No Catch Transcript

The peak of our industrial fishing returns has come and gone, despite a myriad of innovations. In fact, these very innovations may be driving food insecurity even deeper. As fish stocks decline, new methods of extraction are trained on ever-dwindling fish populations to prop up an unsustainable system, leaving vulnerable communities all over the world in their destructive wake. Ironic, since the communities we are leaving behind may ultimately hold the secrets to regional food security. Can we find a life vest to weather the coming tsunami that of international food crises? Or will we simply trawl our way to the bottom?

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Chapters

  • 02:30 The Cod War
  • 15:54 Industrial High Seas Fishing
  • 21:54 The Wondyrechaun
  • 31:51 The Importance of Small-Scale Fisheries
  • 35:42 Fish are food not friends
  • 39:18 Food Production Through Theft
  • 41:37 "As Always, Climate Gets the Final Word"
  • 45:01 What Can We Do?

Thank you Nick for completing this transcript!


David Torcivia:

[0:00] I'm David Torcivia.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:02] I'm Daniel Forkner.

David Torcivia:

[0:03] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky, the end of the world.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:13] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be. David, before we start this episode, we had a little homework assignment for you over the week.

David Torcivia:

[0:25] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:26] Last week, we covered sleep, and we mentioned how light that gets in our bedroom can have an impact on our sleep and potentially lead to depressive symptoms, according to one study, and you were supposed to measure the light coming into your bedroom at night. Did you do that, David?

David Torcivia:

[0:41] I, in fact, did. I brought out my old trusty light meter--it's a very fancy, high-end digital unit back in my cinematography days--and I cranked that sucker up, popped in a new battery, went to my dark room, turned it on, measured it, and, uh...I got "error."

Daniel Forkner:

[0:59] What do you mean you got an error?

David Torcivia:

[1:01] Well, my room was fortunately too dark to actually register in the light level, so I know it's dark. It's less than...

Daniel Forkner:

[1:10] Is it less than that five-lumen or five-lux threshold, or whatever it was?

David Torcivia:

[1:15] All I know is that it is definitely less than six lux, 'cause that's as low as my light meter can read, so I think I'm right in the area where I'm doing pretty well in terms of light pollution, so that's one less thing I have to worry about.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:30] All right. Well, that's good for you, David. I got to admit, a little bit anti-climactic. I was hoping for a little bit more drama, so let's get to the episode for today.

David Torcivia:

[1:39] Drama it's not, but today's episode definitely is.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:43] David, something you mentioned to me as we prepared for this show was, it's so interesting how we're often talking about topics that are predicting collapse of systems--systems that are out of control and that, if unchecked, will lead to unmitigated disaster.

David Torcivia:

[1:59] That is our bread and butter.

Daniel Forkner:

[2:01] Right. But in this episode, our bread and butter has already reached the peak.

David Torcivia:

[2:06] Our bread has already been buttered and fallen to the floor butter side down.

Daniel Forkner:

[2:11] That's a great way to think about it. Although this topic has nothing to do with bread, this is a system that has...

David Torcivia:

[2:18] We're already off the cliff, Daniel.

Daniel Forkner:

[2:19] Yeah.

David Torcivia:

[2:20] If there was a cliff, well, we jumped off of it a little while ago, and we are in the rapid descent right now--the crash of this system and the crash, eventually, of everybody who depends upon it. Which brings us to today's opening story: a little conflict that almost brought two nations to war, resulted in the crashing of boats into each other, sabotage from one navy to another...

War For Cod

[2:43] All over a little animal, the unassuming cod. Set us up with the players here, Daniel. Let's introduce the contestants to the ring.

Daniel Forkner:

[2:51] Well, David, in one corner, we have the United Kingdom, the great naval power of the world with multiple championships under its belt, traveled around the world, circumvented the globe to assert its dominance on the world. And in the other corner, we have the icy, the small, the underdog, Iceland.

David Torcivia:

[3:10] And its seven-ship coast guard.

Daniel Forkner:

[3:12] And its fledgling population of 100,000 people.

David Torcivia:

[3:16] That's right. This story takes us into the entire might of the British Royal Navy versus this seven-ship fleet of Iceland's coast guard. And the source of all this conflict, like we've mentioned, is a simple, unassuming fish, the cod. So let me set this up for you, and look at how exactly this teeny, tiny coast guard of this teeny, tiny nation ended up facing off against the entire might of the UK Navy. And what happened, really, was the UK at this time was very much in love with cod, this very simple fish.

Daniel Forkner:

[3:47] And this is around, like, the '40s and '50s, David.

David Torcivia:

[3:50] Right. This is when the story starts. And Iceland was the major fishing location of this fish. They were caught in huge amounts off the coast of Iceland within just a couple miles of the shore, and at first, Iceland was the major exporter of this fish. But the UK, in an effort to cut out the middleman, decided to send extended-range fishing fleets all the way out to this tiny island nation in order to enter the cod fishing industry themselves. Of course, Iceland at the time was highly dependent on this cod trade. It was the thing that was throwing their economy into the modern world, that changed Iceland for a backwards, undeveloped nation into the modern, highly developed infrastructure nation that it was slowly becoming.

