Mindless overfishing is turning sea-beds into vast wastelands, warns Canadian food journalist Taras Grescoe in his new book Bottomfeeder.
He cites numerous disturbing examples. "The shallow waters off Nova Scotia used to be full of swordfish and bluefin tuna, as well as untold numbers of hake, halibut, and haddock. Cod in particular were the apex predators in these parts," Grescoe writes.
He also goes on to quote early observers describing "cod mountains" off a once-rich Newfoundland coast where the fifteenth-century navigator John Cabot reported cod populations so thick that they actually blocked his ships' passage.
But what's happening now there? Massive overfishing has all but decimated the cod, and stocks of lobsters and other low-in-the-food-chain species have exploded. By wiping out predator species, the fishing industry screws up ecosystems. As sea creatures high on the food chain disappear, their populations more than decimated in the last half-century, a lobster boom "may just be a tiny blip on a slippery slope to oceans filled with jellyfish, bacteria, and slime," Grescoe notes ominously.
So also consequent on relentless shark-hunting, skate and ray populations have exploded, and they are eating scallops and clams into extinction.
Over-fishing has created some 150 "dead zones" -- oxygen-free patches of ocean that can sustain no life -- around the world: Some of these patches "are now as large as Ireland."
Besides a large percentage of coral reefs worldwide are dying or already dead. They have a high biodiversity that serves as a storage bank of rich genetic resources. They are a source of food and medicine, and they protect the coast from wave erosion.
But global warming is a major threat to them. Higher sea surface temperatures over the coming decades threaten to bleach and kill up to 80 per cent of the globe's coral reefs-major tourist attractions, natural sea defences and also nurseries for fish, a recent UN report warned.
And then there is mercury poisoning. "Every year, twenty thousand tons of heavy metals and eight hundred tons of cyanide end up in Chinese waters," Grescoe reveals. Unsurprisingly, two years ago cancer has been the leading cause of death in China. Massive quantities of cheap seafood from pesticide-suffused Chinese fish farms is exported worldwide; only a fraction is tested or inspected. Much is infected with salmonella and listeria. Most has lived its life in water thick with fecal bacteria, human and animal: "The fish, in other words, were bathing in shit."
He agrees with the scientists and activists who now advocate a "slow-fish" movement. It would entail banning destructive fishing methods such as bottom-trawling; "revalorizing" earlier techniques such as hook-and-line; protecting overfished species; and drastically reducing aquaculture -- that is, fish farming -- as well as government subsidies to fishing fleets.
Writing in Alternet, Anneli Rufus notes that while Grescoe doesn't suggest never eating any seafood again, he now chooses his intelligently: avoiding the farmed, the faraway, the over-fished, and those large, long-lived, high-on-the-food-chain species such as halibut, tuna, shark and swordfish. And their meat is infused with mercury and other chemicals known to cause eventual nerve damage, remember. Instead, he suggests sardines, sea urchins and squid.
Ours might be among the last generations in history able to enjoy the down-to-earth luxury of freshly caught wild fish, Grescoe says.