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Demise of the Deep

September 3rd, 2005 · Written by · 2 Comments

With 71 percent of its surface area covered in water and its atmosphere wrapped in clouds of water vapor, the Earth is a unique oceanic realm. Besides containing the proper balance of chemicals and compounds necessary for the development of life, the oceans serve many functions essential for the survival of land-dwelling creatures. They absorb harmful radiation from the sun and distribute heat around the world via a system of underwater currents, working to maintain a stable climate. Scientists today still don’t fully understand the workings of the deep. We know more about the lifecycle of stars and the surface of Mars than we do about our own ocean floor. Until the 1990s the general populace assumed that our rampant destruction of nature couldn’t possibly affect the immensity of these vast interconnected ecosystems. In reality they aren’t faring any better than the land.

Entire seas have been laid to waste imperiling the one billion people who depend on them for their protein needs.

Entire seas have been laid to waste imperiling the one billion people who depend on them for their protein needs. Likened to the clear-cutting of forests, overfishing is by far the most reported aspect of this ecocide. Recently, a research team led by Boris Worm and Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia studied fishing log books dating back 50 years and concluded that nearly half of all ocean species have been lost to overfishing. The study also found that the size of ocean “hot spots”, which were traditionally rich in a diverse array of fish species, have shrunk significantly. “Everywhere you go, in every ocean basin, our hot spots today are only relics of what was once there. It really hurts to see this,” stated Dr Worm.

The fate of Canada’s Newfoundland is a foreboding example of this greed run amuck. Five hundred years ago, explorer John Cabot returned from the waters around this remote island to Europe with stories of codfish that ran so thick they could be caught with wicker baskets hung over the side of a ship. Cod grew to six or seven feet and weighed as much as two hundred pounds. The shores were filled with an abundance of gigantic oysters and lobsters. Eight to twelve foot sturgeon ran through New England rivers from Hudson River to Hudson Bay. Today, Newfoundland’s fish stocks have been demolished and strip-mined. The waters are as vacant and empty as the surrounding countryside, where massive unemployment led to an exodus of residents.

The cod, which survived in their current form for ten million years, met their match in 1954 with the emergence of a British ship known as the Fairtry. It was the world’s first factory-freezer trawler. This multi-million dollar ship was equipped with all the technological achievements of World War II. It included on-board processing plants, automated filleting machines, a rendering factory, and gigantic freezers. It could fish all day, seven days a week, with radar, sonar and fish finders. The Fairtry could find and capture entire schools of fish with effortless efficiency. This ship was a modified version of the whaling technology that hunted the blue whale, the largest animal ever known, to the brink of extinction.

With the whales gone, these floating-factories were redeployed against the world’s fish. These ships eventually reached sizes of 8,000 tons with nets 3,500 feet in circumference. In an hour they could bring in 200 tons of fish–twice as much as a 16th century ship caught in an entire season. By the 1970s almost every industrialized nation had a fleet. Because these massive trawlers needed large numbers of similarly sized fish, creatures of unwanted sizes and species were discarded. For every three tons of fish caught, one ton of “bycatch” was thrown overboard dead and dying. With larger commercial fish populations decimated, these gigantic ships are now moving lower down the food chain making it even harder for the larger fish to recover.

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Tags: Essays · Nonfiction · ·

2 Comments so far ↓

  • klondyker

    While agreeing with the basic issue of over-exploitation of the oceans, I must protest at the authors’ gross exaggeration and over-simplification of the problem. The article aslo contains factual errors.
    Fairtry (later Fairtry 1) was built in Aberdeen and launched in April 1954 – not 1951 as the writer claims.
    It could not have cost multi-millions, then, but less than a million pounds at boat construction prices of 1954.

    It could not catch fish with effortless ease. It used Granton trawl nets similar to what the UK trawler fleet employed off Iceland in the early 1950’s, only slightly larger. Its large size and crew were more for processing on board than handling “whole schools of fish” as claimed.
    The demise of the Newfoundland and Greenland cod came about later as a direct result of the Canadian government’s sell-out to corporate fishing companies with its introduction of ITQ’s – tradeable rights to catch fish.
    The cod fish also suffered from the effects of global warming, – moving north from their traditional grounds.

    But the fishery could have survived if the government had cancelled the whole quota system, and permitted only small scale low-impact boats using lines and traps to harvest the fish, – as they had done until 1960. The Fisheries and Oceans Minister accepted this when in 2006 he re-opened the cod fishery for the small open boats of Newfoundland and Labrador.

    PS this contributor worked in Newfoundland for several years, and interviewed some of the original Fairtry crew. That boat was never a fiancial success. Salvesons soon gave up on the concept, and the Soviets who copied it with their Pushkin boats were not thinking about balancing the books.

  • Jason Glover

    You are right, we did get that date wrong. We apologize and a correction has been made.

    We appreciate your input. Much of the information for this article came from the book “Ocean’s End” by Colin Woodward, which is where the rest of the information you dispute came from.

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