Daniel Forkner:

[4:29] Yeah, and they didn't really like the fact that so many British ships started showing up so close to their shore to start trawling for this very valuable resource that was really Iceland's most valuable resource. As a tiny island nation, they didn't have much in terms of natural resources. This fish was their bread and butter. And, I mean, these British ships were very close. We're talking about three miles from the shore. Can you imagine, David, if a bunch of foreign fishing boats started showing up right off the Gulf Coast and fishing all the United States' shrimp?

David Torcivia:

[4:58] It's easy to see why Iceland was upset with what was happening, and the idea that the borders of a nation extends out into the ocean was one that had long precedents, but the question of exactly how far out these fishing rights extended was up for debate, and so, at the time, Iceland decided to affirm the distance of four miles--anything within four miles of their coast was Iceland's exclusive fishing territory.

Daniel Forkner:

[5:21] Great Britain, of course, didn't like that, and so they said, "Well, you know what? Fine. We're not gonna buy your cod anymore." Of course, that worked out fine for Iceland, because there were other countries, including the USSR, who had a market for their fish and wanted to buy them, so this actually backfired on Great Britain a little bit, and they reversed that decision just a few years later in 1956.

David Torcivia:

[5:44] Right. This actually ended up developing Iceland's export economy because the slack in the export of cod was adopted by the Soviet Union, and then later the United States as well as many other European nations, so where the UK thought they were trying to impact this industry negatively ended up fostering it and growing it even more, increasing the demand for cod around the world. But, of course, that ended up just exacerbating the problem of exactly where the borders for this fishing needed to be.

Daniel Forkner:

[6:11] But shortly after the small victory that Iceland had, well, they decided to expand that. Just a few years later in 1958, they said, "You know what? Four miles isn't good enough. You cannot come within 12 miles of our coast. Those cod belong to us.

David Torcivia:

[6:25] And this was an unprecedented move. 12 nautical miles extended into the deep water territory that really no nation considered, up until this point, part of their fishing borders. But because of the fear of the UK's impact on the cod populations from the overfishing that was occurring--by both the Icelandic and the British fleets--Iceland pushed this border, and the Coast Guard came to enforce it, oftentimes with violent means. Eventually, Iceland was able to force the UK to respect the new 12-nautical-mile limit with threat of leaving NATO, something that was extremely dramatic and, like, basically the nuclear bomb possibility of diplomatic negotiations here, because Iceland, as its stopover point, is an important airbase for NATO nations, United States, people crossing the Atlantic Ocean, so this threat basically forced the UK to concede to the 12-nautical-mile limits and move their trawlers even farther off the coast.

Daniel Forkner:

[7:21] And then fast forward, David, another decade to 1972, when Iceland said, "You know what? 12 miles isn't enough. We are extending our exclusive right for these waters to 50 miles from our coast." And that's when things started getting a little bit more tense. Iceland had developed this technology that allowed it to go up to British ships that were trawling in their waters and essentially cut their line. Once the Icelandic boats cut the British nets from their ships, the British had no choice but to just go on home, because there was nothing they could do.

David Torcivia:

[7:53] Once again, the Royal Navy and the Icelandic Coast Guard came to blows over this conflict, with ships ramming each other, Icelandic Coast Guard ships ramming trawlers, trawlers trying to ram the Coast Guard, and amazingly, nobody suffered serious injuries, no ships were sunk, but a lot of damage was done to property, and especially to those nets that the Icelandic Coast Guard was cutting.

Daniel Forkner:

[8:13] And I think this gave Iceland a lot of confidence that it was standing up to the British Royal Navy, which is why, just a few years later, once again--this is 1975 now--they said, "You know what? 50 miles is not good enough." And they extended their range to 200 miles, and that's when they started really ramming into each other. In the first six months, I think, in which they extended that range to 200 miles, ships rammed into each other at least 35 times, trying to assert their right to fish in these waters.

David Torcivia:

[8:44] And once again, Iceland eventually was forced to pull out that nuclear diplomatic option and threatened to leave NATO before the UK finally conceded to this 200-nautical-mile limit for Iceland's sovereign fishing territory, and this limit is something that's actually been applied around the world today because of these events, and this concluded the Cod War, but unfortunately for the cod, they were the real victims in the end.

Daniel Forkner:

[9:07] That's right. Cod is now an endangered species, and these wars really did have a big impact on the way the international community viewed the rights of nations to fish in their own waters, and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone in which every nation is allowed to assert their right to fish in their own waters and keep others out. Of course, it gets complicated, because a lot of countries, they do deals with each other, they allow certain people into their waters and others out, but this had profound impacts on the way we regulate international waters. And in fact, David, these types of disputes, like the ones we saw between Iceland and Great Britain, these types of things have punctuated the history of industrial fishing following World War II, as many countries around the world sought greater access to waters for their food security. Many new technologies came out of the war--things like navigation, which led to GPS, radar, and sonar technology, as well as engine-powered trawlers with large capacities. All these things allowed nations to extend the ranges of their fishing activities. Other technologies that led to specialized vessels also made long-distance fishing possible in ways that it never was before. These are things like reefers and refrigerated cargo ships that fishing boats transfer their catches to so they can stay out longer, and then we also have bunkers now that are basically just huge tankers of fuel that sit out on the ocean allowing these fishing boats to come and refuel and stay out there even longer.

