Editorial: Feeding our planet, but depleting our oceans

  • FILE- In this May 2, 2016 file photo, Richard Sawyer, Jr., fishes on Long Island Sound off Groton, Conn. Sawyer said he says he now catches less in a week than he used to catch in half of a day. Scientists say populations of lobsters off of Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts have declined as waters have warmed. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) Robert F. Bukaty

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The world’s population, just 2.5 billion in 1950, is now over 7 billion. It’s estimated to be 9.6 billion by 2050. The once bountiful oceans are being emptied to feed them and their pets and livestock. Many species have become commercially exhausted. Consider, as the late writer David Foster Wallace wrote, the lobster.

To savor the iconic New England treat, a lobster roll, diners have to claw to the bottom of their wallets. Prices run from $16 to $25 or more. Why? China, the world’s most populous nation, at nearly 1.4 billion has developed a taste for lobster.

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a devastating account of China’s pillage of the seas. The South China Sea is essentially fished out. China claimed that sea as its own, despite historic claims by neighboring nations and a ruling by the World Court. Chinese naval vessels force fishing boats from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other nations back to port and Chinese boats fish illegally, often at night, in the waters of other countries.

The Chinese fishing fleet of 700,000 boats, including several thousand enormous factory ships, are stripping the seas off the West coast of Africa and putting local subsistence fishermen out of business. With global warming making more and more of the Arctic seas ice free much of the year China is eyeing the last unexploited fishery on the planet. In 2016 representatives of Canada, Greenland, Russia, Norway and Greenland agreed not to fish in the center of the Arctic Ocean, an area that’s beyond each nation’s 200-mile territorial limit, until more research is done. They invited China and other fishing nations to join the agreement. The answer, if the oceans aren’t to be depleted, lies in creating a global agreement limiting fishing sequentially to allow fisheries to recover.

The oceans can’t provide all the seafood 7 billion people want to consume, let alone 10 billion. The answer lies in aquaculture, which is expected to become a bigger source of fish for consumption than wild-caught fish just four years from now. Salmon, a striped bass hybrid, oysters, mussels and shrimp, and freshwater fish like trout, tilapia and catfish all are being raised by aquaculture operations. Two-thirds of the salmon consumed in the U.S. is farmed.

The industry isn’t without problems. Seafood farmed in the ocean produces waste that can be a source of pollution. Farmed fish are fed with pellets made primarily of forage fish and krill, tiny marine crustaceans. They too can also be overfished. That problem may be solved by advances in the use of plant protein capable of feeding piscivorous fish.

Consumers have a role to play. New Hampshire has a small aquaculture industry that primarily produces oysters and trout. It also has a Community Supported Fishery, a seacoast cooperative formed by fishermen who protect the ocean, fish responsibly and provide locally caught seafood to outlets around the state, using the CSA model. Both deserve support.

Seafood consumers, to be responsible, should only buy fish harvested in an environmentally responsible fashion. Seafood Watch, a website operated by scientists at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, (seafoodwatch.org) keeps an updated list of fish, by region, that come from sustainable fisheries. Check the site before buying seafood, and bon appetit.