Our Dying Seas | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Our Dying Seas

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 5, 1998. Partner content is not updated.

Our Dying Seas

"We face a disaster of monumental proportions."

- Richard Cashin, chairman, Task Force on the Atlantic Fishery, 1993

The marauder first appeared as a bright blip on a radar screen aboard a Canadian Forces Aurora surveillance aircraft. The plane had been in the air for three hours, patrolling the Pacific Ocean near the international date line northwest of Hawaii. As dawn broke on the June morning, the four-engine plane dropped down for a closer look. Recalls navigator Eric Johnsrude: "We came in at about 200 feet on this guy and noticed a whole lot of floats in the water. The floats led us straight to a white vessel, about 150 feet long, which fit the description of a drift-net boat."

Canadian authorities relayed that suspicion to the U.S. Coast Guard, which dispatched a cutter to intercept the vessel. After a two-week chase, the cutter's crew finally boarded the Cao Yu 6025, a stateless ship with a Chinese crew, south of Japan. In the hold, they found damning evidence: 110 tonnes of tuna and shark fins, and a drift gillnet almost 20 km long - an indiscriminate killer of marine life banned on the high seas under an international agreement.

Out of sight, and mostly out of mind, the oceans are under siege. Scientists from around the world are reporting global disturbances in the seas that threaten to bring Richard Cashin's grim warning home to every Canadian household. From the polar seas to the tropics, fish populations have collapsed or teeter on the brink. In a third of the Pacific, plankton that form the foundation of the marine food chain are vanishing. In every corner of the planet, increasing temperatures are obliterating some species, while driving others into unfamiliar waters. As science scrambles to make sense of uneven data, evidence points to an alarming conclusion: the sea, the cradle of life, is dying.

The killers are numerous. The most obvious, global overfishing, harvests 70 per cent of the world's species faster than they can reproduce themselves. But the scientific community is not even sure that is the worst menace to the seas. Other major threats: human pollution, including an estimated 700 million gallons of toxic chemicals dumped into the sea each year, and global warming, widely attributed to industrial production of so-called greenhouse gases, which appears to be affecting ocean temperatures.

Sharply pricier seafood is only the mildest consequence; others are far more serious. In many parts of the world, fishing jobs have disappeared. On Canada's East Coast, 26,000 unemployed former fish workers drew income from the federal government's Atlantic Groundfish Strategy - 15,000 from Newfoundland alone - until its $1.9 billion in funding ran out in August. Far worse, developing countries dependent on marine protein confront the risk of mass starvation. In many regions, rival national claims to the seas' diminishing harvest hold potential for armed conflict. More terrifying still is the spectre of ecological armageddon, as the oceans lose the capacity to generate the oxygen on which life itself depends.

For too many species, extinction has already come. Half a century ago, 600,000 barn-door skate swam North America's Atlantic seaboard. Never intentionally fished, they nonetheless frequently became ensnared in nets or on hooks. By the 1970s, scientists could find no more than 500 skate throughout its previous range. Now, they can't find any. "If bald eagles were as common as robins and then disappeared, someone would notice," says biologist Ransom Myers of Halifax's Dalhousie University. "In the ocean, no one knows. No one cares."

Belatedly, a handful of governments and others have begun to notice, to care and to act, moving tentatively to rein in the worst abuses of the seas. The patrol that spotted the Cao Yu was one of six that Canada donates each year to enforce an international ban on drift nets, blamed for killing dolphins, sharks, turtles and seabirds, in addition to their intended catch. On Sept. 1, the federal government designated two protected marine habitats at Race Rocks and Gabriola Passage, B.C. - the first in a promised chain of preserves in Canadian waters where fishing will be banned. On the same day, an international commission concluded three years of study by urging coastal nations to bury their differences and form a world authority to regulate fishing beyond the 200-mile (370-km) economic zones of individual states.

Individuals and small groups are also taking action where they can. In Toronto, some chefs have agreed to remove swordfish from their menus out of concern for their rapidly declining numbers. In British Columbia, schoolchildren are "adopting" streams where salmon spawn, laboring to remove debris and restore the critical habitats. But such bright spots are few. "The sea is in real trouble," says Elliott Norse, founder of the Redmond, Wash.-based Marine Conservation Biology Institute, "much more than we previously thought. There is major disruption even in the deep ocean." In January, 1,600 marine scientists from 65 countries joined Norse in signing a joint appeal to governments "to take decisive action to stop further irreversible damage to the sea's biological diversity and integrity."

Critical to the survival of marine life is plankton, the tiny plants and animals that normally teem near the ocean's surface, providing food for predators from salmon to seabirds. Off the U.S. west coast, scientists have detected a 70-per-cent drop in zooplankton (the animal variety) since 1950. The same decades have witnessed an even more staggering decline in the number of migratory sooty shearwaters, seabirds that dine on the tiny creatures. "It used to be the most abundant bird in the California Current, by far," says biologist John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at San Diego. Now, 90 per cent are gone.

Just how far, wide and deep the damage goes is a matter of speculation. The ocean is a big place, full of myriad creatures, whose complex relationships mankind has barely begun to identify, let alone understand. To study it, scientists must look beneath its surface, which is expensive. In developing countries, which take three-quarters of the world's fish, science of any kind is a luxury. In Canada, which exports $3 billion worth of seafood a year, research until recently focused almost exclusively on ways to find, count and catch more fish. "In doing that," acknowledges Richard Beamish, a leading researcher at the federal government's Pacific Biological Station at Nanaimo, B.C., "we sacrificed the opportunity to understand the mechanisms in the ecosystem better."

The limits of scientific knowledge leave some of the most critical questions without any answer. One of those is whether forces big enough to wipe out seven-tenths of the zooplankton in the northeast Pacific are also affecting the ocean's capacity to generate one-half of the oxygen released into the biosphere each year. The crucial gas is freed from carbon dioxide as a byproduct of the same process by which plants capture carbon for growth: photosynthesis. "We think that photosynthesis and the carbon system have been affected in the east one-third of the Pacific," says Scripps' McGowan. "But we can't say, because we don't have the measurements."

Knowledgeable assessments of the sea's future often seem to have an apocalyptic air. Elisabeth Mann-Borgese, Halifax-based chairman of the International Ocean Institute, lays most of the blame for the seas' sickness on humans - who will ultimately pay the cost. "What we are doing is killing ourselves," she says soberly. "It is the human race that will die out if we don't do something." Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister David Anderson, under fire in the fishing community for the restrictions he has imposed on catches, also struck a dire note when interviewed by Maclean's. "We have a major crisis in the oceans," Anderson said. "If we don't start undertaking effective measures, internationally, we are dead."

But where to begin? The threats to the oceans are fiercely defended by those who benefit from them - and sometimes simply beyond man's control. Even as debate continues over the level of human responsibility for the phenomenon, scientists are recording long-term changes in the temperatures of the seas, with widespread impact on life.

But to many, the worst offender seems obvious: the overmuscled, under-policed and habitually predatory world fishing fleet of three million vessels, large and small. "Too many boats taking too many fish," declared the Washington-based environmental group the World Wildlife Fund last month. It was echoing a report last year from the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN agency that monitors global fishing. It blamed $74 billion annually in subsidies for creating an international fleet at least twice as large as fish stocks can support.

The power of the world's fishing fleet is more than a matter of numbers, though. In the past three decades, technology adapted from Cold War electronics has transformed the humble fishing boat into a computerized killing machine. The bridge of the 32-m Caledonian, which visited its home port of Vancouver briefly in early September, displays a dozen video screens. Among them: three depth sounders, two radar sets, a computer and a sonar - a tool that acts like an acoustic searchlight, probing ahead of the ship for schools of fish.

The Caledonian earns its keep in some of the roughest waters in the world: British Columbia's Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance, where Pacific rollers spend their last energy on North America's narrow western continental shelf. Trawl nets capable of straining as much as 13,500 kg of fish from the Pacific in a single gulp are spooled on huge reels suspended over the vessel's afterdeck. At the end of a typical 10-day fishing trip, the Caledonian will come home with more than 150,000 kg of hake, rockfish, lingcod and sole in its hold. Says crewman Alan Veinot: "We work 12 months a year, and nobody's on welfare." Far from it - vessels like the Caledonian can provide more than $100,000 a year to each crew member.

Few question that it was the sheer weight of fishing that reduced Canada's Atlantic cod to what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization officially calls "commercial extinction." Says biologist Richard Haedrich of Memorial University in St. John's, Nfld.: "Cod were never prepared to deal with the kind of predation they experienced: 30 per cent of the fish population each year for 30 years."

Another worrisome feature of modern fishing is what biologists call "fishing down the food web." In sea after sea, when large, valuable fish are exhausted, effort turns to smaller, generally shorter-lived and less appetizing species. "If we keep going," warns University of British Columbia fisheries specialist Daniel Pauly, "we will have a sea full of little horrible things that nobody wants to eat." The trend has already reached its logical extension as fleets in several parts of the world have turned to a profoundly alarming technique known as "biomass fishing." Huge trawls with very fine mesh gather up every living thing above the size of plankton. What is large enough to sell as human food goes to market. The rest is ground into meal.

Much of that goes to feed farmed shrimp and fish. But such aquaculture operations, once touted as a way to provide high-quality seafood without endangering the future of wild fish, in fact, seem often to have an opposite effect. Shrimp ponds (many of which become contaminated with disease and must be abandoned in as little as 24 months) have replaced two-thirds of Thailand's coastal mangrove forests, a critical nursery zone for marine life. In Canada, New Brunswick salmon farmers had to destroy $100 million worth of captive fish earlier this year in an attempt to halt the spread of disease to wild stocks. Last week, opponents of fish farming on the West Coast leaked two government reports that raised similar fears there. The Vancouver-based Suzuki Foundation publicized a report that Atlantic salmon have escaped from aquaculture pens and begun to spawn in B.C. streams - posing a potential threat to native species. Another found lethal amounts of toxic farm waste in bottom sediment near aquaculture sites. What is certain is that farmed fish do little to reduce the pressure on wild ones: it takes four kilograms of fish meal, most of it made from wild catch, to bring one kilogram of farmed fish to market.

Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence gives equal cause for concern about how fish are caught - quite apart from how much. Like many similar vessels, the Caledonian carries three trawls, two of which drag the sea floor for rockfish and bottom-dwelling sole. With each pass across the bottom, however, trawl gear scours a bulldozer-like path of destruction across sensitive ecosystems. "Bottom trawlers are so obviously destructive, it's a no-brainer," asserts Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist based in Oakland, Calif. "You don't destroy a forest to catch a few squirrels."

Then there is the sea life that fishermen are not even interested in, yet still manage to ensnare - like the ill-fated Atlantic skate. Called "bycatch," such unintended prey is normally thrown overboard, usually too badly damaged to survive. And the amount is enormous. In the North Atlantic, says Memorial's Haedrich, "some shrimp fishermen tell us the bycatch of small redfish and flounder is up to 10 to one: 10 redfish for one shrimp." Worldwide, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one tonne of dead and dying unwanted fish is tossed back into the sea for every three tonnes of desired catch brought ashore.

Other things also die. According to the World Wildlife Fund, shrimp nets have killed up to 100,000 sea turtles a year. Some countries, including the United States and Canada, now insist that the nets include strainer-like gear to keep turtles and other bycatch out. As many as 80,000 albatrosses continue to die each year from taking the bait on floating hooks trailed over miles of ocean surface in the Southern Hemisphere by boats hunting tuna.

Still, easy as it is to target fishing fleets for blame, it is wrong to pin all the sea's injuries on them. Some scientists, in fact, insist that the focus on overfishing obscures an even greater threat to the oceans. "The worst trouble," asserts Halifax's Mann-Borgese, "is land-based pollution. That accounts for 80 per cent of the mess we're in." From uncounted sources - farm runoff, urban sewage, industrial waste - toxins let loose in the terrestrial environment obey only one law: following gravity to the sea. "Every time somebody in Ottawa empties their crankcase oil in a shopping centre parking lot," observes Norse, "that oil winds up in the ocean."

But if mankind's hand is clear in many ecological disasters, it is less so in other developments that are forcing even greater change on the oceans. Around the globe, violent coast-battering storms are becoming more frequent. More ultraviolet radiation is striking the sea surface through a thinning ozone layer. In many places, the sea itself is no longer the temperature that it has been for decades - in some cases warmer now, in other cases cooler. Many scientists who make such observations shrink from linking them, or their effects, conclusively to global warming. But manmade or not, their impacts are real.

Researchers believe that many coral reefs in the Caribbean and South Pacific have been left desolate and dead - "bleached," researchers call it - by extended periods of unusually warm seawater. Since 1991, toxic algae blooms, encouraged by the heat, have killed an estimated one billion fish off the U.S. Atlantic coast. A rise in sea level is blamed for the death of much of the mangrove along Bermuda's coast.

For many Canadians, change in the north Pacific strikes closer to home. Data collected by Scripps point to an overall increase since 1976 of about 1° C in the temperature of the northeastern third of the world's largest ocean. Now, a growing number of researchers say warm seawater may be doing as much damage to B.C. salmon as all other threats combined.

It happens several ways. Marauding schools of mackerel ride the warmer water, which suits them, up the west coast in large numbers. They prey heavily on juvenile salmon leaving their natal rivers. The few young salmon that run the gauntlet to the open sea find that the area of ocean within the narrow band of temperatures they can tolerate is shrinking. At the same time, nutrients that fuel the marine food chain are vanishing from the near-surface waters where salmon swim. One way or another, says Beamish, where formerly 15 to 20 per cent of coho salmon returned from their sojourn in the sea, now, "about 95 to 98 per cent that enter the ocean, die."

In fairness, global climate change is not an easy matter to engage. It may even turn out to have little to do with human activity at all. Yet even where relieving pressure on the seas is within society's reach, says Mann-Borgese, "nothing is really being done." There are local exceptions to that gloomy rule. Environmental regulations have reduced the pollution flowing into the oceans from such rivers as Britain's Thames and Canada's St. Lawrence. The B.C. trawler fleet is now just half the size it was three years ago.

But rules have never sat well with fishermen. In Canada, as elsewhere, they have fiercely - sometimes violently - resisted most attempts to curtail their activities. On more than a dozen occasions since 1995, fishers on the Atlantic or Pacific coast have responded to regulations designed to conserve fish stocks by mounting angry demonstrations, including occupations of department of fisheries and oceans offices and the seizure of one of its ships.

Too often, as well, shallow politics overrides the deeper interests of the sea. That certainly seems the case in British Columbia, where Premier Glen Clark last week accepted a report from former Newfoundland premier and longtime Ottawa-basher Brian Peckford. Clark had hired Peckford to "expose mismanagement" by Anderson's department in allocating salmon to competing fishing groups. It was unclear what the report, expected to be released this week, could say that would do much to save the salmon from inexorable change in the climate.

Internationally, a report issued on Sept. 1 by the UN-mandated Independent World Commission on the Oceans may yet spark overdue reforms. It called for national navies to become involved, as Canada's has, in enforcing conservation measures. It also urged the world's fishing countries to create new international bodies to monitor and manage the oceans as common assets - or face catastrophe early in the next century.

Newfoundland has had a foretaste of such a catastrophe. To the fishing community, Richard Cashin observed in his report, "the devastation of the fish stocks is like the land becoming barren." The price of inaction in defence of the seas may well be the same fate on a global scale.

Maclean's October 5, 1998

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