Friday, December 22, 2006

The Tragedy of Cod Fishing

Cod fishing in the North Sea is an emerging example of the tragedy of the commons. It's been brought into sharp focus by the decision of the European Ministers to slightly decrease the fishing quotas. This is against a background of cod stocks and catches decreasing year-on-year since the 1970's. The ICES, who monitor this, have been advising a moratorium on cod fishing since 1992.

In the summer of 1975 I spent a month in Newfoundland, in the city of St Johns, which at that time was a thriving fishing port, catching its share of 300,000 tonnes of cod caught off the East coast. St Johns isn't a big place, and most people were involved in the fishing industry. They were thriving on it though.

However, even then the catch had fallen from its peak of 800,000 tonnes in 1963. 1975 was also around the time they were introducing draggers (or trawlers), and this technology kept the levels up around 250,000 through the 1980's. In 1986, scientists recommended the catch be halved, due to dwindling stocks, and the Canadian government responded with a small reduction in the quota. See any similarities here?

By 1992 it was all over. There were simply no fish. The Canadian government responded by banning cod fishing, but it was too little, too late. A 1994 survey found only 1700 tonnes of biomass. 20 years later, and there's no real change. The cod have not returned.

The story is told here, by greenpeace, and there's a discussion of it as a tragedy of the commons here. Or in video here, if you like. It's a big deal to Newfies.

Fishing is interesting, because it's the last truly hunter-gatherer occupation that we have. All our other food production industries are a variation of farming. Even with highly mechanised fishing boats it's still hunting. History shows us that hunting on land can't support a large population, maybe 1% of that supported by farming, and hunting at sea isn't much different.

Using history as a guide, I predict that the sea will be given over to commercial fish farming, with a few nature reserves where people can fish for sport, and sell their high priced catches to discerning consumers.

A recent report in Science predicts the demise of commercial sea fishing worldwide by 2050. Its a classic tragedy of the commons, and we should all tuck in to our wild fish and chips, because soon there won't be any more. We'll have to make do with the farmed stuff. It's not so bad, although less romantic.

Mind you, Jared Diamond thinks that giving up hunting was the "Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race", and I can see why.

UPDATE: Here's an amusing site which confirms my views about the viability of cod farming, done by people who obviously have too much time on their hands.

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