Looking out over seemingly infinite stretches of ocean rolling in waves from faraway horizons, we may find ourselves surprised that what the ocean can provide is, indeed, finite. There is a point at which we extract much faster than marine life recovers, a rate at which our demand is much too relentless for life to flourish. We have reached that point: the percent of fish stocks fished at sustainable levels has steadily declined over the past 50 years. And the margin for responsible fishing is narrowing as climate change decreases the amount of seafood that humans can sustainably harvest.
Global fish decline, while daunting, is not unalterable. Fisheries management has been proved effective in restoring and rebuilding fish stocks above target levels. We have seen the efficacy of fisheries management in the United States, where, as a result of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the number of overfished stocks hit a record low in 2017.
Fisheries are declining not only because of overfishing but also because of climate change. As ocean temperatures rise, many species are shifting towards warmer waters, placing undue stress on small scale fishermen. In North Carolina, fishermen are witnessing their fish move North.
Now, North Carolina fishers must take their boats on extended journeys to New Jersey and Maryland to capture the same species. Clearly, fisheries management alone cannot stem global fish decline. Management must work in tandem with climate change action.
If the Paris Agreement is followed and warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, global fisheries could generate additional billions in revenue. Action now is also critical to global food security, for fisheries provide 3.3 billion people with a substantial portion of their dietary protein.
Of course, evaluating the incredible variety of marine life according to its utility further detaches us from the mysterious world of fish, reducing fish to a commodity. This is the case for the endangered bluefin tuna, a species for which the catch quota has been increased despite the fact that its populations are heavily exploited and not fully recovered. Rachel Carson, who wrote in awe of the fascinating life cycle and migration of mackerel from shallow coastal waters to the luminescent depths of the open ocean, expressed empathy with creatures of the sea.
Individuals may ask themselves how they can eat seafood more sustainably. Groups such as Greenpeace and Monterey Bay Aquarium have created consumer guides on sustainable seafood. Generally, buying local seafood is a sustainable option because United States fisheries are well-regulated, and local options do not have to travel as far. Still, consumerism does not excuse industry inaction. The work must go deeper. For this reason, RCC supports sustainability and fish through advocacy for climate action, science-based fisheries policy, and protection of marine habitats that fish depend upon.
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