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Armada Escort – A Not-So-New Concept in Fishery Management

bounty of oceans cartoon

Armada Escort – A Not-So-New Concept in Fishery Management

A few days ago I read in the news that Indonesian President Joko Widodo

authorized his navy to sink any fishing boats illegally plying Indonesian territorial

waters.  Was I delirious from my head cold or reading this correctly?  By their

government’s tally, well over 5 thousand ships each year illegally fish in the island

archipelago.  Widodo’s orders specifically call for first boarding suspect vessels then

removing the crews before scuttling their vessels.  His aim is to reduce rampant

illegal fishing in Indonesian waters predominantly by Thai fishing fleets.  The

Chinese now send a naval escort for their fishing fleet when they enter into disputed

territorial waters of other nations such as Japan, increasing the risk for an

international incident should anyone challenge their perceived sovereign rights.

          The willingness of nations to engage in hostilities over fishing rights is nothing new

but the scale and preemptive measures countries are now taking reflects the

diminishing returns fishing now yields.  The average fish species once targeted by

commercial fishing typically lasts less than 10 years before stocks are exhausted.

We’ve already fished out 90% of the large fish in the oceans.  Now fleets venture and

for thousands of miles from home bolstered by fuel subsidies to hunt the last fish.

My prescient moment of future fish wars came years before I became a marine

scientist when I followed a New York Times story sometime in the early 90’s about a

developing incident between Spain and Canada over a little known fish species

called the Turbot in Canada, otherwise known as Greenland halibut.  After the

collapse of Atlantic cod in 1992, Canada became ever more protective of their

remaining fisheries in their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that extends outward

200 nautical miles from shore.  Policing the EEZ for vessels illegally fishing within

the Canadian EEZ became a high priority to protect their remaining fisheries and

recapture some small percent of the collapsed cod GDP.  Spain was pushing the

envelope with Canada and several incidents in 1994 led to the capture of one

Spanish fishing vessel, the Estai, in one instance, and the Canadians flying fighter

plane sorties and threatening to sink several Spanish ships in other incidents.  In the

end, lots of mediation between the European Union and Canada along with

mediation from President Bill Clinton and some capitulation from Spain diffused the

potential for this particular fish war.  In my mind though, the near military conflict

between two countries over a relatively obscure fish foretold the potential for fish

wars if resources were not better managed in the future.

          The battles fought over the last wild catches used to be over market worthy fish

such as Atlantic cod, halibut, hake, and more recently over such heretofore

unknowns like the Arctic toothfish (Chilean seabass).  But as the tragedy of the

commons exploits the last pockets of fish stocks in its last reaches like Antarctica

and the Artic the rub will be to find ways manage fish stocks without armed conflict.

When I was in Africa over 20 years ago I declined the opportunity on one of our

morning safaris to see black rhinos guarded 24/7 with armed park rangers.  It

saddened me that the stakes were so high for rhino horn at that time as much for

Yemen princes using the horns as dagger sheaths as for China using them in ancient

medicinal trade that these wild animals couldn’t be left alone for a moment without

the threat of poaching.  Conspicuous consumption whether shark fins for shark fin

soup or tiger penises for virility have pushed many already rare species to the brink

of extinction.  Others like the Caribbean monk seal and Tasmanian tiger are gone

forever.  If we can bring back some of these species like black rhino teetering on the

edge of extinction, maybe we could repopulate them in their former range when we

humans are wiser and more willing to share the planet.  Don’t be on this!  Years ago

the Arabian Oryx was brought back from the brink through a captive breeding

program in the U.S. with the advent of new genetic techniques.  Within of a year of

being reintroduced into Syria, they had all been poached, once again extinct in the


          Whether on land or in our oceans, what’s left in the world today is a sad shell of the

former bounty of large charismatic wildlife that once graced the planet.  Humanity

has allowed most of our planet’ bounty to be eradicated and hunted and fished out

for short term profits at the expense of the future of everyone, everywhere.  Some of

what has been lost is irretrievable in terms of species lost to extinction and the

shear biomass plundered from our oceans.  This is most worrying considering by

2050 the earth will have 2 million more mouths to feed.  Sustainably managing our

oceans would be the most sensible way to do that.  Already, the oceans provide over

$3 trillion in revenue worldwide.

          How we achieve such a heretofore unachievable goal is fodder for many articles.

But in short, we must create greater international consensus and mandates to

protect our wild resources instead of simply opening up the last caches of fish in a

thawing Arctic ocean.  All large vessels fishing in both sovereign and international

waters alike will need to be monitored by satellite and where illegal fishing occurs

enforcement must be up to the challenge and seize illegal catches and ships and jail

crews and even seize funds of complicit companies.  This resolve is needed in every

port everywhere in the world in order to combat the lowest common denominator

in illicit trade.  International observers should be aboard all high-stakes and

controversial fishing vessels.  And finally, international trade agreements must

garner the political will of most every country on earth to ensure compliance with

trade agreements.  This all will happen no doubt but in time to save say 50% of the

last 10% of the fish in our oceans?  It takes millennia for evolution to craft a new

species and perhaps that on average lives for 10 million years.  Approximately

99.9% of all species that once existed on the planet are now extinct.  Wouldn’t it be

nice if we were as nostalgic for some of those recent extinctions we caused as we are

for say Woolworth’s or TWA going out of business?

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