Saturday, May 20, 2017

Holy Mackerel!

There are 7.5 billion people on this planet today, more than double what that statistic was in 1960. We will be well north of 9 billion people by 2050 if we keep growing at the same rate. There are obstacles to that growth that are severely unpleasant to contemplate, perhaps a reminder that nature takes steps when any one species gets out of control. Remember, the only predator that hunts humans… is man himself.
Whether it is official policy or not, man-induced climate change is desertifying vast tracks of once arable land. A harsh example? The resulting political desperation and instability are exceptionally clear in the climate-decimated regions of Iraq and Syria where war and rebellion merge with massive emigration to torment global policy-makers. Death – from war and crime to disease and starvation – is the painful and massive outcome. Is nature culling the human herd?
But as you may have guessed from the title of today’s blog, the emphasis is all about food, particularly mankind’s depletion of the ocean’s abundance. Beyond the polluted “dead zones” surrounding so many major urban seaports. While we truly enjoy watching the billions of people lifted out of poverty in developing nations around the world, the impact on rising demand for higher-quality foodstuffs that accompanies new prosperity – couple with a huge Malthusian rise in population – is not just about rising commodities prices. We are watching down and dirty depletion of natural resources on an unprecedented level. Species that may disappear from over-fishing because of demand for wild-caught fish where flavor and taste-preferences eschew farm-raised alternatives. China consumes roughly a third of the world’s harvested fish.
China has been at the forefront of negotiating special natural resource rights all over the world, from oil-rights to farmland (such as the massive leases of agricultural land in Africa’s Great Rift Valley) to off-shore fishing rights… from coastal Africa to being part of the PRC’s battle to control vast tracts of the South China through its buildout of a well-enforced artificial island. And China alone has lifted a billion human beings to the level where they can afford to add more seafood to their diets. Aggressive fishing methods – China’s ability to deploy highly-efficient technology to maximize their harvests – are a deep challenge to traditional local fishermen.
From hard statistics to anecdotal evidence, the news globally is not good: “‘Your net would be so full of fish, you could barely heave it onto the boat,’ said Mamadou So, 52, a fisherman in [West Africa’s] Senegal,  gesturing to the meager assortment of tiny fish flapping in his wooden canoe.
“A world away in eastern China, Zhu Delong, 75, also shook his head as his net dredged up a disappointing array of pinkie-size shrimp and fledgling yellow croakers. ‘When I was a kid, you could cast a line out your back door and hook huge yellow croakers,’ he said. ‘Now the sea is empty.’
“Overfishing is depleting oceans across the globe, with 90 percent of the world’s fisheries fully exploited or facing collapse, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.From Russian king crab fishermen in the west Bering Sea to Mexican ships that poach red snapper off the coast of Florida, unsustainable fishing practices threaten the well-being of millions of people in the developing world who depend on the sea for income and food, experts say…
“Increasingly, China’s growing armada of distant-water fishing vessels is heading to the waters of West Africa, drawn by corruption and weak enforcement by local governments. West Africa, experts say, now provides the vast majority of the fish caught by China’s distant-water fleet. And by some estimates, as many as two-thirds of those boats engage in fishing that contravenes international or national laws.
“China’s distant-water fishing fleet has grown to nearly 2,600 vessels (the United States has fewer than one-tenth as many), with 400 boats coming into service between 2014 and 2016 alone. Most of the Chinese ships are so large that they scoop up as many fish in one week as Senegalese boats catch in a year, costing West African economies $2 billion a year, according to a new study published by the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.” New York Times, April 30th.
China’s centrally-directed economy, a willingness by Beijing to do whatever it has to do in order to feed its people, has accelerated the problem for poor coastal nations around the world. Fishing vessels from many countries often ignore legal territorial boundaries and unlawfully suck millions of tons of fish from coastal regions. The playing field is anything but level. “Many of the Chinese boat owners rely on government money to build vessels and fuel their journeys to Senegal, a month long trip from crowded ports in China. Over all, government subsidies to the fishing industry reached nearly $22 billion between 2011 and 2015, nearly triple the amount spent during the previous four years, according to Zhang Hongzhou, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“That figure, he said, does not include the tens of millions in subsidies and tax breaks that coastal Chinese cities and provinces provide to support local fishing companies… According to one study by Greenpeace, subsidies for some Chinese fishing companies amount to a significant portion of their income. For one large state-owned company, CNFC Overseas Fisheries, the $12 million diesel subsidy it received last year made the difference between profit and loss, according to a corporate filing.
“‘Chinese fleets are all over the world now, and without these subsidies, the industry just wouldn’t be sustainable,’ said Li Shuo, a global policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia. ‘For Senegal and other countries of West Africa, the impact has been devastating.’
“In Senegal, an impoverished nation of 14 million, fishing stocks are plummeting. Local fishermen working out of hand-hewn canoes compete with megatrawlers whose mile-long nets sweep up virtually every living thing. Most of the fish they catch is sent abroad, with a lot ending up as fishmeal fodder for chicken and pigs in the United States and Europe.
“The sea’s diminishing returns mean plummeting incomes for fishermen and higher food prices for Senegalese citizens, most of whom depend on fish as their primary source of protein… ‘We are facing an unprecedented crisis,’ said Alassane Samba, a former director of Senegal’s oceanic research institute. ‘If things keep going the way they are, people will have to eat jellyfish to survive.’…
Dyhia Belhabib, a fisheries expert trying to quantify illegal fishing along the African coast, said Chinese boats were among the worst offenders; in West Africa, they report just 8 percent of their catch, compared with 29 percent for European-flagged vessels, she said.
“According to her estimates, Chinese boats steal 40,000 tons of fish a year from Senegalese waters, an amount worth roughly $28 million.” NY Times. China is hardly the only offender, but her fleets are charged with feeding a huge population. This is a global problem, and current practices are clearly unsustainable. If we care about having enough to eat in the future, in preserving a challenging eco-balance across our oceans – knowing that there will be many massive unintended consequences if we do not – we are going to have to create a series of enforceable fishing treaties NOW!
I’m Peter Dekom, and just looking at food prices at your local grocery store is only a slight hint of what is to come if we do not rise to a responsible and sustainable global policy immediately.

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