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.
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.
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.
'Everything Was Gone'
More than 70 boats descended on the schools of ocean perch. "Everything was gone within two weeks," says Hartmann, who disapproves of the practice.
Hartmann is also the chairman of the Association of German Deep-Sea Fisheries. He is familiar with the problems surrounding the current reputation of fishermen, including their supposedly relentless greed for the catch and their lack of concern for the environment.
This is why he spends a lot of time talking about fishing practices designed to preserve populations and about the need to cooperate with scientists and environmentalists. He says restrictions are indispensable, "for reasons of conscience," but also for economic reasons. "I still want to have this job in 20 years. That'll only happen if there are still fish."
When he talks about such changes, Hartmann uses expressions like "paradigm shift" and "ethical necessity." He is not your stereotypical seaman, not someone who, with a deeply tanned face and hands battered by the elements, likes to tell fishermen's yarns. Sometimes he seems almost out of place on the bridge, peering at his laptop through his angular designer glasses. There is a stark contrast between Hartmann and his surroundings where, despite the open doors, there is an unbearably rancid stench, a fatal mix of fish, machine oil and old sweat.
Hartmann didn't even grow up on the coast, but in Cologne. He bought his first cutter in 1977 for 100,000 German marks, using money borrowed from friends. Since then his ships have become a little larger every few years. The "Atlantic Peace," which Hartmann bought used seven years ago for 18 million German marks, is his crowning achievement.
But Hartmann hasn't gone out himself in years. These days he prefers to leave the fishing up to his partners. The "Atlantic Peace" is a limited partnership consisting of three captains. One has to stay on land, says Hartmann, "to make sure that we weren't put out of business, as a one-ship operation." The threats to his business include the EU bureaucracy, competitors who often operate dozens of ships, and market fluctuations that stopped having anything to do with daily prices at the fish auction in the port city of Bremerhaven long ago, but instead are determined by exchange rate fluctuations between the yen and the dollar.
Two weeks before the "Atlantic Peace" entered the port of Reykjavik, Hartmann had sold its entire catch -- 19,851 boxes of black halibut, with a little ocean perch mixed in -- for a price of €1.4 million ($2.14 million), negotiated with a Danish wholesaler that primarily supplies Asian food companies.
Hartmann does well when fish is in short supply in Japanese supermarkets, because he's paid more money for his halibut. His business does poorly when the Chinese economy falters, because that prompts the Chinese to shift from buying Hartmann's expensive ocean perch to cheap fish from Vietnam. But one thing is constant: Not a single fish caught by the last German deep-sea fishing vessel goes to Germany.
Globalization has reached the fishing industry in full force. "Anyone who doesn't recognize this," says Hartmann, "is quickly out of the picture."
Germans Prefer it Frozen
For most domestic fishermen, selling their catch in Germany is no longer worth the trouble. These days they supply only 15 percent of the fish on German supermarket shelves. This is not for any lack of demand: Germans are eating more fish every year, with per capita consumption up to 16 kilos (35 lbs.), a 20-percent increase over ten years ago. But Germany is a country of inexpensive fish, where even twice-frozen packaged fish, once spurned, is a top seller. One variety is Alaskan pollock, caught by Russian trawlers, frozen, sent to China to be filleted, refrozen and then shipped off to German supermarkets.
Hartmann gets €3.37 ($5.16) for a kilo of halibut. This is decent, but less than the going rate for cod, which has become rare. Because cod can only be sold in filet form, two-thirds of the catch volume is discarded. In the case of halibut, on the other hand, heads and fins are used. "The Chinese go for that," says Hartmann.
These factors make it worthwhile to target black halibut, "even though it's damned hard to fish." Black halibut swims at great depths, down to 1,500 meters (4,920 feet), and it takes an experienced captain as well as sonar, plotters and 3D underwater monitors to fish it up.
The bridge of the "Atlantic Peace" is reminiscent of a navy frigate more than a fishing boat. Deep-sea fishing today is equal parts high tech and manual labor: Hardly any fish in the ocean is safe anymore.
Traveling at two or three knots, the "Atlantic Peace" drags a long (70-meter) net across the ocean floor, even through drifting ice and during storms. Halibut sweeps into a giant net opening, which is 30 meters (98 feet) wide and 12 meters (40 feet) tall. After only half an hour, up to 20 tons of fish can be crowded into the end of the net. The net has to be reeled in after four hours, "otherwise the fish are quickly limp and descaled."
