Reports by scientists are unanimous, and have been for several years now: the global fishing industry is in peril. A quarter of fish stocks are already overexploited and half are being exploited to the maximum. Some 90 million tons of fish are caught each year (four times the total of fifty years ago). Technology is still advancing, resulting in larger and more powerful vessels, superior equipment, and ultra-sophisticated detection systems.
Experts fear a global repetition of the Newfoundland cod drama. Cod was extraordinarily prolific off the coasts of Canada, but was heavily fished for four centuries, from 1550 to 1950. Then, over a period of barely 20 years, the annual catch rose steeply from 2-300,000 tons a year to 800,000 tons. The downturn was equally swift: cod populations were wiped out in the 1990s, signaling the end of the cod fishing industry and putting tens of thousands of people out of work. Twenty years later, cod stocks have failed to rebound and seem, in fact, to be dwindling again.
Fish are a natural resource that are constantly reproducing and ought therefore to be continuously available. But it is no easy task to create a global fishing industry that takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. Fishermen themselves are under pressure to compete and keep up with the technology, and are obliged to increase their takings to pay their debts. Governments are generally reluctant to impose unpopular restrictions such as quotas restricting the tonnage of fish caught. They are constantly pushing to increase their quotas, against scientific advice, and do not always enforce them even once they have been negotiated.
Effective and rigorous control of fishing activities, especially away from the coasts, is a costly and complicated business. Nevertheless, as the Newfoundland example demonstrates, the social and environmental cost of a collapse of the global fishing industry would be infinitely higher.