The Freedom of the Seas

Moses Rock Reef
Moses Rock Reef; Photo by Reut Elimelech

In the summer of 2010, while swimming in the vast blue waters of the Red Sea, several large coral structures and a vibrant reef full of Broomtails, Humpheads and Lionfish were raveled in front of me. It was the magnificent Moses Rock Reef, and it took my breath away. It was my first deep-water dive. Going into an unfamiliar ground and observing the stunning reef for the very first time was an unforgettable and exhilarating experience. It was also the first time I started thinking about the relationship between men and nature. Since then, I often wonder about the fundamental dependence we have on nature. Nature provides us with numerous environmental services, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink and the food we eat. We literally couldn’t exist without it. And yet, we forget to appreciate it. Most often we take nature for granted, disturbing it and overexploiting its gifts to us.

One amazing photograph by environmental photojournalist Thomas P. Peschak captures this fundamental dependence we have on nature. It is a photo of an African fisherman standing on top of an old wooden fishing dhow crossing a coral reef at high tide in Diani, Kenya. The photo captivates both worlds – the world above the water and the world below. Underneath the dhow we see a beautiful coral reef and dozens of small fish that live in it. This fisherman is a hunter-gatherer; he represents the old fishing tradition of low-tech and small-scale fishery, which is still practiced in the developing world.

Photo by Thomas P. Peschak
Photo by Thomas P. Peschak

“Hunting and gathering was the dominant lifestyle in the world about 90,000 years ago,” explained environmental social scientist Jennifer Jacquet in her guest lecture at NYU’s “Environmental Systems Science” course last November[1]. However, the growing global human population and its increasing need for food led to a shift in the world’s food production methods. We moved from hunting and gathering to more cost-effective (and somewhat easier) methods such as herding and farming. One of the major turning points in the way we met our ever-increasing food needs was the industrial revolution, which then lead to an unprecedented increase in yields. The development of farming machinery alongside the rise of industrialized farming methods (adding more fertilizer and expanding irrigation), enabled farmers to grow more food on each unit of land. In the oceans, the industrial revolution lead to the development of steam ships, which allowed fishermen to fish farther from the shoreline and to increase their catch. The greatest acceleration in industrial fishery came after World War II (1945) when tools that were developed for war (such as the sonar) made their way into commercial fishing. As a result, the fishing industry became very efficient at harvesting fish and meeting the increasing world demand for seafood.

“The expansion of humans into the oceans led to a change in the oceans’ food web,” said Jacquet. In many cases we have exceed the maximum sustainable fish stocks, which lead to a decline in the populations of wild fish. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, at least 75% of seafood species are overexploited, fully exploited or recovering from depletion and need more effective and precautionary management (Oceana). If the decline in the populations of wild fish continues long enough, many species may become extinct and overfishing will expand to previously untargeted and smaller spe­cies, some of which are considered undesirable. Hence overfishing alters the oceans’ ecosystem and weakens the biodiversity of marine environments.

The biodiversity of marine environments is of great importance to humans. A wide range of marine species currently serves as a key source of food. “Fish is the last major group of wild animals exploited for food,” claims Jacquet in her paper “Silent water: A brief look at the marine fisheries crisis” (256). In addition, the diversity of marine species provides us with important environmental services, such as stabilizing climate. The oceans and the organisms that live in it play a significant role in the global carbon cycle. Marine primary producers (autotrophs), such as phytoplankton, consume CO2 in the process of photosynthesis, and consequently reduce CO2 presences in the atmosphere. Therefore, changes to the biodiversity of marine environments can affect their ability to regulate climate. Moreover, the genetic diversity of marine species contains information through which we are discovering a wide variety of chemical compounds, which can be used in medicine.

But if overfishing is such a large and significant issue why don’t we see it? Jacquet gives us three main reasons for this phenomenon. The first reason is seafood imports. The United States imports about 80% of its seafood from other places. Thus, when we go to the supermarket we can always find the fish we want. The second reason is mislabeling. Fish species names are being changed along the supply chain to make them more marketable, which makes it harder to know which species are really no longer available for our consumption.

Finally, there is the relatively new method of fish farming. Fish farming is a manmade ecosystem that caters to our growing seafood needs. Many species that are grown in fish farms require fish as food, and consequently adding more stress on the fishery industry. We catch wild fish to feed our farmed fish.

There is no doubt that overfishing is one of the biggest threats to our oceans today. Some might argue that the solution to the problem lies in Peschak’s photograph – we simply need to promote and support small-scale fishing methods. However, as Jacquet explains in her paper, the low-tech small-scale fishers “catch roughly the same amount [of fish] as the industrial [fishing] sector” and thus contribute to the marine fisheries crisis (258). In her lecture, Jacquet suggests three possible ways to help save our oceans:

  • Eliminate the wasteful fishmeal industry – One third of all the fish we catch we don’t consume directly, but rather use as fishmeal for other animals (such as fish in fish farms and even pigs).
  • Ban destructive and wasteful fishing practices (such as bottom trawling).
  • Designate more marine protected areas – Today only 1% of the oceans are closed to fishing. The other 99% are open spaces in which fishery is unregulated.

Nonetheless, in order for those solutions to be implemented we need to change the way we look at our oceans. Today the oceans are perceived as “no man’s land,” and thus as no one’s responsibility. But, I believe that the contrary is true – the oceans belong to everyone and thus they are everyone’s responsibility. We need to take better care of our oceans, for they take care of us

To learn more about overfishing and how you can help save our oceans click here.


[1] Wednesday, November 5th, 2015, NYU, Jennifer Jacquet