Hello, I Must Be Going

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, December 1997

Hello, I Must Be Going

Dire forecasts predict the end of the all-u-can-eat seafood buffet, as the world's fisheries fall victim to big fleets and a fragile nature. But if the waters are really emptying, why is your local market swimming in fish?
A story of the daily catch.

By Bill McKibben

Exactly 500 years ago, the Italian mariner John Cabot stood on the tip of Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland and looked out over a teeming new world. Like his fellow Genovese Columbus, who had reached Hispaniola five years before, Cabot was looking for a route to Asia. Instead he rediscovered North America and perhaps the richest fishery on earth — a place where cod were so plenteous that by some accounts you needed only to dip a basket into the water to haul up a catch. There were cod five and six feet long, cod that weighed 150 and 200 pounds. Half a century later, 60 percent of all the fish eaten in Europe was cod. Cabot had found a new world of sheer abundance, the world of the passenger pigeon and the buffalo and an inexhaustible profusion of fish.

If you stand on the tip of Cape Bonavista now, up on the pedestal with your arm around the statue of John Cabot, you look out on the remnants of that world. Few fishing boats head out from Bonavista anymore, and none that fish for cod — there's been a near-total ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland since 1992, when stocks finally collapsed completely. Before the ban, virtually every family in this town of 4,500 souls made its living from the cod fishery, either directly or indirectly, but when a researcher recently interviewed 84 parents in Bonavista, not one of them thought his children would find jobs as fishermen.

You've heard this story before, of course — the story of recklessness, mismanagement, and human folly that have devastated this fishery and many others. You've read about pitched battles over declining catches, about international flash points of conflict and intimidation on the high seas. Canadians have seized Spanish vessels and blockaded American ferries. Icelandic boats have rammed British trawlers. Tunisians have traded shots with Italians, as have Thais with Vietnamese. A wave of books spelling out tales of fishy doom and a steady drumbeat of newspaper coverage have raised gloomy prospects of an unfolding crisis; this year a Pulitzer Prize went to the New Orleans Times-Picayune for its 50,000-word series on the Gulf of Mexico's wrecked fishing grounds and the wrecked lives that go with them.

But like the now-familiar sagas of tropical rainforests, global warming, and the earth's fragmenting wilderness habitats, these tales of depleted fisheries and disappearing wild salmon and despairing fishing communities somehow manage to seem both dire and irrelevant. No matter how often we hear about limits, they never really seem to impinge on our lives. And fish are no different: Our supermarkets and restaurants are still full of seafood; a cornucopian avalanche of fast-food lobster and shrimp cascades across our TV screens; Alaskan fishermen catch so many salmon that low prices make it nearly impossible for them to make a profit. The fisheries in crisis seem to exist on another planet, even while the suspicion persists that the sum of these isolated tragedies and feuds — the salmon, the cod, the whales, the redfish — should add up to something more than a sense of vague guilt and disquiet.

The tip of Cape Bonavista is a good place to start unraveling this mystery — to start figuring out how the world can be so damaged and our lives so little changed. But the view from that rocky headland, I warn you now, is sobering. At the very least, it looks out on a world far more daunting than the one in which the cod swam by the tens of millions.

Just as the sun comes up, a little wind ruffles the swells. "The old guys call that wind 'the pride of the morning,'" says Bill Donovan, who grew up fishing the North Atlantic with his dad. "It's just to let you know not to get too cocky."

We're aboard Donovan's boat, the Danni J., a few miles down the Newfoundland coast from Bonavista, plying the water off the tiny town of Melrose. Donovan is using his handheld GPS unit to steer toward the spot where his buoy floats at the end of his line of crab pots. "I like this gadget because those satellites cost somebody $26 billion," he tells me, "but I can use it for free." Soon the winch is hauling up 150 fathoms of line, starting to strain as the first of the pots nears the surface. Donovan grins at the squeal it makes — "sounds like a few bucks to me" — and indeed, when the crew of three pulls the first pot aboard and opens the bottom, 30 or 40 long-legged snow crabs spill out across the deck. Perhaps half are both big enough and hard enough to keep; the small ones and those that are molting get tossed back overboard. By the time they're packed in a hatch with some ice, the next pot is coming over the side. When we return to Donovan's hand-built wharf to unload, he's got 2,600 pounds of crab, which will fetch about 80 cents a pound, or more than $2,000.

