Fish-Free Sea

You may live to see it in your lifetime

Illustration by Bob AulWe're standing at the oyster bar upstairs at Newport Landing on the Balboa Peninsula, looking through sliding glass doors—over the Shell marine fuel station, across a Newport Harbor turned the color of anvils in the midsummer, midafternoon heat, right across to Balboa Island. A ferry chugs sluggishly in the middle distance; a sportsfishing boat bristling with rods rotates slowly midchannel into its slip outside the Balboa Pavilion. There's a guy—no kidding—in a yellow slicker loitering on the dock of the gas station. A fishhook may or may not be involved.

We're here—amid the lobster traps, wakeboards, surf videos and big-breasted waitresses designed to create for tourists that vaguely nautical sense they're near the ocean when, hey, they're already there, just look outside—to talk with Matt Legge about a global disaster.

Writing in the May issue of the science magazine Nature, Drs. Ransom Myers and Boris Worm came to a conclusion that has fish people freaked: since the 1950s, 90 percent of the world's large-fish population—including swordfish, marlin and tuna—have disappeared. Most of those fish reappeared briefly on dinner plates before disappearing again forever.

But there are still people like Legge who handle seafood every day of their working lives and haven't heard anything about "Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities." Legge is one of many managers at Newport Landing's Restaurant and Oyster Bar; has worked there for 12 years; says he's unaware of any piscatorial problems where his menu is concerned; says, "Quality is as good as it's ever been"; and then acknowledges the restaurant has been sans swordfish for two days. But they're in now, the swordfish, and the price won't change. He retrieves a menu to show us, pauses dramatically—a look of puzzlement flashes across his surfer-boy-cute mug—and points out that the price of the swordfish has indeed gone up $4 to $22.95.

If you—an average diner—will be paying more for your big-fish dinners, Ransom Myers is paying with his life. When we spoke to him by phone last July, he was sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., bemoaning the impact of global fish declines on his family.

Myers has become something of an activist, catalyzed by his own research into lobbying foreign capitals—including Washington, D.C.—to act quickly to stop the marine holocaust. "It has wrecked my life," gripes Myers, Killam chair of ocean studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since the Nature article appeared, there've been endless interviews (including those with CNN, the BBC and NPR) and government hearings in the U.S. All of that keeps Myers from his family, but family is sort of why he took on the task of fighting for fish. "My five-year-old son really likes hammerhead sharks," Ransom told CNN, "and that's good reason for me to care."

Ransom was being glib on CNN because when he spoke to us, it was pretty clear he believes we're headed toward a global catastrophe that will affect more than his kindergartner. Beginning in the early 1990s, he and Worm, a researcher at Germany's Kiel University, began collecting data from the world's major fishing grounds.

"Wherever we looked," Ransom says, "there was phenomenal destruction."

But Myers and Worm have critics, too: scientists who question their methodology, fishing-industry representatives, and local sportsfisherman who say they haven't seen a decline in anything but hate (a) commercial fishermen who vacuum the ocean for fish and (b) officials of the California Department of Fish and Game who tell them where and when to fish.

Ransom could have remained a lab-smocked scientist—could've moved on to the next project, jockeyed for a more prominent role in his department, whatever. But there was the five-year-old hammerhead enthusiast at home and this obvious harbinger of the apocalypse: "Worldwide destruction was taking place, and no one was having the least concern of it." Ransom jumped in.

Ransom and Worm blame technology. After World War II, Japanese commercial fishermen introduced longlining—hundreds of hooks on a single line, scores of lines swinging from a single ship, thousands of ships at sea. Myers and Worm found Japanese records revealing that, in 1950, shortly after the advent of longlining, fishermen could expect to pull in at least 10 fish for every hundred hooks they cast; these days, they're lucky to pull in one. The same data also show that areas fished by longliners recorded 70 percent of their total decline in fish populations within the first 15 years of the practice.

Longlining is not the only innovation responsible for depopulation of the ocean's predators. Mesh-net trawls or metal-chain dredges, which drag along the ocean floor, tearing up plant and animal communities, force fish to adjust to an unnaturally altered ecosystem, often throwing the fish populations into decline.

Government regulations have done nothing to curb 50 years of rapid decline. Even though American fishermen use the same strategies to catch fish—longlining, trawling and dredging—U.S. industry representatives have typically (and successfully) blamed foreign fleets for the decline in fish numbers. The power of that misperception is revealed any time you talk to Americans anywhere in the seafood chain. One local restaurateur had the typical response: all he could recall about overfishing was that it had something vaguely to do with "Japanese or Chinese fishermen."

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