A giant stern winch pulls up the net. The process can take up to 30 minutes, and then the catch -- tens of thousands of fish squeezed into the green net, with mesh no smaller than 140 millimeters, to let young fish escape -- is brought on deck. The crew quickly opens the net and lets the fish slide down to their deaths. The entire lower deck of the "Atlantic Peace" is a processing factory consisting of metal conveyor belts and flashing circular saws.
When the fishing is good, the machines run 24 hours a day, performing an endless cycle of beheading, gutting and freezing. There is no daylight on the lower deck. It's a cold, crowded space with an unsteady floor. Working in this on-board processing plant is a back-breaking job, no matter how much technology there is to make it easier.
A seaman can earn €5,000 ($7,650) a month for the work -- good money, and yet the industry lacks new blood. "The aging workforce is a problem" says Hartmann, adding that some ships are practically manned with retirees.
There is still money to be made in fishing. The "Atlantic Peace" grosses about €8 million ($12.2 million) a year, while returns fluctuate between one and 15 percent. The industry will remain profitable for as long as the quotas exist, but that could change any year. Hartmann always carries around the EU's most current quota distribution list, in the form of a huge Excel table, dozens of columns that reflect, in condensed form, EU fishing policies.
There is a number for every country, every fishing zone, every fish species and every boat or fleet. According to the table, the "Atlantic Peace" is entitled to a quota of 4,500 tons of halibut, cod, Pollock, ocean perch and shellfish.
But with the exception of the total catch volume, the numbers are meaningless. Fishermen trade with one another, depending on what types of fish they specialize in. Hartmann, for example, has just traded his 800 tons of cod off the Norwegian coast for 600 tons of halibut from an Icelandic vessel off Greenland.
The quotas are revised each year, in months of negotiations among the EU countries and with their neighbors. "We never know what'll happen," says Hartmann, "and if things don't go our way, we can end up with only half as much fish the next year."
Pirate Fishermen and Big Multinationals
Unlike Norwegians or Icelanders, EU fishermen are not involved in the negotiations. Politicians and bureaucrats get together to set the quotas.
In 2007, German fishermen were allotted 225,000 tons. The quota, which belongs to the German government and not the fishermen, is essentially lent to them.
In Iceland, as in many other fishing nations, this is handled differently. The Icelandic quota is owned by the fishermen, which gives them competitive advantages when it comes to planning and securing financing. Icelandic fishing companies have expanded for years, buying up bigger and bigger fleets and increasing their market share.
Deutsche Fischfang Union, based in the northern German port city of Cuxhaven, was once Germany's largest deep-sea fishing company. Today it belongs to Samherji, an Icelandic company, which also owns fleets in Poland, England and Spain. A slow but constant wave of consolidations has rolled across the fishing industry for years. The number of players is decreasing, but those that remain are getting bigger, more global and more powerful. This is bad news for the millions of small family fishing operations. Today, one percent of the world fishing fleet is already responsible for 50 percent of the catch.
Last summer Samherji acquired a fleet of six factory ships just so that it could fish the West African coast. The EU pays Mauritania more than €80 million ($122 million) a year so European industrial fishing companies can drain the African coastal waters of fish. In many cases, this doesn't leave Mauritanian fisherman with enough to make a living. Others, like the Dutch fishing corporation Parlevliet & Van de Plas, are already sending their ships to locations deep in the South Atlantic and off the coasts of Chile and Peru.
More and more often, the global struggle for dwindling resources is turning violent. French longline fishermen are attacking Spanish drift net fishermen with Molotov cocktails, accusing them of depleting their fishing grounds. English fishermen have taken to throwing frozen fish at Icelandic coast guard vessels. And German stake-net fishermen are at each other's throats in the Baltic for fishing too close to one another.
But at least all can agree that they have one common enemy: pirate fishermen. They catch without licenses, without quotas and without paying any heed to a global fisheries policy designed to preserve populations. The so-called IUU, or "illegal, unregistered and unregulated" fishing industry, already pulls about one third of the world's annual catch from the sea.
"Unfortunately the IUU is in fact out of control in some areas," says Stefán Ásmundsson. He is the chairman of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), whose members include the EU and most of the other countries that fish in this ocean region. Similar multinational organizations also exist in other ocean regions. They represent an attempt to manage fishing in largely unregulated international waters. This only works if countries abide by the rules, but many don't.
"The problem is that, under international maritime law, enforcing the rules is up to the flag state of the fishermen," says Ásmundsson. And many deliberately enforce no rules at all. More than 1,200 fishing trawlers are registered under flags of convenience -- Cambodia, say, or Honduras. Another 1,600 trawlers, the pirate fishermen, sail the oceans under no flags at all.
Many pirate fishermen are known and their ships are on blacklists. But in international waters they can simply forbid inspectors from coming on board.
This is why the international community is increasingly trying to forbid the pirates access to ports, make it impossible for them to unload their fish, and deny them food and diesel fuel. But even these sanctions don't always work.
The five biggest trawlers owned by Piro-Fisch, a German-Russian charter company, were long known as impudent pirates when they entered the port of Rostock in northeastern Germany in the fall of 2005. They are on all relevant blacklists. But the ships remained untouched -- despite the fact that even the Icelandic foreign minister asked the EU Commission to prevent them from leaving the port. The trawlers left Rostock in March 2006, unobstructed and with their supplies on board. In April, after another raid, they entered the Russian seaport of Kaliningrad, where they were promptly detained.
Even in legal fishery, politicians often fail to live up to their responsibility. The EU's cod quotas, for example, are still 50 percent higher than the catch volumes scientists consider barely justifiable. Sharp disputes keep erupting in the EU because some countries, instead of fishing less, push to have their quotas raised.
The problem stems from the fact that in traditionally strong fishing nations, like France and Spain, no politicians want to alienate whole coastal regions. The recommendations of experts, like those with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, are all too often ignored. In the world struggle for resources, fish are usually the losers.
Many German fishermen are now searching for environmentally justifiable methods, to avoid being vilified as "fish murderers" or "environmental pigs" -- the sorts of names they are repeatedly called on coastal esplanades. For more than five years, the German fishing industry and seafood retailers have supported the Marine Stewardship Council's eco-label, which identifies seafood caught legally and in an environmentally responsible way.
There is also a growing trend to provide more exact details about the origin of fish, such as whether halibut was caught off the coast of Iceland or Norway. This can make a big difference, because a fish species can be virtually wiped in one ocean region while flourishing in another.
In addition, organizations like the NEAFC are attempting to establish an international monitoring regime. But the oceans are enormous and there are few inspectors.
Germany has three fisheries protection vessels to monitor its territorial waters in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, as well as to take part in international patrol to places as far away as the Arctic and Canada.
Monitoring on the High Seas
Shortly before midnight, the "Seeadler" slips out of a naval base near Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea. The German authorities have learned that dozens of Polish fishermen, who exceeded their quotas long ago, are on their way to German territorial waters. When the ship reaches the open sea, its main diesel engines roar into action as the massive, 72-meter (236-foot) coastguard ship heads toward the island of Usedom at full speed. But by the next morning there are no Poles in sight. False alarm.
Instead, the "Seeadler" has set its sights on a Danish trawlnet cutter. The inspectors could force the fishermen to haul in their net for inspection immediately, but not without reason. "We don't want to obstruct fishing," says Raik Thomas, the Seeadler's captain. On its tours through the Baltic, each lasting about two weeks, the unarmed "Seeadler" typically completes about 30 inspections.
The Danish ship agrees to bring in its net, voluntarily, and then things move very quickly. Four men put on survival suits and jump into an escort speedboat, which is suspended from a crane above the "Seeadler' deck. Within seconds the inflatable boat is hoisted overboard and dropped the last few meters, hitting the water with a slapping noise. It rushes across the gray waves of the Baltic toward the 15-meter (49-foot) cutter, blue light flashing through the drizzling rain and spray.
The German inspectors have hardly stepped on board before the net emerges from the water. A sack full of plaice and codfish gasping for air hangs above the deck, gills wide open and their mouths pushing through the mesh. The fishermen and inspectors wade, knee-deep at times, through 150 kilos of fish flapping around on the deck. The "Seeadler" team inspects nets and mesh sizes, licenses, fish species and the bycatch. It takes all of 45 minutes for the Germans to give the "Line Charlotte" a seal of approval. "In truth, we rarely run into any problems," says Captain Thomas.
But environmental groups like Greenpeace disagree. They argue the inspections are inadequate. According to Greenpeace officials, too much of what happens on the ocean goes unpunished, and worldwide fishing capacities should be reduced by 50 percent. Greenpeace wants to see conservation zones where fishing is banned altogether in many ocean regions.
Greenpeace repeatedly tries to deliver at least symbolic messages. This is the case as the "Rainbow Warrior II" sails in the Mediterranean near Naples in the midsummer heat. Its goal is to address one of the most dramatic chapters in the overfishing debate -- the threat of eradication of bluefin tuna. Mediterranean fishermen made a living catching the predatory fish for two millennia, but now it has all but disappeared from the region.