David Torcivia:

[10:36] I really want to emphasize how important refrigeration technology has been in the increase of the fishing industries, especially the ability to flash freeze fish directly on the fishing vessels or have these refrigeration ships right nearby has totally transformed how far vessels are willing to travel in order to gather these caches. Before, you were forced, basically, to fish very close to the shore so you had enough time to get back, bring your fish onto the dock, and then distribute to somewhere that could quickly flash freeze it and take care of things to seal in the taste and make sure the fish was fresh whenever it arrived where it needed to. But the ability to do this directly on the vessels meant that ships weren't bound by the time it took to get back to port. They were able to follow the schools wherever they needed, where the catch was best, and to places where fish had previously been using as sanctuaries from these fishermen's nets.

Daniel Forkner:

[11:24] And as you would expect, all of these changes have resulted in increased global catches of fish around the world as countries fish more and more of the world's oceans. Today, 90% of our oceans are fished, and much of those doing the fishing are a long way from home. Taiwan, South Korea, and Spain, for example, they fish more than 3,000 kilometers from home. But for all the distance that they travel, our industrial vessels, they catch 2/3 less than what they were in the early 1950s, and since the 1990s, catch per area of ocean fish has fallen by 22%.

David Torcivia:

[12:02] Ultimately, what these trends suggest is that declining fish stocks in our oceans have been covered up by the increasing size of our hauls, which increased only because we were fishing more of the ocean. But now that our fishing fleets have covered up pretty much the entire globe, we have no way to expand these declining catches.

Daniel Forkner:

[12:21] The UN warns that 1/3 of the ocean's fish stocks are being depleted faster than they can recover, and this threatens developing regions the most, where over 3 billion people rely on fish for a significant portion of their nutrition.

David Torcivia:

[12:36] In the tropics, where fish is exceptionally important for the health of local populations and overall food security, fish stocks are projected to decline by an additional 30% in the next three decades.

Daniel Forkner:

[12:47] In the waters around Cyprus, overfishing has caused fish stocks to decline so much that dolphins in the area are now breaking into the nets of fishing boats to find their meals, costing fishers a lot of money and a lot of heartache.

David Torcivia:

[13:02] In the Philippines--and this one's what really gets to me--the average daily catch of fish has dropped from 45 pounds in 1970 to just 4 1/2 pounds in 2000. Many locals are compensating in this loss of cash by using homemade explosives--yes, that's right: explosives--to kill fish that they can harvest to feed their families and make a few dollars. Let's stop here for just a second.

Daniel Forkner:

[13:25] Right. We've all seen the cartoons where someone throws a stick of dynamite into the ocean or a river, and after it explodes, like, a whole bunch of fish just float to the surface. Well, this is exactly what's going on right now in the Philippines by a lot of local people who--well, they depend on this fish for their livelihoods and for their meals.

David Torcivia:

[13:42] The loss of the local ecosystems has been so dramatic that it's pushed these people who depend on these fishing stocks in order to survive to feed their families, in order to fund their lives, to throw bombs into the ocean, blow up the ocean, which of course kills all the fish at the moment, but also destroys the coral, the other fundamental parts of these ecosystems, depleting these stocks even more.

Daniel Forkner:

[14:04] Much, much faster, because...

David Torcivia:

[14:05] 'Cause it's a bomb.

Daniel Forkner:

[14:07] Right, and the coral, that's where a lot of fish are raised, it's where they give birth, and without that natural habitat, you're basically destroying the future sustainability of these fish stocks.

David Torcivia:

[14:17] Right. So, I mean, at this point, there is basically no hope for these fishing areas, and this is a huge amount of people that depend on these fish stocks for their survival, and those stocks are not gonna be with us for much longer.

Daniel Forkner:

[14:29] And David, I want to stop real quick because it's easy to look at a situation like that and vilify the people who are directly throwing bombs into waters, destroying ecosystems, right? I mean, that's an easy thing to do. Like, wow, how stupid can you be, destroying the food that you depend on for the sake of making an extra dollar? But it's not that simple. I mean, we're gonna talk about, later in this show, about the importance of small-scale fisheries and the importance of local economies and sourcing food for whole nations that has largely gone under-reported, and so many of these people are driven to these desperate types of behaviors because our industrial fishing economies have destroyed the stocks that they depend on. So while it's very easy to vilify a local person for being short-sighted, we have to see the larger picture in that their entire livelihood, in some cases, has been stripped away from them for a much more egregious short-term economic incentive, which is usually foreign companies coming into a developing country that is easy to bully or easy to pay off for this access, stripping the ocean of all the fish so that it can be sold on international markets or processed for something completely different, which is another thing we'll talk about, and then leave, because they made their economic return, and they don't have to live there.

David Torcivia:

[15:50] And they can freeze those fish right on that ship.

Daniel Forkner:

[15:53] Exactly. So you know what, David? Why don't we talk about--why don't we shift gears here and talk about some of these industrial practices? We were talking about the technologies that enabled ship to travel further than ever and how we're fishing more of the ocean than we ever have before. Industrial High Seas Fishing [16:07] Let's focus on one aspect of that that has enabled this, which is the subsidies that governments are now paying their long-distance fleets for something that is ultimately not as profitable as it seems.

