ocean destruction

Can information technology save global fisheries?

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Masses of new data reveal where fish are being captured and by whom, and what determines fishing schedules. Will this information lead to sustainable fishing, so long as profit rules?

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Masses of new data reveal where fish are being captured and by whom, and what determines fishing schedules. Will this information lead to sustainable fishing, so long as profit rules?

UK-based socialist Sarah Ensor blogs at Herring and Class Struggle. She worked in Iceland’s fishing industry for six years, and is researching the history of the working class in Iceland.

by Sarah Ensor

It’s clear that pollution and habitat destruction, overfishing and warming waters linked to climate change are damaging the world’s oceans. What’s harder to see is how we can clean up the ravages of capitalism, prevent further damage and save the ecosystems that we all rely on.

Faced with these crises, it can be difficult to remember that capitalism is the most productive system ever created and this is the great contradiction at its heart. We now produce enough food to feed every person on the planet. Millions live with chronic hunger and malnutrition because they haven’t the money to  buy food, not because there isn’t any.

Many people look to solutions in new technology spawned by capitalism’s only reason to exist, to make profit. Individual capitalists compete to be more profitable than their rivals by introducing new technological developments to produce more—of whatever it is—more cheaply than their competitors. So oceans, seabirds and whales fill up with plastic because single-use packaging is cheaper to produce and more profitable than recyclable cardboard and glass.

New technology is driving the enormous expansion of “capture fisheries” and aquaculture. Farmed finfish, shellfish and crustaceans (mostly crab and lobster) which comprised only seven percent of the fish that humans ate in 1974, exceeded wild hunted fish for the first time in 2014.  60 percent of  aquaculture production  is based in China.

Technology at sea hasn’t been left behind. Fishing lines (for “line-caught” fish) are kilometers long, nets are larger and winches more powerful. Since the 1980s capital has been concentrated into larger boats that are also processing factories.

Sometimes capitalists have to introduce new technology for safety reasons, which also protect profits. Automated identification systems (AIS) were developed in the 1980s as short-range systems to avoid shipping collisions by broadcasting their identity, position, speed and direction to nearby vessels, and since 2005 they have been compulsory on all boats over 300 tonnes and all passenger vessels, Since this information can be received by satellites we now have access to vast amounts of data about global fishing. Previously only a small part of such information was collected — it came from monitoring of separate fleets and territorial waters, ships’ log books and observers, and it wasn’t publically available and didn’t cover international waters.

Scientists from the United States and Canada recently analysed 22 billion global AIS-recorded shipping positions taken between 2012 and 2016. The results, published in Science magazine last month allow us to examine how fisheries are affected by climate change, political economy and even different countries’ holidays . The question is whether  the information will make any difference to the crises we face.

Just five flag states — China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea — account for more than 85 percent of tracked fishing in international water. The most densely fished areas are in the northeast Atlantic (Europe), the northwest Pacific (China, Japan, and Russia) and regions off South America and West Africa where the natural process of “upwelling” allows cold nutrient-rich deep water to rise close to the surface and support great quantities of fish and other marine life.

The least heavily fished areas appear to include the Southern Ocean, parts of the northeast Pacific and central Atlantic and the exclusive economic zones of many island states. But there may also be more fishing than was spotted in regions that have poor satellite coverage. Previous work estimated that more than 95 percent of the ocean may be fished, but using AIS tracking the authors here calculated it is closer to 73 percent of the ocean that was fished in 2016.

Industrial farming has made  previously seasonal fruit and vegetables  available year round. The same is true of industrialised fishing: the drive to make profit does not care whether tuna are caught before they have had a chance to spawn when there is money to be made Management of fisheries was no longer connected to seasonal cycles, or to the need to protect resource for the future. The AIS data shows that fishing schedules are now determined, to a great degree, by land-based schedules: holidays such as the Chinese New Year, or Christmas in North America and Europe, determine whether boats go out.

The AIS analysis also looked at the effect of water-warming events in 2015 in the Indian and Pacific oceans. In the Indian Ocean, longline fishing moved an average of 70 to 90 km further south in July of 2015 than it had been in the same month of 2014 or 2016. In the equatorial Pacific, previous studies showed that the regional warming during El Niño years meant that the catch of skipjack tuna moved by as much as 40° longitude. But the authors of this study argue that considering all the fleets in the region means that the shift was smaller — about 10° longitude — and that this is roughly the same move as occurred when the Phoenix Islands Protected Area was closed to industrial fishing in 2015.

The article doesn’t comment further on this, but obviously the effect of closing an area to fishing is not the same as unusually warm water driving fish north or south as their food species try to find cooler water to live in — and a regular temporary warming event such as El Niño is very different from rising sea temperatures linked to permanent climate change.

A scientific paper can’t be expected to present ready-made solutions to systemic problems but this one ends optimistically, by stating that “these data provide a powerful tool for improved global-scale ocean governance and are well positioned to help assess the effectiveness of existing management regimes while accelerating the development of novel dynamic management approaches that respond in real-time to changing ocean conditions, management issues, or conservation concerns.”

This is backed by an opinion piece by Elvira Poloczanska in the same issue of Science, which argues that this information will help us plan global food resources and protect our fish stocks. “High-seas fisheries governance has the potential to reduce the risks from climate change—for example, through international cooperation and the closure of high-seas areas to fishing It will also help to effectively manage the ocean to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

The problem with this optimism is that experts in governments and the United Nations are already completely aware that capitalism is driving climate change and biodiversity crises. However sincere these  people may be, the state and the system itself are barriers to radical transformation. This is what we have to overcome to halt catastrophic climate change and create a future with redistribution of resources for human need not profit. Technology cannot solve the fisheries crisis because under capitalism, it serves the interests of capital, not the planet or its inhabitants.

Articles cited:

“Tracking the global footprint of fisheries.”  David A. Kroodsma, Juan Mayorga, Timothy Hochberg, Nathan A. Miller, Kristina Boerder, Francesco Ferretti, Alex Wilson, Bjorn Bergman, Timothy D. White, Barbara A. Block, Paul Woods, Brian Sullivan, Christopher Costello, Boris Worm. Science, Feb. 23 2018: 904-908

“Keeping watch on the ocean.” Elvira Poloczanska, Science, Feb 23 2018: 864-865


  • I agree about this: capitalism is a huge system, driving the earth toward crisis. The question is that of how, or ‘how on earth,’ to get something ELSE into place, at that place where capitalism is. In other words, we need to drive this car into new places. That car is not the present version of capitalism. A radically altered form, maybe, that depends. But not this present “capitalism,” that is for sure. You wpuld need a radically altered economic policy. Not capitalism? Call it what you like, it is just a label.