End of the Blue Frontier
A narrative scenario
Back in 2008 I wrote an article addressing the issue of global fish resources and food production and cited a number of prospective events for 2015
Long form narrative scenario | Futures fiction
The Institute for the Future is planning the world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game: Superstruct. Set to start on September 22, 2008, the game will focus on creating the strategies needed to overcome five “superthreats”, ranging from a devastating disruption of the food supply chain, to a pandemic, to “global weirding” weather patterns to create millions of climate refugees.
The aim: survival.
They’ve offered a brief to respond to:
“It’s the summer of 2019. You are yourself, but 10 years in the future. Describe where you are having for dinner, what you’re eating, and what you’re thinking or talking about. How did you wind up there, compared to where you had dinner most often in the summer of 2008?”
The End of the Blue Frontier
I was only half-listening when I heard the phrase. Then the streaming news station had all of my attention. I looked down at my plate and stopped. I felt guilty. I knew what would come. I felt time shortening.
Three words. The Tonle Sap.
It hadn’t flowed backwards up the Mekong. It hadn’t created the nursery lakes, hadn’t the volume to form the largest body of fresh water in South-East Asia; a temporary event it normally repeats every year. The monsoon had failed and as a result Cambodia faced the danger of progressively worsening hunger. The trey riel wouldn’t be providing ‘meat and milk’ this year to the four-fifths of the population that relied on the ‘wild’ fish protein gathered from the river.
It had been predicted each time the monsoon stuttered but now the whole social & economic structure of assemblage or ecosystem fishing on the river faced catastrophe. Each year the Mekong flooded backwards up the Tonle Sap creating an amount of water large enough to raise it from the 14th river in the world by volume to the 3rd: bested only by the Amazon and the Brahmaputra. It created a vast lake in which up to a thousand species matured until being washed back down into the Mekong and the waiting nets. It was a timeless cycle of food production, perhaps the largest river fishery in the world, but now the mainstay had failed. (1)
I looked down at the plate in front of me. I’d only eaten half of the tuna. Nonetheless, I begin scraping the fish into the bin. I had alternatives – but what would they do? Up to 80 million people suddenly facing a future without an adequate and reliable source of nourishment.
We knew what to expect. We’d seen – and were horrified – by the violence that erupted during the Prawn Displacement riots in Bangladesh during 2015. Inter-communal fighting broke-out following the widespread flooding of the country following a rise in global sea levels. This had decimated the ponds dug across thousands of square kilometres of former mangrove swamps on the delta of the river Ganges and both significant life and a fragile economy had been lost.
If we looked at Cambodia now, we’d see few immediate options for relief available; no internal migration to domestic coastal fishing grounds: no substitution of other ‘water’ crops; no substitution of other protein sources; no replacement stock species and no easy means of aid or support from an impoverished government.
The outcome? A combination of civil unrest, forced migration to urban areas and – likely – hunger, starvation and death. Given the potential fragility of the monsoon in 2020, the weakness of the ecosystem and the forced change to social structures, well… I think we’re witnessing the start of a regional implosion and the emergence of Cambodia as a ‘migrant-state’ without meaningful food security.
Remember the numbers from 2008? We forget we had some pretty decent indicative data back then; we knew that at least ‘one billion people were dependent on fish as their primary source of protein’ (2). A billion: about the same number who had the internet then or roughly 20% of the global population at the time. This disaster would account for just over 5% of that figure.
While other areas had struggled with the whole issue of sustainability, abundance had continued naturally along the Mekong. Now that would change irrecoverably. As I considered the fatal shortage they were about to face I thought of the FAO 2004 declaration “… more than 75 percent of world fish stocks …are reported as already fully exploited or overexploited“. Combined with disasters such as this, it had – and would continue – to get worse. As the last piece of fish slides off the plate, I recall my own lunch of abundance a decade ago, back in the summer of 2008.
We were in Conil, just south of Cadiz in Spain, travelling down through Andalusia and hugging the golden Costa de la Luz – the Coast of Light. It was June, 28 degrees and we were there for the “Rutan Tuna”. This week long event celebrated both the arrival of the fish and the traditional cuisine based on their seasonality. All the local restaurants joined in offering a panoply of reduced price, speciality tuna dishes. Freshly caught – just offshore in the eastern Atlantic – I remember the rare tuna steaks served at the beach. I revelled in it, eating multiple portions of fresh fish & seafood every day.
I look down at the now empty plate and think about the key issues we’d faced since then. It reminded me that multiple, inter-related causes had led us to where we are today – the seas at the brink of productive survival.
Historically, 50% of fish were caught in only 10% of the ocean. That is, mainly along the continental shelves and less than 200 miles from the shore. But it was only back in 2011 that I really began to hear about dense shelf water cascading. In short, the “flushing and cleaning” mechanisms crucial to coastal water quality, nutrient cycling and deep-water production. It’s a key component of ocean circulation.
As global warming increased the cascades began to slow, fish production declined sharply and – in places – the remaining stocks left altogether. With quiet dread, we welcomed the world of Dead Water.