David Torcivia:

[16:21] That's right. Some of the biggest impacts of these high-sea operations are coming directly from a handful of countries: China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Spain, and South Korea. These countries account for 80% of all fishing activity on the high seas, and big subsidies for the industry within these countries make it possible for these long-distance fleets to make money.

Daniel Forkner:

[16:44] The high seas, of course, is just waters that are very far from domestic ports, and a recent study used satellites and various databases on ship activity to track the efforts of over 3,500 ships on the high seas in 2016 in real time. They could then estimate the value of their catches and the various costs that they incur to calculate the amount of profit that these ships were making, and what they discovered is that over half of all high-seas fishing operations are unprofitable without some type of subsidy. For example, in 2014, Taiwan made between $6 million and $180 million in profit, depending on--

David Torcivia:

[17:23] That's a pretty big range right there, I just got to say.

Daniel Forkner:

[17:26] Well, David, it depends on how you calculate cost. For example, are we assuming that the country is paying their labor fairly, or are they using some of that slave labor that we talked about in our two-part series on slavery? But either way, they're in the green, right? They're making a positive profit.

David Torcivia:

[17:42] They're getting their bread buttered.

Daniel Forkner:

[17:44] But if you were to take away the subsidies that their government paid, these same fleets would have lost between $237 and $65 million instead, so definitely in the red. Globally, $4.2 billion in subsidies are paid out every year, and without this, the industry would be losing up to 364 million dollars every year. The biggest loss would occur for Chinese fleets at up to -$400 million.

David Torcivia:

[18:13] Keep in mind--and this is important--that subsidies are not the only thing making these businesses profitable. Low-wage and slave labor play crucial roles in the ability for these fishing industries to make money, not just out at sea on these boats, but also in the processing plants on land that use this exploited labor that help get the seafood to market. In 1996, we hit peak fishing.

Daniel Forkner:

[18:36] Peak fishing, David.

David Torcivia:

[18:37] Peak fishing. You've heard "peak oil." You've heard--

Daniel Forkner:

[18:40] Oh, right. This is where our bread and butter fell on the floor, right?

David Torcivia:

[18:43] Yeah. This is where the bread and butter fell on the floor, because at this point, stocks of new fish no longer kept up with the rate at which we pulled fish out of the ocean.

Daniel Forkner:

[18:52] Five-second rule. It's okay.

David Torcivia:

[18:53] And we've had a decline in global fish stocks ever since that date. In 1996, industrial fishing caught 100 million tons, but that figure has declined almost 20% since then, and this is despite increases in technology, better fishing practices, and more knowledge about where fish stocks are. This means that fishing has become more and more expensive. When ships have to travel further, they have to buy more fuel, spend more time out at sea, use this more advanced technology, and have bigger and better ships just to make the same catch. That means they make less money. In a long-term rational world, that would cause a leveling-off of fishing to a more sustainable level, but these current subsidies distort that completely and gives fishing operations the incentive to just keep going. Deep-sea trawling, for example, is one of those practices where not only are we gonna wreck the fish stocks, but we're gonna destroy entire ecosystems in the process. 64% of all deep-sea bottom trawling worldwide is unprofitable without these subsidies, and even with subsidies, over 30% should be unprofitable, suggesting that in order for the owner of a trawling business to make money, the government has to pay for his costs, and then he still has to employ slave labor just to make it work.

Daniel Forkner:

[20:02] David, I think this example points out so clearly something that we've talked about a lot on this show, whether that was "Impacts of Growth," where we talk about population growth, or whether that was our episode on geoengineering, "Clima Ex Machina," where so often we are faced with these great challenges, and we think that technology is going to solve it. But ultimately, if the system is broken, there's nothing you can do to fix that without changing fundamentally the way the system works. I mean, if you look at this situation, what has technology really, truly given us? It's allowed us to put more boats on the ocean. It's allowed us to keep those boats out longer and catch more fish than ever before. And yet today we're catching much less fish for all our effort. We're spending more on fuel. We're having to go out further. We have to stay out longer. And the result is that these fishing stocks that we depend on are collapsing, and we're catching less fish by a significant amount for the amount of effort we spend than we were in 1950. And remember, what kind of technology did we have in 1950? We didn't even have container ships at that point. [21:08] We've come so far in our innovations, in the application of new technologies to this problem to catch more fish so that we can fuel more development, but ultimately, all we're doing is we're speeding up the rate at which we're extracting and ultimately depleting something that we will not get back in a reasonable timeframe. Technology can help us extract the fish, but it will not allow us to create more once they're gone. This is not a technology problem; it is a consumption problem, it is a waste problem, and it is a short-term improperly incentivized problem. [21:43] And as we'll see, the rise of industrial fishing following World War II and the bigger hauls of fish really owes less to technological innovation than simple geographic expansion.

David Torcivia:

[21:55] Maybe we should look at one of these destructive technologies, Daniel. And when we say "technology" so often, we think modern-day. It's a new computer. It's a new radar. It's some fancy fish-finder.

