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The Extinction Chronicles

90% of all big fish have been taken from the oceans


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It has been achieved with industrial fishing. Large boats with large nets and large fleets with satellite tracking are stripping the oceans of fish. But the most prized large valuable fish are the most fertile. So as they are removed, so is the reproductive capacity of a species. Some species such as sturgeon are almost extinct. Now more countries are involved in this industrial removal of fish. Some countries sell fishing rights in their exclusive economic zones. And this leads to overfishing. China has the largest fishing fleet and is a major player in distant water fishing.

Daniel Pauly
Professor of Fisheries
University of British Colombia
Vancouver Canada

Robyn Williams

David Fisher

The Boyer Lectures ABC RN presented by Andrew ForrestDuration: 8min 12secBroadcast: Sat 13 Feb 2021, 12:03pm


Can the world unite to combat illegal fishing?

Can the world unite to combat illegal fishing?

A tuna transhipment operation between a Taiwanese and a Panamanian vessel on the high seas in the Indian Ocean, in April 2013.

(Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace)

A totally illegal industry that nonetheless brings in billions of dollars every year,IUU (illegal, unauthorised or unreported) fishing is the blight of the oceans. At a time when fish populations are in freefall – Pacific bluefin tuna populations have dropped by 97 per cent relative to their historical level – and the international community is trying to preserve the wealth of the oceans, illegal practices at sea continue to thrive. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), IUU fishing accounts for as much as 20 to 30 per cent of the fisheries sector, with an estimated annual turnover of between US$10 and 23 billion.

IUU fishing is a highly lucrative and organised business. “It is most often conducted by vessels that actually have fishing licences,” Pavel Klinckhamers, project leader of the pan-Asian Greenpeace campaign to end illegal fishing, tells Equal Times. “There are many boats that may well have licences but they still fish illegally for species they are not allowed to catch or in places where they are not authorised to fish,” he adds.

“IUU fishing is not just about fishing without a licence,” says Heather Stimmler, media director for Sea Shepherd Global. “The most common form of IUU is poaching, of course, but it can also take on much less spectacular forms, which are much harder to detect.” Overfishing and unreported fishing of protected fish species are examples of the abuses faced by ocean defenders.

As Peter Horn, director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project at the Pew Trust, points out: “There are several reports suggesting that one in five fish is caught through IUU fishing. And whilst the figure is certainly lower in European waters, in areas under stress, such as the coast of West Africa, it is estimated at two in five fish. The impact of these activities is significant, and for certain vulnerable countries, it is catastrophic.”

The plight of small-scale fishers

More fragile countries are easier targets for IUU fishing because they lack the resources to monitor their coast properly. “IUU fishing is symptomatic of countries where political authority is weak,” Peter Horn tells Equal Times. And as Lindsay Jennings, IUU fishing project director for FishWise tells us, it is “a threat to marine ecosystems and food security” in vulnerable countries such as Ghana.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing can hold disastrous repercussions for these countries: overfishing empties territorial waters of their fish and createsfood insecurity for hundreds of small-scale fishers who depend on these resources to survive and to feed their families.

In Ghana, for example, IUU fishing is a threat to the 2.5 million people who depend on marine resources for survival. The country’s waters have been among the most overfished in the world since 2012, particularly by Chinese fleets, as detailed in a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation.

An estimated 37 per cent of the fish caught in Ghana each year is IUU, creating annual losses of around US$1 billion. The country is located in one of the areas worst affected by illegal fishing – West Africa, although the waters in certain parts of Asia and the coasts of Latin America are also hugely overexploited, by Chinese long-distance fleets in the main but also by some European shipowners. These excesses are part of the wider trend of ‘ocean grabbing’, with strong political powers taking advantage of weaker ones.

The worst abuses often take place with impunity in these hotspots, with IUU fishing operations taking full advantage of the sheer immensity of our seas and oceans. For developing countries, exercising control over their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), areas extending 200 nautical miles from the coast where countries have special rights to explore and use resources, is a real struggle. EEZs represent vast areas for the maritime authorities of countries already faced with substantial economic difficulties and insecurity on land.

Flags of convenience and untraceable fish

Sea pirates are all the more difficult to punish as they are free to hide in international waters, which represent more than 60 per cent of the world’s seas and oceans, and do not come under the jurisdiction of any state. “Once you are in international waters, no country has the authority to make an arrest,” says Stimmler. Because under the law of the sea, the legislation that applies to a ship in international waters is the law of the country whose flag it is flying. A simple rule…on the face of it.

