Thursday 15 May 2003

Plenty more fish in the sea?

If we are not careful we as a species will be judged by the Universe, we will be judged and we will be found lacking in all the qualities of the greatness we create for ourselves in our own minds. We are not as good or as civilised as we like to think. We are arrogant to think we can kill the planet, the earth has been here a lot longer than you or me and it will continue to be here long after we are all forgotten memories. All we can do is make it uninhabitable to human life.

The ocean's great predator fish are disappearing fast. Numbers have dropped by 90% in just 50 years. Time to give up those swordfish steaks

'Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends." Tough words from Hemingway's aged Santiago, who nearly kills himself landing the mother of all marlin, only to watch it get ripped to shreds by sharks on the way home. But the great battle of man versus fish played out in The Old Man and the Sea is rapidly becoming a romantic fantasy of a lost age. The marlin are disappearing now; sharks are disappearing faster. And those two great predators are not alone in their struggle for survival.

There has been no shortage of signs that all is not well in the oceans. Eleven years ago, the cod population on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland collapsed, prompting an outright ban on cod fishing in the region. The stocks have still to show any sign of recovery. The situation isn't much better in the North Sea. There, cod are teetering on the brink of collapse, and according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, only a total ban on cod fishing will give them any chance of recovering. Last year, researchers warned the same was happening off the coast of western Africa. Once among the richest of fishing waters, the number of fish had plummeted to a new low. Earlier this year came yet another warning: some of the most common species of shark were being wiped out, often killed by trawler nets seeking a more profitable catch. Their numbers have slumped more than 75% in 15 years.

But the piecemeal warnings, shocking as they were, suggested only patches of disaster. Surely there were still regions of deep blue ocean where the trawlers never reached, where fish were still thriving? It seems not. Today, a study published in the journal Nature reveals the big picture is worse than many scientists feared. Fishing has been so destructive that stocks throughout the world's oceans have been driven down by 90% at the very least.

"What we have now are just the remnants," says Ran Myers of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. "We're losing fish all around the world."

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