Fishless Oceans: Will We Pay the Ultimate Price in the Future for Overfishing?
We always talk about there being ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ and our oceans are perceived as inexhaustible. An ecosystem covering almost three quarters of our planet, it appears too vast and too deep to possibly be in peril. Silently and steadfastly, oceans have absorbed more than 90 per cent of the global warming created by humans since the 1970s. And yet, less than three per cent of it is protected.
A Grave Prophecy
The controversial claim that ‘there will be no more fish in the ocean by 2048’ prompted a tsunami of debate when it was made in 2006. Backing the statement and delivering it to an even wider audience was Seaspiracy, the 2021 Netflix documentary that laid bare the fishing industry’s complicity in crippling our oceans.
So, 16 years on, does the claim hold any water, and are our oceans being destabilised by overfishing and a whole host of other environmental factors to a point where wild seafood does, in fact, cease to exist?
The man behind the grave prophecy is marine ecologist Boris Worm, Professor of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Together with 14 co-authors – including ecological economists and professors of marine conservation – he published the results of a four-year-long study in Science journal, which examined 7,800 ocean species from cyanobacteria to large fish.
Worm’s stark warning about catastrophic loss of fish species was the line the internet remembers even over a decade later. It wasn’t misinformation, but rather sobering stats, using global catch data sourced from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and a time series of 12 different coastal regions around the world over the past millennia, that underscored the study.
The idea that we’re heading towards a complete collapse of marine life as we know it seems unfathomable. But you only have to look to the tragic tale of Pacific bluefin tuna, that’s been whittled down to a woeful 2.6 per cent of its historic population because of overfishing of it and its prey to realise that this critical ecosystem is dangerously out of whack. WWF has also sounded the alarm bells, stating that ‘more than 30 per cent of the world’s fish populations have been pushed beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them.’
A Triple Threat
So why exactly is marine life so important to the health of our oceans, the planet and ultimately the human race?
First and foremost: food security. An estimated one billion people, largely from undeveloped countries, rely on seafood for protein. Fishing also accounts for the livelihoods of 11 per cent of the world’s population.
Our ocean’s health is also calibrated by marine life, which filters toxins from the water caused by pollution, reducing large-scale algae blooms. Feeding these uncontrollable blooms – sometimes called green or red tides – is chemical runoff from farms. The toxic tides slowly suffocate fish by depleting oxygen in the water, even going so far as mutilating their gills.
Meanwhile, the scourge of plastic – ranging from invisible microplastics to colossal floating trash –continues to wage war on our oceans. As recently as this February, the UN has been urged to curb the plastic trash epidemic with a historic treaty. Meanwhile, scientists at Tenerife’s University of La Laguna have identified a new type of emerging coastal pollution, they’re calling ‘plastitar’. Found on several of the Canary Islands, positioned on an oil shipping lane, it’s a toxic mix of hardened tar bonded with microplastics.