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Diminishing Returns
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From the Archives: "Diminishing Returns"
Originally published in National Geographic November 1995

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Photo: fisherman in India
Photograph by Robb Kendrick

The unthinkable has come to pass: The wealth of oceans, once deemed inexhaustible, has proven finite, and fish, once dubbed "the poor man's protein," have become a resource coveted—and fought over—by nations. Although technology has helped quadruple the world's catch of seafood since 1950, a nearly empty basket is all a fisherman in Cochin, India, has to show for several hours' toil—a complaint heard around the world. "We've come to our reckoning," says one marine scientist. "The next ten years are going to be very painful, full of upheaval for everyone connected to the sea."

By Michael Parfit

The sea is dark with rain. The sky is cold with winter. In Vigo, on the west coast of Spain, the big ships slip out of the harbor as softly as ghosts: The León Marco Cinco, heading north for ice-strewn, windy seas; the Farpesca Cuarto, going south to the Falkland Islands for squid; and, most fatefully, a 256-foot (78 meters) trawler called the Estai, whose journeys will eventually bring it under gunfire in the North Atlantic. The ships—the most capable fishing vessels the world has known—vanish into the rain long before they hit open water; their departure seems as steady and silent as if they had just faded away.

"There will always be shoemakers and fishermen," Lazaro Larzabal told me before he left. He is skipper of the León Marco Cinco. But he sounded too insistent, as though he didn't quite believe it. Like all fishermen, he knows there's trouble at sea.

The trouble is simple: There are too many fishermen and not enough fish. This is not yet a crisis in the dire terms to which the world is accustomed—there are no long lines at fish markets with empty stalls, no skyrocketing prices, no famine on the beach. The annual catch from the sea has peaked at about 78 million metric tons (86 million short tons) of fish, and seems stable—so far. But several factors worry those who rely on the sea for food and money.

A 50-year boom in fishing technology has created an immensely powerful industrial fleet—37,000 ships crewed by about a million people worldwide—based on freezer trawlers that can catch and process a ton or more of fish an hour.

Small-boat, traditional fishermen probably number 12 million, yet they catch only about half the world's fish. In some poor countries a small boat and a basket of line may be the last chance for a man to survive.

In many places fish stocks are being damaged by pollution, by destruction of wetlands that serve as nurseries and provide food, by the waste of unprofitable fish (called "bycatch"), and, above all, simply by overfishing. As a result of these changes, some fish stocks have collapsed, and many important groups of fish are fished either to the sustainable capacity or beyond it.

As I watch the ships leave Vigo, moving inexorably into a season, a year, perhaps a decade of conflict, I wonder if this problem can be resolved before it grows into a catastrophe. It doesn't look easy. Fishing is a 70-billion-dollar-a-year industry with deep roots in national pride and culture and an age-old tradition of freedom, but as governments struggle to solve the problems at sea, they inevitably create laws that challenge that freedom. The outcome is turmoil. In the year and a half that I follow the story, I see solutions as well as troubles, but real resolution is distant. Today's sea seems a battlefield in which glimpses of individual lives in conflict alternate with bulletins from a hundred fronts.

• NORTHWEST PACIFIC—Russian border-guard ship shoots at two Japanese vessels accused of poaching in disputed water off the Kuril Islands. One ship hit and damaged; several fishermen injured.

• SCOTLAND—Scottish fishermen attack a Russian trawler and destroy 380,000 dollars' worth of cod.

• PATAGONIA—Argentine gunboat chases and fires on a vessel from Taiwan. Crew is rescued, but trawler sinks.

The sea is white with wind; the sky threatens snow. I'm in Patagonia in midwinter. On the freezer trawler Kongo, tied up at Ushuaia, about as far south as civilization gets, Skipper Jorge Juarez is talking about disaster. "Fishing is coming down abruptly in the last three or four years!" he says. He speaks enthusiastically, even about bad news. "We are getting in trouble! Real trouble! We need to get clear in our minds the disappearing of the fish!"

Nobody disputes the notion that fisheries are in trouble, particularly fishermen. And almost every fisherman I talk with agrees that overfishing is the main culprit. Many blame forms of fishing other than their own—those who fish from small boats blame freezer trawlers. Freezer-trawler skippers blame trawler "pirates," who use illegal equipment, like fine-mesh nets. But some, like Skipper Juarez, blame themselves: "There is too much catching!" he says, showing me through his 335-foot (100 meters) freezer trawler. It is a vast, noisy labyrinth. He tells me he's retiring soon, and I pretend to appreciate the cramped processing rooms in which knife blades whir at my elbow. I crouch to avoid a low ceiling full of pipes that could smash your head even in a flat calm. Just tied at the dock, the big rusty vessel gives me the creeps.

"The fish is less and less!" Juarez says. "We have sons, grandchildren! We have to think of the future!"

Everyone thinks of the future. But who is actually doing something about it? No one here. On deck Japanese fishermen in hard hats bustle around in groups, watched by Argentine fishermen with long hair who stand smoking. The Kongo, part of an Argentina-Japan joint venture, will soon go to sea again under a new captain. Argentina needs the work, and Japan, which drives world prices with its vast demand, needs the fish. The force of economics overpowers conscience.

