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Keeping Fish in the Sea and on the Menu

by Editors
Financial Times, November 4, 2006

The Financial Times is generally a big fan of Adam Smith. However, we do recognise there are two instances - protection of the world's climate and oceans - where private interest does not serve the public interest, and usually runs counter to it. This has been amply demonstrated by two important studies this week: first the UK government's Stern report on climate change, and now the international study on declining marine biodiversity published in Science magazine. Without proper regulation, the raw pursuit of private interest in exploiting common goods such as the atmosphere and the oceans results in despoiling them for all mankind.

It may be hard to digest one gloomy report after another. But the Science study's main prediction - that commercial fishing will come to an end in 40 years if continued at present levels - is far less controversial than the science, or the economics, in the Stern review. In contrast to continued temperature volatility, the data show a straight decline in seafood species over the past half century. And the causes are far simpler to identify. Some of the species decline is due to climate change and warming seas as well as pollution. But the main cause is overfishing.

This is hardly surprising. In the past half century the industrial revolution has cut through fish stocks which have never been artificially replenished. Today's big trawlers use the latest sonar and massive nets to find and catch fish and industrial equipment to process and freeze them. If the same technology had been applied on land to hunt down wild game, before the advent of farming, we would have all starved to death long ago.

What is startling in the Science study is the degree to which ocean species are interdependent. Instead of the over-fishing of one species benefiting other species that might be competing for the same food supply, the loss of one species that, for instance, eats algae or plankton damages the whole ecosystem and therefore other species.

The solutions are also simpler to identify than in climate change. They hardly require the extra fish consumption that is (popularly, but quite unscientifically) supposed to aid brainpower. They fall into three categories.

First, conservation needs to be re-thought. The Science study suggests that it is a mistake to rely just on restricting the catch of one species whose stocks are judged to be particularly low, leaving fishermen free to go after more plentiful species. This is the policy which the European Union has, for instance, been pursuing with cod so that cod stocks are not wiped out in the North Sea as they have been on the Grand Banks of eastern Canada. Unfortunately, cod is still caught as a by-catch with all the rest of the fish.

Second, certain types of fishing need to be curbed. Particularly pernicious is "bottom fishing" with heavy nets that smash along the seabed. The practice highlights the importance of marine conservation areas in which all fishing is banned. And finally, fish farming needs to catch up on what has been achieved on land for centuries. It does pose certain problems of pollution and disease, but these can be mitigated.

Just as with climate change, the conservation of fish has to be tackled internationally. The omens are not good. The EU has failed to produce an effective policy for its own members, and all that exists on a wider level is a meaningless code of conduct. But it is in every country's interest to keep fish in the sea and, therefore, on the menu.

Keeping Fish in the Sea and on the Menu
Financial Times, November 4, 2006

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