Which is not to say that Donovan is happy. He's a big, genial, 44-year-old native of Melrose, and he clearly enjoyed the sunrise this morning ("same as drugs, it is"), and the puffins that flew by in a little squadron, and the minke whale that sounded off the starboard rail. But whenever he sits down for a smoke and a talk, he shakes his head. For one thing, he's not making any money: His crab license lets him take only 13,300 pounds in a season, and so he's slipping farther behind in the payments on his small boat.

And he's watching his community crumble — when we return to the dock, almost everyone in Melrose is there to help haul the crab boxes up to the scales, which seems a pathetic reminder of how little there is to do now that cod fishing is banned. "Two years ago we had 118 guys in our bar baseball league," he said. "Forty-eight of them don't play anymore. They've moved away."

Most of all, though, he seems blue because he's not fishing for cod. He takes me into his workshop at the end of the wharf and picks up a wad of black netting. "Smell that," he says, thrusting it toward my nose. It smells like new plastic. "That's a cod trap," he tells me. "It's never been in the water. I spent $4,000 on them the winter before the moratorium. It's like to turn your stomach upside down."

But again, it's not the money — it's the not fishing. Donovan worked on freighters for a few years in his twenties, but fishing is all he's ever wanted to do. "Hey, crabbing's the easiest fishing you'll ever do," he grants. "It's the cleanest. But we count crabs. With cod, we'd go to fish six or eight rocks in a day, try to find the best-aged fish before the other guy." Donovan's father, Phillip, who's still alive and clear-eyed and has a new small skiff on order, was born in Melrose in 1911 and fished his whole life. "His planet was these five miles out from shore," says Donovan. "Cod's what we were made for. That's why we're here."

If you understand what happened to the codfish, you'll more or less know what happened to the redfish and the swordfish and the bluefin tuna and the orange roughy, to the long list that grows longer after each fishing season. But the cod will do. For that story, I visit Richard Haedrich, a fish biologist at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland's capital, where he sits me down in his office with a small mountain of charts and graphs and begins to talk.

"For about 300 years after Cabot, fishermen took between 100,000 and 200,000 tons of cod a year, caught by hook and line from small dories," Haedrich begins. "Then, in the 1870s, the cod trap was invented — a piece of fixed net that was very effective. There were big debates in Newfoundland: Would this wipe out the cod? For two years it was banned."

But the net slowly became the backbone of the industry — it was the tool Donovan and his dad used to make their livings. And the catch stayed about the same, slowly increasing toward 200,000 tons a year. "Even with the nets, it was very seasonal," Haedrich says. "You'd wait for the capelin to come, and then the cod to chase them. The cod were landed in these tiny ports and split and dried there, and then the company boat would eventually come along to pick them up." When the cod weren't in season, something else was; many fishermen hunted seals in the winter for cash, cut firewood, grew small gardens. It was a rugged, poor, rich life, but it was kept alive by the prodigious cod. (A cod can lay nine million eggs a year, notes Mark Kurlansky in his marvelous new book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. It was once said of the cod that it would "baffle all the efforts of man to exterminate.")

Then, in the 1960s, the distant-water fleet appeared — the draggers that could hunt the cod down out at sea, that could fish year round. The catch suddenly quadrupled, to 800,000 tons, most of it going to European boats that didn't even have to dock in Newfoundland before the voyage home. Canada, along with many other nations, quickly declared a 200-mile limit, effectively pushing the foreigners off the richest shelves and banks. "The idea was that the streets were paved with fish and that now that the Europeans were gone it would come to the Canadians," says Haedrich.

