The most depressing thing I’ve read today

Ten years ago, Ivan Macfadyen sailed across the Pacific Ocean. He repeated the voyage recently, and was shocked at the changes: the sea was empty of fish, and thick with garbage. He describes the painful experience, and also sees the trawlers stripping the reefs naked.

The speedboat came alongside and the Melanesian men aboard offered gifts of fruit and jars of jam and preserves.

"And they gave us five big sugar-bags full of fish," he said.

"They were good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh, but others had obviously been in the sun for a while.

"We told them there was no way we could possibly use all those fish. There were just two of us, with no real place to store or keep them. They just shrugged and told us to tip them overboard. That’s what they would have done with them anyway, they said.

"They told us that his was just a small fraction of one day’s by-catch. That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing."

Macfadyen felt sick to his heart. That was one fishing boat among countless more working unseen beyond the horizon, many of them doing exactly the same thing.

No wonder the sea was dead. No wonder his baited lines caught nothing. There was nothing to catch.

Waste and destruction. Does humanity deserve to continue?


  1. madbull says

    ^ yep, true.
    I was reading about how the many layers that exist between the producer of food and the consumer leads to such and other forms of wastage. People buying packaged fish in the supermarket have no real idea what goes on in the process of producing what they consume, perhaps it should be mandatory to indicate some kind of metric about the environmental impact of the product along with nutritional value and ingredients.

  2. Great American Satan says

    Longer answer: Save the tuna!

    Longer still: Humans are endlessly frustrating. Conservation issues are often the point where I break down and lose my ability to give a fuck about my species. We’re a rolling extinction event, a fucking nightmare of epic proportions.

    But we’re what we have to work with, so we have to keep slogging it out, having the same going-nowhere conversations with pigeon-brained conservatives and free market liberals, pointing to a biosphere on fire while they shrug and deny and smirk – and hold all the fucking power.

    And on my level, down here in poverty, I let myself forget about it for a while. After a few years of never buying tuna, I let myself forget. There’s tuna in my pantry. Feel free to take me out on the balcony and put one in my domepiece.

  3. imthegenieicandoanything says

    As a parent with two children, both of whom are wonderful and likely to be caring and thoughtful, willing to go to any small trouble – and maybe more – to do what seems right for life, human and otherwise, I’m still leaning towards VHEMT.

    The problem with this is that it would require some sort of pan-genocidal(or whatever this would amount to) work, and I could and would never do or consciously contribute to any such thing, nor be able to justify, and never trust, anyone willing to. Chances approach 100% that it would end up a Bond-villain-like racial-purification scheme, or at best a 12 Monkeys thing.

    But, boy! I am utterly depressed when I look at any news source, which cannot, no matter how dishonest, hide the fact that we humans collectively are a plague the like of which is unlikely to ever have previously evolved. But what can one person, however lazy, do?

    I may end up retreating into a state like that described by that often bitter, often truth-seeing man Jonathan Swift:

    “This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called, the possession of being well-deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.”

    Such “felicity” if honestly sought, seems like a possibility in what remains of my own life, though my boys likely will find it harder to achieve. It’s a pity I have some remaining passion for living, and compassion.

    Thanks and no thanks, PZ. What’s in that mirror is horrible and ugly and vain beyond all belief, but that isn’t the mirror’s fault.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I haven’t eaten canned tuna in decades, and I’ve cut way back on my sushi eating, and when I do eat fish I try to choose tilapia and other things lower on the food web rather than swordfish and salmon and tuna. The Monterey Bay Aquarium gives advice on which species to avoid eating. Also, I drink bottled water only when I go hiking, and a number of cities in the Bay Area now make you bring your own bags to the supermarket. So we are working on the problem. Trouble is, if we end up with 11 billion people (or more) even extreme conservation measures may not be enough.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    A couple of years ago, I was watching the CBC News Network as they were began a report on an important study which said the oceans were in much worse shape than previously thought. A few seconds into the report, it was interrupted for ‘breaking news’. Some Ottawa functionary was informing Canadians of Will and Kate’s itinerary for their upcoming visit. Not another peep about the ocean.

    Depressing and infuriating.

  6. draconius says

    Well, there goes my good-Reptile-Awareness-Day.

    In any case, this sort of story needs to be spread; thank you to PZ for sharing it!

    With pollution going the way it is – won’t be long ’till eating one of those fish grows you an extra arm, and not in a necessarily comfortable place.

    But, you know, screw it, etc. I already told myself I’ll do what I can to delay what the cynical (and perhaps genius) would call the inevitable. Surely, that (what I can do) is not “nothing?”

    If anyone knows any good organizations (and not (complete) money vacuums) that deal with this sort of thing, then please, let me/us know.

    Also, (parenthesis) because I don’t have enough.

  7. Great American Satan says

    Evolution isn’t a move toward harmony. That war of all against all seems more apt. Humans are animals, evolved in the same way as anything else in the world. I’d like us to be better than animals.

    I sometimes wonder if sauropods caused their own population crash through global warming. I don’t know how the timeline adds up, but sauropod dinos bred in huge numbers – kinda like sea tortoises, where the bulk of offspring were expected to perish. Anyhow, they obviously were big eaters as well – a dangerous combination for the world. Some season a virus causes the number of their predators to dip too far and the big ones overpopulate, and anyhow

    If I remember this all correctly, partway through the Cretaceous, sauropods declined in north america, forests changed to grasslands, and ceratopsians became the most numerous herbivores. Did the sauropods kinda do themselves in?

  8. John Small Berries says

    “Waste and destruction. Does humanity deserve to continue?”

    Does all of humanity deserve destruction for the acts of only some of its members?

    (If you’re the sociopathic God of the Old Testament, clearly the answer is “yes”.)

  9. moarscienceplz says

    @ #3, G. A. S.,
    Don’t beat yourself up over a couple of cans of tuna. We don’t need perfection, we just need to keep our eyes open and our brains functioning as we move through the days. If you still feel you need absolution, eat the tuna, then eat vegan the next day.

  10. says

    Given that we’re now adding the pressure of global climate change to the already-stressed oceanic ecosystems, it seems unlikely that there’s going to be a good outcome for most of the larger species. At this point, I keep wondering if I might as well enjoy fish while I can, because with acidification, expanding deadzones, and continued overfishing, there’s no future for the oceans as we know them anyway.

    I dunno.

    It’s hard to stay positive when I look at this world and the people running it.

  11. Great American Satan says

    Think my absolution will be not buying fish again for another long time, and finally getting a good “Save the Tuna” shirt to raise awareness. Here’s one.

  12. gjpetch says

    Meanwhile, unprecedented fires here in Australia, and it’s not even summer. A large proportion of the most important people in my life are currently at risk. And our senate and prime minister are doing everything in their power to do nothing about climate change, shutting down every climate related body, including the CEFC, which was making a profit for the government….. “fiscal conservatives” eh?
    Abbott has described climate change as “absolute crap”, & suggests Labor should “repent” for its carbon pricing, and apparently we aren’t allowed to talk about how fucked up it all is, because that would be “politicizing a tragedy”…..

  13. congenital cynic says

    We don’t deserve this planet. I despair for the future my children face.

    In the last 20 years I’ve eaten fish maybe once a year. I feel sorry for them. We have vacuumed the oceans. Tasty as they are, they are under severe pressure. And if the oceans go past some ecological point of no return, then we are likely all screwed. I’m more or less resigned to the fact that we are screwed anyway. May not happen in my lifetime, but we can’t do the status quo for another hundred years and not bring about so many changes that the ecosystem is seriously negatively impacted.

  14. unclefrogy says

    I looked for the scene in The Unforgiven were “little Bill” says to Edward money I don’t deserve to die like this and money does says deserve got nothing to do with it.
    We will survive or not whether anything else has a chance is up to chance right now.
    All those movies with the evil rapacious invaders from outer space are going to become true because we are those aliens.

    uncle frogy

  15. newfie says

    Now I can see the big draggers have stirred up the bay,
    Leaving lobster traps smashed on the bottom;
    Can they think it don’t pay to respect the old ways,
    That Make And Break men have not forgotten.

    Stan Rogers – Make and Break Harbour

  16. left0ver1under says

    And yet if you mention the idea of controlling the human population (birth control, one child per family limits), you get accused of wanting mass murder.

    Religious extremists aren’t the only ones who object to it. I’ve encountered atheists (including one former FtB blogger) who freak out at any mention of the concept.

  17. tussock says

    Does humanity deserve to continue?

    It’s not about deserving, eh. It’s about fitness. The question is, what does this say about the survival of the genes we carry? And really, the genome will be fine in the short term, give or take a few billion people.

    Morally it’s a disaster, classic market failure arising through tragedy of the commons and negative externalities, but it won’t affect our ultimate continuation.