But thanks to what are known as flags of convenience or open registries, pirates of all kinds are free to act with impunity on the world’s oceans. Shipowners often choose them because they are more lax in terms of safety standards or labour laws. Thirty-five countries are considered to have flags of convenience by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). The main ones are Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands. According to a 2015 report, 71 per cent of merchant fleet tonnage was registered under flags of convenience, compared with 51.3 per cent in 2005.

While not all flags of convenience imply illegal activities, the ease with which pirate ships can change their country of registration makes it more difficult to track them down.

“These flags symbolise the lack of transparency around fishing,” Horn tells Equal Times. “They allow certain shipowners to make it more difficult to identify them.” The level of regulation is, however, increasing. The number of flags of convenience has seen a slight fall since 2015, according to the Pew Trust project director.

The lack of regulation around the oceans is one of the main reasons so many abuses are committed. The flags of convenience are not the only problem: transhipment, which allows fishing vessels to stay at sea for months on end and to transfer their catches to other vessels that take them back to port, is another source of widespread criticism. “The problem with this practice is that it is not properly regulated and it opens the door to IUU fishing and all kinds of trafficking on the high seas,” Horn tells Equal Times. And as Heather Stimmler explains: “Small boats can fish illegally, as once their fish is transferred, it becomes impossible to trace the products.” It is a veritable ‘fish laundering’ tool.

In an attempt to preserve transhipment while regulating it more effectively, the FAO is currently working on a new set of rules in a bid to clarify the ethical practices to be used during this process. At-sea transhipment could be banned in favour of transhipment near ports, which would enable better goods regulation and allow more observers in charge of monitoring fishing practices to board vessels.

The example of FISH-i in Africa

The countries of the world are trying to mobilise to tackle IUU fishing. Bodies such as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have been set up in several parts of the world to ensure better fishing regulation and vessel monitoring. “The fight against IUU fishing is a team sport,” says Horn. Indeed, the detention of pirate vessels may require the intervention of several countries. And to facilitate management and monitoring operations, several associations are calling for the introduction of unique identification numbers for all vessels, so that they can be traced throughout their life.

“This requires real cooperation between the various countries,” says Stimmler. And the idea is beginning to take hold. The non-profit organisation Stop Illegal Fishing (SIF), based in Gaborone, Botswana, has created the FISH-i task force, a group of eight countries from the region that are all working together. The region’s governments, Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are working in partnership to improve the chances of stopping pirate vessels. And this type of operation is bearing fruit.

“Over the past five years, more and more countries have become aware of the magnitude of the problem and the number of arrests has increased,” says Sea Shepherd’s media director.

New technologies, such as cameras and surveillance systems, are also part of the solution. there is no shortage of solutions. What are often in short supply, however, are the means. Whilst the Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), set up by states to track fishery activity around the globe, provide some hope and encouragement, their effectiveness remains limited: “I am always amazed, when I am at sea, on the coast of West Africa, to see the difference between the vessel tracking system results and what I actually see on the water,” says Klinckhamers. “There are always 50 to 100 per cent more boats in the areas monitored, so you only see the tip of the iceberg through technology.” The key perhaps lies in expanding the number of surveillance mechanisms. French researchers have, for example, developeda system to track albatrosses that follow fishing boats for food – using sensors to record the undeclared presence of boats.

Agreements and subsidies

The international community is not standing idle in the face of this issue. The Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), signed in 2010, is the first internationally binding agreement specifically dealing with illegal fishing. Its main objective is to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal fishing, preventing vessels engaged in these activities from using ports to land their catches. The agreement seeks to discourage vessels from engaging in such activities and to stop illegal fisheries products from reaching national and international markets.

Another initiative taken by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) seeks to put an end to the fisheries subsidies in place in many countries. This practice makes fish artificially cheap and encourages illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The international organisation is calling on countries to refrain from granting new ones. “The WTO is negotiating with many of the countries providing these detrimental subsidies,” Lindsay Jennings of FishWise tells Equal Times.

Such initiatives may well bear fruit in the years to come. But we need to act more quickly.

Given the scale of the IUU fishing phenomenon, ever more oceanographers are calling on the international community to take urgent action to create more marine protected areas and to reduce the world’s fishing fleet.

