Marine Life: Coming Up Dry

By Jenna Bower

As a wise shark from Finding Nemo once said, “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.”

As many as 2.7 trillion animals are pulled from the ocean each year, and as global populations continue to grow, so will the demand. Like Bruce the shark, we must come to terms with our eating habits and realize the effects of our cravings and chose healthier habitats.

OUR DIET

fishy

When it comes to diet, First World countries have options.

We have grocery stores filled with food, aisles stuffed with cans and bags, shelves overflowing with possibilities. Five types of pre-packaged seasoned chicken, pounds on pounds of steak, scallops, shrimp, and a dairy section the size of your kitchen at home.

We’re hemorrhaging potato chips and sugary soda drinks to the point that we’re having trouble choosing anymore.

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwarts says that, “Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

Have you ever been to a grocery store, standing paralyzed in front of the peanut butter, trying to decide between regular, reduced fat, unsalted, all natural, smooth, organic, creamy, crunchy, extra crunchy or nutty?

You’re not alone.

Studies show that consumers that are provided with a vast array of choices feel paralyzed by their options, experience physiological stress during the deciding process, and leave feeling disappointed with their choice, like if they had only chosen the Reduced Fat Extra Crunchy Nutty Peanut Butter then their life would be better somehow.

But in addition to having more options, we also have better options.

The company Beyond Meat is creating vegan-friendly burgers from pea proteins. They’re essentially creating burgers out of plants.

Soon, animal agriculture will cease to exist. Beyond Meat is among many other companies that are making better tasting, environmentally friendly meat substitutes that will slowly begin to phase out the need to kill land animals.

In other words, First World countries don’t need fish.

On the other side of the spectrum are countries that rely heavily on fish to feed their population.

In Low Income Food Deficit Countries, fish is often the only animal protein available to the poor and makes up 20-50% of the animal protein diet for their citizens.

As global populations continue to rise, especially in Low Income Food Deficit Countries where women don’t have enough access to health education, the demand for fish will continue to increase in order to feed ever larger populations.

OVERFISHING

overfishing

In the mid-20th century, international efforts to increase the availability and affordability of protein-rich foods led to concerted government efforts to increase fishing capacity.

Favorable policies, loans, and subsidies spawned a rapid rise of big industrial fishing operations, which quickly supplanted local boatmen as the world’s source of seafood.

Needless to say, with the invasive, over-fishing techniques we use today, coupled with the effects declining water quality, ocean dead zones, fish kills, and coastal flooding, we could see fishless oceans by 2048.

Overfishing basically means that we’re taking such a large amount of fish out of the ocean (2.7 trillion animals every year and rising) at such a consistent rate that these fish populations are never given a chance to recover or repopulate.

In order to meet this fish demand, current commercial fishing techniques involved trailing a massive net underwater behind the fishing vessel (also called trawling), which is a very effective way to catch a lot of unintended animals.

BYCATCH

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For every 1 pound of fish caught by a commercial fishing vessel, up to 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-catch, or by-kill.

Bycatch includes species that are not the target of a fishery, such as sea turtles and seabirds, and species that are targeted, but are undersized and, therefore, discarded. Increasingly, bycatch has also become a leading factor in population declines of a wide range of marine wildlife, especially turtles, in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the United Nations, over 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are either ‘fully exploited’, ‘over exploited’ or significantly depleted’. Some species have already been fished to commercial extinction, and more are on the verge of extinction.

Regulation of fishing vessels is universally inadequate. More often than not, the fishing industry is given access to fish stocks before the longer term impact of their fishing practices is understood.

SHARKS

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It is estimated that sharks caught as a bycatch of trawling amounts to 70-80% of total shark captures.

One of the most comprehensive studies ever compiled on illegal shark killing estimates that 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world; a number that far exceeds what many populations need to recover. The researchers were able to calculate that between 6.4% and 7.9% of sharks of all species are killed annually.

To put that range in perspective, researchers analyzed life data from 62 shark species and found that only 4.9% of sharks can be killed each year to maintain population stability. Anything more than that threatens long term survival of species.

What’s worse, sharks are considered uniquely vulnerable because they take long periods to mature and generally produce few young over their lifetimes.

In addition to the sharks that are caught unintentionally are the sharks that are caught with intent.

Until relatively recently, this shark ‘bycatch’ was considered a nuisance, and sharks were cut loose and allowed to swim away. However, as shark fins have become increasingly more valuable, these fleets have little incentive to take measures to reduce shark bycatch.

Often sharks that would have been released alive are now retained whole or “finned” with the bodies dumped at sea.

As shark numbers continue to dwindle, creeping closer and closer to extinction, they are becoming wildly more valuable in the marketplace. Shark fins are now among the most expensive seafood items in the world, and depending on the type of shark, may fetch retail prices of over US $400 per kg in the world’s largest fin market in Hong Kong.

China has long history of fishing shark, which historical records date back several hundred years. It is estimated that China produces between 10 and 15 000 tonnes of shark annually and almost all of it is consumed at home. The survey found that Chinese shark production has been quite stable for decades.

However, it is estimated that consumption of shark fin (mainly used for shark fin soup) in China is only one fifteenth to one tenth of the world’s shark fin consumption, so don’t worry: there is plenty of blame to go around.

And sharks aren’t the only ones under attack from our negligence.

ACID OCEANS

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s, fossil fuel-powered machines have driven an unprecedented burst of human industry and advancement. The unfortunate consequence, however, has been the emission of billions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere.

Luckily, we have an enormous ‘carbon sink’ that sucks out a vast amount of the CO2 out of our atmosphere: the oceans. Scientists now know that about half of the CO2 that mankind has emitted has been absorbed over time by the oceans.

But is this captured CO2 any better in the oceans than it is in the atmosphere?

The oceans have benefited us by slowing the climate change these emissions would have instigated if they had remained in the air. However, new research is finding that the introduction of massive amounts of CO2 into the seas is altering water chemistry and affecting the life cycles of many marine organisms, particularly those at the lower end of the food chain.

A spine-cheek clownfish nestles in its bulb tentacle sea anemone.
A spine-cheek clownfish nestles in its bulb tentacle sea anemone.

CORAL REEFS

Coral reefs are diverse underwater ecosystems held together by calcium carbonate structures secreted by corals.

Coral reefs are built by colonies of tiny animals found in marine waters that contain few nutrients. They occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean surface, about half the area of France, yet they provide a home for at least 25% of all marine species, including fish, mollusks, worms, crustaceans, echinoderms, and sponges.

The oceans currently absorb about a third of human-created CO2 emissions, roughly 22 million tons a day. When carbon dioxide dissolves in this ocean, carbonic acid is formed. This leads to higher acidity, mainly near the surface, which has been proven to inhibit shell growth in marine animals and is suspected as a cause of reproductive disorders in some fish.

An even more grim fact is that as the ocean continue to fill with CO2 and become more acidic, they slowly lose their ability to take in any more CO2, meaning that it will remain in the atmosphere instead and add to global temperature rise.

Most of the coral reefs we can see today were formed after the last glacial period when melting ice caused the sea level to rise and flood the continental shelves. This means that most modern coral reefs are less than 10,000 years old.

Coral reefs face other life-threatening problems in addition to ocean acidification.

In lower income countries, many people rely on small, soda can bombs to catch their fish. These local “fishers” who use cyanide and dynamite to kill and catch fish wreak enormous damage on reefs and coastlines.

These local ‘fishermen’ may seem like a small agitation, but a 35-ounce soda bottle bomb can leave a 3-6 ft crater in a coral reef, killing 50-80% of the coral in that area.

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PHYTOPLANKTON

Phytoplankton are at the bottom of the food chain, which is probably why they don’t always get the spotlight. But these little creatures are vastly more important than we give them credit for.

Phytoplankton are the single-celled plants that are the basic building blocks of most marine life. In particular, they sustain zooplankton − tiny animals that are eaten, in turn, by fish.

In addition to consuming CO2, phytoplankton can influence how much heat is absorbed by the world’s oceans, and considering that plankton is responsible for half of the planet’s photosynthetic activity, that’s a lot of responsibility for such small creatures.

Globally, it is estimated that the sea temperature rise will cause phytoplankton and zooplankton biomass to decrease by 6% and 11% respectively. This process will take place mainly in tropical oceans, which cover 47% of the global ocean surface.

The effects that humans have had on the environment are impacting species from apex predators to microbes.

The media seems to focus more on telling the stories of large mammals that are under threat of extinction. But let’s not forget: these large mammals at the top of the food chain don’t exist without the little guys at the bottom.

The functions of life rely on a bottom-up structure, not top-down.

Phytoplankton can survive without us, but can we survive without phytoplankton?

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