90% of large fish in Earth’s oceans fished out, says WWF

Oceans cover 72 per cent of the Earth’s surface. Inside those cold, salty depths swim over 20 000 species of fish—a shocking number to someone who doesn’t know much about fish. But an even more shocking number, released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is that 90 per cent of the large fish in our oceans have been fished out. People may wonder how this can happen. One factor is that 85 per cent of the fisheries (businesses of wild capture) in the world are pushed to their brink. Dr. John Volpe, director of Environmental Studies at UVic, says that when it comes to big fish (blue fin tuna, yellow fin tuna, sharks, swordfish, marlin),“our ability to remove them from the environment is far greater than their ability to replenish themselves, given that they have a higher price tag on their heads . . .  Is it possible for these fish to rebound? Absolutely. Is it possible given the current economic climate? Absolutely not.”

These numbers have been hovering around this mark for years.  “I have heard this figure before,” said Michele Patterson, PhD candidate in geography at UVic and program lead for the Aquatic Foods Initiative. “I used to also work for WWF,” she says. “I was their B.C. director of Conservation from 2001 to 2009.  However, even though it doesn’t surprise me, it still does shock me.” Researchers and organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have been trying to inform fisheries of the proper practices, but as Patterson says, “there is a big difference between research and lived experiences.” It’s something her own research is aiming to improve.

Although it certainly helps to buy seafood with the MSC sticker or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) sticker on the packaging, the western markets are not the whole problem. “Seafood is easily the most international of all food categories,” says Volpe. So what the world is facing is a demand for these ecologically more expensive fish. “I’m not going to say we’re not the problem. We are definitely a problem, we being western cultures, but our consumption profiles have largely been stable for a long time now. And that’s not to say they’re sustainable, far from it. But where the real pressure in terms of growth of demand is, it’s not from western communities; it’s eastern communities.”

There are solutions to this new growth in demand. Simply educating the consumers has had, as Volpe says, “checkered success . . . What’s more effective is going up the production chain and targeting distributors and large-scale retailers. For example, we’ve been working with the seafood buyers at Walmart. If we can convince those three people to change their buying habits, we have effectively changed the buying habits of tens of millions, and that’s where the shift is going.”

That might not be enough, however. Aquaculture—the farming of aquatic species—is another answer, but salmon farming has had some problems: sea lice, escapes, bad potential effects on the environment, just to name a few.  However, Volpe says that, “as bad as salmon aquaculture is, it’s nothing compared to shrimp aquaculture . . . and as bad as salmon is, and it’s bad, it is actually one of the better performing—ecologically performing—aquaculture products out there.”

Thankfully there’s hope for this too. Recently, near Port McNeill in the Namgis First Nations community, they’ve created an on-land, closed containment facility to grow Atlantic salmon. This takes away potential harmful environmental effects like sea lice,  the escape of non-indigenous breeds, and the discharge of antibiotics, pesticides, and waste into the ocean. Because it is a land-based facility, it will also reduce the carbon footprint of transporting these fish across countries. Although it is no replacement for wild salmon, closed containment fish facilities could meet the demand for cheap salmon craved by people all over the world. For more information on the Namgis closed containment project, check out namgis.bc.ca/CCP.

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