A first step in the right direction was taken last June when Senegal refused new fishing authorisations for China’s long-distance fishing fleet, which was requesting licences for 52 new vessels, despite the overcrowding already affecting Senegal’s waters. The decision was taken under pressure from small-scale fishers and local environmental groups. But progress is slow.

It took the international community ten years to agree on the need to establish a High Seas Treaty, on which the first negotiations began in 2018. The aim is to create a new binding international legal instrument to protect the biodiversity of the oceans and promote the sustainable use of this biodiversity on the high seas. The treaty discussed at the UN was due to be finalised in March and should establish marine protected areas to enable fish stocks to recover. Consideration of the text has, however, been postponed, as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Greenpeace calls it a “last chance treaty” for the oceans. Time is running out: marine species have declined by 39 per cent in 40 years, in a world where 3.8 billion people depend on the oceans for food.

This story has been translated from French.

Bid to grant MSC ‘ecolabel’ to bluefin tuna fishery raises fears for ‘king of fish’

Conservationists warn the species, which was almost extinct 10 years ago, could be under threat if Japanese fishery is MSC certified

Traditional bluefin tuna fishing off the coast of Spain

Traditional bluefin tuna fishing off the coast of Spain. Photograph: Pablo Blázquez Domínguez/Getty

A decade ago, the highly prized “king of fish”, the bluefin tuna, was taken off menus in high-end restaurants and shunned by top chefs, amid warnings by environmentalists that it was being driven to extinction. Recent assessments of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, which can grow to the size of a small car and live for up to 40 years, have shown much healthier populations.

But now conservationists and scientists are warning that the largest and most valuable tuna species could once again be under threat if a Japanese bluefin fishery in the eastern Atlantic Ocean is awarded an internationally recognised “ecolabel” they claim is based on flawed science.

On Monday 1 June, an independent judge will hear evidence from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Japanese fishery and assessors for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), to help determine whether the assessors were right to recommend the fishery receives its label. If approved, the Japanese company Usufuku Honten can sell the first ever MSC-certified bluefin tuna to consumers, marking it as a well-managed sustainable fishery.

WWF and Pew will argue strongly against the award, saying it is too early to declare that the bluefin tuna stock is fully recovered. They have identified a “number of shortfalls” in the assessment process and say there has been a lack of impartiality.

Usufuku Honten is a small company with just one vessel in the Atlantic but with demand increasing for sustainable tuna in Japan, where 80% of bluefin tuna is consumed, it could open the floodgates, WWF says. A French fishery has also applied to be MSC certified.

If the judge finds in the conservationists favour, it could deal a blow to MSC’s reputation as the world’s leading sustainable seafood label. MSC says that 15% of the world’s fisheries are now certified under its scheme.

Marine Stewardship Council MSC tin of tuna certified sustainable seafood. Image shot 01/2013. Exact date unknown.D2KDK1 Marine Stewardship Council MSC tin of tuna certified sustainable seafood. Image shot 01/2013. Exact date unknown.

15% of the world’s fisheries are certified by MSC. Photograph: Steven May/Alamy

Giuseppe Di Carlo, director of the WWF Mediterranean marine initiative, believes it would be “market fraud” if the fishery was certified. “It is the first bluefin tuna fishery, so every fishery afterwards will be benchmarked by the same standards.

“For the Japanese market, which is so hungry for bluefin tuna, MSC certification is the cherry on the cake.”

A single bluefin can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction in Japan.

WWF’s objections are based around standards used by the label’s assessors, independent of the MSC, to gauge the health of the bluefin population and their assessment of how the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the fisheries oversight body, currently manages the catch.

To be certified by MSC, a process that takes 18 months, a fishery is first assessed by independent “conformity assessment bodies” (CABs). They visit the fishery, consult with experts and consider all available data to decide whether it meets MSC criteria. There are currently 11 CABs, one of which is UK-based Control Union Pesca (CUP). Last year, in its preliminary report, CUP decided Usufuku Honten met the criteria for MSC certification.

Di Carlo claimed there was a “lack of impartiality” in this process as well as what he believes is flawed science: “The MSC claims to be very rigorous in its scientific approach but here we have a case where the MSC’s assessors used a number of values far below the scientific average. We know it is not a sustainable fishery but the MSC assessors are coming up with values that ensures it passes. To me, that’s not telling the truth about sustainability.”