Ottawa started subsidizing boatbuilders, erecting fish-processing plants, establishing a huge fishery. Quasi-public companies built fleets of trawlers, and for a few years jobs were easy to find and life was cushy. "But as a result of all the capital investment, the fishing couldn't be seasonal anymore," Haedrich tells me. "And there were new advances in fish-finding technology, every couple of months." Once they were able to locate the nurseries where the cod mated, the dragger captains discovered that the fish were in prime condition just before they spawned — so that's when they started taking them, tearing up the ocean floor in the process. Government biologists had been assigned to regulate the catch, but bad news never gained credence. "The setting of quotas always seemed to err on the high side," Haedrich recalls. Enforcement was lax. As one of Bill Donovan's friends, a former crewman on one of the draggers, put it, "The last two years before the ban all we did was steal fish, just to make a living. You'd get a piece of paper telling you where to fish, but there weren't no fish there. So you fished where there were fish."

Until 1992. All of a sudden the boats went out and came back — empty. No fish. At all. What had happened, apparently, was that the success of the new technologies had disguised the decline of the cod. As the electronics had become better and better, the fleet had managed to search out the fish wherever they remained, and therefore the catch had remained steady year after year even though the fleets were beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel. If the scientists had listened to the fishermen, such as Donovan, who worked a few miles off the beach, they'd have heard about the warning signs: smaller fish, barren grounds. But one Canadian government scientist had said mere fishermen "have a litany of mumbo-jumbo which they bring forth each time they talk to you about where the fish are and why they're not here."

And so now Canada pays out millions in welfare checks — via the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy, a program expected to expire this spring — and buys up boats. It retrains fishermen to operate computers or style hair. The dragger boats have been sent farther afield by the big Canadian companies that own them. "A guy I know is fishing off Namibia this year," Donovan says.

But the cod aren't coming back — not yet anyway. "There's a certain amount of theoretical support for the idea that they might never come back, at least in their former abundance," Haedrich tells me. The sea-floor ecology has been altered in many places by all the draggers, and new, less valuable fish such as skates and dogfish are thriving where the cod once reigned. The most prudent course of action would be to bar any kind of fishing entirely for a few decades, argues Haedrich — but by then, of course, a way of life would be destroyed.

The same story, in different accents, is told on every seacoast on earth. In 1990, the London Daily Telegraph reported that every square meter of the sea bottom in the Dutch region of the North Sea was being dragged by a beam trawler at least once each year — some spots were hit seven times — and the trawling chains were plowing the bottom into a virtual desert. In Indonesia, "fishermen" routinely kill miles of coral reef with blasts of dynamite, and some even pour cyanide into the water and collect the poison-stunned fish for sale to fancy restaurants. Around the world, huge nets bring up millions of tons of "bycatch" each year — "trash fish" that are tossed back overboard, usually to die, because their swim bladders burst during the quick ascent in the net. Meanwhile, the most expensive fish bring out every technological marvel. Spotter airplanes circle the North Atlantic, calling in boats as soon as they find bluefin tuna, one 750-pound specimen of which sold for $83,500 in the Tokyo market in 1992. When the Japanese squid fleet turns on its high-powered lights at night to lure the creatures to its nets, you can see the flash from space.

In his forthcoming book Song for the Blue Ocean, which will be published next month, Carl Safina, director of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program, uses the past tense to describe our time: "The last buffalo hunt was occurring on the rolling blue prairies of the ocean."

In at least one place, there's a different story.

Early in this century, more than 400 years after Cabot landed in Newfoundland, the first commercial fleets and packing plants began setting up business along the shores of Bristol Bay, on Alaska's southwest coast. It's no longer a new frontier on Bristol Bay — the hulking ruins of decades-old canneries stand alongside more recent operations on the shoreline — but it's still raw country. The town of King Salmon, the closest you can get to the fishery on a commercial flight, is little more than a collection of Quonset huts and barrooms, a place so glum you wouldn't want to wake up with a hangover for fear of severe existential despair.

At the King Salmon airport, I meet up with Scott Quist, a state trooper who's agreed to take me to see Bristol Bay's frenzied July fishing season. Quist needs only about a hundred yards of tarmac to bounce his Supercub into the air; his plane is built for patrolling the Alaska Peninsula, for landing on beaches and frozen ponds. From the sky, the peninsula looks as deserted as any place on earth. Caribou wander across the tundra between myriad small lakes, each of which hosts its own pair of trumpeter swans standing guard over a nest.

