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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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Crisis in the Deep Blue: The State of Earth’s Largest Natural Resource

A crisis is slowly looming deep underneath more than 139 million square miles of the Earth’s surface, a crisis so serious that it could affect food supplies around the globe and lead to the extinction of many of the world’s species. However, it is not a crisis that most people would even notice, as it takes place in the great vastness of the ocean. Despite consumers’ unfettered access to Fish-o-Filet sandwiches and sushi restaurants, many fish species are in danger of extinction due to excessive harvesting, threatening the biodiversity of the ocean environment. Entire underwater ecological systems are at risk because of dangerous human activities in the oceans, including the destruction of coral reefs in many parts of the world.

According to Dr. David Conover, a professor and the Dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, fish species such as tuna and swordfish have been severely depleted by current fishing practices. By harvesting more fish than are naturally replaced, fisheries ensure a steady and sometimes rapid drop in fish populations, leading to two possible problems: ecological extinction and commercial extinction. Ecological extinction, of course, will lead to the permanent loss of important food sources and irreparable damage to underwater ecosystems. Without human intervention, ecological extinction of many fish species is practically inevitable, a result that would halt the rapid growth of the fishing industry. The negative effects would be felt most severely in developing countries, where fish’ is an important source of both food and income. In order to stave off the effects of overharvesting, Dr. Conover believes we need to expand marine-protected areas, which are large areas of ocean set aside as a safe haven for fish species, natural resources, and sensitive ecosystems.

The problem of overharvesting begins with the consumer. Chilean sea bass from Antarctica, for example, are being harvested by pirate fishing fleets that disregard laws governing fishing limits. Unfortunately, such illegal fishing activities continue to be profitable because of overwhelming demand by consumers. If people do not stop buying and eating Chilean sea bass within five years, according to the Endangered Fish Alliance, it may become commercially extinct, meaning that it will no longer be economically feasible to harvest. At that point, innocent consumers and legitimate fishermen will both suffer, while the effects on Chilean sea bass would be unpredictable. To prevent such a scenario, the Endangered Fish Alliance instead recommends the consumption of sustainable alternatives that are not illegally harvested, such as white sea bass, Pacific halibut, and cat fish. The Seafood Lover’s Almanac, produced by the National Audubon Society, is another useful resource for consumers who do not wish to eat endangered species of fish.

Dr. Conover also cautions against the current policy of throwing smaller fish back into the ocean during fishing operations. In his experiment, Dr. Conover studied the effects of three different harvesting strategies on six fish species. As bigger fish continue to be harvested in great numbers, only smaller fish were left to reproduce in the remaining population. The evolution of the species as a whole is thus negatively affected, and over time the average size of the fish declines. To remedy this situation, Dr. Conover advises the use of a ‘slot limit,’ which would require fishers to throw back both the smallest and largest fish, giving the species a chance to sustain its favorable genetic characteristics. His recommendation was also recently featured in a Conservation Magazine article called ’10 Solutions to Save the Ocean,’ which included ideas by other prominent ocean conservationists. Among the other suggestions include a proposal to engage in large-scale ocean zoning rather than setting aside small marine-protected areas and consuming smaller, less commonly-eaten fish that are often overlooked.

Dr. Conover also mentioned that the global market for fish and other natural resources have been devastating coral reefs, which are both natural wonders and important environments for biodiversity. Pollution and overharvesting continue to be the most serious threats to these structures, which are important habitats for many birds and fish species that are often consumed. The unique coral reef ecosystem recycles carbon dioxide gas, a major contributor to global warming, and also protects land by absorbing strong waves caused by storms and inclement weather. Some scientists predict the disappearance of most coral reefs on earth within fifty years if current destructive human activities continue.

According to Dr. Conover, the need for proactive steps to conserve our ocean’s resources is undeniable, yet the amount of effort put forth by governmental organizations has been minimal. Some countries around the world have signed agreements working toward sustainable harvesting practices and conservation of natural resources. Just last year, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization organized the acceptance of the South Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement. But the key to change, warned Dr. Conover, remains in the hands of the consumers who fuel the worldwide industry that holds the whole ocean in jeopardy.

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