An audit of the process, carried out by a third party auditor, Assurance Services International, found CUP had assured Usufuku in 2018 that it would be the first bluefin tuna fishery to be certified, after the company had expressed concern over the French fishery also seeking approval. In its report, the auditor described this as one of six “minor nonconformity” issues, under standards around impartiality. MSC said CUP has since taken action to address the issues flagged by ASI.

WWF, which co-created the now independent MSC scheme two decades ago, has objected to 17 of its certifications in total, mostly unsuccessfully, and has called on the body to reform.

“We think the MSC is an excellent tool,” Di Carlo said “We have already said clearly we haven’t seen enough reform in the MSC system to be satisfied that they are meeting sustainability criteria. I would not trust all of the fisheries to be sustainable.”

Grantly Galland, an officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that after years of overfishing it was premature to “declare victory” for bluefin tuna.

“The most recent stock assessment for the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean was riddled with uncertainties,” Galland said. “The scientists were unable to confirm whether the stock has recovered.

“We are objecting because we think the certifying body got it wrong. They concluded ICCAT’s management was a bit more robust than it was in reality.”

In a letter posted on the MSC website, Sotaro Usui, CEO of Usufuku Honten, described WWF’s objection as “disappointing and unfair” and accused it of taking advantage of the review to criticise MSC and ICCAT.

In 2017, ICCAT scientists who estimate the health of the migratory bluefin tuna population were unable to say with certainty that the stock had recovered, and recommended “caution” in setting quotas.

Shana Miller, a senior officer in international fisheries conservation for the Ocean Foundation, said: “There’s no dispute that the population is better off than it was 10 years ago. But are we at the point where the population has recovered? We don’t know. ICCAT scientists don’t know. And if they don’t know, how can the MSC know they have recovered?”

Steven Adolf, researcher and author of Tuna Wars, said: “The MSC is still the best certification standard we have, but there is room for improvement. And I think the MSC are aware of that. ICCAT does not have a very robust management and Pew, WWF and MSC have a common interest to improve that.”

Dr Rohan Currey, the chief science and standards officer at MSC, said an assessment includes “many layers of scrutiny, and input from a wide range of stakeholders”.

“It ensures the independent assessor takes all available information into account when deciding if a fishery is or is not sustainable.

“This bluefin fishery – Usufuku Honten – asked to be assessed in 2018 and that process is still under way. As part of this, WWF and the Pew Trusts will shortly have the opportunity to present unresolved objections to an independent legal expert, who will then decide a way forward.”

“We cannot prejudge the outcome of this assessment – but fisheries only get certified if they can demonstrate, through evidence, that they meet the MSC’s robust standard. Clearly, this is vital for a stock such as the eastern Atlantic blue which has suffered historic overexploitation.”

A spokesperson for Control Union Pesca, now Control Union, told the Guardian it would not be appropriate to comment, as some of the points raised by WWF and Pew are under consideration by an adjudicator.

  • This article was amended on 1 June 2020 to make clear the stock recovery relates to eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna populations in other areas, including in the western Atlantic, continue to struggle.

Up to 23 feet long, the Chinese paddlefish was the giant of the Yangtze. And we killed it

Hong Kong (CNN)The Chinese paddlefish, one of the largest freshwater fish species which had survived for millions of years, has been declared extinct, according to new research by fisheries experts in China.

The giant species, native to the Yangtze River, could reach up to 7 meters (23 feet) in length and weigh as much as 450 kilograms (992 pounds). Known for its silver-colored body and long snout, it was last spotted by researchers in 2003.
Scientists now believe the giant fish completely disappeared in the wild between 2005 and 2010, after a recent basin-wide capture mission failed to find any proof of its existence.
The Chinese paddlefish, also known as the Chinese swordfish, was part of an ancient group of fish that was believed to have lived since the Lower Jurassic period around 200 million years ago, according to the scientists.
The Chinese paddlefish is believed to have vanished in the wild between 2005 and 2010, according to new research.

The species was most diverse and widespread between 34 million and 75 million years ago, and was common in the Yangtze River until the late 1970s, when its population started to dwindle due to overfishing and habitat fragmentation.
It was listed as a critically endangered species in 2009 following an earlier survey by the same scientists, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). China listed the fish as a nationally protected animal in the 1980s, but the IUCN said the construction of dams on the Yangtze River continued to block its migration route and prevented it from breeding in the upper reaches of the river.
China last week announced a 10-year commercial fishing ban in over 300 conservation zones along the Yangtze River after it found an “overall decline” in the population of endangered species, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs told Xinhua News Agency.
The Chinese paddlefish reached up to 7 meters (23 feet) in length and weighed up to 450 kilograms (992 pounds).