But then you break over the edge of Bristol Bay and the scene changes. The north edge of the Egegik fishery is simply an invisible set of loran coordinates. In early July, however, during the height of the sockeye salmon run, it's easy to tell just where the line falls. Four or five hundred boats — fancy, high-powered boats — jam themselves in a wall that stretches maybe two miles straight out from the beach. "There's a huge cloud of brown smoke from the exhaust — it's just like Denver," says Quist, who usually patrols the line in a small boat. "And even if the seas are completely calm, the waves there will be four and five feet high, just from the wake of the boats." Fights break out constantly as boats bump into one another, jockeying for position. And captains constantly cheat, moving just across the line to get their drift nets out in front of everyone else's. "If you can get 15 seconds of free water on the fourth of July, you might get 4,000 pounds of fish in your net," he says. "He who pushes the line gets the most fish."

Quist puts the plane down on the bumpy strip outside the small, roadless settlement of Pilot Point. He's come to check out a caribou killing; I've come to solve a bit of a puzzle. Even though it sounds as if the Bristol Bay salmon fishery should be in as much trouble as the Newfoundland cod stocks — after all, the same combination of high technology and economic imperatives apply here too — it is in fact relatively healthy. How did Bristol Bay escape the fate of so many other fisheries?

While Quist investigates, I climb onto the seat of a late-model all-terrain vehicle, pretty much the only transportation in a place you simply can't reach on wheels. I roar down the makeshift beach road, past the shacks of the set-netters who come from around Alaska each summer to fish from the beach. It's a lower-tech, lower-volume technique than the drift-net boats churning up the waters offshore, but it's no less hard work: untangling fish from the gill nets, tossing them into the bottom of the pitching skiff, wallowing through wind-driven seas to the offshore tender where you trade your fish for a fistful of bills.

Today, however, the state has temporarily closed the fishery, and so the couple I've come to visit, a pair of veteran fishermen named Tom and Cate Bursch, have time for an excursion. Tom and Cate winter down in Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula, and spend their summer up here harvesting salmon with their children and their boat crew. We unload the nets from their skiff, pack binoculars and bird books, and take off up the Ugashik, one of the rivers that drains from the peninsula into the bay. It's as wide as the Hudson at its mouth, this shallow tidal flow, and in an aluminum skiff you can reach its source, Ugashik Lake, in a couple of hours. There, just where the river begins, three young men — two college students and a ski bum — are spending the summer counting fish. Their work is one of the keys to the secret of Bristol Bay.

Ten minutes each hour, one of them climbs a rickety scaffolding next to the river, sits down on a plank, and stares into the water. As he sees the flash of a salmon swimming upstream in the clear water to spawn, he clicks the clicker in his hand, like the ticket-taker at a high school dance. And then he climbs down, returns to his shack, and radios the numbers to Jeff Regnart, a fisheries biologist a hundred miles away, back in King Salmon.

Regnart's job is fairly simple: to see that enough salmon make it upstream past the fishermen to the spawning grounds to guarantee that there will be a good run when this class returns to spawn four years hence. You don't need all the fish, or even most of them, heading upstream. On a good year, six million fish might return to the Ugashik, of which 700,000 are needed for a successful spawn; they've derived this "escapement" number from almost a century of experience, and there's a different number for every river in the state. The rest of the fish can go to the cowboys in the boats along the north line or to the more traditional set-netters working off the beaches. They're "excess." They're money.

The easiest method of regulating the fishery would simply be to count from the towers until the first 700,000 are safely past and then let everyone go fishing. But biologists suspect that the fish come in waves, with subpopulations heading for certain streams traveling in pulses; so to protect each strain, Regnart works out a complicated system of "openings," allowing an hour or two of fishing one day, maybe none the next, maybe six hours the day after that. His afternoon radio announcement of the next day's hours means literally everything to the fishermen waiting in their boats. "When they've got their nets in the water, they just turn off the flow of fish like a faucet," Quist says. "Nothing gets through."

Last summer was slow in Bristol Bay. The fish weren't coming back in their expected abundance; the count at the tower was by ones and twos, not tens and twenties. And so the openings were few and far between. The captains who were deep in hock for their boats were getting ulcers. Regnart's job was not to care. "Our commitment is to get the escapement above all," he says. "There's no compromise. We never say, 'We're going to trim it this year to let you guys cover your expenses.' Our job is to hold that line, however much we're getting beat up."

What's surprising is how little heat they get. It's not that fishermen aren't angry; in these times, fishermen everywhere are conspiracy theorists, often with good reason. One evening I sat in Tom and Cate's neat but cramped shack, eating salmon and eggs and listening over VHF Channel 7 as one fisherman conducted an impromptu call-in show, Radio Free Ugashik, from his boat. The complaints were endless: Maybe the Taiwanese are taking our fish; someone needs to go to the fish market in Tokyo and do a DNA test on the fish; maybe fishermen elsewhere on the Alaska coast are grabbing Ugashik fish before they can swim up the coast.

And the bitching covered up some real hurt. In recent years there have been either low fish runs or low prices; a series of boom seasons in the 1980s lured in a lot of fishermen, most of whom paid top dollar for their licenses and permits. For all that, though, no one gets on the radio and demands that the state just let them fish. The escapement number is something sacred. As well it should be, since they know that otherwise there may not be any fish a few years down the road.

It all makes perfect sense. But in most other places there is nothing sacred. Fishermen around the world relentlessly search out any fish that's laying golden eggs and ship it to market without a second's hesitation. To give only one example, orange roughy live to be 150 years old and don't spawn until they're 30, but they were nearly fished out before New Zealand imposed any restrictions at all. "We get visitors from Canada, France, Japan, and they tell us our approach simply wouldn't work there," says Regnart.

Alaska's salmon runs are blessed because the fish must return to their rivers, and therefore you can restrict fishing to a few square miles, an area small enough to effectively enforce limits on the catch. You can easily count the fish as they head upstream; it's not the underwater guessing game it is in Newfoundland. Combined with real political will, that's been enough to keep the fish coming back despite a century of heavy fishing. Any number of factors could still wreck the fishery — deep-water trawlers could scoop up the fish far out at sea, global warming could raise temperatures enough to kill off various runs — yet Bristol Bay seems proof that the decline of the world's fisheries is not inevitable.

Bristol Bay also proves something else, however. Which is that we live in a finite world, a world that can sustain a certain number of wild salmon and no more. Over the decades, the number of fish returning has fluctuated, but within a fairly tight range. It doesn't keep growing, the way the human population of the world keeps growing. It's as big as it's going to get. "These are natural systems," says Regnart. "You can't just go and add fertilizer to the lakes to grow more fish. These systems are much too large to manipulate that way. If we tried, we'd screw up."

The moral of the story is that ecological equilibrium is an absolute limit. Even if we allowed every damaged marine ecosystem and spawning ground in the world to recover and then managed these resources with consummate care, even if such restraint could be enforced, we would still hit a wall. It's not that we'll run out of fish the way we'll someday run out of oil. Fish, after all, are big believers in reproduction — that's why those Alaskan salmon are fighting their way upstream even as their very bodies decay. But in a world that seems poised to nearly double its human population in the next century, the habits formed by assumptions of endless bounty are becoming dangerously untenable.

If you want to fathom this sea change, you need to take off your rubber boots and your oilskins and trade in your skiff for a shuttle flight to Washington, D.C. You need to make your way to an office building off Dupont Circle, where the Worldwatch Institute has its headquarters.

Worldwatch is perhaps the most earnest place in a cynical world; its staffers churn out report after report on "Electricity for a Developing World" or "Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy" or "Discarding the Throwaway Society." At the long, wild economic party we've been throwing on this planet — our celebration of each new fiscal quarter of growth, where we whoop it up as the stock markets double and triple — Worldwatch has volunteered to be the unwelcome guest who reminds us about the morning after. Worse, Worldwatch doesn't do it with easily dismissed histrionics. Numbers matter as much in its quiet offices as they do at any Wall Street brokerage. For years, in a dispassionate series of annuals called The State of the World, it has tracked the steady decline in many of the planet's natural-resource systems — the chainsawed forests, the eroded soils, the polluted waters.

