As the Oceans Go, So We Go

Recently a fisherman at Ventura Harbor said to me, "I'm going to be out of a job."

He was not speaking of sequestration. His hands were hard. His eyes were clear. He was looking far beyond the halls of Washington where, as I write this, ostensibly wise adults are again behaving like petulant preschoolers.

No, this fisherman was talking about fish. Soon enough -- an eye wink in geologic time -- he might not have any fish to catch. He shook his head.

"It's hard to believe," he said.

We stood quietly on the dock, two men looking out at the water. But we are not alone. We are seven billion and counting. It took only twelve years to add the last billion. Our future population forecasts are not heartening. Nine billion by 2050. Ten billion by the end of the century. An estimated one billion people, most of them from poorer countries, already rely on fish as the mainstay of their diet. Some believe that by the year 2050 we may have fished all the fish from the sea.

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This is what the fisherman had been talking about, the two of us standing in the afternoon sun. He had read a report by the United Nations' Environment Program. The report painted a dire picture, he said. Fishermen earn their living with their backs, but the majority of fishermen I have met are also bright, and they certainly keep close tabs on the things that interest them. According to the report, the fisherman said, 30 percent of fish stocks have already collapsed, yielding less than 10 percent of their former potential. He recounted other statistics as we stood on the dock, but I wasn't taking notes and so I forgot them. But the thought of a fishless ocean stunned us both. Fishermen have sometimes been portrayed as wanton and uncaring pillagers, but the fishermen I have met have cared deeply for the ocean they fished. A painter doesn't kick over his paint cans; a farmer doesn't raze his fields.

In the silence the water moved beneath the dock, making sighing sounds.

Eventually the fisherman sighed too.

"I know I'm part of the problem," he said, "but I can't exactly up and quit."

We have become very good at many things, and fishing is no exception. Enormous freezer trawlers can catch and process a ton or more fish in an hour. In the late eighties, walleye pollock flooded Washington's Puget Sound. Roughly ten years later, trawl surveys failed to find one pollock. For those who keep track of such things, we have also done a number on Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and salmon. We all know what happened to New England cod and, before that, the great whales. The oceans are not what they used to be.

I have spent my life around the ocean and so have taken a special interest in the sea. I have done a fair bit of reading on the topic, and a small amount of writing, too; speaking with oceanographers, biologists, academics and, yes, fishermen, for they often have the best view of the sea. I have also leapt in -- head first, feet first, whatever got me in quickest -- every chance I've gotten. I've seen my unfair share of ocean glories, beauty beyond words, and, sadly, ugliness of the same vein. I have finned over reefs, sunlight playing over colorful coral stalks and lettuce-like fields shot through with neon torrents of fish. I have seen other reefs, broken, lifeless and bleached white; reefs not like a lovely painting, but like a carcass picked clean. Once, scuba diving in waters off Burma, I watched fish spinning aimlessly in convulsions, their fellows drifting on the surface, belly up and gape-mouthed, peacock colors already fading to sorrowful gray. Fish bombing can wipe out a reef, but a Burmese fisherman who collects a blast-killed haul of fish can earn more than five times the average daily salary in his country and feed his family for another day. The world is an imperfect and complicated place.

Of course, it is not just dwindling fish. It is oil spills, and rising ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification, and incomprehensible sprawls of plastic and trash, and toxic runoff from farms and sewers and streets and killing algae blooms. We see the headlines. "Runoff from Modern Life Foments a Tide of Toxins." "Growing Seawater Acidity Threaten to Wipe Out Coral." "Algae Blooms Invade Coastal Waters." There are so many headlines and so many batterings, but lists numb and it's a simple point that matters. More and more of us are placing our hands on the oceans, devouring more and more, dumping more and more, leaving less and less.

The globe began with the sea so to speak, wrote Jules Verne, and who knows if it will not end with it.

Each day the Earth's population grows by some 200,000 people. If you're good with math (I'm not; the History Channel did it for me), that's roughly 140 people a minute.

This, of course, has repercussions on dry land too. But it was water the fisherman and I looked out on.

The sun shone. A gull cried. Up on the Ventura Harbor promenade, new mothers pushed strollers.

The fisherman nodded to me.

"Better get back to work," he said.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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