Our Ravaged Seas Globalization Is Destroying the World's Oceans

The oceans are a primary source of food for mankind, and fishing provides 200 million people with income, as meager as it may be. But growing demand and the industrial-scale exploitation of the seas are destroying global fish populations. The European Union's quota system is partly to blame.


Dawn creeps across the horizon as the Pinkis brothers' cutter returns to the harbor at Kühlungsborn. The Baltic is still calm, but wind from the northeast has already picked up sharply, a sign of the storms in the evening forecast. The Pinkis brothers and their crew have been out since 2 a.m., 10 nautical miles off the coast of northeast Germany's Mecklenburg region, in a spot where they had staked hundreds of nets into the sea floor the previous afternoon, hoping the fish would come.

The brothers' cutter is small, less than 10 meters (33 feet) long, with a tiny bridge on top and a large fish tank in the hold below. Two stake-net fishermen stand on the deck, wearing bright orange oilcloth clothing. The boat has hardly docked at the wharf before they begin shoveling the catch from the hold, mostly flounder and codfish, even a lone turbot. The catch amounts to 200 kilograms (440 lbs), the fruits of a day's labor -- a day that can sometimes last 20 hours. Six days a week.

They're the only fishermen docked in Kühlungsborn harbor this morning, a lone cutter among sailboats and yachts. The fishing harbors along Germany's coast have been emptied. There are about 3,700 ocean fishermen left in Germany today, many of them getting on in years. The Pinkis brothers are among the youngest members of the Wismarbucht fishing cooperative. Uwe Pinkis is 45, and his brother Klaus is 42. Fishing, in Germany, is a dying profession.

When Klaus Pinkis is asked whether it's possible to make a living from 200 kilos of fish a day, he puts down his dip net, pushes his cap up from his forehead and takes a deep breath. He looks at his brother for a long moment and says: "We're doing well, but there are others, many, in fact, who are getting really nervous and are on the verge of qualifying for welfare."

The Pinkis brothers are their own supply chain. They catch, process and sell the fish themselves in the courtyard behind their tidy little house just off the beach in Rerik, a town in the Salzhaff region of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the northeasten corner of Germany. "The more you do, the more you keep," says Klaus Pinkis. His brother nods. The two men are proud of what they do for a living.

Together, they gross €60,000 ($93,000) a year. No one does this just for the money, says Uwe Pinkis. The work is too grueling, especially in bad weather, when the cutter "rocks back and forth like crazy all day long" and when the brothers "consume nothing but magnesium all evening" to deal with cramps in their calves. Fishing is not just a dying profession but a difficult one.

Overfished, Overexploited

About one-fourth of all known fish populations are already overfished to the brink of extinction, including once-abundant species cod and tuna. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), another 50 percent are considered completely exploited. No one can, or is even willing, to predict the consequences for the complex ecosystem, and yet it is clear that the oceans are gradually being ravaged.

Is this all just fear-mongering? Environmentalist propaganda? No, not at all.

Dwindling marine populations.

Dwindling marine populations.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel soberly expressed what scientists have been convinced about for years: If the oceans continue to be ransacked the way they are today, fish populations, and fishing along with them, will disappear -- completely, worldwide -- by the middle of the century.

The news from last week alone was alarming: US authorities had, for the first time ever, imposed a ban on salmon fishing along the country's entire Pacific coast. The European Union also banned tuna fishing in the Mediterranean, while experts recommended banning cod fishing in the North Sea.

Even the Institute of the German Economy, not exactly a leftist bastion of environmentalism, has issued urgent warnings that an entire "branch of industry is literally threatened with extinction."

Billions of people depend on fish as a staple food and need it to survive, especially in parts of the Third World, where fish makes up 20 percent of the diet and is thus the key source of animal protein. Fishing provides an income for close to 200 million people.

The demand for fish has been rising steadily and steeply for decades, and fisherman do nothing but satisfy that demand. As boats have become larger and more efficient, the worldwide catch volume has grown more than sevenfold between 1950 and 2005, to more than 140 million tons a year.

The consequences were recognizable early on, especially in the waters of industrialized nations, with their well-equipped fleets and well-heeled consumers. In the North Sea and Baltic Sea, for example, herring populations were in dramatic decline by the 1960s.

Germans, in particular, have felt the effects. Today there are only half as many ocean fishermen in a united Germany as there were in West Germany alone in 1970. In the '80s, fewer than 30 deep-sea fishing vessels from Germany ventured to Greenland (instead of fishing off the North Sea and Baltic Sea coastlines). Today there are seven, and only one is not owned by foreign corporations.

That vessel, the "Atlantic Peace," is 57 meters (187 feet) long, has a crew of 24, and is currently wedged between two container ships along the quay wall. Streaks of rust mar the ship's once gleaming, blue-and-white paint finish. This last German deep-sea fishing boat is no attractive cutter, but a steel vessel so powerful that its crew can even work in eight-meter (26-foot) waves.

The morning lights of Reykjavik shimmer through wisps of fog in the background. It took the "Atlantic Peace" two days to struggle back from its fishing grounds to the Icelandic capital, the base for North Atlantic fishing vessels, in storm-force winds.

Captain Klaus Hartmann, his face showing signs of exhaustion, stands on the bridge. It is six a.m. and raining heavily. "When is the container finally going to get here?" he asks, staring at the rear deck. A crane lifts pallets from the hold, each tightly packed with boxes full of black halibut. The catch totals more than 400,000 fish, cleaned and trimmed, frozen and packaged for sale. The "Atlantic Peace" is a factory ship.

It was at sea for 70 days, a highly efficient catching and processing machine that only docks in the harbor to spit out cargo as quickly as possible. It will sail again in three days, headed for fishing zone XIVb off the coast of Greenland once again, where the Germans have traditionally had large quotas.

Why Greenland, of all places? "Because Germans have always fished there," says Hartmann. The European Union pays Greenland more than €40 million ($61 million) each year so that they can continue to do so.

Documented catches from earlier days are the basis of the quota system. Because the British caught the most cod in the North Sea before there were any regulations, the EU assigns them the largest quotas each year. And because the Spaniards have always fished for anchovies in the Mediterranean, they are permitted to do so today.

When a fish species suddenly turns up in ocean regions where there was no quota for that species in the past, it sets off a mad rush. Last year, for example, a new ocean perch population was discovered northeast of Iceland. The relevant regulatory agency issued a quota for 15,000 tons. Then the race began. It's called "Olympic fishing." Whoever manages to catch the most fish as quickly as possible emerges as the winner -- two times over, because future quotas for individual ships are based on this first catch.


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