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We are fishing our oceans to death Add to ...

Ransom Myers is not a household name. He should be. The Nova Scotia biologist, who died last week at 54, was called the best fish scientist in Canada. He was also a leading authority on the greatest environmental disaster of our time.

It's too bad that global warming gets all the ink, because the danger documented by Prof. Myers is right here, right now. We are fishing out the seas. We don't have to wait for global warming to wipe out species, because we are doing it already. Prof. Myers found that in the past 50 to 100 years, we have fished out more than 90 per cent of the world's biggest predatory fish -- tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, shark. Most of the ones that remain are much smaller than the ones your grandpa saw. If somebody rewrote The Old Man and the Sea today, the old man's adversary would probably be a minnow.

Today, we don't fish the seas -- we mine them. Ocean-going supertrawlers drag the seas to depths of 600 metres, sucking up the last of the giant bluefin tuna, along with tonnes and tonnes of bycatch (waste fish for which there is no market). They fish out one area and then move on, leaving a virtual desert in their wake.

Prof. Myers's warnings were not speculation. He based them on a hard slog through the data of ocean trawler records through the years. Back in 2003, he warned, "We've got to cut fishing by 50 per cent, and if it's not done, we're going to lose the pelagic [ocean-going]species." Last week, his final piece of research was published in the journal Science. It found that populations of some of the biggest shark species off the eastern coast of the United States had also plunged by 90 per cent or even more. "If you go to any reef around the world, except for those that are really protected, the sharks are gone," he said.

Forget Jaws. The greatest predator on the planet is man. But what's beneath the seas is also beneath the radar screens of many of us. You can bet that if polar bears or pandas were disappearing as fast as the large pelagic fish, far more people would be demanding far more serious conservation efforts.

No one knew this better than Prof. Myers. For years, he worked for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, where he warned that the cod were being overfished. No one wanted to know. In fact, the DFO routinely suppressed inconvenient research into the causes of the cod decline. In 1995 -- three years after the fishery had collapsed -- he told The Globe and Mail that the decline was due to overfishing. For this simple truth, he earned a formal reprimand. Soon after that, he quit.

"The collapse was all blamed on the environment, on the seals, on the foreigners, when it was primarily Canadians," he said later. "I saw that as the big lie, blaming it on anything but ourselves."

So why are the big sharks going the way of the cod? Blame consumer tastes -- in this case, the Asian craze for shark-fin soup, which is considered a tasty if expensive delicacy. Shark fins sell for hundreds of dollars a kilogram, and shark-fin soup for as much as $100 a bowl. In a practice known as finning, fishermen catch the sharks on the high seas, cut off their fins and throw the carcasses back. It's illegal, but the high seas aren't well policed. As many as 75 million sharks were finned last year, says research team member Julia Baum.

The loss of the big predators cascades through ocean ecosystems. The populations of species on which sharks prey, such as cownose rays, have exploded. In turn, those species devour more of other species farther down the food chain. In North Carolina, for example, the bay scallop fishery has been wiped out, a victim of the cownose rays.

It's not too late to save the big fish. Prof. Myers's research has helped to bring about important changes in fishing practices and technology. But nothing much will happen without international laws, internationally enforced. Call it a sort of test case for global warming. If the world's fishing nations can't get together to save the fish, there's no hope for a pact on greenhouse gases.

Meantime, watch out what you're eating from the sea. As someone who loves sushi, this breaks my heart. But it's the ethical thing to do.

mwente@globeandmail.com

 

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