  18. Ichthyic says

    perhaps it should be mandatory to indicate some kind of metric about the environmental impact of the product along with nutritional value and ingredients.

    that sounds like a good idea, but in the end, all that would happen is people would habituate themselves to the damage the labels described.

    Things CAN bounce back, so long as there are at least a few breeding areas that are allowed to be free from exploitation; I’ve seen it work in California. But…. it took 40 years of hard work by hundreds of fishery scientists to get to the point where everyone was cooperating with an end goal in mind.

    that’s a tiny fraction of the world.

    Organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) might be a good solution for private outreach to create these needed refugia and start educating “traditional” fisherman (yeah, that’s what they’re still called, even if they otter trawl an entire reef, or use dynamite to blow the fuck out of it), but most are way too small to encompass the problem globally, try as they might.

    governments are too diverse and too monetarily invested to be a solution (even Canada seriously dropped the ball on Atlantic Cod, for example).

    agreements, even in areas that traditionally HAVE been places where agreements were common (like Antarctica), have over the last few decades NOT resulted in the kind of refuges that are needed to act as repopulation centers for commercially valuable fish species (let alone the ones that aren’t). Look at the recent history involving the attempt to create refuges for Toothfish, for example.

    What’s more, while I talk about refuges for certain commercial species, those are typically associated with specific breeding areas that even CAN be protected to begin with. Wide ranging pelagic species like tuna don’t really work like that. There are no refuges for them, and it’s expected some species will indeed be biologically extinct in 10s of years or less.

    so, I guess what I’m saying is the following:

    -yes, there are models that work to both allow for fishing, and create multi-use refuges. There IS something to work with.
    -No, not nearly enough is being done with those models in the field, even in places where they have already shown value.
    -No, national governments will not solve this, only international outreach through something like the UNESCO or private NGOs like WWF will be able to have a global impact with these models. If you want to help, just encourage your local government to work with either UNESCO or WWF or some other qualified NGO. Eventually, one area and one country at a time, these organizations MIGHT be able to convince them that preserving stocks and creating refuges is in their best interests, like what happened in California.
    -It’s already too late to preserve anything LIKE what the marine biodiversity of our planet was even 30 years ago. Way too late. Forget about it. Move on. Too many keystone species have been decimated by overfishing for it to ever be like it was, with 7 billion people still on the planet.
    -It’s NOT too late to preserve a lot of what we have left, even if it is only 20% of what it once was. I’ve seen it happen.

    Seriously, if you think rainforest destruction is a problem, destruction of marine ecosystems dwarfs that by orders of magnitude, but nobody really talks much about it.

    Right NOW, most of the worlds oceans (at least in the coastal photic zones, and in many places even into the mesopelagic zones!) resemble most closely a 3rd growth clear cut forest. There might be a few trees left, but there is little to no undergrowth, and the trees are severely stunted.

    It might indeed be too late to do fuck all to stop us from destroying ourselves, but it’s just too fucking depressing not to even try.

  19. hcdfanatic83 says

    ”Does humanity deserve to continue?”

    It doesn’t matter whether we deserve it or not. We won’t continue for long, if we continue like this.

  20. jste says


    And our senate and prime minister are doing everything in their power to do nothing about climate change

    Our current government is rather pathetic isn’t it?

    Fortunately, most of my family aren’t in any danger from the current batch of fires (yet), but as you say, summer ain’t here yet, and there’s a fair amount of bush near them. I hope your important people pull through!

  21. gjpetch says

    Cheers jste, tomorrow may be very rough (possible 70 to 100kmph winds), but I’m optimistic. People are largely prepared, and the firefighters are making a pretty spectacular effort. Only one death in the fires so far, and that was a heart attack, so that’s really something to be thankful about given the severity of the fires.

  22. chigau (違う) says

    Nathaniel Frein #26
    Have an internet and some cookies to share with Humon (she already has more internets than she can use)

  23. jste says

    Ichthyic #25
    Whilst it’s good news so far, we’ve a long way to go yet, and there is (at the last count I heard) over 290 homes destroyed so far. I’m afraid we might be in for a looong summer this year.

    Nathaniel Frein #26
    This Humon has reached into my head and plucked out an imaginary conversation I’ve had with myself every now and then and turned it in to art.

  24. tomtethys says

    Many coastal communities throughout the world are totally reliant on fishing. To preserve fish stocks they must be given a credible alternative source of income. This has been happening in some countries but very slowly.
    Until we solve this ‘economic’ problem the rape of the seas will continue.

