Thursday, January 29, 2009

Peak Fish

This is from the Financial Times.

Japan faces up to the prospect of 'peak fish'
By David Pilling
Published: January 29 2009 02:00 Last updated: January 29 2009 02:00
Japan's little secret is out. All over Asia, and indeed the rest of the world, people are discovering what the Japanese have known for centuries: fish is good for you. This may seem a benign discovery. But in the case of seafood, as with any finite resource, it raises awkward questions about how spoils should be divided and what happens if competing interests cannot be reconciled.
Seafood has formed a crucial part of the Japanese diet for millennia, providing the main source of animal protein for a nation with little tradition of eating meat or drinking milk. Other countries have long prized an aquatic diet; some Chinese cuisine emulates the taste and texture of fish with ingenious use of vegetables. Now, as China and others become richer, they have converted dietary aspiration into reality.
Per capita consumption of fish in China has soared: from 3.6kg in 1970 to 27kg in 2009. That is still some way off Japan, where people on average get through 67kg a year. But it might not be long before China catches up. Can the world sustain such an appetite?
The emergence of Japan in the 1970s changed the structure of global finance and manufacturing. That foreshadowed the challenges China presents; only it has 10 times the population of Japan. When it came to Japan's predilection for fish, globalisation initially worked in its favour. It sent an advanced fishing fleet to trawl the world's oceans. Japan Airlines began a lucrative trade flying freshly caught tuna from America's Atlantic seaboard to Tokyo. Until then those fish, highly prized in Japan, were pet food in the US. Such initiatives brought the Japanese a huge variety of fish all year round.
Then the rest of the world realised it could charge Japan for fish caught in its waters. Worse, it developed a taste for the Japanese diet. Sushi has caught on from Houston to New Delhi. Japan is still the world's biggest importer by some way. It has gone from being a net exporter in 1964 to importing more than 40 per cent of its fish needs today.
But Japanese buyers are now regularly outbid in auctions. This month, two sushi bar owners paid $104,000 (€78,800, £73,800) for a 282lb blue-fin tuna, the highest price in years. (If the artist Damien Hirst had cut it in two, it might have been worth more still.)
Each year, about 100m tonnes of fish, 5 per cent of the 2bn tonnes of seafood biomass, are hauled from the oceans, according to a recent study published in the journal Science.
Many conservationists espouse "peak fish" theories, suggesting that catches have reached a limit, or gone beyond.
That may not be true for all species. But for some it is undeniable. In November, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which includes Japan, sliced the 2009 blue-fin quota by a fifth. Japan gobbles 90 per cent of all blue-fin. Some scientists say the quota must be halved to let stocks recover.
Japan's fishing industry faces crisis. The number of fishermen has sunk to 200,000 from a peak of 1m. That is still too many, compared with 10,000 in Norway. Too many boats chasing too few fish have devastated fish resources. By 2006, according to the Japan Economic and Social Research Institute, more than half of Japan's fishing grounds had dangerously low stocks. Masayuki Komatsu, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says Japan needs a science-based quota system and sustainable fisheries plan based on the concept that fish are a common property of the Japanese people not bona vacantia , ownerless goods belonging to whoever nets them first.
It is far from Japan's problem alone. Lida Pet-Soede of environmental group WWF says the Chinese taste for grouper, a top-predator reef fish, is destroying reefs and imperilling ecosystems. China is still only the world's sixth biggest importer, producing most of its own fish, a lot on farms. Aqua-culture may be part of the solution, though it is no panacea; artificially raised fish also need feeding, whether on marine products or on competing food sources, such as soyabeans. In any case, as the taste of Chinese and other emerging consumers turns to international varieties, fish stocks will come under increasing pressure.
Fish resources are devilishly difficult to manage internationally. Many fish species migrate wantonly across territorial waters. Indonesians have an economic incentive to grab juvenile tuna in their waters before they head for the high seas to be snagged - more rationally - as mature adults by stronger fishing nations. The idea of a war over fish is no more preposterous than that of a conflict over water or petroleum.
Nor, sadly, is the prospect of humans irreparably damaging a renewable resource. Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist, wonders what was going through the mind of the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree, condemning his civilization to virtual extinction. It may have been: "We need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering," he speculates in his book , Collapse . It would be a tragedy if we come anywhere near asking the same question about the planet's fish.
The writer is the FT's Asia editor

No comments: