A Tragedy of the Commons

The Empty Ocean: Plundering the World’s Marine Life
By Richard Ellis

(First published in The Massachusetts Sierran, Spring 2004, Volume 10, Number 1)

On a September day in 1871 the British warship HMS Thetis intercepted an Arab slave ship in the Indian Ocean with 271 enslaved black Africans on board. Britain had recently signed an agreement with the powerful sultan of Zanzibar to end the flourishing East African slave trade. By capturing that ship, Britain signaled its determination to end the Indian Ocean slave trade even though the sultan had no intention of abiding by the treaty that he had signed.

Richard Ellis’s powerful book brings this obscure bit of history forcefully to mind. Because fish are so valuable and human greed so great, unless some force as powerful as the British Navy intervenes, the ocean will very soon be empty despite the several international treaties designed to protect fish stocks.

Of tuna and seals
Skip the opening pages—a pedantic rehash of fisheries depletion—and start reading on page 28 with the “Great and Wonderful Tuna.” Ellis is at his best when his writing gets into the water with the fish, and he is marvelous when he explains the ironic complexity of fishing. Harp seals, for example, have long been hunted as aggressively as possible by men with absolutely no compunction about killing every last seal. Yet, unlike virtually every other marine mammal, their population has never been reduced to the point of endangerment. This is because seals do not haul out to breed on islands. Harp seals pup on ice floes, and despite truly heroic efforts, sealers could never locate every last chunk of ice drifting in the Arctic Ocean.

Sadly, Ellis explains that global warming is reducing the volume of drift ice so rapidly that harp seals may soon be extinct—not from overfishing, but from loss of habitat.

Bluefin tuna, by contrast, are endangered because sushi is one of the finest things in life. Unfortunately, I share my taste for raw tuna with 126 million Japanese, and they can afford to indulge it. A top-quality bluefin goes for as much as $391 at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. That’s $391 per pound. $173,600 per fish. And you can confidently expect that price to rise as the number of bluefins declines.

The road to extinction
Toothfish, a.k.a. Chilean sea bass, only made it to the big time in 1982 when the first, shimmering, white forkful was served in a Los Angeles restaurant. Two decades from the discovery of a creature’s desirability to endangered status is fast, but it is hardly a world record.

It took just 27 years from the moment a European first met a Stellar’s sea cow to the day a Russian hunter killed the last one. Sea cows were cousins to manatees, but the sea cow was 30 feet long and had a layer of subcutaneous fat nine inches think to keep it warm in the icy waters between Kamchatka and Alaska. The fat was “yellow like May butter… Its odor and flavor are so agreeable that it can not easily be compared with the fat of any other sea beast.” We must accept Georg Wilhelm Stellar’s description, since the last sea cow was eaten in 1768.

Who’s in charge here?
The decimation of our fisheries is a tragedy of the commons: since everyone has access to the oceans, no nation has the kind of proprietary interest that might lead it to decide to preserve a fishery for tomorrow instead of catching all the fish today. Not that national stocks are necessarily well-managed. In the United States we extended our territorial claims 200 miles out to sea and appointed a group of fishermen to set sustainable quotas. In no time at all, the New England fleet caught virtually every cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder on George’s Bank. Now the fishermen are unemployed.

It didn’t have to happen that way. If a responsible authority had set sustainable catch limits and enforced them, George’s Bank could have produced a bountiful catch forever. Iceland manages its cod fisheries in a sustainable manner.

The larger problem is that fish do not respect 200-mile territorial limits. Bluefin tuna tagged in the Bahamas have been recaptured in Newfoundland, Norway, and Uruguay. There is always a fisherman greedy enough to catch endangered fish, and a nation-state corrupt enough to register rogue boats.

Ellis is fascinating when writing about fish, but he is savage when revealing the inability of international organizations to protect declining marine populations. Which is why I kept thinking about the British Navy as I read about boats that are on the high seas stealing our children’s future. Britain did not wait until the international community agreed to end slavery. If we were as serious about preserving ocean resources as nineteenth- century England was about ending the horrors of slavery, we would be talking about sending the navy, too.

Diana Muir is working on a new book on the role of overpopulation in history.