“Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come, our fisheries will continue to be fertile.” -Canadian Ministry of Agriculture, 1885

Where did all the fish go?

For centuries, North Atlantic cod was one of the world’s largest and most reliable fisheries. These giant bottom-dwellers provided food, medicine and a livelihood for populations throughout Europe, North America and the Caribbean. The supply of cod seemed endless.

But by the 1930s, innovations were changing the face of the fishing industry as engines replaced sail and longer-ranging trawlers replaced local and seasonal fishers. Rather than targeting a particular type or size of fish, trawlers operate by dragging huge nets along the ocean floor, catching everything in their path and leaving decimated marine habitats behind. As early as the 1930s, concerns were being raised that the industry’s ability to catch fish was out-pacing the fish’s ability to replenish its numbers.

By the 1960s—with ever-more sophisticated methods of detecting, catching, processing and transporting fish—factory trawlers doubled, then almost tripled the yearly catch. At first glance, the sheer numbers of fish caught seemed to indicate a plentiful stock. But the catch was the result of improved fishing techniques, and the cod were, in fact, disappearing.

By the late 1970s, the distressed state of Atlantic cod was indisputable, and international quotas were imposed. Unfortunately, these actions proved too late and the quotas failed to reverse the decline. The stock continued to collapse, and in June of 1992, a moratorium was declared on commercial fishing. In 2003, the fishery was closed indefinitely. The fish that founded a continent was all but gone from the once teeming Grand Banks, and so was a way of life that had sustained fishing families throughout New England and Canada for generations. The ability of North Atlantic cod to recover is still in serious question.

Tragically, similar stories are being written today for many of the fish that feed the world’s ever-growing demand. Tuna, grouper, sea bass and countless others are dangerously depleted from overfishing, habitat loss and pollution. Data and details may be debated, but the need to change our behavior toward the oceans and their inhabitants is undeniable. We ignore this fish tale at our own peril.

Excerpted from:
Cod, by Mark Kurlansky; The United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Report; Monterey Bay Aquarium

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