Global Warming a Hoax & the Earth is Flat (c) David Horsey
It's a Friday night in 2050. It's been a long week at work and even if you could be bothered to cook, there's nothing in the fridge. So what fast food will you pick up on your way home? How about some squid and chips? Perhaps an algae burger? And don't forget the crunchy fried jellyfish rings on the side.
One thing's for sure, unless something changes soon, familiar favorites such as cod and haddock will be off the menu. In fact, if we're not careful, an assortment of exotic alternatives will be all the ocean has left to offer us.
This may seem an extreme vision of the future, but marine biologists are alarmed by the imbalances that are appearing in marine ecosystems. The ocean is changing fast -- too fast, it seems, for us to reliably predict the combined effects of overfishing, pollution and climate change. What is clear is that the changes, by and large, are not good news for our bellies.
"We are entering a time of great uncertainty," says
Worm and an international team of ecologists have taken a comprehensive look at the state of the world's fisheries. Their results, published in the journal Science in 2006, make grim reading. In short, catches of wild fish are plummeting and the researchers predict that without steps to protect biodiversity, all current commercial fish and seafood species will collapse by 2050.
If we do empty the oceans of fish, it will leave a gaping hole in our diet. Fish provide around 20 percent of our intake of animal proteins, according to a 2007 estimate of
This demand is increasing rapidly, as a result of the rising global population and increasing prosperity in the developing world. Maintaining catches at current levels is becoming difficult, let alone increasing them. According to the FAO, more than 75 percent of the world's fish stocks are either fully exploited, over-exploited, or recovering from past depletion.
Overfishing is not only affecting those whose diets depend on fish, of course. It's also creating huge gaps in marine ecosystems that are quickly exploited by opportunistic species. The shrimp and crab fisheries off the coast of
While replacing one tasty marine food may not seem like much of a hardship, not all of the replacements for fish will be as delicious. In recent years, the fishing industry has shifted its focus down the food chain, taking larger numbers of small, plankton-eating fish like sardine and anchovy. This could be a dangerous strategy. Small fish are not only crucial to the survival of larger predatory fish such as hake, as well as birds and marine mammals, they also help maintain balance in the species below them in the food chain.
"If you remove small fish there is every possibility that other species in the food chain, like jellyfish, will have a good time of it," says
This is already happening in one of the world's most productive fisheries, the Benguela current off the coast of
The reasons for these changes are complex. Shifts in climate, currents and sea temperature will have played a part, but a major factor is the collapse of the once abundant sardine and anchovy fisheries. In the late 1970s, the total fish catch was around 17 million tons per year. Now it is closer to 1 million tons. And since jellyfish eat fish eggs and larvae, as well as compete with young fish for food, the shift to a jellyfish-dominated ecosystem rather than a fish-dominated one may be irreversible, say the team.
Blooms of jellyfish have also appeared in the overfished waters of the
Removing fish from an ecosystem may also have other consequences. In the Benguela current, the crash in phytoplankton-eating fish has also been linked to more frequent phytoplankton blooms (Ecology Letters). That can spell bad news: when the blooms die off, bacteria gobble them up, along with most of the oxygen in the water.
Even overfishing large predatory fish could encourage these blooms. Zooplankton-eating fish thrive once their predators are gone, leading to a decline in their own prey. With fewer zooplankton to feed on phytoplankton, the latter can bloom unchecked.
The collapse of cod, haddock, hake, pollock, plaice and flounder fisheries off
Squid, too, are increasingly thriving throughout the oceans. While changes in water temperatures may play a part, the main reason is the removal of their predators.
"Almost everything eats squid in the ocean -- tuna, marlin and swordfish hardly eat anything else - so if you remove the squid's predators, how can it not have an impact?" says
The best-documented example is the Gulf of
Off the U.S. coast, the
If the outlook for today's fisheries is as bleak as some suggest, we can expect to see growing numbers of gelatinous, rubbery and slimy creatures swimming or drifting through the oceans. So what will that leave us to eat with our fries?
Shrimp and crab aside, squid are likely to be the most palatable bet since they are already well established on menus worldwide. Larger species like the
Nutritionally, squid are high in protein -- about 16 percent -- low in fat and a good source of zinc, vitamins B2 , B3 and B12 , as well as some trace elements such as phosphorus, copper and selenium. On the downside, they are very high in cholesterol.
Compared to jellyfish, though, squid are positively nutritious and delicious. A common ingredient in Asian cuisine, jellyfish have been eaten for more than 1,000 years in
"I wouldn't describe it as a sensation that would sweep the globe," says
Jellyfish are low in fat and high in copper, iron and selenium but they are only about 5 percent protein. Furthermore, they're typically prepared by being dried and salted so, unless a new approach is taken, jellyfish products could end up too high in sodium to become dietary staples.
Each year, around a quarter of a million tons of jellyfish are landed worldwide. As well as
So while inventive locals in Obama,
"If it's a question of could we eat jellyfish, then yes we could, but the nutritional value is quite low," say Raskoff. "I'd be concerned if they were the last things left on the menu."
This leaves plankton as a possible fish replacement. The idea is not as odd as it first seems. After all, the Aztecs are said to have eaten a kind of "cake" made from the dried froth of blue-green algae, probably spirulina, that grew on the surface of
Marine phytoplankton, too, are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and trace minerals. Since their blooms tend to consist of mostly one species they could, in theory, be scooped up and turned into food. Even so, converting fishing trawlers to fish for algae would be unlikely to work in practice, says
Besides, adds Franks, the practicalities of predicting where a bloom will occur and ensuring that the catch is not contaminated by the handful of species that are toxic would make it financially unfeasible. "I would not want to be running a business based on filtering plankton from the ocean as human food. You would be better off growing spinach," he says.
Even squid, which look like a good option on paper, could be a risky bet as a major fishery, warns Jackson. "Squid are very much boom and bust," he says, a characteristic that makes fisheries tricky to manage. "If there is a lot of food, they grow fast and reproduce early. But if conditions change, the population crashes." He adds that "if you put pressure on squid populations, you'll just create the same problem as we have with fish."
Worm, though, dismisses talk of converting the global fishing fleet to seek out alternatives to fish. He points out that our fisheries are not quite finished, and says there are several instances where creating "no take" zones next to fisheries has allowed them to recover, making them more profitable than others where no such measures have been taken.
And, he says, we are beginning to learn from our mistakes. Proposals to fish for krill off
Worm is so confident we can turn the situation around that he is willing to bet on the oceans of the future having more fish than we have today. "In 2048, I'll be 80 years old and I hope I'll be able to host a fish supper to celebrate," he says. It is certainly not impossible, but it will take a seismic shift in the way we manage the oceans. Without some serious changes, Worm's seafood supper could be nutritious, it might even be delicious, but it probably won't be fish.
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