We knew we had a real problem then. From 2013, that 50% began a rapid decline from which it’s not recovered. Now – in 2019 – we struggle around 10%. What about the other half? Step back to 2006, and recall Ransom Myer’s quote; “There is no blue frontier left. Since 1950, with the onset of industrialised fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10% … for entire communities of large fish species.” (3) Our productivity was plummeting even then as the total number of fish fell. We haven’t stopped that kind of fishing since and the addition and spread of Dark Water has only exacerbated the problem. Now, there are simply too few ‘wild’ fish left.
As for the deep sea?
We’d already done a lot of damage by 2008. The apparent abundance of this part of the sea was misleading: longer growth & maturity periods and lower reproduction rates meant that – while initial catches might be high – replacement rates would remain low; indeed, single generations of a species could be pushed into extinction. It meant simply, the deep-sea was not a viable substitute for the decline of other fisheries. A fact the global community finally, but, reluctantly acknowledged in the 2013 ‘Moratorium on Deep Sea Fishing’.
We’d also been warned – as far back as 2006 – of the dangers of a declining number of fish and seafood species with predictions of 2048 as the date at which we’d run out of viable ‘wild’ fisheries. If we’re now playing with a revised survival horizon of 2042, this may be a mute point…
But, industry stepped-up and reassured us that this was exactly what aquaculture was for – to overcome the increasing supply side issues and keep the market happy – after all, in 2010, half of all the fish and sea-vegetables the world ate was already farmed not wild. So, the ‘blue revolution’ bloomed? Not universally. For 5 years the ‘developed’ world continued to struggle with its inherent sustainability issues while African and Asian development moved on: subsistence needs demanded it.
China had established aquaculture as a ‘pillar’ industry and designated 3 zones of development. It was – even back in 2008 – the world’s largest supplier: generating over 70% of the world’s aquaculture production of fish, crustaceans and molluscs. In 2015, the Eastern & Southern Coastal Region Development Zone (comprising Zheijiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan & Guangxi provinces) was hit by category 5 Typhoon 2015015 (Haishen). The resulting loss of infrastructure led to a 15% decline in aquaculture exports and reduced the overall global volume of production by as much as 20%. Even now, production is still only just returning to 2015-levels.
Seafood faired much worse. Vibrio tubiashii really arrived in 2012: achieving a resistant-state and global distribution by 2016. Responding to the increase in global warming, this bacterium mutated ahead of the scientists increasingly desperate efforts to check it and was able to extend its threat to most forms of seafood larvae. At one point in early 2017, it was feared we’d see another mass extinction with the Pacific Oyster (Crassostrea gigas) being only 2-3 uncontaminated hatcheries away from being wiped out. The result? The global seafood industry collapsed and – what current, limited local production exists – remains unreliable at best; essentially a biological gamble at the start of each spawning season.
Now, in 2019 we’re painfully aware of the problem. The availability of wild fish stocks continues to decline, fish farming has not fully replaced the volume and the seafood supply has almost disappeared – there is a shortfall and the human population continues to increase.
I throw the empty can at the bin and wait for ….
Ah, I see. You thought I was eating fresh tuna again.
Sadly, that’s no longer the same kind of option anymore; we collectively failed to agree on how to handle the conservation of the blue fin remnant stocks and, by default, fished-out the last of the purely wild-running species back in 2016. I even recall Prime Minister Bunko – with white-gloved solemness and not a little skill – ceremoniously taking the chain-saw to portion the last, wild frozen blue fin to ever pass through Tsukiji market, so beginning 7 days of national mourning. The end of a potent embodiment of nihonjinron – a symbol of Japan passing into myth and history.
Sure, Japan wasn’t entirely to blame: the EU, the US and all of the other 70-odd countries that had consistently ignored scientific advice on stock-levels should also be cited and, yes, there are still some of the ranched, hybrid-bred “Cappuccino-C” farmed stock around (they don’t taste the same now and are themselves subject to problems of disease and early death) but it was still the end of an era.
Today we really need both ocean and river fisheries to provide the core protein requirements for up to 2 billion people worldwide. We are not meeting those numbers; we are at productive cross-roads. We are in trouble.
Is there no way forward?
Well, we shouldn’t forget the tireless activism of Dr. Daniel Pauly who brokered an alliance between Iceland and Norway back in 2014 to set-up an aquatic extension to the existing Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen.
This remote ‘Doomsday’ resource was designed to prevent the extinction of agriculture by securing the world’s seed-base with up to 100 million seeds from more than 100 countries being placed inside when it opened in early 2008. Dr. Pauly sought to develop an equivalent for fisheries & aquaculture.
He tried to find egg or fry examples for all of the 28,500 species recorded on his Fishbase database for adapted cryogenic freezing and storage. He was disappointed – many species having tipped into
effective extinction – but he did find just over 4,000 of the individual species that we’ve fished commercially at some point. He’d saved a key part of our productive heritage.
We are rapidly approaching the time when we’ll need to open that vault.
(1): Information based on Chapter #13 “Mekong: Feel the pulse” in ‘When the rivers run dry‘, Fred Pearce (Transworld Publishers, 2006).
(2): Quote from Claire Nouvian during her presentation at the Thinking Digital Conference in Gateshead, UK in May 2008.
(3): Quoted in Charles Clover, “The end of the line” (Ebury Press, 2004), p. 31.