Why Report on the Ocean?
Is it really over? Are these last gatherers of food from the wild to be phased out? Is this the last wild food? Is our last physical tie to untamed nature to become an obscure delicacy?
- Mark Kurlansky, Cod
Atlantic salmon in a fish farm, Ryfylke, Norway
Photo by Erling Svensen / WWf-canon
The ocean is one of the most dynamic and at the same time most under-reported food systems on the planet. About a billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein and, collectively, the nations of the world catch around 90 million metric tons of wild fish and shellfish from the oceans annually. This is equivalent to the weight of the human population of China removed from the sea each and every year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) produces a highly useful report every two years called The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (abbreviated as SOFIA) that identifies trends in the seafood industry. These and other sources note that in the last 60 years the global wild catch has risen approximately 400 percent.
But the harvest of wild fish is only half the story. In addition to the growth of fishing, the farming of freshwater and ocean organisms, or “aquaculture” as it is commonly called, has risen from producing only a few million metric tons per year in the 1960s to more than 60 million metric tons annually. Currently, aquaculture is increasing at an annual rate of 6.9 percent per year. This qualifies aquaculture as the fastest growing form of animal husbandry in the world. The growth of aquaculture is likely to continue. We are reaching the limit of the amount of arable land that can be used for terrestrial agriculture. Climate change, soil degradation, and shortages of fresh water are also placing serious limitations on land-based food systems. It is therefore very likely that the ocean will play an ever larger role in meeting the nutritional needs of future generations.
Meanwhile, as we increase our reliance on the oceans for food, we are threatening the ocean’s resiliency. Human-caused climate change is placing stress on marine environments. The ongoing and significant rise of sea temperatures will have profound impacts. Not only are fish migration patterns changing, but the melting of the polar ice caps, particularly in the northern hemisphere, is also opening up vast new areas of previously unfishable waters. In the next century the competition for these newly accessible food resources will escalate as the world’s major powers jockey for position to secure those resources for their populations.
The ocean is also chemically changing in dramatic ways in response to human influences on the environment. Sea water is becoming progressively more acidic due to the influence of industrially generated carbon in the atmosphere. The ocean today is also subject to severe influxes of nitrogen- and phosphorous-based nutrients that industrial agriculture and wastewater treatment facilities are introducing into the marine environment. The resulting oxygen-depleting algal blooms that come about because of all these added nutrients (a phenomenon called “eutrophication”) has resulted in more than 400 large “dead zones” around the world – areas where water is so oxygen-poor that fisheries are threatened. In all, some 245,000 square kilometers of ocean are affected with some of the largest hypoxic areas being in the East China Sea offshore from the Yangtze River, on the US side of the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and in the Baltic Sea off Scandinavia and Russia.
All of this is happening as seafood is increasingly seen as a healthier alternative to land-based proteins. Notwithstanding worries about pollutants in seafood, recent health studies have identified the regular consumption of seafood to be critical to prenatal development, heart health, and neural resiliency. Most notably, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association in a meta-analysis of scientific studies to date on seafood concluded that the overall benefits to eating seafood far outweigh the risks.
While all of the above might be unsettling news for our oceans and our future, it is actually good news for the journalist who seeks to cover the ocean. The best reporting always occurs at the nexus of conflicting points of interests and opposing visions for the future. In this respect, the ocean is an environment where conflicts of interests abound; an environment where issues of climate change, population growth, wildlife management, energy development, state of the art animal husbandry and a host of other disciplines overlap. By knowledgably positioning oneself at the intersection of these different disciplines and conflicts, the enterprising journalist can make a career, or at least a beat, covering ocean issues and contributing to a better societal understanding of how best to share ocean resources in the future. The journalist in China is particularly well situated to make a global contributions to the dialogue on ocean issues. China is today not only the largest harvester of wild fish and shellfish but also by far the largest grower of farmed seafood.
But before jumping in, so to speak, it’s first necessary to orient oneself among some fundamentals and identify a manageable selection of data and analyses so that pursuit of one’s story is on sound scientific footing and presented in a way that will draw readership and future interest. With that in mind, let’s begin.
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