The Wondyrechaun

[22:04] But the notion of technologies in fishing is something that's very old--ancient, even--and one of these most destructive technologies has a long history of destroying the ecosystems that it depends on for its catch.

Daniel Forkner:

[22:15] And that, of course, is the trawler. These are ships, David, that plow the ground beneath the ocean waters, they drag nets along the sea bed so they can scoop up any fish trying to escape those lures at the top, and, in the process, digging up the flora on the seabed, destroying coral and other fish habitats, and so it's a very destructive practice, and we continue to rely on these types of boats all over the world, but as you mention, David, it's not new. It might surprise many of you to know that trawlers go as far back as the 14th century, when they were introduced, and from the very beginning, people have resisted their implementation, and this is actually pretty fascinating to me, because as soon as trawling was introduced, complaints were sent to the king of England requesting a ban on the practice. This is what they wrote in the year 1376...

David Torcivia:

[23:12] The commons petitioned the king, complaining that: "Where in creeks and havens of the sea there used to be plenteous fishing, to the profit of the Kingdom, certain fishermen for several years past have subtly contrived an instrument called 'wondyrechaun,' and that great and long iron of the wondyrechaun runs so heavily and hardly over the ground when fishing that it destroys the flower of the land below water there, and also the spat of oysters, mussels, and other fish upon which the great fish are accustomed to be fed and nourished. By which instrument in many places, the fishermen take such quantity of small fish that they do not know what to do with them; and that they feed and fat their pigs with them, to the great damage of the commons of the realm and the destruction of the fisheries, and they pray for a remedy."

Daniel Forkner:

[23:57] That is so fascinating to me, because the complaints made in the 1300s against this destructive fishing is the same that we have today. Even the issue of using fish for things outside human consumption, which is something we'll talk about in just a little bit, people had a very good sense for the need to be sustainable, the need to catch fish in a responsible way so that you don't destroy the environment's ability to keep producing those fish well into the future. People were really concerned about that.

David Torcivia:

[24:27] Yeah, no, I love this passage so much, because it really gets across a lot of points, and one of the things that happens so much with these narratives about our destruction the environment is that these are things that we've only just realized are happening. Like, "Oh, whoops! We didn't realize that carbon dioxide pumping out would heat up the earth. Oh, whoops! We didn't realize that ripping up the ecosystems of the fish and overfishing the oceans they reside in would lead to a decline in the total population of fish. We just didn't know! We didn't have the math. We weren't thinking far enough forward."

Daniel Forkner:

[24:54] Right.

David Torcivia:

[24:55] But repeatedly, we see these just aren't the case. In the 1800s, we knew that adding carbon dioxide to the air would eventually lead to a hothouse Earth. In the 1300s, people were writing about the potential of overfishing, of destroying the ecosystems that these fish reside in, meaning a crash of the fisheries themselves. [25:14] And the reason that we forgot these things, it's because we moved away from these ideas of--in this case especially--the commons, the fact that together, we need to protect this thing, because we all depend upon it, and the tragedy of the commons once again is a fallacy that's been created in order to justify the privatization of these publicly owned things. When we don't have an idea that we all collectively own the bounty of the sea or the forest or the minerals beneath us, then the idea is that somebody can exploit it, because they have the right to exploit this property, whether it's Iceland or the fishermen in the Philippines, because it's a piece of property that can thereby be exploited by the very nature of being owned. That's the reason to have property in the first place. But of course we all share the ocean. We share these fisheries collectively. We share the air we breathe. We sure the rivers that run through our lands. And when we allow one group of people to consider this property theirs and exploit it and destroy it, well, we are all the ones that are impacted by this process. We all lose out on it. And that's exactly what's happening with our fish stocks today. We've over-pushed what's sustainable with these products, and as these fish populations decline, they're gonna decline faster and faster, because we are driven to catch the same amount of fish, keep catching as much fish as possible, in order to feed these markets, in order to keep the prices of fish down. But that just means we impact these stocks that are remaining even more and more as time goes on, and like these medieval peasants knew 700 years ago, that is not a sustainable option, and we need to do something about it if we all want to continue enjoying this bounty into the coming decades, even.

Daniel Forkner:

[26:50] Yeah, David, that's one theory, but I think the real reason we forgot is because we stopped calling these boats "wondyrechauns."

David Torcivia:

[26:57] We also have no idea if we're saying that properly, so if anyone out there speaks Old English, hit us up with the proper pronunciation here.

Daniel Forkner:

[27:06] Right. But David, these struggles over these wondyrechauns, this practice of unsustainable fishing, it continued.

David Torcivia:

[27:12] Oh.

Daniel Forkner:

[27:13] In 1499, the Belgian Flemish region made trawling illegal because it, quote, "rooted up and swept away the seaweeds which served to shelter the fish," end quote, which I just think is incredible, because they didn't even have scuba gear back then, but they still understood the importance of a balanced ecosystem. Anyway, in the 1500s, France made trawling a capital crime, and England actually executed two fisherman for using trawling gear. The destructive nature of the practice was obvious from the start, but because of the limitations of technology at the time, trawling was limited to shallow coastal regions. It was in the 19th century that the introduction of steam power marked what has become known as the second revolution of trawling, allowing ships to fish more, had a bigger capacity, but the most significant shift occurred in the mid-1900s, when trawlers made their way into the deep sea for the very first time. This is the third revolution in trawling. And while the destructive nature of this practice was immediately obvious on shallow waters, we do not understand the full consequences of deep sea trawling except that it's much, much worse, and that's because deep sea ecosystems are very different from shallow ones.

