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Killing the goose that laid the golden egg

The US government has just announced that it is likely to close its enormous Pacific salmon fishery, which stretches across 80% of the USA’s west coast. The once vast salmon stocks have crashed and are now at a mere 6% of the long-term average. Many readers will remember the similar crash in the cod stocks off the east coast of Canada in the early 90s which led to great economic hardship in the area. The cause of both incidents is the same: overfishing. The Canadian and US fishing industries destroyed these vast renewable resources and in doing so have probably killed their very own geese of the golden eggs.

Managing a fishery is not rocket science. If the stocks are kept high, we can catch a large number of fish per annum and still keep the population steady. This is the way to preserve the environment and simultaneously maximize long-term profits. However, if we take more than this, the population will go into decline and the sustainable level of catch will rapidly decrease. If we keep taking the same amount, we will exceed the sustainable level by more and more each year and the population will crash. It is like managing a forest for timber: we might be able to take 1% of the trees each year in perpetuity, but if we take 10% of them each year, then the forest will soon be lost. Canada and the US have allowed these invaluable resources to be squandered and there is a serious chance that they will never recover as the ecological niche of the salmon and cod may be taken by other, inedible, fish.

Sadly, this pattern has already occurred the world over, and we have lost more than a staggering 90% of the world’s large fish. This will have untold repercussions on the global ocean ecosystem and will cause a massive increase in the price of fish in the future, making consumers ultimately pay for the mismanagement. We might look to fish farming for the answer, but since most fish we consume are carnivorous, farmed fish require about five kilograms of fish to be caught from the wild (and fed to the captive fish) for each kilogram of farmed fish produced. If anything, this makes the problem even worse.

While it is rarely in the news, overfishing is both one of the world’s most serious environmental problems and economic idiocy. We must hope that the US government indeed does close its salmon fishery and that many other fisheries are closed as well, before it is too late.

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