The craving for sushi is the main reason behind this threat to the tuna population. Nowadays some are even willing to pay more than $100,000 (€65,000) for special specimens. The tuna business alone turns over €4 billion ($6.1 billion) in annual revenues.
The combination of high profits and illegal methods has attracted the underworld, too. The Japanese and the Italian mafia are believed to be deeply involved in the tuna business. Horror stories are making the rounds in the fishing community about EU fisheries inspectors who found return air tickets in their hotel rooms upon arriving in Sicily, or the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) activist who found a white lily on her bed -- a mafia death threat.
The tuna farms that have begun to appear off many Mediterranean coasts in recent years also play a growing role in the industry. Young fish caught in the wild are fattened in farms until they're big enough for slaughter. Many of these farms are operated illegally. "It usually isn't clear who exactly is behind these operations. In many cases they are backed by bogus companies," says Alessandro Gianni, a fisheries biologist on board the Rainbow Warrior.
'It looks like "The Swarm" Down Here'
For documentation purposes, Gianni wants to send a diving team into a farm off the Neapolitan coast. But before the Greenpeace boats can reach the underwater cages, they are surrounded by the Italian coast guard. Nevertheless, the Greenpeace team decides to make the dive.
Three men disappear into a cage, where thousands of tuna are crowded together, frantically swimming around in a circle. Even the experienced divers are outraged. "It looks like 'The Swarm' down here," one of them calls out.
Despite such excesses, fish farms could be the salvation of worldwide fish population. Aquaculture, or artificially raising fish and seafood, is one of the world's fastest-growing forms of food production. The industry has grown by an average of 10 percent a year since the early 1990s.
Scientists are already alluding to a "blue revolution" similar to the "green revolution" in agriculture in the 1950s, when new methods quadrupled food production within a short period of time.
A little less than a third of the 1.2 million tons of farmed salmon sold worldwide comes from the farms of the Norwegian company Marine Harvest, the world's largest fish producer, with 7,500 employees in 18 countries. "It won't stay that way," says Leif Frode Onarheim, the company's acting president and CEO. "We have big ambitions."
Marine Harvest's model salmon farm is about an hour by boat from Stavanger, a city on Norway's west coast. A small red, wooden building and 14 cages, each of them 24 meters (79 feet) long, 24 meters wide and 30 meters (98 feet) deep, float in a fjord that is 400 meters (1,312 feet) deep. The cages contain 800,000 salmon, at a market value of about €10 million ($15.3 million).
Salmon are relatively easy to farm. They are well developed by the time they hatch, and they can be fed with industrially produced dry feed, which consists primarily of fish meal. Onarheim is convinced that successes with salmon can be repeated with other species, such as halibut, the South American tilapia and red snapper. The industry is also becoming more adept at dealing with the environmental problems of fish farming.
It takes one year to grow the fish from 100 grams (3.5 oz.) to five kilos (11 lbs.), when they are ready for slaughter. The salmon are pumped out of the cages and into transport ships, which take them to the processing factory at the other end of the fjord. A counter that hangs above the slaughtering machinery provides a running tally of the number of salmon that have been processed on a given day. The red digital numbers change every few seconds: 7,904, 7,905. It is only 11 a.m.
But for Onarheim this is still not fast enough. "We compete with chicken and beef," he says. He wants to see the farms enlarged, producing more and increasingly farther out to sea. Onarheim envisions annual production levels of two or three million fish -- per farm.
This is the reverse of the world of the northern German Pinkis brothers, for whom all of this must be lunacy -- the Pinkis brothers, with their daily catch of 30 or 40 cod, lined up in crates on their garden wall, between rosebushes and a neatly trimmed lawn. A kilo of the Pinkis's codfish sells for €2.50 ($3.83), cheaper than a Big Mac. The Pinkis brothers, who pluck each fish individually from the net and work at temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), when it's so cold that the codfish are frozen to the net.
No, says Klaus Pinkis, fish will not die out on their account. The brothers have trouble understanding why the people "over in Brussels," the ones who set the quotas, make their lives so difficult. Why can't they just be allowed to fish, without all the rules and regulations? They would know when to stop, would know the right amount of fishing so that both sides, the fisherman and the fish, could survive.
"It's such a wonderful profession, and I don't regret it for a minute," says Pinkis. "But I can't say whether anyone will be doing it after us."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan