Peak fish will come to define this decade as much as peak oil.
That's why, in my opinion, eating fish from Southern oceans by First World residents should now be deemed unethical, in much the same way that wearing furs, eating factory-raised livestock, snacking on chocolate harvested by slaves or sipping unfair-trade coffee and tea are considered below the grade for people who strive to live consciously.
A just-released UN document tells us that a quarter of commercial fish species are at risk. This is optimistic compared to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's estimate of half, and the World Resources Institute's of three-quarters.
The evidence is now overwhelming that the 1950s cliché for the "underdeveloped" world had it all wrong. Back then, policy wonks warned against giving a man enough fish to eat for a day and favoured teaching the beachcomber to fish and thereby feed himself for a lifetime.
We now know that teaching Third World peoples industrial fishing led to $27 billion in yearly fish exports to First World countries. At the same time, Third Worlders saw their consumption of fish, their traditional source of protein and essential healthy fats, decline by half.
It's no fish story to say that this is a resource that got away.
The plying of Southern oceans came as Northern countries squandered their great fisheries in the North Sea (off Britain), the Great Lakes, Newfoundland and the Pacific Northwest, for example.
Now, across 350 million square kilometres of what was once wild blue yonder, the industrial extraction of 91 million tonnes of wild fish - up from 50 tonnes during the 1970s - means that many global fish stocks teeter at the edge of collapse.
The new fish scarcity will prove a turning point in human history for several reasons. Dr. Andrew Stoll, director of pharmacology research at Harvard Medical School, is an authority on the essential fatty acids abundant in fatty fish and their potential to help reverse a host of illnesses from depression and heart disease to asthma and diabetes.
Access to fish is what distinguished the line that became human from otherwise similar species, and without the EFAs in fish, it's hard to imagine how the large, fatty human brain could have developed, Stoll argues in The Omega-3 Connection. Nice to learn about all the vital roles of EFAs just as the fish run out.
Now, in a context that might be called "the new normal," human intelligence and ethics must deal with fishing technology that threaten the brain's essential food supply. Declining fisheries will introduce us to this new lay of the land and water.
In the old normal of the past 25 years, humans turned down the chance to manage resource problems one at a time - to stop the pollution of the Great Lakes or overfishing off Newfoundland, for example.
There are many examples of problems that might have been managed in linear fashion, one at a time.
Cat lovers and lawn fetishists might have considered alternatives to the 30 million tonnes of fish a year that go to First World pets and fertilizers. The dams that mangle fish swimming upstream to spawn or that keep soil nutrients from estuaries that harbour teeming fish populations along ocean coasts might have been redesigned.
The mangrove swamps that served as nurseries for ocean fish might have been protected instead of giving 35 per cent of them over to the farming of cheap shrimp.
The emptying of ship ballast that introduced invasive fish-destroying zebra mussels to the Great Lakes might have been banned. There might have been controls on the artificial fertilizers that led to an 80 per cent increase in nitrogen releases and a threefold increase in phosphorus releases to oceans, causing algal blooms that harm fish habitat.
There might have been reductions in the subsidies and incentives that went to industrial fish trawlers, estimated at over a quarter of the dollar value of the world food catch.
The 1990s were supposed to be the turnaround decade, when such problems could be managed. The human turnaround didn't happen, and now the problems will manage us.
Here's a sample of what to look for as fishing issues "go critical." Denied access to fish protein by exports to Northern countries, hungry Africans and Asians increasingly hunt for "bush meat." This is driving some animal species to extinction.
Since the species most easily captured for human consumption are "higher" up the evolutionary ladder (monkeys, apes and other charismatic mega-fauna that attract conservationist passion), they're more likely to have diseases that can cross the species barrier. Witness AIDS, Ebola and SARS.
Global warming, which raises the acid level of oceans and bleaches coral reefs that nurse fish species, is another example of a "negative feedback loop" that builds on itself to intensify the crisis. This kind of loopy crisis will likely hit fisheries before it hits other systems that humans can bring themselves to take an interest in. That's why working on fish habitats is such a good chance to practise the future.
The UN document, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report, raises the possibility of "culture, ethics and values" that might cause eaters to "reduce demand for degraded ecosystem services."
This means we in wealthy Canada should leave this source of protein for the impoverished people of the South. A huge amount of the sea creatures we eat, after all, are theirs.
Until we get our eco priorities in order in our waterways and stop environmentally compromising aquaculture, we should get our EFAs from hemp, flax and borage oils.
A brain disease got humans in this fishy mess by devising industrial fisheries and colonized trading systems. Other human capacities, such as ethics, may get us out.