Wei Qiwei, a maritime scholar at the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute and a co-author of the study, said scientists believed the Chinese paddlefish was extinct as there has been no sighting of the fish in over a decade.
“There have been no successful cases of breeding the Chinese paddlefish in captivity,” he told state broadcaster CCTV. “Hence, when it died out in the wild, the species has become completely extinct.”
The findings were published in scientific journal Science of the Total Environment in late December.
Wei and other scientists believed the paddlefish had become functionally extinct — a status meaning a species lacked the ability to produce future generations — in 1993.
Researchers said its extinction highlighted the importance of enacting measures to protect other endangered Yangtze wildlife, such as the narrow-ridged finless porpoise.
“The delayed extinction of Chinese paddlefish resulted from multiple threats, suggesting that optimizing conservation efforts on endangered Yangtze fauna is urgently needed,” they added.

Giant Chinese paddlefish dubbed the ‘Panda of the Yangtze River’ is declared extinct due to overfishing and habitat loss

The giant Chinese paddlefish was said to be up to 22 feet in length but was on average around 10 feet long - one of the biggest freshwater fish in the world

  • The giant Chinese paddlefish up to 10 feet in length has been found to be extinct
  •  Researchers say its native Yangtze River has been affected by human activity 
  • Conservation efforts on endangered Yangtze fishes are now urgently needed.

Great auk extinction: Humans wiped out giant seabird

Artwork depicting the great auk (c) Science Photo LibraryImage copyrightSCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

“The great auk will always hold a place in my heart,” Dr Jessica Thomas says.

The Swansea-based scientist spent years piecing together an ancient DNA puzzle that suggests hunting by humans caused this giant seabird’s demise.

Dr Thomas studied bone and tissue samples from 41 museum specimens during a PhD at both Bangor and Copenhagen University.

The findings paint a picture of how vulnerable even the most common species are to human exploitation.

Storybook seabird

About 80cm (2ft 7in) tall, the stubby-winged and bulbous-billed great auks used to be found all across the north Atlantic – from North America through Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and the UK.

“Being flightless, they were always targeted by local people for food and for their feathers,” says Dr Thomas.

“But around 1500, when European seamen discovered the rich fishing grounds off Newfoundland, hunting intensified.”

By about 1850, the great auk was extinct; the last two known specimens were hunted down by fishermen on Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland.

The water is so hot in Alaska it’s killing large numbers of salmon

(CNN)Alaska has been in the throes of an unprecedented heat wave this summer, and the heat stress is killing salmon in large numbers.

Scientists have observed die-offs of several varieties of Alaskan salmon, including sockeye, chum and pink salmon.
Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, director of the Yukon Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, told CNN she took a group of scientists on an expedition along Alaska’s Koyokuk River at the end of July, after locals alerted her to salmon die-offs on the stream.
She and the other scientists counted 850 dead unspawned salmon on that expedition, although they estimated the total was likely four to 10 times larger.
They looked for signs of lesions, parasites and infections, but came up empty. Nearly all the salmon they found had “beautiful eggs still inside them,” she said. Because the die-off coincided with the heat wave, they concluded that heat stress was the cause of the mass deaths.
Quinn-Davidson said she’d been working as a scientist for eight years and had “never heard of anything to this extent before.”
“I’m not sure people expected how large a die-off we’d see on these rivers,” she said.
The heat decreases the amount of oxygen in the water, causing salmon to suffocate.

The heat wave is higher than climate change models predicted

The water temperatures have breaking records at the same time as the air temperatures, according to Sue Mauger, the science director for the Cook Inletkeeper.
Scientists have been tracking stream temperatures around the Cook Inlet, located south of Anchorage, since 2002. They’ve never recorded a temperature above 76 degrees Fahrenheit. Until now.
On July 7, a major salmon stream on the west side of the Cook Inlet registered 81.7 degrees.
Mauger said she and her team published a study in 2016, creating models outlining moderate and pessimistic projections for how climate change would drive temperatures in Alaska’s streams.
“2019 exceeded the value we expected for the worst-case scenario in 2069,” she said.
Mauger said that the warm temperatures are affecting salmon in various ways, depending on the stream.
“Physiologically, the fish can’t get oxygen moving through their bellies,” Mauger said. In other places in the state, the salmon “didn’t have the energy to spawn and died with healthy eggs in their bellies.”
With so many salmon dying before having a chance to spawn, scientists will have to keep tabs for the next few years to see if this year's heat-related deaths have longer term effects on the state's salmon population.