David Torcivia:

[28:27] I love that we figured out at some point that trawling is so damaging that the people who are doing this need to be executed...

Daniel Forkner:

[28:34] Right.

David Torcivia:

[28:35] And then fast forward, and when we finally have the technology to make trawling as, like, destructive or as efficient, depending on which word you want to use, as possible, and then we're like, "Okay, yeah. Trawl the world. Trawl the world, baby."

Daniel Forkner:

[28:47] Well, no, it sounds more like the trawling industry, the industrial fishing industry, they were like, "What are we gonna do? All these people on the coast, they don't like it when we come up and steal all their fish and destroy the environment." And then some very clever person said, "Ooh. Let's just go really deep out into the ocean where no one will see us." And then everyone celebrated that great innovation. But it really is much worse, because these deep sea ecosystems, they're dominated by species which live much longer than their shallow counterparts, they produce fewer offspring, and in general, they are much more fragile towards disruption, so as a result, this trawling business goes through this continual cycle of boom and bust, where they rapidly deplete the populations of a fish species, and then they have to move on to another one that they identify as potentially marketable. Newly targeted species usually collapse after a decade, and in the process, these nets that are dragged along the seafloor, well, they destroy coral, sponges, sea stars, natural habitats for fish to grow and develop, and all kinds of important things, and once these ecosystems are destroyed--which, again, these trawlers do very quickly--they won't be able to recover for centuries in some cases. So what are the long-term consequences of this practice on the ability of the ocean to provide the fish we need to eat? We don't fully know. But if we allow this type of thing to continue, by the time we figure it out, it'll probably be too late.

David Torcivia:

[30:12] What's interesting about trawling, too, is that it actually is not very efficient. I mean, it's efficient in the way that it catches everything, but that also means that huge part of the catch is useless. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 35% of global catches are wasted, and about a quarter of these losses are by catcher discards, which are mostly from trawlers, and this means they just--they caught all this fish, and, "Oops, a bunch of this fish is stuff we don't want, and we're just gonna throw it back into the ocean, dead, because they're too small or they're not tasty species, or whatever," but at this point, the impact on those fish stocks is done. Even though we're not even harvesting these products, we're throwing them back into the ocean, but the damage is done. The populations are decimated.

Daniel Forkner:

[30:54] Yeah, it's like if someone broke into your house, burned your whole house down so that they could get to your underground freezer, opened up the freezer, opened all the contents, poured it out on the ground, and said, "Oh, no, I don't like this food," and then walked away.

David Torcivia:

[31:07] But on a global scale--and the really dangerous part about this is that a lot of these fish that we may not be interested in catching, that we may not want to consume, it does have value for these ecosystems, and we're ripping the rug out beneath the fish that depend on these other populations, which of course impacts fishing stocks even further, in addition to all the catching that we're doing, and in addition to the ocean acidification, the ocean warming, and the ocean deoxygenation, which we're also contributing to through our anthropogenic processes; the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is absorbed into the water, which we talk about in our episode 6, "Dead in the Water"; and we created a very toxic, deadly desert, where it's no wonder that these populations are crashing, and it's only a matter of how much time we have until the oceans are completely barren.

Daniel Forkner:

[31:52] And David, there's something you said that I want to expand on...

The Importance Of Small-Scale Fisheries

[31:55] When you mentioned that a lot of the fish that we throw back dead into the waters because we don't value them, but they are still valuable for many ecosystems. But we can take this even further, because in addition to all the fish that we waste throwing back, we also waste a ton of fish through the process of turning it into fish meal. A lot of these trawlers that go after what we consider to be quote-unquote "trash fish," so we just don't value them, and then we grind them up into powder, which we then use for various things. But the example I want to talk about really questions this idea that certain fish can be trash. So let's look at the value of small-scale fisheries for a moment, okay? Because the burden of declining fish stocks around the world that we're talking about, it falls first and foremost on poor and vulnerable communities around the world, including those who increasingly fall into patterns of forced migration, people who do not have very many economic prospects in a legitimate sense, but can still rely on these local economies of catching fish, preparing fish for their livelihoods. [32:58] But there's a larger significance to small-scale fishing communities than might be expected, and it turns out to be a great irony. When we think of the players that are providing the most fish and bolstering general food security around the world, well, industrial-scale operations are probably what comes to mind first for most people. You know, how are we gonna feed all these people, after all, if not with large factories on the water just sucking up huge volumes of fish with economies of scale on their side? But new data suggest something different. Researchers at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, in collaboration with The Sea Around Us and the University of British Columbia, they released data in February of this year that they discovered by reconstructing the fish catches in Southeast Asia between 1950 and 2013, specifically for Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and they found that during this period, 282 million tons of fish were caught, which is almost twice what was officially reported, and that up until 2001, small-scale fisherman produced more fish for human consumption than the industrial sector. Small-scale fishing was 100% of the source for human consumption of fish in 1950, and by 2013, it was more than 1/3.

David Torcivia:

[34:15] That's a lot of nerd shit once more, Daniel. You're boring our listeners. Let me try and put it in perspective here. So Daniel, we discussed earlier the subsidies that governments pay industrial operations, and this is because governments perceive these large-scale operations as being crucial to food security. The ships are bigger, they haul in larger catches, they are, quote, "efficient." But this creates, of course, as always on this show, an ironic situation. Governments are incentivizing commercial ships to run unprofitable businesses at the expense of local fisheries, which are contributing a much larger share to national food security than is actually being reported, and ultimately, these ships do not provide more fish for human consumption. This reality is made even more depressing when you take into account the fact that a large portion of these industrial catches are diverted to something called fish meal, which is used for pet food, livestock, and fertilizer, not even for human consumption, and, yes, these are human-consumable fish like sardines. Because of the industrialization of fishing, local communities in Thailand are catching over eight times fewer fish than they were in 1980. Since 2000, fishermen in Vietnam have experienced a 40% decline in fish stocks. So governments should actually be protecting and promoting small-scale fisheries for their own benefit, but instead, because of these gross profit incentives and the way that we keep track and count these fish catches, they are undermining a critical component of these fish stocks' future sustainability.

Fish Are Food Not Friends

Daniel Forkner:

[35:42] Yeah. The process of turning fish into fish meal is one that really blew my mind, and honestly, it's a perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong with our economy. But before we go into this fish meal topic, I think we need to emphasize once again something that we've talked about a lot on this show, which is that we have a situation here where global population is rising, and rising faster than population itself is the demand for energy and resource-intensive diets. The demand for meat is rising all over the world, and this is a challenge because the industrial nature providing that meat and other commodified agricultural products results in pollution, waste, topsoil loss, deforestation, and all these other bad things. The more we demand of our industrial agriculture, the more meat we demand, the more stress that we end up placing on the ability for the earth to both absorb the outputs of these systems and to provide the resources we need to produce and deliver this food. The dominant answer to this great challenge has been, "Let's design more efficient factories. Let's improve technology so we don't waste as much. Let's find a way to provide more food with aquaculture. [36:51] David, in episode 20, "Irresistible," we discussed the rising risk of infectious disease, and one of the consequences of animal farming is an environment where pathogens can quickly and more easily develop resistance to antimicrobial treatments, and if the pathogens themselves don't make it into human populations, their genes, which encode for resistance, can make it into other pathogens that then become a human risk. But many people involved in solving these threats don't necessarily emphasize the need to scale back meat production overall. The dominant suggestion seems to be that we need better medicines, better practices, better technologies, so that we can produce more and more and more to provide for our growing population. But as you would not be surprised, this simply won't cut it. The answer to this problem ultimately will be found in our consumption patterns and its attendant waste, which, of course, must come down.

David Torcivia:

[37:47] Let's say we find a way to cut the waste and environmental impact of our industrial fishing. That would be a huge achievement, but at the same time, we increase our industrial fleet by a huge amount, or we increase the technology to make our catches more efficient, and in the end, we are in a much worse position anyway. If our underlying activities are extractive and destructive, technological innovation in many ways is actually worse, because it allows us to build an even larger house of cards, which in the end is all the more painful when it collapses. But let's get back to this fish meal topic, and here's a really great example of the problem it is. [38:22] So we have this growing demand for meat. How do we solve this if we simply won't accept that we should cut back and eat less meat? Well, some very clever businesspeople figured out a cheap solution, and this is a product called fish meal. So what we're gonna do is we're gonna go around the world, catch a whole bunch of the cheapest fish we can find, grind them up into powder, and feed that to our chickens, our pigs, our salmon, our tilapia, carp, and all sorts of animals living on all manner of farms. If you buy chicken, pork, or salmon from your supermarket today, most likely, that animal was fed this fish meal. Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of all wild seafood, and over 60% of all of finfish caught, is used to produce fish meal. 70% of that goes towards feeding fish farms, and then pigs and chicken, and beyond the issues we've already touched on, the sustainability of our ocean extraction, this industry has profound impacts on local people all around the world.

Food Production Through Theft

Daniel Forkner:

[39:18] Senegal is a country on the coast of West Africa, and here, over a million people take part in the local fish economy. Women and men alike provide for their families by catching sardines, drying and smoking them, and it is from this economy that many people, not just in Senegal but across Western Africa, get their main source of protein. This is how they feed their families. But the rising demand of meat around the world has prompted foreign investors to build fish meal factories on Senegal's coast, and the impact has been disastrous for local people. Foreigners have built more than a dozen fish meal plants in Senegal. They harvest the sardines that people need to survive, and then they grind them up. For every ton of fish processed, only 20% ends up in the final product, and these factories, they sell this product to factory farmers in America and elsewhere, who buy it to raise their own fish and animals for human consumption. This extraction has depleted more than 50% of the biomass in the waters off the coast of Senegal, and as a result, locals have to pay higher prices for their fish every single day, and are now spending over half their entire income on food. [40:24] So does that sound like we are solving the meat consumption problem, or are we just stealing food from one group of people, and in such a way that eventually there won't be enough for anyone? And David, I just want to point out really quick, you know, I got a finance degree--it's what I studied in university--and the way we were taught to evaluate investments, it was all along financial lines. You know, "What is this investment's ROI? What is its payback period? Does it have a negative or a positive net present value?" And, you know, I can't speak for all the investment bankers out there, because I never worked in a bank, but in all of my education, never once were we ever prompted to ask a single time if the investments we were evaluating might impact people in some way outside of the financial returns they can generate--not once. And this is a great example of this happening right now, where foreign investors, they come, they look at the West African coast, and they say, "Wow. If we can build this plant here for x amount of dollars and get this much back in return over five years, we make a profit. It's good to do." Without even caring that, in the process, they destroy local markets, they destroy the ability for this fish to survive, and they starve millions of people.