"TV teaches us to drink Coca-Cola!" Juarez says with the usual enthusiasm. "It doesn't teach us to take care of the fish!"

• NORTH ATLANTIC—Stern trawler Rex arrested west of Scotland for trespassing in British waters. Rex, like many ships that try to get around fishing laws, is multinational: owned by Icelanders, registered in Cyprus, and crewed by Faroe Islands fishermen.

• SOUTH ATLANTIC—Falklands patrol boat chases Taiwanese squid boat 4,364 nautical miles [8,000 kilometers] from home waters, all the way past South Africa. Falklands officers shout "Stop!" at boat for 13 days but never shoot. "We think shooting is excessive," says Falklands fisheries director. The boat gets away.

"United Nations conference could be last chance to avert collapse of world fisheries," proclaims a news release by an environmental coalition. The headline is an exaggeration, but as the second session of a UN meeting on high-seas fishing convenes in New York City in March 1994, it's clear that nations as well as environmentalists are worried—and far from agreement. Rhetoric boils with urgency, but the talks go slowly.

The conference is part of the encroachment of law on the free oceans that began after World War II. This process accelerated in the 1970s, when most nations pushed their territorial control from 12 to 200 nautical miles (22 to 370 kilometers) offshore to grab valuable fishing grounds, shoving the boats of other nations—the famous "distant-water fleets"—far out to sea.

This seemed dramatic at the time, but 200 miles (370 kilometers) is no longer enough. Many fish roam from national to international waters, where they're scooped up by intense fishing beyond the control of any nation. So nations whose rambling salmon, cod, or pollock are caught before they get home fight with those who intercept them.

For many nations this argument is still conducted in the relatively calm chambers of the UN. But more and more countries are taking the fight to sea. That's happening off Canada. When scientists recently decided that the once productive Grand Banks of Newfoundland were on the verge of collapse, Canada shut down its own fishery there, putting about 40,000 people out of work. But distant-water trawlers from Spain, Portugal, and other nations—ships like the León Marco Cinco and the Estai—continue to fish the edges of the Grand Banks just outside the 200-mile limit, which makes Canada angry and distrustful.

That's why, in early spring, I find myself in a spy plane over a stormy Atlantic. We're 250 miles (460 kilometers) east of Newfoundland, a thousand feet (300 meters) in the air. Below, icebergs and big trawlers wallow in the swell. In the twin-engine plane three men hunch over a radar screen and a computer. The men are watching ships and gathering evidence for Canada's claim that foreign vessels are overfishing here on the edge of the Grand Banks.

Confrontation is brewing. A group of nations tries to administer the fisheries of the northwest Atlantic, but Canada believes that many ships flout the group's rules. So, almost every day, planes like this one fly beyond the 200-mile edge and record every ship they see. Information gathered this way has been used to support Canada's arguments in the UN. But in this little plane, on this turbulent day, it feels more like war.

"Target heading 194 degrees, nine miles [14 kilometers]," says a voice on the intercom—the radar man reading the direction and distance to a ship. An iceberg passes, blue cliffs indistinct in a snow shower.

"Left three degrees, three miles [five kilometers]." A splash of sunlight breaks through clouds and makes the water shine. "Target in sight."

The plane noses into a dive. I can't get it out of my mind that we're about to open fire.

But there's only the clatter of a keyboard. The ship will become one of 32 recorded in the computer today. In the past week, flights have counted more than 70 different ships, all trawlers capable of scooping many tons of fish each day they work here.

We sweep over the ship at about 500 feet (150 meters). It flashes past on my side of the plane, the cables off the stern straining at the sea as if to draw up a leviathan on a hook. The ship is familiar: Back in January in Vigo I stood right there on that bridge. It is the León Marco Cinco. Lazaro Larzabal is still fishing.

Later I meet the prime mover in Canada's war of nerves with the outside world. He is Brian Tobin, the minister of fisheries and oceans. We talk in a hotel room above the stone-circled harbor at St. John's, Newfoundland. Tobin, who will be stuck with fish metaphors as long as he has this job, has been described as a tough guppy: "Small, colorful, and furtive." He doesn't look furtive to me. He looks more like the kind of fish you'd find gnawing cattle down to bones in the Amazon.

I want to know how much further Tobin will go. "Is Canada," I ask, "prepared to use diplomacy by other means?" It's a vague reference to Carl von Clausewitz's definition of war: "a continuation of political relations by other means." Tobin gets my drift.

"For those who operate beyond other rules," he says carefully, "we are looking at diplomacy by other means."

He lets the thought sink in, and I wonder if the Canadians will deliver on Tobin's threat.

• NEW YORK CITY—UN session on fisheries breaks without agreement.

• NEW ENGLAND—Fishermen angry at proposed limits on Georges Bank fishery turn over cars and throw fish from a truck.

• ENGLAND—Royal Navy officers break into a Cornish fisherman's wheelhouse to arrest him on suspicion of using an illegal net.

• INDIA—Traditional fishermen are accused of burning commercial trawlers. A nationwide protest denounces joint-venture fishing agreements.

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