Salmon under threat

Salmon populations are under stress from other angles as well.
Overfishing is threatening salmon further south in southwestern Canada and northwestern Washington. Orca whales, which are themselves endangered, feed on salmon.
With fewer salmon to eat, populations of orca whales have steadily declined over the past decades.
And last week the Environmental Protection Agency told staff scientists it would no longer oppose a mining project in Alaska that had the potential to devastate one of the world’s most valuable wild salmon fisheries, just after President Trump met with Alaska’s Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
But in other areas, things are looking up. “Salmon are very resilient. They’ve overcome a lot,” said Mary Catharine Martin, a spokeswoman for the non-profit Salmon State.
Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, is annually seeing boom times for salmon returns, and in 2016 celebrated the 2 billionth salmon caught in its waters, after more than a century of commercial fishing.
“That’s very good,” she said. “Salmon have sustained the way of life of the people of Alaska for thousands of years.”

Japan earthquake, tsunami fears heighten after oarfish sightings but scientists say it’s not a bad omen

  • Legend has it that when oarfish rise to shallow waters, disaster is near. But scientists say there has been no reports of increased seismic activity in recent weeks
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2019, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2019, 11:47pm

On Monday, an oarfish measuring nearly four metres from snout to tail was found tangled in a fishing net off the port of Imizu, in the north-coast prefecture of Toyama. The fish was already dead but was later taken to the nearby Uozu Aquarium to be studied.

Two more of the slender, snake-like fish were discovered in Toyama Bay nine days earlier. A record four oarfish were found in Toyama Bay in 2015 but that could be surpassed this year.

The species – characterised by long silver bodies and red fins – usually inhabit deep waters and the fish are rarely seen from the surface, although legend has it that when oarfish rise to shallow waters, disaster is near.

Even the species’ traditional Japanese name, ryugu no tukai – which translates as “messenger from the palace of the dragon king” – hints at its links to natural disasters in the past.

According to lore, the fish rise to the surface and beach themselves ahead of an impending earthquake. That ties in with scientific theories that bottom-dwelling fish may very well be susceptible to movements in seismic fault lines and act in uncharacteristic ways before an earthquake.

Hiroyuki Motomura, a professor of ichthyology at Kagoshima University, has a more mundane explanation for the recent discovery of oarfish off Toyama Prefecture.

“I have around 20 specimens of this fish in my collection so it’s not a very rare species, but I believe these fish tend to rise to the surface when their physical condition is poor, rising on water currents, which is why they are so often dead when they are found,” he said.

“The link to reports of seismic activity goes back many, many years, but there is no scientific evidence of a connection so I don’t think people need to worry.”

Nevertheless, the oarfish’s reputation as an indicator of imminent doom was enhanced after at least 10 oarfish were washed up along Japan’s northern coastline in 2010. In March 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake struck off northeast Japan, triggering a massive tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people and destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant.

With that anniversary looming, people on social media became jittery about the omens.

A message on Twitter claimed: “This is no doubt evidence of a precursor to an earthquake. And if it is in the Nankai Trough, it might be a huge quake.”

Experts warned a tremor in the Nankai Trough, which runs parallel to Japan’s southern coast from off Nagoya to the southern island of Kyushu, could be imminent and resulting tsunami could cause massive loss of life and destruction in coastal areas.

The most recent government predictions suggest a tsunami more than 30 metres high could be generated by a major quake.

One Twitter user asked: “Is something happening deep in the sea?”

Another questioned: “What is going on under Toyama Bay?”

Comments on other social media sites echoed those concerns, with one post in the 5-Channel site claiming increased sightings were “a warning”.

Despite the concern, experts said it was not possible to scientifically link increased sightings of oarfish with an impending natural disaster.

Professor Shigeo Aramaki, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo, dismissed the fears of social media users as “nothing”.

“I’m not a specialist in fish, but there is no academic literature that has proven a scientific link to the behaviour of animals and seismic activity,” he said. “I see absolutely no reason for concern and I have seen no updated reports of increased seismic activity in this country in recent weeks.”

The Japanese government, however, announced a new package of response measures to a major earthquake beneath Tokyo, including additional steps to evacuate foreigners from the city.

They also call for improved delivery of information on places to take shelter, evacuation routes and medical treatment. The information will be made available in more languages via disaster information websites.

China takes more fish out of the world’s seas than the next five countries combined, in fleets underwritten by government agencies. In fact, China is collapsing the world’s fish stocks. The fish populations that once abounded along the country’s vast coastline have now all but vanished.

Nor is this scouring taking place only along the Chinese coastline. Today thousands of Chinese ships are trawling international waters from Guinea to Liberia and Senegal to TaiwanPalau and Fiji and beyond to Chile and even beyond that, Chinese fishing vessels are scouring the seas for anything that swims, vastly underreporting their catches to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

No one—aside from China—knows precisely what is going on in terms of fishing around their manmade islands in the South China Sea, but reports from the general region say that fish stocks are collapsing. Even China has acknowledged that the widespread destruction of coral reefs and the poaching of sea turtles. In fact, China believes that the South China Sea is its territory – its own saltwater lake, in essence, delineated by its 1948 “nine-dash line” – and it would be foolish to imagine that anything less than what has happened to the coastline along the Chinese mainland would take place down in its newly “recovered” ancient territory.

In other words, this once ultra-rich fishery will soon turn into a wasteland, if it isn’t already. It’s not like the Chinese coast guard will allow foreign vessels to get too close.

These aren’t simply enterprising, hard-working fishermen who are willing to travel far to earn a paycheck. This is a state-sponsored activity. In a nutshell, what we have here is state-sponsored poaching of the high seas and even into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of sovereign nations, which has been causing scuffles to break out on the waves between foreign coastguards and Chinese poaching vessels. The thinking seems to be get it before it’s gone, or if we don’t catch it, someone else will, so poach it fast and get out of there.

It’s not difficult to imagine that this sort of thinking and action leads to a highly negative feedback cycle in which the oceans are rapidly overfished with state support and soon virtually emptied out. You get a desolate modern Chinese coast, except spread across the whole world. In fact, in a part of the South China Sea still under the control of the Philippines, Chinese fishermen have been seen deliberately destroying coral reefs.

This type of selfish thinking is going to lead to ecological catastrophe on a global scale in our oceans and seas. Who is going to do something about it? The WTO recently backed down on a stricter ruling regarding government fishing subsidies, and in response China’s state-funded Huanghai Shipbuilding Co. quickly built seven more tuna vessels. The United States and Canada might be able to keep Chinese vessels out of their EEZs, but how about West African nations? Chinese captains and boat owners like to target notoriously corrupt countries—many of which are located in West Africa—where they can easily make payoffs to corrupt officials. Traditional artisanal fishermen with small boats and nets cannot compete with state-sponsored Chinese poachers active in their homeland’s waters.

While China has publicly vowed to reform its foreign fishing habits, and while some countries such as the Bahamas are pushing back against Chinese fishing in their coastal waters (the Chinese are in the Caribbean too), the overall trend is towards escalated overfishing. The situation has gotten so bad, so fast, that some start-ups are thinking that “lab fish” grown in laboratories might be the solution.

And fishing “outposts” in foreign countries can have strategic and military implications as well, becoming bases and possible extensions of the military installations in the South China Sea.

We see this in happening already in Vanuatu where Chinese is building military installations (they deny it, saying they are only fishing), and also in Fiji where Chinese spy vessels are docking while hundreds of Chinese fishing boats are clearing tuna out of Fijian waters and everything else that swims.

With major military outposts in the South China Sea and now new ones sprouting up in small South Pacific nations, and with rented islands in the Maldives99-year leases on the Cambodian coastdebt-trap acquisitions in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it would seem that China has everything except the North Atlantic. It’s difficult to imagine that this is all a grand coincidence and not part of a secret strategy to get a stranglehold on the world’s seas, empty them out easily by backing up fishing vessels with “coast guard” ships from rented ports and artificial islands, and overfish it all until everything is gone. That certainly seems to be the direction we’re heading in, plan or no plan.

