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There's Still Time to Stop the Fish Apocalypse

In 2006, marine biologist Boris Worm projected that the global fish apocalypse would occur in 2048. I checked in with him to see if he still believes that the fate of the world’s seafood supply is totally screwed.
February 14, 2014, 4:35pm

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You’ve all experienced the scenario at one point or another, unless you’re a vegetarian: you’re sitting at your desk when a pang of hunger hits. The quickest (and what seems to be the healthiest) option is a sushi lunch you can eat with one hand while continuing to type at your desk with the other. You head over to the nearest Japanese takeout joint or grocery store and grab one of those ubiquitous plastic trays of sushi. By the time you’re back at your desk and consuming your lunch, there’s no visible impact on your life.

But there was that article in 2006 about how the fish apocalypse—literally, no more spicy tuna rolls anywhere in the world—would happen in 2048. In the time since the article ran, climate change, habitat destruction, and overfishing have continued to contribute to the rapid depletion of the world's marine life—from microscopic plankton all the way up through giant blue whales. That chilled, God-knows-how-many-days-old maroon cube of tuna you’re stuffing in your face right now is probably a chunk of Atlantic bluefin, whose population has plummeted since sushi’s meteoric rise in American popularity began in the 70s. If you live in Japan and you’re eating tuna while reading this article, it’s more than likely Pacific bluefin, a species that tuna chefs prize, whose population has suffered a 96-percent decline. Its rarity is driving up prices, like at a recent fish auction in Tokyo, where a 489-pound fish sold for 155.4 million yen, or $1.8 million—a new world record for a single fish.

Although many of us are vaguely aware of the problem of endangered fish species, the crisis is so dire that it may quickly escalate if current commercial fishing practices aren’t reined in. One man who’s intimately familiar with the sordid details is Boris Worm, head of the Worm Lab of Marine Conservation Biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. A marine biologist since the mid 1990s, Worm is the dude who sounded the alarm in 2006 with that article—actually a paper published in Science magazine_—_that projected the effective extinction of every single species of fish in the ocean by 2048, bringing an end to commercial fishing. It’s been seven years since Worm made that dire prediction. I checked in with him to see if he still believes that the fate of the world’s fish supply is (still) totally screwed.

VICE: What’s going on with the rapid depletion of fish in the ocean right now? ** **Worm: Historically, and up to this day, the main problem, by far, has been the overexploitation of marine species, often in concert with the destruction of coastal habitats—coral reefs, for example, or wetlands. Looking into the future, many marine scientists are worried about the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, a result of increasing carbon dioxide, which forms an acid in seawater. Pollution by sewage, agricultural runoff, plastics, and toxic chemicals are also of concern.

When did the problem of catastrophic species depletion begin, and has it accelerated over time?
Both on land and in the ocean, the rate of species depletion has really accelerated since the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. The growing human population and increased capacity for fishing, hunting, and conversion of natural habitats has played a major role in the loss of species. Today, it’s estimated that the current rates of extinction—land and ocean—are at least 100 times what they were before people walked the planet.

How did you zero in on 2048 as the year of the fish apocalypse?
We looked at changes in catches of fish and seafood species worldwide since 1950. What we observed is that every year, more species had dropped to very low catches: less than one tenth of what they once supplied in terms of maximum historical catch. We looked at this trend and asked ourselves: If this would continue exactly the same way into the future, when would we run out of species to fish? And the answer was in 2048.

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That’s terrifying. Based on your follow-up work, do you still think 2048 is the year for fish extinction?
The collapse by 2048 was not a prediction; it was a projection of a current trend, or a scenario. The question became, “How likely is this scenario?” In order to answer this, we had to look closely at the driver of species depletion, which is the rate of exploitation—how much is taken out every year—relative to what is left in the oceans. We found that there were signs of easing in exploitation rate in some regions, particularly in the US and in parts of Europe. This means that a total collapse for these regions is unlikely; in fact, we are beginning to see signs of recovery there. The concerns have now shifted to poor countries and the high seas, where fishing pressure is still largely unchecked. There is even concern that some of the conservation measures in rich countries have caused fishing to concentrate even more on regions where there is less capacity for monitoring, management, and enforcement, regions where local people are often very dependent on fisheries' resources.

It's hard to imagine going to the fish market and not being able to buy common seafood like cod or flounder with great frequency. Which species are going to disappear from our diets in the near future?
This is hard to predict, because it will depend very much on how sincere we will become about saving species and rebuilding depleted stocks. Cod, for example, looked like it might disappear from our menus, but now there is a new abundance of the species in northern Norway that is supplying the demand. I think that sharks will soon be gone as a food item because so many species are threatened and because we will get more serious about saving them, much like we did for whales. Reef fish like grouper and snapper may also become very rare as coral reefs suffer from the combined effects of fishing, pollution, and climate change.

Do you think that there is still time left to correct this problem?
Yes, we still have the golden opportunity to save almost all species in the oceans. Few have gone extinct, but many are endangered. Good first steps towards conservation exist in many countries, but it all depends on the level of support by ordinary people. We need to reduce fishing pressure in all countries and make the recovery and rebuilding of depleted stocks a priority. We really need to deal with the problem of unintended species bycatch, which unnecessarily kills millions of innocent wildlife species every year, and work on installing more protected areas where marine wildlife can live and reproduce unharmed: At this point, 97 percent of the ocean is completely open to fishing. As consumers, we need to support ocean conservation organizations and make smarter choices when we buy seafood, supporting those fisheries that make a real effort to conserve fish. A great pocket seafood choice card can be found at seafoodwatch.com.

I’m definitely going to look for that. Thanks for your time, Boris.

@Lochina186