  25. ChasCPeterson says

    @#26: I guess that’s true enough at the level of Nature writ large.
    Unfortunately while we’re fucking ourselves over, we’re also fucking over myriad other irreplaceable evolutionary lineages. We might not “be missed” by what’s left, but nevertheless the effects of the Big Fuck-Over are going to linger for a long, long time.
    Explained well by David Quammen’s excellent essay Planet of Weeds (pdf link).

  26. fraserj-h says

    It is a depressing article. But, I find it infuriating for somewhat different reasons I have so many issues with this article I’m going to struggle to lay them all out, but here are 3.

    1. His description of the men in the speedboat as Melanesian, implying that it is poor South Pacific countries that are to blame. The large fishing vessel is likely to be Chinese, or Thai, or maybe Indonesian, fishing for their domestic markets or for international markets. Any Melanesians on board are likely to be deckhands who are paid extremely poorly, work in dangerous conditions, and are likely away from home for years at a time. Same with his description of the waters off Japan. Overfishing and pollution are global issues (just look at the North and Baltic Seas), and (deliberately or not) displacing them onto other countries and groups really, really, gets my goat.

    2. Describing the oceans as a dystopian hellscape (look, I can use hyperbole too!) is, if anything, counter-productive. People who read the article, then go on cruise ships, or on yachts etc. will not recognise nor experience the environment this man described. End result? “Fucking greenie bullshit” and dismissing genuine concerns about the ocean. There are real, horrifying issues with the oceans and how we are destroying them. Rubble from the Japanese tsunami, while visceral, is not it. This problem extends beyond this article into a lot of conservation writing. While it might convince a few people to reach into their pockets for the writers’ pet projects, I believe that giving expectations of these problems that are not going to met by experience when people venture into these environments is counter productive in the long run.

    3. As mentioned by some other commenters here, overfishing has been going on for decades, and it was about 15 years ago that it became an urgent topic. Same with bycatch. I really recommend The End of the Line by Charles Clover (not the film) for an overview of the problem (even though it is a decade old). I don’t buy his 10 years difference. In any case, anecdote, one data point, etc. etc.

    Sorry, this article made me a little tetchy. It is an overblown, hyperbolic rant, that misses real issues to do with pollution, environmental and social consequences of overfishing (and what drives it), and climate change for the sake of the impacts of a natural disaster and self-promotion. My biggest problem is outlined in point 1 – the effect (deliberate or otherwise) of conveying the problem as caused by other people (some of them extremely poor).

  27. says

    @ 33:

    then go on cruise ships, or on yachts etc.

    People who go on cruises aren’t the least bit interested in the ocean, and people who can afford yachts tend to not much give a fuck about environmental issues.

  28. unclefrogy says

    Caine is absolutely right it will change when we can’t do it any more not until then if at all.
    My bet would be that even when it collapses many wont believe it was our fault even then
    uncle frogy

  29. madtom1999 says

    I’ve often though the only solution is a massive overdose of explosives. Tons and tons and tons of stuff. Use it to drive sharpened piles in and around the reefs so that every net will be ripped to shreds, and large boats holed.
    If managed by local fishermen then they could continue ‘sustainable’ fishing using local knowledge and small boats where factory ships would be ruined.

    The main problem is that the modern interpretation of capitalism means that the 10 fish they can catch today that leads to a lower fish population in the future are worth more than waiting for the population to recover to the point, in most fisheries, the annual catch could exceed current population and still be sustainable.

    There are stories of early sailors dropping buckets over the side to get sea water swab the decks and pulling them up full of cod! This is in coastal water around the UK – it seems the refrigerator is largely to blame – after human fuckwittery.

  30. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says


    Hm, there is a hole in your solution. Kind of a fish shaped hole.

  31. colluvial says

    It’s going to take humanity’s diversion of an awfully big, incoming asteroid to redeem the biological devastation we’ve caused. At the rate we’re going, it would have to be a planet killer.

  32. David Marjanović says

    if we end up with 11 billion people (or more)

    We won’t. We’ll peak at 9 billion around mid-century – and that’s assuming Peak Oil is irrelevant.

    I sometimes wonder if sauropods caused their own population crash through global warming. I don’t know how the timeline adds up

    Not remotely.

    partway through the Cretaceous, sauropods declined in north america,

    They disappeared entirely – but just from North America.

    forests changed to grasslands,

    There was no grass. I’m not aware of any comparable changes to the landscape.

    and ceratopsians became the most numerous herbivores.