David Torcivia:

[41:38] But as we alluded to earlier in this episode, the problems facing our fish stocks aren't solely because of direct fishing.

As Always, Climate Gets The Final Word

[41:46] There are larger issues at play here--things that we're directly responsible for once again--and those are things like climate change, ocean warming, deoxygenation, ocean acidification. Over 3 billion people rely on seafood for a significant portion of their nutrition, and in some tropical regions, people rely on fish for up to 70% of their protein. Not only will this depletion of fish stocks from overfishing harm these people disproportionately, but climate change is also going to impact the ability for people to access the food that they rely on. [42:15] As we talk about in our episode 6, "Dead in the Water," this triple threat of human impact on our oceans devastates ocean ecosystems, reefs, kelp forests, and many other areas where fish reside. It takes out the bottom of many of these food chains, and that means that fish stocks are plummeting from these purely natural processes, even without our direct human intervention. But beyond that, the changes in temperatures of water, the altered currents, that means that fish are driven away from these warm tropical waters, where most of these nations most dependent on these fish for sources of protein are located. This means that even if global fish stock levels remain more or less unchanged, that the people most dependent on those fish stocks will have no way to access them, because these local fisheries off these tropical nations will have been devastated as the fish are forced to move somewhere else because of the rising temperatures of the waters. As the ecosystems that they live in are devastated by acidification, deoxygenation, and the general rise in temperature, these people will have nowhere to turn. There'll be no more source of food, and there'll be devastation in their nutrition consequently.

Daniel Forkner:

[43:20] And to close this off, to get back to that question of how to solve systemic issues, ultimately, we again want to emphasize that technology is not going to be the answer. Many people look at this problem, this overfishing, and think that we can solve this by fish farming and aquaculture, which may seem appealing at first, but ultimately is very unsustainable and destructive. [43:41] Today, over 53% of the fish that people eat is raised in some kind of fish farm. There's a great irony here in trying to solve the problem of declining ocean fish stocks by using fish stocks in the ocean to feed fish that we raised somewhere else. It's not something that adds up into a long-term solution. At the same time, a lot of these aquaculture systems provide a lot of environmental risk. Just last year in August, a fish farm on the Pacific coast near Washington State broke down. It held over 300,000 Atlantic salmon, which were then released into the Pacific Ocean, where they bring with them pollution, virus and parasite risks, and can ultimately harm natural fish stocks by out-competing them because of their genetic advantage that we've given them. [44:29] So we have to be very careful when we think about the solution to these types of things. We need to ask, are we looking for something that will allow us to continue to increase the activity that we're doing, or is the solution we're trying to figure out a way to scale back our consumption, scale back our waste and pollution and environmental impact? Because asking that question will take us a long way in understanding if something is a true solution or merely a techno-fix driving us further down the path of destruction.

What Can We Do?

David Torcivia:

[45:01] Which brings us once more to the end of an episode, and the final question of, "What can we do?" But unfortunately for most of us, the direct impacts on this crisis are well outside of our reach. There's little we can do to petition foreign governments in order to stop their catches, and our ability to individually choose our diet to avoid these highly fished products, especially species that are overfished at rates much higher than others--things like tuna, for example--our impact as an individual is highly limited. So in lieu of going out and fighting these vessels and sinking the trawlers, ramming them like the Icelandic Coast Guard taught us, cutting their trawl lines, I think for most of us, the limits of our effectiveness can be educating others and making ourselves globally and culturally aware of the impacts of our actions.

Daniel Forkner:

[45:47] Eat less food that was fed with fish meal, eat less seafood and meat, and focus a little bit more on your bread and butter.

David Torcivia:

[45:55] But as always, Daniel, that's a lot to think about. If you want to learn more about any of these topics or read a full transcript of this episode, you can do all of that on our website at ashesashes.org.

Daniel Forkner:

[46:07] A lot of time and research goes into making these shows possible, and we will never use advertising to support this podcast, so if you like us and would like us to keep going, you, our listener, can support us by giving us a review and sharing us with a friend. Also, we have an email address--it's contact@ashesashes.org--and we encourage you to send us your thoughts, positive or negative. We'll read them, and we appreciate them.

David Torcivia:

[46:32] You can also find us on your favorite social media network at AshesAshesCast. This is Ashes Ashes.

Daniel Forkner:

[46:38] Bye.

David Torcivia:

[46:38] Bye-bye.

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