from the stern, and attached to the line are approximately 25 leader lines and hooks per mile. Some sources say that almost 2 billion longline hooks are deployed every year.
When the lines are being set, seabirds (such as albatrosses and petrels) congregate around the back of the boat, attracted by the free lunch of bait fish strung along the line. In rough waters, when the boat is bobbing up and down on the waves with the line stretched out behind, “thirty baits can come popping up at the same time,” remarks Carl Safina in Song for the Blue Ocean. The birds “will dart in for those baits. . . . They hit the baits as they’re going out, get hooked, and get pulled down” and drown. Lost bait means less fish caught, so some fishermen simply shoot the birds.
Several species of albatrosses are now classified as endangered due largely to this fishing method. But when the longlines are pulled back in, fishermen don’t find only birds and whatever large fish is their target. Sea turtles are especially vulnerable to longline fishing, and sharks are also pulled in, but because their meat is not as commercially viable, the fins are usually chopped off for export to Asia and the animals are dumped overboard to bleed to death. Further, commercial fishing cannot guarantee hauling in only large specimens of their target fish; they may just as easily pull in juvenile tuna that have yet to reproduce, thus further threatening the survival of some species.
Bycatch is largely an unrecognized input, an unmeasured cost, just a part of doing business. Where profit is the overriding concern, what has to be dumped over the side is of minor interest. Such damaging views and practices are born of shortsighted greed: the Tragedy of the Commons writ large.
This is not to say the issue hasn’t been addressed (see “Jacques Cousteau: The Voice of a Silent World”). Despite efforts in recent years to curb the problem, however, large-scale overfishing of the sea continues to endanger numerous species all along the food chain. Each year about 220 million tons of marine animals are hauled from the sea (or damaged or killed in the process). If you consider the fish that do not sell, the unsold bones and offal discarded in processing, the quantity of fish processed into industrial products and pet food, “the amount of protein eaten by someone or something is maybe . . . only 10 percent of the amount of marine animals destroyed annually in the oceans.”
Put another way, perhaps 90 percent of what we pull from the ocean is simply discarded. Clearly this isn’t in the best interests of the fish, of the consumers the industry serves, or indeed of the industry’s own long-term future.
To Subjugate or to Serve?
Humankind was from the beginning designed to have dominion over the earth, to fill it, to subdue it and everything in it (Genesis 1:28). And we certainly are dominating the oceans. But can this justify such destruction, or is there a balancing principle with which this view must be reconciled?
Wendell Berry, in his essay “Two Minds,” wrote: “Most of the important laws for the conduct of human life probably are religious in origin—laws such as these: Be merciful, be forgiving, love your neighbors, be hospitable to strangers, be kind to other creatures, take care of the helpless, love your enemies. We must, in short, love and care for one another and the other creatures. We are allowed to make no exceptions. Every person’s obligation toward the Creation is summed up in two words from Genesis 2:15: ‘Keep it’”(see Is God Green?).
The verse to which Berry refers says, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” Other translations render this phrase “to do work in it and take care of it” (The Bible in Basic English), “to care for it and maintain it” (New English Translation), or even “to serve it, and to keep it” (Young’s Literal Translation). Our obligation is to protect, to guard or preserve. The kindness and care spoken of here seem at odds with having dominion or control. How do we square these two views—to dominate or to care for, to subjugate or to serve?
Part of the purpose for which God created us was the honor of having power over His creation; in that sense we rule the earth in His stead. The New English Translation, in its accompanying notes, explains that the verb construction in Genesis 1:26 is in two parts: 1) “let us make humankind in our image,” 2) “so they may rule” over it as we do; “God’s purpose in giving humankind his image is that they might rule the created order on behalf of the heavenly king and his royal court.” If this dominion or rulership is given to us because we are made in God’s image, that puts a bit of a kinder spin on it. To have “dominion” is an honor; we should therefore treat the natural world with the kind of care He would. We are to learn to behave more like Him.
The NET translator’s notes also provide a discussion of subduing: while in other verses the Hebrew word translated “subdue” often means to enslave or to conquer, “humankind is not viewed as having an adversarial relationship with the world. The general meaning of the verb appears to be ‘to bring under one’s control for one’s advantage.’ In Gen 1:28 one might paraphrase it as follows: ‘harness its potential and use its resources for your benefit.’”
This more balanced interpretation of subduing fits with the notion of dressing and keeping. In fact, according to the same source, the human race has “the responsibility of seeing to the welfare of that which is put under them and the privilege of using it for their benefit.”
Humanity’s role from the beginning was to have dominion over the earth insofar as we could learn to care for it as God does, to fill it with children as God intended, and to instruct and teach those children to understand their responsibility to do the same, continuing in this cycle of learning and teaching. “Subdue” in this context is not adversarial but productive.
The notions of dominion and subduing should correctly be read with the complementary notions of dressing, keeping, caring for and protecting. If we are to be effective stewards of this earth, we must learn to exercise a kind of dominion that cares for what is placed under our authority.
The takeaway message isn’t “Never eat fish again.” Some fishing practices avoid these harmful, wasteful methods, and some species of fish are both tasty and abundant, being tracked, understood and managed well. But the dominion that we humans have over the planet is a responsibility, and we must learn to treat it and those around us with caring and kindness, not harshness. We must learn to dress and keep that which has been given to us.