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Op-Ed: Empty Seas

Alassio, ITALY — If you hate those salted fishy slivers on pizza, Giuseppe Cormaci has encouraging news. Mediterranean anchovies tanked this year. But that means you won’t find much succulent sea bass, branzino, let alone bluefin tuna. Try, perhaps, linguine alle jellyfish?

“The anchovy catch is down by half,” Cormaci told me. Adjusting his battered hat, he continued, with the rueful smile of an unconvinced optimist: “It might get better again. Then again, it might collapse entirely.”

Like the name on his 24-foot boat – Lupo – he is a lone wolf. His son helped for two seasons but quit to tend bar on the beach. With the few euros’ profit left after fuel, repairs, and nets during a 90-hour week, he can’t pay a crew. At 50, he belongs to an endangered species: the artisan fisherman.

The sea he knew so well is now full of surprise. Warming water brings jellyfish plagues, including the venomous Portuguese man o’ war. A great white shark just cruised the Spanish island of Majorca. Mostly, he sees high-tech foreign trawlers scoop out whatever they find and destroy breeding grounds.

Change the language and Cormaci is any of countless old salts I’ve interviewed in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific in recent years. Climate shifts and pollution steadily worsen. Unchecked overfishing increases. Marketing spurs demand, and commercial fleets fish all the harder while they still can.

Conservationists focus on big stuff. The noble bluefin, as sleek and fast as a Ferrari in first gear, excites an otherwise apathetic public. But it dines on the small fry near the bottom of a complex marine food web that is the main diet of more than a billion people.

Anchovies are hardly confined to pizza. Fresh filets in Taggiasca olive oil in Alassio are worth a day’s drive. In Liguria, as everywhere else they school, they’ve fed coastal communities for as long as there have been nets. Likewise with those little unrelated herrings: sardines.

When Portugal runs short of sardines, you know the end is nigh. Plump on a grill or canned in oil with fiery piri-piri, they define a nation. But stocks dropped from 106,000 tons in 2006 to 22,000 in 2016. Up the food chain, even Iberia’s beloved hake is fast growing scarcer.

Last year, the European Union ordered sardines off the menu for 15 years. The Portuguese government refused, forcing a compromise. Fleet operators challenged the science and blamed EU competitors. Families, meantime, wolf down sardinhas like there is no tomorrow.

At lunchtime in Lisbon recently, I found a typical hole in the wall near the port. Its front window display was a minuscule Monterrey Aquarium. I asked the waiter if fish were getting scarce. “Yes,” he said, shrugging insouciantly as he heaped cracked crab and clams near grilled sardines on my plate. Vinho verde dissolved my guilt.

Individual action matters, but saving the seas takes a concerted global effort. There is only one ocean, and it is being fished beyond sustainability, menacing even the tiny krill in Antarctica. Unbridled greed and controversy over the scale of this crisis block effective action.

Scientists keep close watch, but fish are hard to count. They’re invisible, and they move. Governments and industry manipulate data to avoid controls. If quotas are set, lax enforcement allows rampant cheating.

Down in Rome, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports the annual global catch has stayed near 80 million tons for years. Adding what is tossed overboard, unreported, or caught illegally, that is likely closer to 130 million. Parsing the details foretells calamity.

Fish farming now amounts to almost as much as wild catch. That’s supposed to be good news. In fact, it means huge amounts of “forage fish” hauled from the ocean are cooked down to pellets or paste to feed more valuable farmed salmon and ranched tuna.

I started my fishing trips in 2011, leading a team for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. We focused on the bony, bronze southern Pacific jack mackerel, decimated over decades to make fishmeal. A pound of farmed Chilean salmon could require as much as 10 pounds of mackerel hauled up by nets that wreak havoc on breeding grounds.

Daniel Pauly, the eminent University of British Columbia oceanographer, called jack mackerel the last of the buffalo. “When they’re gone,” he told me, “everything will be gone ... This is the closing of the frontier.”

Now jack mackerel are recovering. That is partly because fleets had fished so hard that they dispersed the stock and couldn’t fill their nets. But our report made some waves that splashed on front pages. European and U.S. authorities reacted.

That is only one species in a remote corner of the map. Yet it is evidence of what Pauly said at the outset: Ocean plunder won’t stop unless one major power gets serious about taking the lead and convincing the others to take sustained action.

The European Union has made some progress, but Spain, France, and the Netherlands, among others, resist harsh measures. China is by far the worst offender, fast getting worse. That leaves the United States, which under Barack Obama tried to take the lead with little success.

United Nations laws of sea are only statements of good intent unless they are enforced; they seldom are. Oversight is left to RFMOs – regional fisheries management organizations – made up of government officials and industry representatives. Since decisions must be unanimous, any member country’s veto can block effective controls.

For instance, Mediterranean bluefin nearly vanished under the watch of an RFMO known as ICCAT. (Activists call it the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.) Environmental groups stirred up public interest to save it. Now, pressure from governments and fleet operators threaten it again.

Besides Atlantic bluefin, there are only two others: Pacific, mostly in Japanese waters, and southern, below Australia and New Zealand. Both are down to about 3 percent of what they were before commercial fishing targeted them generations ago.

Obama set aside Pacific marine reserves. John Kerry, as secretary of state, convened a global “ocean summit” in Washington to rally support. Under the 1976 bipartisan Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Navy and Coast Guard cracked down on illegal fishing in U.S. waters. They helped small island nations keep track of poachers on the high seas.

Donald Trump sees fish in terms of immediate profit and the ocean floor as a source of rare minerals or oil exploitation. He has rolled back many of Obama’s safeguards. A more lax version of the 1976 act approved by the House is now in the Senate.

In a changed diplomatic climate, China has dropped nearly all pretense, building sophisticated fleets to plunder at will. When Trump sits down to deal with Xi Jinping, fish are not on the menu.

At this point, the obvious question arises. So now what? And that’s tough to answer.

When the EU pursued illegal fishing more energetically, it banned imports from nations that cheat. But it is too easy for vessels to transship their catch to disguise its origin. China, in any case, has a huge domestic demand and a diminishing need to export.

Educating consumers is not enough. Misinformation – some of it willful diversion by people who sell fish – can worsen the problem. “Sustainable” is too often tossed around as a meaningless buzzword.

When I began my research, Amanda Nickson at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington faulted a lack of public pressure. “It’s as if doctors fought breast cancer with no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery and only tried a few pills until patients die,” she told me.

An Australian who knows her facts and speaks her mind, she hammers away at RFMO meetings along with other conservationists and marine scientists. After one frustrating meeting, she reflected over a beer: “We only have to catch less fish, and they will last forever.”

I called Nickson last week for an update. Despite some victories, she said, fish were losing the battle.

Much can be done – and much is – as subsequent Mort Reports will investigate. But the problem is vastly complex, more human than piscine. Here in the placid little port of Alassio, small vignettes make the big picture dead clear.

So many Africans who drown beyond the horizon are desperately fleeing the fate Giuseppe Cormaci faces. Big fleets wipe out what survives warming waters, altered currents, plastic crap, and sea chemistry change. When their livelihood goes, they head north.

If his anchovies collapse, so will bluefin. In the end, it comes down to political will. Civic-minded citizens might forego luscious tuna belly sashimi, but others won’t, whatever its price. Authorities need to set limits – and enforce them. An American president could set the tone.

In my own mind, I’m haunted by a recurring image. When the last surviving piece of toro is carved from a bluefin belly, it will end up, overlooked and uneaten, at a buffet table in the gardens of Mar-a-Lago.

Read more news at RSN

Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs