Over on the Foreign Policy website, Daniel Pauly of The Sea Around Us Project has an excellent set of info graphics on the dismal state of the globe’s fisheries.
The whole thing should be studied and gaped at by anyone who values the oceans as living ecosystems. You should know, for example, if you don’t already, that the world’s appetite for sushi has driven three species of bluefin tuna to "near extinction," and that it will take decades to revive them — if and only if we "stop eating them now."
But what really reeled me in (sorry, everyone) was the comparison between small-scale and large-scale fishing operations. Turns out that small operations are actually much more efficient. Key fact:
Large-scale fisheries burn through 14-19 million metric tons of fuel each year to produce 29 million metric tons of fish. So in the best case, it takes about a ton of fuel to produce two tons of fish. Their small-scale counterparts use one to three metric tons of fuel to produce 24 million metric tons of fish. So in the worst case, a ton of fuel yields eight tons of fish. What happened to economies of scale?
It gets worse. For large-scale operations, more than two-thirds of the catch (22 of 29 metric tons) goes to industrial purposes, i.e., producing fish meal and fish oil to feed fish farms. (Land-based factory animal farms also suck in a large amount of sea-based feed). So the great bulk of the catch isn’t eaten directly, but highly processed and fed to other organisms that are then consumed by humans.
For small-scale operations, "almost none" of the catch goes to industrial purposes. These fisher people are harvesting food for people to eat. Their large-scale rivals, like corn and soy farmers, are creating industrial inputs.
Then there’s the "bycatch" problem. In small-scale fishing communities, the concept of waste barely exists. All along, say, the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, there are traditional seafood soups that turn low-value fish into something nourishing and delicious. These dishes — brodetti, paellas, bouillabaisse, etc. — rank among the glories of world cuisine.
Every year, large fisheries throw back 10-20 million metric tons of dead sea creatures. Small fisheries throw back "few" such critters, by contrast.
Finally, there’s employment. As global unemployment rises, large fisheries employ just 1 million people. Small operations provide livelihoods (and access to top-quality fresh food) to more than 12 million.
In the murky waters of ocean health, one solution seems clear: Crack down on resource-sucking large fishing operations, and figure out how to make small-scale fishing communities viable.