Hope for Sharks-And People

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

Earlier this year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Committee on Fisheries met in Rome to discuss one of the most challenging-and depressing-issues confronting humanity: the decline in ocean productivity.

As you may know, the quantity, distribution and future availability of our global food supply is in peril. It's a simple enough equation. Our population is increasing, despite a slowdown in the rate of growth. By the year 2050, there will most likely be nine billion

of us. Meanwhile the chief sources of food are already producing at their maximum capacity. As a result, per capita food availability is falling.

Fisheries are part of this overall trend. We are catching five times as many fish as we did in 1950. As a result, in 1996 over one-third of all commercial fish species were overexploited, and one-fourth were being exploited to the limit of their ability to replenish themselves. It adds up to a total catch of some 94 million tons every year. And yet, even this level of harvest cannot keep up with our population growth.

Overfishing, bycatch and habitat destruction are the three primary causes of the depletion and the effects are well-known: reduction of species diversity. Because we do not know all the species living in the sea, we are unable to get a real picture of the damage we are doing. Judging from the availability of familiar species, we can speculate on the scope of our impact.

According to the WorldWatch Institute's State of the World 1999 report, landings of the most commercially valuable species have plummeted by 25 percent since 1970. As cod, salmon and tuna are depleted, fishermen turn to "junk" fish like pollock and hake-and sharks. This has made sharks an important indicator of marine health. At the moment, sharks are in headlong retreat. WorldWatch observes that they are at their lowest reported abundance, partly because of their vulnerability as bycatch. Trawl nets that scoop up entire schools of fish are likely to scoop up their associated predators. They are also hunted for their meat and fins. Due to cultural prejudices, they are considered unworthy even of statistical mention and butchered at sea. The problem is that sharks reproduce too slowly to recover from intensive exploitation-entire species are not long for this world.

Until now, there was no international regulation of shark hunting. Although a lucrative industry, shark fishing has gone on completely outside the purview of the law. That has meant that nobody could be held responsible for the effects stemming from the removal of a top predator from the marine ecosystem.

Luckily, there are signs that this is changing. At the Rome meeting, the FAO officially committed itself and member nations to shark conservation. In a landmark Action Plan, the organization recommended that fishing nations be required to gather complete information on sharks and the fleets that exploit them. Fishing nations must also develop and implement their management plans by the year 2001. At last, sharks have a voice.

The world's fisheries are part of a larger environmental and social dilemma. Increasingly, the human family is divided into two worlds, underfed and overfed. According to the FAO, 800 million people don't have enough to eat. Several billion more suffer deficiencies in basic vitamins that prevent them from leading healthy lives. In all, one in five people in the developing world goes hungry.

At the other end of the scale are the wealthy nations, the so-called G-8. This is the world of excess, in which some 600 million people are overfed, according to the WorldWatch Institute.

These two worlds both tax the biosphere, but in different ways. In the developing world, population growth and poverty strain natural systems beyond their capacity to support life. In an effort to subsist on an increasingly resistant planet, people drain water tables, clear rain forests and try to farm marginal land.

In the industrial world, population growth remains stable, but individuals have a much more serious impact on the global environment. High resource use and runaway industrial growth produce immense wealth, but also immense problems: acid rain, chemical pollution, global warming.

How does this impact fisheries? Well, as fish disappear, so do fishermen. Worldwide some 200 million people depend on fisheries for their livelihood, and the overwhelming majority live in the developing world. But 83 percent of all fish caught are imported to the overfed world. That makes both worlds a party to the current devastation.

So it is necessary that these two worlds work together to lessen the burden on the oceans. The FAO is right to push for smaller fleets and closer monitoring of keystone species like sharks. This may be a hardship for poorer nations who depend on species like sharks for food. But they must not be left to carry the burden alone. Wealthier nations must find a way to lessen their strain on the oceans and energetically support the efforts of poorer nations to make conservation worthwhile. Otherwise, there can be no real progress.