For millennia the high seas were like gargantuan, boundless protected areas simply because refrigerated, long-distance fishing vessels didn’t exist. There would be no point in sailing a week out into the middle of the Pacific when everything would rot by the time you got back to port. But that’s all changed now, of course, and in addition to out-of-control overfishing, largely by the Chinese but also substantially the Taiwanese, ocean-going vessels also dump massive amounts of plastic and other waste into the high seas.

In fact, it is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the worlds’ oceans. Who is going to be out there to patrol all of this? And this article didn’t even touch on the forced labor and outright slavery that constitutes the dreadful working conditions many “fishermen” find themselves tricked or coerced into.

Is there any solution? It’s hard for me to imagine it. Perhaps countries need to take a tougher stand and, like Indonesia, blow up foreign fishing vessels and make a public display of it in order send a strong signal to foreign poaching fleets. My guess is that only drastic measures will work.

Earlier this year while on an evening flight from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei I looked out the window down at the South China Sea and I had to blink, remove my glasses, rub my eyes, and take another look. Which city was this that we were flying over? Wasn’t this supposed to be a large body of water? A sea? There were so many lighted fishing boats (probably going for squid) down below that it looked as if we were passing over a sprawling city. So many fuzzy white lights down below that for a while I felt as if we were in a spacecraft flying over the Milky Way.

Is that the future of our oceans? Every inch of them being fished out every minute of the day, industrial-scale, non-stop? I don’t know for sure which country those fishing vessels hailed from, but if I had to make a guess, I know where I’d put my money.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.

Food for thought: Food security, population growth & over-farming

We look at the state of global food security amid rising concerns about the world population and climate change.

 Climate SOSFoodEnvironmentAgriculture

There are currently 7.6 billion people on the planet, and they all need feeding. However, producing crops and rearing livestock is environmentally unsustainable. Nearly one-third of the Earth’s land is severely degraded and 90 percent of our oceans are quickly being emptied of fish.

The pace of harvest is relentless and with the worldwide population expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050, it is clear that our planet won’t be able to keep up the pace of food production.

3D Farming

Bren Smith is in the process of creating thousands of decent jobs, transform how we harvest food from the oceans, and blunt the effects of climate change and marine degradation – all at the same time.

The system he has developed to do this is called ‘3D Ocean Farm’, a polyculture vertical farming system under the water’s surface which grows a mix of seaweed crops and shellfish.

Scientists, fisherman and farmers have found that kelp reduces water acidification rate. It pulls so much carbon and nitrogen out that it changes the water quality [Alice Martineau/Al Jazeera]

Requiring zero inputs, it is the most sustainable form of food production on the planet, and it also sequesters carbon and rebuilds reef ecosystems. The crops can be used as food, fertiliser, animal feed and even energy.

“If you were to take a network of these farms, totalling five percent of US waters, you could remove the equivalent carbon output of over a million cars,” says Smith.

“What the kelp does is it reduces the acidification rate. It pulls so much carbon and nitrogen out, that it changes the water quality.”

In this episode of earthrise, we head to Connecticut to meet a commercial fisherman turned climate farmer who has developed a system of polyculture vertical agriculture in the ocean, called 3D farming.

Lab Meat

The global animal agriculture industry needs immediate and truly urgent attention. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, habitat destruction and is responsible for more CO2 being released into the atmosphere each year than all forms of transportation.

The impact of farming cattle on climate change is so significant that some experts believe that giving up beef reduces our carbon footprint more than giving up cars [University of Maastricht/ Al Jazeera]

While the statistics surrounding the industry are terrifying, there is no sign that the industry is slowing down. Meat consumption is on track to rise 75 percent by 2050.

Scientists at Mosa Meats in the Netherlands believe they have found a solution to this dangerous trend: growing meat in a lab.

This technique eliminates the need to harm live animals, eradicates the dedication of large swathes of land to the cultivation of animals and dramatically reduce methane emissions.

“Methane is actually a very powerful greenhouse gas,” says Dr Mark Post at the University of Maastricht. Post is part of a number of teams involved in research surrounding the production of lab-grown meat.

“[Methane is] 20 times more powerful than C02 and livestock is accountable for 40 percent of all methane emissions. This process would reduce the number of animals from 1.5 billion to 30,000,” continues Post.

In this episode of earthrise, we will visit the Mosa Meats lab who are at the forefront of this truly extraordinary meat movement, and examine the process behind it and learn of the huge benefits it could offer, while also looking at the varying social opinions on the new method of meat production.