It's a grim accounting, but it's a chronicle that has never really seemed to matter; for all the damage we've done, we've not yet run out of food or oil or much of anything else. Our economies keep growing larger even as our populations expand. Ever since the first Earth Day, in 1970, there's been the nervous sense that we're close to certain limits, but for 30 years we haven't quite reached them, and prophets of imminent doom have seemed to be crying wolf — which has led some to doubt whether physical limits really exist and others to propose that we're so clever as a species that we'll simply be able to evade them. We'll always manage to stay one step ahead of the math — haven't we done it so far?

So here's the fish story, at its most schematic. Decide for yourself whether the numbers lie.

In 1900, the world caught three million tons of fish. As we reached new seas and developed new technologies, that number grew steadily through the century — grew by more than 25 times. Between 1950 and 1970, the annual catch rose 6 percent a year, reaching 80 million tons. And then, in the early 1970s, the Peruvian anchovy catch, which was then the largest fishery in the world, collapsed from 12 million tons to two million over the course of three years. Caused at least in part by overfishing, this crash signaled the start of a new era.

For the next two decades, the global catch grew much more slowly — just over 2 percent a year. In 1989, it peaked at 86 million tons, and then fell by 7 percent over the next three years. Since 1992 it's hovered at about 80 million tons. We are, in other words, catching less fish now than we did ten years ago — and because over the past decade the human population has increased by 800 million souls, to nearly six billion, that means there's a lot less fish to go around.

If you look behind the numbers, it gets even worse. To catch that 80 million tons, fishing fleets are working harder each year, employing more expensive technology and more extreme measures. Iceland recently developed a trawling net whose mouth is large enough to engulf 12 Boeing 747s. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the world's fishing fleet is overbuilt by 50 percent — that we have far more boats and nets than we need to catch the catchable fish.

Or forget the numbers entirely and look at the plain fact that fishermen aren't netting the same kinds of fish they once did. By the 1990s, as cod and haddock and hake fisheries declined, the trawlers were keeping the catch at the same level only by hauling in huge amounts of Chilean jack mackerel, Japanese and South American pilchard, and various species of anchovy. Cod and haddock you eat, and eat happily; anchovy and pilchard you mostly grind up for animal feed or fertilizer. "Now we're catching the little guys that swim in schools," Worldwatch researcher Mike Strauss told me. "They taste different, and they have a lot of bones."

According to the UN, all 17 of the world's major fishing regions are now fished at or above sustainable levels. If we go through all the pain of buying back licenses and decommissioning trawlers and enforcing sound limits, and if nature cooperates by allowing these damaged systems to recover completely, the situation may not get any worse. But it's not going to get better anytime soon. Building bigger boats, adding more shifts, baiting more hooks — they'll only add up to fewer fish, not more.

That's the new world you contemplate from the tip of Cape Bonavista — the end of abundance, the end of growth. "I think that the world fish catch is the first global limit we've reached," Lester Brown, Worldwatch's founder, remarked as we sat eating crab cakes in a Washington restaurant. The question, then, is this: Are there more limits on the way?

Or maybe there's another question first. How could we afford to eat crab cakes for lunch? Why is there still seafood in your supermarket? Why, in fact, are Bristol Bay salmon fishermen getting less per pound for their catch now than they did a few years ago?

A large part of the answer is that we've learned to farm many species that we used to catch at sea — learned to grow big fish in small ponds. Aquaculture produces nearly 20 million tons of fish a year now, which means that even with the declines in the marine catch, we're consuming more fish than we ever have before.

The "cornucopian" theorists hold up fish farming as a proof of their theory that there are no limits we can't overcome. Julian Simon, a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland who is known as a pro-population-growth "doomslayer," is the granddaddy of this argument; one of his intellectual heirs is Mark Sagoff, a researcher for the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy, also at the University of Maryland, who wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year that aquaculture shows that "our economy depends far more on the progress of technology than on the exploitation of nature, [and] resource scarcities do not exist or are easily averted." Sure, people may deplete the oceans, and our populations may outstrip their capacity to provide us with food. We are, after all, giants — a modern American uses as many calories of energy each day as a sperm whale. But giant people possess giant brains, big enough to figure out ways around any of our problems. And what better way than farming fish? It allows us to bypass the messy problems of trying to control an almost uncontrollable industry and instead raise our "seafood" in ponds, under nice controlled conditions. "In the sea we still act as hunters and gatherers," Ismail Serageldin, the vice-president of environmentally sustainable development at the World Bank, has observed. "The next great leap in producing food will come from 'domesticated' and genetically improved varieties of fish and other seafood."

