COLUMN: FISHING

by Gus Donohoo

I Bellied up, I Cast My Line, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt
Dappled light on a still lake, blue skies overhead, a taupe-clad angler on a pine-clad bank, surrounded by a chattering brood of harlequin dressed youngsters, teaching them to cast bait far out into the water. Fishing: the tranquil camp pastime.

But activities at camp are echoes of larger social forces, for fishing encompasses not only the serene summer escape of a lazy afternoon by the lakeside, but also the floating factories of oceanic long-liners that strip the seas wholesale. The children learn the fundaments, the adult reaps the maximized, globalized, corn-fed, antibiotic resistant whole, and somewhere in between, there’s some harmless groping.

Two years ago, I was in a low-key—yet highly recommended—sushi bar in Tokyo, pointing child-like at a menu I couldn’t read. And while I profess to some degree of honest innocence, I admit that the menu did have pictures. The chef placed a plate in front of me with a bow, and I saw deep red slices of tuna, and there at the end of that plate was a slice of the highest grade fish.  It was white rather than red, and dissolved on my tongue like no meat I had ever tasted: a shameful, yet truly delicious indulgence.

The lines we cast at Camp Lake Macquarie decades earlier certainly hauled in the occasional flapping fish, but the best thing we ever managed to catch was a squinty eyed flounder—bluefin tuna proved elusive.

So where do we reconcile the harmlessly cast line with the forces that swim deeper? Young summer camp anglers use hooks of American steel made in Japan, rods of fibreglass made in Scotland, and fishing line made in India. While the 40,000 year old fish traps at Brewarrina, Australia are the oldest human built structures on the planet, modern “super trawlers” rake the ocean with nets wide enough to fly an Airbus A380 through them.

In a single day just one of these vessels can capture and process the annual catch of 56 traditional African fishing boats. These high-tech trawlers—predominantly serving European and Asian markets—have decimated the livelihood of 1.5 million West African fishermen by taking 80% of the local catch. That old chestnut of supply and demand leads to a particularly fearsome tug-of-war when the prize in between is the main source of animal protein for more than a billion human beings.

Home to almost a billion people (like, there’s a lot), Tokyo is the most populous city in the world. Its Tsukiji fish market is the largest on the planet, employing more than 60,000 and handling over 700,000 metric tonnes of seafood a year—about two times the mass of the Empire State Building. Of all the delectables for sale, one is the undisputed king—the bluefin tuna.

Dr. Andre Boustany—a Research Scientist at Duke University—points out that these fish are vulnerable to our appetites because of their breeding cycles:

“While some start reproducing at the age of five, the age where 50% of the population starts reproducing is more like 12, or even 15 or 16 [depending on the species]. This is particularly a problem in the Pacific bluefin tuna where well over 90% of the fishing pressure is on immature fish that haven’t reproduced yet.”

These fish can grow to 13 feet in length, live for over 40 years, travel at more than 45 mph, weigh up to 2,000 pounds, migrate 6,000 nautical miles, dive below 8,000 feet, and, depending on the species (Pacific, Atlantic, or Southern), are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Future generations of humans—no matter how worldly, or wealthy, or good looking, or good at fishing—may never have the opportunity to know their taste or witness their beauty. In 2013 a 489-pound critically endangered Southern bluefin tuna sold at Tsukiji for $1.76 million.

Alas, too many campers, and not enough fish. Tuna are an early casualty, but they will not be the last. In 2006 a study published in Science concluded that one-third of global fishing stocks had already collapsed, and at current rates, all fish stocks will be decimated in the next 50 years. While this is something of a Malthusian extrapolation of a trend (in 1798 Malthus compared the rate of population increase with the rate of food supply and predicted that social collapse and starvation were inevitable consequences of rising populations [fun fact]), as climate change acidifies our oceans, our seafood diet seems to be caught in a Malthusian pincer movement of diminishing productivity, and increased demand.

At camp we sleep in the beds we make. We are under the covers and all tucked in, but the lights aren’t out yet. Dr. Boustany believes that the state of global fisheries has improved in many areas since 2006, but he notes that various factors—such as the industrialization of China—are still placing incredible pressure on fisheries; “there’re still quite a few black spots. Pacific bluefin tuna being one of them, the last stock assessment they did found that they were about 96% depleted from the pre-fishing biomass.” These are a top-tier predator, and we remove them from the ecosystem at our peril.

While we did learn to cast our baits and set our hooks, soon we got jobs and that shit is so much easier to just go out and buy. Yet, whenever we put a fish on the plate, we become fishermen and fisherwomen—irrespective of whether we hooked the animal ourselves in a bucolic lakeside setting—and thus we should perhaps ponder the same dilemma that afflicted Hemingway’s old man:

“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive... You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”

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