The empty oceans The world's fish stocks are nearing annihilation. Geoffrey Lean says we were wa rned in 1833, but took no notice

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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you stood at the bar of The Swordfish or The Dolphin in Newlyn 30 years ago you could tell when the boats were returning - by the singing. Every dusk the sound of fishermen's voices, raised in song, drifted into the two pubs on the harbour-fro nt of the Cornish village as the fleet chugged homewards laden with hake, whiting, mackerel and plaice. Old-timers swear that it could be heard across the waves when the boats were still five miles from port.

It was the sign of the end of a good day's fishing, and in those days - when there were, indeed, plenty of fish in the sea - every day was a good one. "I will always remember the singing," says Mike Townsend , now 61. "It was just something that used to happen. I suppose because people were happy with the catch. There was fish for everybody. Now the stocks are well down. You do not get the singing any more. The boats are silent."

Voices are raised again in Newlyn this weekend, but in anger. The village - one of those worst hit by the European Union decision to let Spanish trawlers into the 92,000 sq mile "Irish box" from next year - is at the centre of a campaign to make the Government quit the EU's common fisheries policy. South-western trawlermen last week threatened to break the law, if needs be, and warned that the "new Spanish armada" would get a "very poor" reception.

"We have got to raise as much hell as we can with the Ministry of Agriculture," said-Elizabeth Stevenson, a partner in a Newlyn trawler firm. "They are our waters and our livelihood depends on them."

This week Newlyn voices will be heard more than 250 miles away, at the bar of the House of Commons, as Parliament debates the fishing crisis. Labour has put down a motion condemning the Government's acquiescence in the decision, and ministers fear that at least some of the nine rebel Euro-sceptics will vote with the Opposition, threatening its majority.

And next week, the Prime Minister's five-strong panel of special environmental advisers, headed by the former UN Ambassador Sir Crispin Tickell, will warn that fish stocks around Britain are close to collapse. It will urge Mr Major to initiate a top-level worldwide inquiry into the state of the planet's fisheries.

The plight of the fishermen of Newlyn is spread around the oceans of the globe. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that every one of the world's major fishing areas has now either reached or exceeded their natural limits - and that nine of them are already in serious decline.

After growing five-fold since the Second World War, and nearly 20 times over since the start of the century, the world's fish catch fell sharply in 1990 and it has not recovered. Indeed, were it not for growing catches by China, it would have decreased every year since then; it is an unprecedented, worldwide slump.

One billion people in Asia alone depend on fish as their main source of protein; indeed, it supplies two-fifths of all the protein consumed in the Third World. Yet as catches fall, and population goes on growing, the amount of fish available per person has fallen by 10 per cent in just five years.

Two hundred million people depend on fisheries for their livelihood, but these are becoming increasingly precarious. Over the past two years, 50,000 people have lost their jobs in eastern Canada alone as the cod fishery became so depleted that it had to be closed down.

And it may be a sign of something even greater. Some years ago, asked to pick an indicator that would provide a warning of a gathering global environmental crisis, one of the Department of the Environment's most senior officials opined that it would be time to start getting seriously alarmed when the world's fisheries started to collapse. Some ecologists believe that this will have grave knock-on effects, unravelling the entire ecosystems of the oceans. So how did we come to be so unarmed against this sea of troubles?

For all our civilisation, we are still hunter-gatherers at sea. Like our forebears on the African plains, we catch what we can without, as farmers would, taking care to increase and maintain the stock.

This leads to what the early (and ultra-conservative) environmentalist Professor Garret Hardin described as "the tragedy of the commons". He dug up a little-known pamphlet, written in 1833 by a mathematical amateur called William Forster Lloyd, which fi r st set out a scenario that is at the root of much of the world's present environmental degradation.

Picture, said Lloyd, a common, open to all. Everyone is free to graze his animals there, and naturally each herdsmen seeks to keep as many on it as he can. Every time he adds another, he contributes further to the overgrazing of the land, but his gain far outweighs his loss, for he gets the full benefit of the extra animal while sharing the additional loss of pasture with all the other herdsmen. So they all go on increasing their herds, until the grazing collapses under the strain, ruining t h em all.

"Ruin," says the apocalyptic Hardin, "is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."

As a universal theory this has its limitations, but it has so far been borne out in the seas that once seemed so inexhaustible. Each boat, and each nation, has maximised its individual gain at the expense of the oceans, and of its own future.

And it has been speeded in the rush towards ruin by technology and subsidies. Satellites now enable trawlermen to predict the weather and sonar allows them to pinpoint shoals of fish. Huge nets hoover them up; in some parts of the world, these are 50 miles long, with openings that would alone accommodate 16 jumbo jets.

Fishing is subsidised by governments to the tune of over £30bn a year worldwide. This keeps many more boats at sea than the oceans can support - 3 million vessels at the last count. The more boats there are, the faster the tragedy takes hold.

The results are evident from Newlyn to Newfoundland, from Indonesia to Immingham. "The arguments about which country is allowed to fish for what in the Irish Box are beside the point," said one senior British source last week. "There aren't any fish in it."

Every year, more than half of the cod and haddock in the North Sea are caught. Nearly three-quarters of young cod are caught even before they begin to mature. The stock of mackerel has crashed fifty-fold since the Sixties, and fishing for herring had to be stopped altogether from 1977 to 1982.

Jim Linstead, a trawlerman, said in Grimsby last week: "I can remember when 60-footers would come back with their hulls and decks full of fish. Nowadays they don't even fill the fish room. This industrial fishing is taking up everything."

Total catches in the north-west Atlantic - mainly taken by the United States, Iceland and Canada - have crashed by almost a third over the past 20 years. The once-bountiful cod fishery of the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland, was closed two years ago after stocks collapsed,and there are fears that the damage may be irreversible. Catches of west Atlantic blue-fin tuna have plunged from 340,000 tons a year in the early Seventies to less than 25,000 tons today, yet the fishing continues as Japan will pay highprices for it in the sushi and sashimi market; a single 100lb fish caught in 1992 fetched £40,000.

Fish stocks in the East China and Yellow seas are a fifth to a tenth of their former levels. Catches in St Vincent and the Grenadines have been cut in half over the past decade, and the size of the fish that are caught has declined by a third. The Peruv i an anchovy catch, which once made up a fifth of the world's total landings, collapsed by 85 per cent in the early Seventies, causing the only previous sharp drop in the global yield and has yet to recover.

The north-west Pacific still provides nearly a third of the world's marine harvest, but landings are nearly double what is thought to be the sustainable yield that can be taken without depleting stocks, so experts are predicting a collapse there too.

Pollution and the destruction of wetlands make things worse. The Black Sea's fisheries have disintegrated largely because of pollution, and the oyster harvest from Chesapeake Bay fell by 85 per cent for the same reason. The United States has lost half its wetlands, and the Philippines more than 90 per cent of its mangroves; both are vital nurseries for young fish.

As stocks run out, the boats move into new areas and fish new species - and prices rise. Fish is twice as expensive in US shops as it was 30 years ago, while prices of beef and pork have remained the same; chicken has become cheaper. The result has been to deprive the world's poor, who depend on it.

"Fish has a habit of jumping on to the tables of rich people," once said Pierre Gillet of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers. Third World countries more than doubled their fish exports in the Eighties so as to earn foreign exchange. And a third of the world's catch is turned into fishmeal to feed animals - even farmed salmon - for rich tables.

In the Indian state of Kerala, the government subsidised commercial fishing for export, putting the local poor fishermen at a disadvantage. The newcomers then overfished the waters, making their livelihood even more precarious.

Rich world fleets increasingly fish in Third World waters as their own are overexploited. One in every four fish that reaches European tables comes from a EU boat trawling faraway seas. Euan Dunn, Marine Policy Officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says: "Industrialised country fleets are quickly buying up Third World stocks."

And as the fish become scarcer, conflicts increase. Last summer British and Spanish boats clashed in the Bay of Biscay, and Icelandic fishermen shot at a Norwegian coastguard. Greece and Italy sparred over swordfish in the Mediterranean, and small fishermen in Indonesia burned trawlers that intruded on their waters.

William Waldegrave, the Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, says the arguments remind him of "Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp arguing over who should shoot the last buffalo".

Is there a solution? Fish farming has long been touted as one. It has been doubling every seven years, and now produces some 14 million tons annually. But it is often self-defeating, for the farmed fish are fed with fish caught at sea: it takes at least five tons of fish meal to produce each ton of farmed salmon. And, on tropical coastlines, the farms often destroy the very mangroves that nurture young, wild fish.

New species could be caught. Deep ocean fish, like lantern fish, are particularly unexploited, and could be reached with modern equipment. They seem to reproduce and grow very slowly, so it would be easy to deplete them. Tens of millions of tons of prawn-like krill could be scooped up from the Antarctic Ocean each year, but they have to be processed quickly if they are not to go bad, and would have to be caught far from the main consuming nations. And no one knows what effect such harvesting might have on the fragile Antarctic environment.

It would help if less fish were wasted. At least 16 million tons - about a fifth of the marine catch - is thrown back into the water each year because it is too small, or the wrong species. The fish are either dead, or injured, or so weakened that they are easily snapped up by predators.

Technically the simplest - but politically the most difficult - way to rebuild shattered fisheries is to reduce catches. It has to be done early enough to work, but it has succeeded with halibut in the Pacific, and mackerel and salmon in the Atlantic.

New Zealand has introduced a system of giving fishermen strict catching quotas, which they can either take up or sell. This gives them a predictable income, removes the incentive to catch as many fish as possible and as quickly as they can, and encourages them to fish at the times when they will get the best price. Most fishermen have said they like the system, and it is increasingly being presented as a model.

The Common Fisheries Policy attracts no such esteem. EU countries are given quotas each year, but these are set by fisheries ministers at far higher levels than official scientists recommend. This year, for example, for the fourth year running the ministers ignored the advice of the official EU Advisory Commission on Fisheries that hake catches should be cut by 40 per cent to preserve stocks for the future.

The EU is trying to cut fishing by some 20 per cent between 1993 and 1996 by purchasing boats and limiting the days that fishermen can spend at sea. Britain has run into problems with both approaches. It has ended up buying a disproportionate number of old, inefficient boats from people who were nearing retirement. And British fishermen are challenging limits on their time at sea in the European Court of Justice.

As a result, Britain is seriously behind in applying the cuts, but must still meet the 1996 deadline. This could result in draconian and disruptive measures over the next two years.

Meanwhile, in the fishing village of Brixham, Devon, 60-year-old Brian Trust has sold his boat. "She was a beauty," he says, "but the stocks of fish had gone down so much that she had to go."

He, too, remembers the days of song and plenty. "There was nothing quite like coming back at dusk, with the fish everywhere, a bit of singing and money in the pocket. Marvellous.

"We would be landing 75 boxes a day. Nowadays, if a fisherman lands 10 boxes he has had a good day. What happened to the fish? lt is over-fishing, and not just by the Spaniards. Everybody's at it. The sea has been given an absolute lacing."

Additional reporting by Roger Dobson