Maybe so — maybe fish farming is proof that we don't really need to worry much. Or maybe it proves that having run out of vodka, we're rummaging around the house for the cough syrup — that we're close to hitting bottom but still trying desperately to keep the buzz alive with one more technological fix. Because fish farming is not exactly carefree and benign. Fish farmers often devastate the places where they grow their crops: Great swaths of the world's coastal mangrove forests, for instance, have been cut down to build shrimp farms. And those mangrove swamps were places where fish once came to spawn. By one recent estimate, Thailand harvested 120,000 tons of shrimp between 1985 and 1990 but lost a potential fish harvest of 800,000 tons because the spawning grounds had been eradicated.

What's more, most of the shrimp from the ponds does not end up on Thai dinner tables. It's a luxury item, shipped to Japan or the States. Though seafood is the primary source of protein for much of the developing world, poor people already consume less per capita than those of us in North America, where fish is just one choice at the supermarket. "If you follow the flows of fish meal," Mike Strauss told me (sentences often begin in such improbable ways at Worldwatch), "you see an enormous transfer of protein from south to north."

But let's forget about fairness and look at the bottom line. What's the real problem with most fish farming?

The problem is, you've got to feed the fish. Many fish — salmon, for instance — are carnivorous foragers occupying a position high on the ocean's food chain. If you want to raise them in a pond, you need to dump in fish meal for them to eat. That's what's happening to a lot of that pilchard and anchovy that fishermen have been hauling in; they're Salmon Chow. The marine food chain has been changed so that now we perform for the salmon the job of catching their dinner, a job they used to perform for free. Meanwhile, by continuing to take so many forage fish out of the water, we reduce the chance that wild stocks will ever recover. It's like clear-cutting a forest and then making mulch for tree farms by grinding up whatever saplings poke their heads above the ground.

Some species can be farmed more efficiently; certain carp, for instance, eat weeds that can be grown in ponds with animal-waste fertilizer. Two species of carp, mostly grown in China for domestic consumption, are already on the top-ten list of the world's most consumed species. But an awful lot of fish farming aims at higher-value species such as catfish. Instead of eating fish meal, catfish are vegetarians — they thrive on a nice diet of cornmeal. Which means that a catfish farm is exactly like a huge chicken farm, except that the chickens swim.

But why would anyone worry about dumping cornmeal into a Delta catfish pond? Well, that's where the story takes a sudden twist. Because it's possible — indeed, according to experts like Cornell biologist David Pimentel it's highly likely — that the wall we've hit with fisheries is just the first of a series of walls. And that we may, before much longer, be running short of cornmeal too, not to mention wheat and rice and soybeans. That we may, as a world, be a little short on dinner. Pessimists have been making such noises at least since the time of Malthus, the eighteenth-century economist who forecast population explosion and starvation. And ever since, farmers have been proving them wrong — they've found new fields, they've found new fertilizers, they've found new technologies. The Green Revolution was akin to the world's fishing fleets finding new oceans. Just as with the fisheries, the amount of grain harvested soared, year after year. Beginning with the end of the Second World War, grain production grew 3 percent annually — even faster than population grew.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, however, the increases in grain production began to tail off. Our harvests didn't crash, but before long they did begin to increase at only about 1 percent a year — more slowly than the rate of population growth. All of a sudden, there was less food to go around. As with the fisheries, there are a number of theories for why this happened. The collapse of the Soviet Union made fertilizer and spare parts for tractors hard to come by across those vast grain fields, and that clearly hurt. But so did a number of other problems that environmentalists had warned about for years — soil erosion and the loss of farm land to overirrigation and salinization, for instance. Meanwhile, Asian incomes exploded; Chinese per capita income is now growing at almost 10 percent a year. And one of the first things people do with more money is buy more meat, which in effect means they buy more grain. Prices for wheat and corn have spiked upward, and the world's stockpiles are down below 50 days' worth — they are mostly "pipeline" supplies, hardly stockpiles at all.