    Except for the hadrosaurs. Both groups are not easily comparable to sauropods. And before the Cretaceous was over, sauropods reimmigrated.

    one child per family limits

    Kerala in southern India has a slightly lower birth rate than China.
    Kerala is dirt-poor.
    Kerala has no limit on the number of children per family.
    Kerala has put what little money it has into education. Yep, women included.

    When we drive ourselves to extinction most species will breathe a sigh of relief.

    What species? Those few species that would survive conditions that would Kill All Humans are already doing great. The oceans now have jellyfish instead of vertebrates like in the Cambrian.

    I’m rather fond of Humon’s Take on the issue.

    “Don’t anthropomorphize nature. She hates that!”
    – Attributed to some Bill Taylor here.

    Good News everyone:

    At first I wondered if humans are K-selected after all.

    But probably it’s just the same thing that has happened in Italy, only more so: the women are emancipated, but the men are still stuck so deep in patriarchal concepts that the sexes can’t even talk to each other.

  33. dongiovanni (Because I had to try this function sometime) says

    Ah fuck. And I haven’t even been old enough to have any input into this for long.

  34. gussnarp says

    @fraserj-h #33 – I pretty much agree with your take. There are obviously huge issues with ocean health, over fishing and pollution among them. But this is pure anecdote, which dramatically needs more data and some control and corroboration before we can begin to draw any conclusions from it. And that’s being charitable.

    That said, there are simply too many people trying to eat too many fish too often. Our fisheries are not remotely sustainable, they are clearly collapsing. And tuna isn’t the worst of it. Orange roughy and Chilean sea bass or Patagonian toothfish point out how bad the problem is. The reason these fish are even on the menu is that fishing boats have been forced by their inability to catch enough fish to go deeper and deeper, where these fish live. Now they’ve become popular on menus and grocery shelves, but these fish take many years to reach reproductive age, making the fishery extremely fragile. We’re creating a very big problem.

  35. Holms says

    People who go on cruises aren’t the least bit interested in the ocean, and people who can afford yachts tend to not much give a fuck about environmental issues.

    Oh, not a single person on a cruise gives a shit about the ocean. Overgeneralise much? I find it downright amazing that this open water junkyard was visible to Macfadyen, but a) he didn’t get a single image (not even of his damaged ship after his voyage was over) and b) not a single other person on said cruises bothered to look overboard and maybe take a holiday snap.

    This is why the article reeks of hyperbole.

  36. carlie says

    That said, there are simply too many people trying to eat too many fish too often.

    (gussnarp at 44)

    Nutritionists tell everyone all the time to eat more fish. Fish is healthy. We should eat fish at least three times a week. Fish get ground up into fish oil tablets for people who don’t like to eat fish. Huge swaths of people think they’re being “vegetarian” because they “don’t eat meat, just fish”. A huge part of the problem is all the marketing about how fish will save you from whatever ails you.

  37. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    Carlie @ #47: Yeah, there’s fish ingredients in surprising places (orange juice, bread, yoghurt), because of the big push for “Everyone needs to eat the fish! All the time!”, which means that those of us who are vegetarian (actually vegetarian, not pescetarian), have to be even more careful. OMFG, I hate people who think vegetarian means fish is okay, they make it so annoying for the rest of us. And I shudder to think what the effects would be on people with allergies.

  38. Pteryxx says

    also note that a great deal of caught fish isn’t eaten by humans directly at all; it’s fed to chickens, pigs and FARMED fish especially as fishmeal.

    Fishmeal and fish oil are produced from purpose-caught feed fish combined with trimmings from food fish which comprise about 5 millions tonnes, according to the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Association. Currently most fishmeal and fish oil are fed to farmed fish or shrimps, with most other fishmeal being fed to farmed pigs and poultry and most other fish oil consumed as food.

    A study by Tacon and Metian1 found that, in 2006, industrially formulated feeds for farmed fish and crustaceans used 88.5% of fish oil, and 68.2% fishmeal, produced globally. This was equivalent to 16.6 million tonnes of small pelagic forage fish. A later paper by the same authors2 estimates that between 5.6 and 8.8 million (for which the mean is 7.2 million) tonnes of feed fish were fed directly to farmed fish in the same year, which suggests that fish oil and fishmeal aquaculture feeds accounted for 65-75%, or 70%, of the total wild fish tonnage fed to farmed fish and crustaceans.

    see also: