Blues in the Key of Sea

AT THE DARK END OF THE STREAM

About 90 percent of the world's fish come from the near-shore waters over the continental shelves. Life is vigorous in these ocean shallows because sunlight drives the marine food chain. The quickest way to kill these fish is to build cities like Los Angeles, New York, or London. More than half of the world's population lives near a coast, and that's the rub. Pollution, dams, and wetlands destruction can be just as efficient fish killers as factory trawlers. For starters, we pour almost as much oil down city drains in a year as 20 Exxon Valdez wrecks would spill.

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LORD, I'M A FOOL FOR A DOLLAR BILL

All the world's fishing vessels are worth $330 billion, and running at a net loss of about $20 billion a year. That means that one of our most critical food industries isn't producing any return on investment even though we're overfishing what could be sustainable stocks. Huh?

SEA-BOTTOM BLUES

In 1950, fishermen caught 20 million metric tons of seafood on behalf of the earth's 2.4 billion people. By 1990, the population hit 5.2 billion and our industrialized fishing fleets caught 84 million metric tons while wasting another 27 million in the process. In 1990, the ocean cried uncle. The catch dropped for the first time even though we were fishing as hard as ever. A third of Planet Ocean's edible marine critters are now overfished or fully exploited.

IF FISHIN' HERE IS WRONG, I DON'T WANT TO BE RIGHT

In the 1950s, the first large-scale industrial fleets sailed for distant waters. In the 1970s, most coastal nations put regulatory fences around their fish with 200-mile zones. By the late 1980s, the U.S. had run foreign fleets out of local waters. New home-flag factory trawlers and longliners took over, most of them financed (no laughing here) with cash from foreign banks. In the Bering Sea off Alaska, for instance, more than half of the two million metric tons of groundfish available free to the fleets are caught by U.S. flag trawlers and longliners owned by Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, and Danish companies.

AIN'T NO CODFISH WHEN THEY'RE GONE

In 1784, the people of Massachusetts hung a golden codfish in their statehouse to celebrate fish, fishermen, and the ocean's abundance. Just 210 years later, some fishing grounds from New Jersey to Newfoundland are almost barren and closed to all but the least intensive fishing. In 1994, codfish, haddock, and flounder in the North Atlantic are in such bad shape that some Americans and Canadians have tied up their fleets and gone on the dole or into another line of work. Ten years ago, they would have just steamed off to more fertile waters, but now there's no place left to go.

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