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Individuals in the developed world work mostly in service or knowledge industries and live in a post-industrial period. The use of sensors, robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning by manufacturers to replace or enhance human work is growing. Farmers can use drones to administer pesticides and fertilizers while monitoring the health of their crops through satellite.
The obvious exception is commercial fishing, one of the oldest industries in existence. The primary method of hunting is still industrial fishing, which uses factory ships and deep-sea trawlers that can catch thousands of tons of fish at once.
This method has resulted in habitat devastation, overfishing, stock depletion, the mindless death of unwanted bycatch, and the loss of up to 30% to 40% of landed fish. Artisanal pre-industrial fleets in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific have been completely destroyed by industrial fishing.
Instead of fresh domestic produce from the sea, the final product is primarily a commodity that moves across the world like a manufactured part or digital currency. According to proponents of sustainable fishing, a fish often travels 5,000 miles before it is eaten. A portion is frozen, sent to Asia for processing, and then refrozen and delivered back to the United States.
But these tendencies are beginning to shift. I discuss how commercial fishing has started to go in a positive direction toward a less destructive, more open post-industrial future in my new book, “The Blue Revolution: Hunting, Harvesting, and Farming Fish in the Information Age.” In both the US and Scandinavia, this is true.
An international nonprofit organization called Global Fishing Watch tracks and produces open-access visualizations of global fishing activity online with a 72-hour delay. This innovation in openness resulted in the capture and conviction of owners and captains of boats engaged in illicit fishing.
An international business-to-business initiative called the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability develops voluntary industry standards for seafood traceability. These standards aim to bring systems that track seafood along the supply chain into line so that they can all gather the same essential data and use the same data sources. Customers can use this information to find out where their seafood is produced and whether it was done so responsibly.
In order to create a Marine Data Bank that would provide fishermen with information on ocean temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels, fishing boats in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the top U.S. fishing port based on total catch value, are fitted with sensors. Fishermen should be able to target certain species and prevent inadvertent bycatch with the aid of this data, which is linked to actual stock behavior and catch levels.
Overfishing has been reduced thanks to annual catch restrictions that are distributed among individual quotas for each fisherman. It can be very contentious to impose catch sharing, yet since 2000, 47 overfished U.S. stocks have been repaired and reopened for fishing, thanks to policy decisions based on the best available science. Examples include red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, North Atlantic swordfish, and snow crab from the Bering Sea.
Since more than a decade ago, a “fishie” movement that echoes the well-known “foodie” locavore movement has been gathering momentum. Subscribers to community-supported fisheries pay in advance for regular delivery from nearby fishermen, borrowing a strategy from agriculture. Such interaction between consumers and producers is starting to influence purchasing habits and introduce consumers to new varieties of fish that are plentiful but not immediately recognizable, such as the cod of yore.
China is leading the world’s fastest-growing food production sector, which is aquaculture. Despite having exclusive control over 3.4 million square miles of water, the United States only accounts for 1% of the worldwide market.
Nonetheless, after lobsters and scallops, aquaculture, which primarily consists of shellfish and kelp, is the third-largest fisheries sector in the Greater Atlantic region. Moreover, business owners are rearing finfish, such as salmon, branzino, barramundi, steelhead, eels, and kingfish, primarily in big, land-based recirculating systems that recycle 95% or more of their water.
The idea that farmed fish were bad for wild fish and ocean environments was largely a result of industrial-scale ocean salmon farming in Norway in the 1990s. Currently, this sector uses less crowded deep-water offshore pens or recirculating systems that are located on land.
Every new salmon farm in the United States is on land, including those in Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana, and several that are planned for Maine and California. In other instances, a system known as aquaponics uses water from the fish tanks to irrigate greenhouses where vegetables or hemp are grown.
Proposals to allow ocean farming in federal U.S. waters up to 200 miles offshore are the subject of a contentious dispute. Despite the outcome, it’s obvious that the United States won’t be able to minimize and might probably worsen its $17 billion seafood trade deficit without a thriving mariculture business.
The fishing business has not experienced this level of advancement consistently. Significantly, China produces the most seafood in the world, contributing 60% of the world’s aquaculture production and 15% of the wild catch. Chinese fishing has a significant impact on the waters. As opposed to the U.S.’s fishing fleet of 300, observers estimate that China’s fleet of up to 800,000 vessels and up to 17,000 vessels operating in far-off waters.
Chinese vessels engaged in 47 million hours of fishing activity between 2019 and 2021, according to a report by the nonprofit advocacy group Oceana using data from Global Fishing Watch. Almost 80 additional countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones and the high seas together accounted for more than 20% of this activity. It is forbidden for Chinese boats to fish illegally in the waters of other nations. Chinese ships frequently target the waters of West Africa, South America, Mexico, and Korea.
The majority of Chinese ships used for long-distance travel are so enormous that they can capture as much fish in a week as indigenous boats from Senegal or Mexico could in a year. Without government aid, most of this fishing would not be lucrative. Holding China to greater standards is unquestionably important for preserving robust global fisheries.
The ocean’s restorative power
There is no shortage of depressing data regarding how overfishing, in addition to other stresses like climate change, is impacting the oceans around the world. Yet, I think it’s important to note that, according to the United Nations, more than 78% of current marine fish landings come from ecologically sustainable stocks. And fisheries that have been overfished can frequently recover with wise management.
For instance, the scallop fishery off the east coast of the United States, which was basically shut down in the middle of the 1990s, is now a thriving US$570 million industry.
Cabo Pulmo, a five-mile strip of coastline near the southeast tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, is another success story. Due to severe overfishing, Cabo Pulmo, once an important fishing location, was deserted in the early 1990s. The Mexican government was then convinced by the local communities to designate the region as a marine park where fishing was prohibited.
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“Cabo Pulmo was a submerged desert in 1999. Director of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Project and ecologist Enric Sala noted in 2018 that ten years later, the area was “a kaleidoscope of life and color.”