Not everyone is alarmed. There are some prophets who think that biotechnology is about to kick off another Green Revolution, which will produce grain enough to feed the three or four billion people expected to join us in the next half-century. So far, though, the gains have been small and incremental. And if you insisted on being an alarmist, you could worry about the fact that we're steadily changing the very systems that farmers (and fishermen) most depend on. Global warming may offer the biggest challenge to grain harvests — hot weather depresses yields and increases the likelihood of drought; in 1988, the warmest summer the Northern Hemisphere has ever experienced, American grain yields fell by a quarter. The prospect of future crop failures is a scary one.

So it's not a great moment to be going in for fish farming. "Aquaculture is now big enough that it makes a measurable claim on the world's grain supplies," says Lester Brown. "If oceanic fish catches are no longer increasing, then we need two million more tons of protein each year just to supply the growth in population. One way or another, that two million tons has to come from land, and if it's going to get to people by way of fish farms, that will cost four million more tons of grain feed each year."

It's possible that these calculations are too gloomy. The Chinese government insists it will increase crop yields enough to feed its people; in other places around the globe birth rates have begun to fall, leading some demographers to predict that the world population may peak late in the next century at just over ten billion. There may be technical marvels on the horizon: emissions-free hydrogen-fueled cars, for instance, which would help solve the greenhouse mess.

At the very least, however, it's clear that the next 50 years will be a tight squeeze. Many forms of toxic pollution will hit their zenith, as will carbon emissions, deforestation, and perhaps species extinction. And virtually everyone agrees we'll have a few billion more mouths to feed — a few billion. The math is no fun to do. Among other things, it translates into relentless pressure on the remaining fish in the sea.

Ugashik Lake, where we still do right by the wild fish that have always spawned there, is one of a thousand huge, spectacular, undeveloped Alaskan lakes. On this midsummer day, a huge rainbow arches across the northern sky; to the east and south a range of snowy mountains flanks the lake. Tom and Cate Bursch and I zip across the water in a small skiff and land on a beach where grizzly tracks press inches deep into the soft sand. A few minutes later, in the next cove, we scare off one of the great brown bears, which splashes off through the water, leaving behind the carcass of his last catch. We putt slowly up one of the streams that feed the lake. It narrows at each turn, and more and more of the water is clogged with salmon turning their bright spawning red as they chug upstream toward the mountains. "I've seen these later in the year from the air," says Cate. "From the air, the streams look like blood vessels, they're so filled with red fish."

That's how the whole world should work. Enough fish for us, and for grizzlies, and for eagles, and more besides. A plethora, an abundance, a generosity of fish.

But we don't live on that planet anymore. The planet we do live on demands a chastened realism. We aren't going to find more oceans brimming with fish, just as we're not going to come across extra continents covered with fertile fields. Not for us the get-rich-quick excitement of Cabot's day; for us, there is the hard and patient work of protecting the resources we still have, of learning to use them more carefully, of finding ways to make sure our populations don't overwhelm the sustenance this blue globe provides.

But if we happen to have been born at a narrowing moment in human history, we nonetheless possess certain consolations. Denied the experience of abundance — denied the passenger pigeon blackening the skies, the buffalo shaking the prairie, the cod choking the surf — we have instead been granted a sense of preciousness.

Out on Bill Donovan's boat, when we saw that minke whale to starboard, we all stopped what we were doing and watched, watching and rocking on the slow and queasy swells. Not to calculate the price the whale might fetch, or to wonder if it indicated a school of fish we might chase, but merely to participate for a moment in its grace. If we are no longer granted the fearlessness that abundance breeds, perhaps we can yet draw some strength from the exquisiteness that comes with rarity.

We ate our cod that night — it came from a hopeful scientific sampling designed to see if the fish are returning — with special pleasure.

Bill McKibben is a frequent contributor to Outside. His most recent book is Hope, Human and Wild.

Photograph by Sam Walsh, illustrations by Jonathon Rosen

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