The Cry of the Ocean

Life on earth began in the moonpull and seawind of the oceans. Human blood still has the salinity of seawater. We are, ourselves, miniature oceans, dressed in skin and gone exploring the arid world that rose out of ancient seas. We haven’t gone far: Half the world’s population still lives within 50 miles of the coast.

Nonetheless, our acquaintance with the sea generally ends at the first slap of ocean wave; what happens beyond the surf is hidden. But what is happening out there is something we should be angry about.

The signs are ominous. On a good day in the 1960s, an Atlantic fisherman could harpoon 30 large swordfish. Today, such swordfish are hardly ever seen; commercial fishermen on the East Coast set out a 15-to-30-mile line baited with 1,000 hooks. Even then, many they catch are immature.

What has happened to swordfish has happened to hundreds of marine species. In the last 15 years, New England cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder have declined 70 percent; South Atlantic grouper and snapper, 80 percent; Atlantic bluefin tuna, 90 percent. More than 200 separate salmon spawning runs have vanished from the Pacific Northwest.

We are mining the seas of life. The number of fish caught in 11 of the world’s 15 major fishing areas has declined from peak years, and four areas are at or near peak catch.

The human cost of this crisis is considerable. For many it means hunger, since in some countries more than half of the population’s animal protein comes from the sea. Says Michael Sutton of the World Wildlife Fund, “Unlike rhinos, tigers, and bears, when you deplete fish populations, you’re threatening the survival of humanity.”

For others, it means the end of a way of life. The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery put 40,000 people out of work. In the Philippines, as traditional fishing by net and spear yields smaller and smaller returns, divers stay down 150 or 200 feet for hours, breathing air pumped through hoses, in hopes of spearing a profitable catch. In some villages, paralysis and brain damage caused by submersion at such depths is now a common affliction.


Most of what we know about fish populations comes from fishermen, not biologists, and fishermen report declining levels worldwide. Other factors may enter in, but few dispute that overfishing imperils all of the world’s major fisheries. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization determined in April 1994 that roughly 60 percent of fish populations they monitor are fully exploited or depleted. Of the 15 major fishing areas, four have declined 30 to 50 percent from estimated peak numbers, seven have declined 9 to 29 percent, and only four are at or near their estimated peak.


For centuries, people have gone to sea with heroic madness in their eyes. We went out to lift from the depths not just food but something mystical. We looked upon fish as castoffs from another world, as strange shapes and distant wills. We went to tempt the shimmering darkness and pull it into the light.

Even today, fish seem to us cold, silvery dreams to which we do not attribute a capacity for thought or feeling. We feel no remorse when the dazzle fades from their scales. We have never thought of fish as fellow creatures, and we do not–deep down–think of the sea as part of the living world.

In our technological age, such thinking has terrible consequences. Our ancient awe now floats in steel hulls, dragging multifilament net over miles of seabed to pull masses of life from the ocean. A modern North Pacific trawler can reportedly take in one million pounds of fish in a single day.

Since World War II, nation after nation has built fleets of such vessels, and as a result the world’s finfish catch quadrupled between 1950 and 1990. It looked for a time as if the sea were an inexhaustible source of wealth.

But that was an illusion. Most of the increased catch came from a few distant water fisheries, whose limits were quickly reached. Meanwhile, coastal fishermen had to sail farther and farther from port to catch anything.

Large-scale fishing technologies have become less and less selective: Fish too small to be taken and species not legally fished are caught, and then thrown overboard to die. Lee Alverson of Seattle’s Natural Resources Consultants estimates that in addition to the estimated 84 million metric tons of marine fish legally landed in the world each year, approximately 27 million metric tons are caught and dumped at sea. With an unreported catch that may be as high as 30 percent of the legal take, we are removing far more than the 100 million metric tons of marine fish that scientists estimate is the globe’s maximum sustainable yearly harvest.

Something is terribly wrong in the ocean and the fish are dying to tell us about it. About 235 million years ago, however, the sea recovered from a mass extinction that killed 96 percent of all life, so it can probably outlast the current human demolition derby. We won’t.

We like to think of the oceans as so vast and ancient as to be above greed or vanity. Byron wrote, “Man marks the earth with ruin–his control stops with the shore.” But we now have the technological capacity to do to fish exactly what we did to the buffalo and the passenger pigeon.

We are reducing the oceans’ productivity. We risk hunger, poverty, dislocation, and war. We destroy links to our evolutionary past and to the future. We turn our backs on the world and lose its kindness.

What can we do? Refusing to eat fish doesn’t even begin to address the problem because others will assume our place. We must reduce the size of the world’s fishing fleet, set new limits, and enforce them.

Government agencies are investigating restrictions on the gear fishermen may use, as one way to limit catch. More effective area limits and fishing quotas may also be required. For these or other controls to work, however, we need international agreements binding all nations to a common set of rules.

Unless we find new ways to care for the sea, we will be its darkest legacy. Cast up from its depths millions of years ago, we may now be the agents of its destruction.

Peter Steinhart, author of “Tracks in the Sky” and “California’s Wild Heritage,” writes about nature and environmental affairs.