Friday, January 06, 2006

Murder in the Deep

In one of the greatest environmental movies ever made, the desperate hordes of humans eat green factory-made squares called "Soylent Green." These food cakes were supposedly made out of rich plankton protein from the seas, but then a researcher finds a report that ocean life has long since expired.

Can't happen here? Listen to this report from Deutche Welle radio:


"Deep sea fish species in the Northern Atlantic are on the brink of extinction.

Canadian scientists studied five species, including hake and eel, and they say that some populations have plummeted by 98 percent in a generation, meeting the definition of critically endangered.

Scientists and conservation bodies are now pressing for a global moratorium on deep sea fishing, which they regard as particularly destructive. Some fleets have switched to deep sea fisheries following the collapse of the more commonly caught species such as cod.

Known as bottom trawling, these ships often use heavy trawls which are dragged across the ocean floor, destroying coral and other ecosystems."

That was Jonathan Gifford, from Deutche Welle radio's flagship environment program, "Living Planet." He's referring to news reports, like the Independent for January 5th, 2006, that the "Trend for deep-sea trawling puts rare fish species on the ocean's critical list."

Three researchers from Memorial University in St John's Newfoundland analyzed the falling catch during the last 17 years in the North West Atlantic. Those living on or near the bottom of the sea have declined between 87 and 98 percent over the last two decades. Using scientific analysis, this catch data reflects a real decline of an astounding 99 percent, in a single human generation. We haven't seen anything like it since the mass murder of the do-do bird and the buffalo.

Following their report in the journal "Nature," Dr. Dixon told Steve Connor of the Independent: "the impact of modern fishing methods on these deep-sea species is disastrous, as they can be wiped out of entire areas within a single season. There is a real danger that slow-growing, deepwater species will take centuries to recover from current fishing, if they can at all. In European waters, we should close deep-sea fisheries as a matter of urgency."

The Independent gives the example of the orange roughy, a food fish discovered by French trawlers off the west coast of Scotland in 1989. In 1991 the catch peaked at 3,600 tons. By 1994, they got only 180 tons. Now its fished out. Will that stock take centuries to recover, if at all?

While the carbon-soaked atmosphere reaches the boiling point, human imagination fails to reach the murky truth about disappearing ocean life.

Here is Anya Coopers, from Deutche Welle Radio, interviewing James Leap, the new Director General of the World Wildlife Fund, better known as WWF. She asks: beyond climate change, what are the big threats to the environment which are less reported and less known. Director Leap, a 16 year veteran in the organization, replies ocean life is being demolished by climate change, over fishing, pollution, and especially deep sea trawling.


James Leap: You're right to start out with global warming as the benchmark. It certainly stands out as the transcendent threat to nature around the world, and frankly, to human welfare around the world. I think of similar magnitude is the startling decline in the health of the oceans. We have only in recent years begun to become aware of how much damage we have done to ocean ecosystems, and how dependent we are on the health of those systems.

And so, it was, for example, just a couple of years ago that scientists discovered through new research that we have wiped out 90 percent of the big fish in the oceans - the tunas, the sharks, the billfish, and so forth. We had no idea how much devastation we had already caused. When you realize that more than a billion people around the world depend on protein, you realize that the health of the oceans is important, or should be important, to all of us. I think that's a coming issue.

[end of clip]

There is even evidence that the larger species, from whales to salmon, are starving for lack of lower forms of marine food in the oceans. For more on this, check out Research shows that in some parts of the sea, plankton has been damaged by holes in the protective ozone layer.

Back in 1951, before the invention of massive trawlers with satellite fish spotters and very deep gear, humans gather about 20 million tons of fish in a year. By 2001, we took 92 million tons - 4 times more - even as ocean life was stressed by rampant pollution, from land and air, plus unstable temperatures, storms, and shifting currents due to climate change.

More than 20 percent of all coral reefs have been damaged beyond recovery. 67 percent are severely damaged. These are the nurseries for the seas riches. 35 million acres of coral have been destroyed in just the last 30 years.

While we sleep comfortably in our beds, 90 percent of the North Sea floor is scraped bare at least once a year. Some is clear-cut by dragging weights and nets several times a year. Most of the catch is thrown back dead. Not much is left. There is no TV footage, just wrecked ocean bottoms. Fish can't scream, don't protest, don't buy anything. They just disappear, unless humans can wake up, and speak for them.

Stop destructive deep-sea trawling. Contact Greenpeace, Oceana, or WWF, to find out what you can do.

To find out what fish is safe to eat, and which are unsustainable or endangered - look at the Seafood Watch guide provided by the Monteray Bay Aquarium. Go to or just Google "Seafood Watch" and the Aquarium Guide tops the list. Check out the safe seafood menu, or look up your favorite dish. Avoid those "red light" species that are disappearing from Earth's roster of life.

We close out with a clip from the song Te Vakka, Our Ocean, written for Greenpeace New Zealand.