8 June, 2016 8 June, 2016

The End Of The Line

Fish have been part of most surfers’ diet and culture since the age of Capt. James Cook and his ventures to the holy land of barrels, Hawaii. It seems almost unimaginable that our oceans fish supply could suddenly, like surfing accessories in December, be out of stock. But the truth is, much like a young grom charging too gnarly a set, we are headed for a drop we might not be able to make if we don’t improve sustainable fishing practices worldwide.

Before becoming a vegetarian, I was out at a restaurant (known for its fine fish) in Plettenberg Bay after a heavy session at the Wedge. Here, I asked the waiter for a starter portion of California rolls to which he replied: “sorry sir we’re out of fish”. Those four words, “we’re out of fish”, still echo in my conscience today. That night I went home and “fished” around for some answers to support that bold waiters claim. The answer in short: the world’s fish stocks are in rapid decline and this is more detrimental to us than we may realize…

By Sean ‘Chana’ Kelly


Underwater in SA. Image © Grant Harper / Shotbru

Just like the concept of peak oil, we find that of “peak fish” where the maximum extraction of fish from our oceans is reached. If you’re sitting there thinking that we are yet to reach the summit of that peak, sorry cuzzie, you’re wrong. In fact fisheries hit this peak in the 90’s, a time when dial up internet reigned supreme and the likes of Rob Machado and Kelly Slater were busy carving their names into the archives of surf history. Currently, we’re pulling out more fish from the ocean than can naturally be replaced, drastically depleting fish stocks. When fishing is allowed to exceed scientific recommendations, fisheries are putting our very future at risk. If we do not keep this threat in check soon it will go from finding Nemo, to losing Nemo – millions of Nemo’s.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization stated that 87% of wild fisheries globally are over exploited. According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “many species have been hunted to fractions of their original populations and more than half of global fisheries are exhausted”. In just the past 10 years multiple top predator populations, like the iconic Bluefin tuna have declined by as much as 90% bringing about a sizeable imbalance in the oceans ecosystems. Destructive fishing practices such as long lining and trawling are decimating fish stocks at a global level.


Locals catch a bakkie load of  Cape Snoek. But how much longer will they last? Image © Chris Leppan

To paint a picture of how grave an impact these two methods of fishing have, we need only look at the method itself. Some modern trawl nets are so large they can fit thirteen Boeing 747 airplanes in their 23000 m2 opening. That’s enough space to hold over 500 tons of marine life including; fish, dolphins, turtles, whales (and possibly even stray surfers). Trawling is the deforestation of our oceans, it is that destructive. Annually the world’s long lining industry sets over 1.4 billion hooks, that’s enough line to encircle the globe 550 times. Coupled with revolutionary advancements in fishing technology enabling us to catch whatever and where ever we want, fish don’t stand a chance.

Recently in South Africa, more than 500 tons of our squid were found on three Chinese Trawlers in the Eastern Cape waters. Since then the three captains of the vessels have appeared in court on grounds of illegal fishing, despite China claiming their trawlers were fishing legally according to China’s SA embassy Spokesperson Yu Yong. With help from the Department of Agriculture and the South Africa Navy the trawlers were caught red handed with some our seas finest marine life. Worldwide illegal fishing costs fisheries more or less $23 billion each year. The toll it takes on fish stocks and the oceans ecosystem cannot be summed up in economic terms. Acts such as these further exacerbate the problem of over fishing and once again highlight a need for adequate policing of our oceans invaluable resources.


Local fishermen. Destination unknown. Image © Stefan / Shotbru

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have stated that at least 30% of the oceans open water shark species are facing extinction due to overfishing. Although these streamlined buggers sometimes plague our minds out at backline, an ocean without sharks would be a far more nightmarish reality. Perhaps the most unethical facet of overfishing relates to bycatch. Bycatch refers to marine life that is “accidentally” caught when commercial fishing fleets set out to collect a target species, such as cod or prawns. Once on deck fisherman sort through the oceans collateral and take only what they want, the rest is tossed over the side, dead. Every year, since 1994, fisheries have wasted over 25 million tons of marine life annually as bycatch. This equates to around 30% per catch and represents a route toward mass marine extinction.

The first accounts of overfishing were brought to the surface in the early 1800’s when the oceans most successful hunters, humankind, annihilated the whale population for their blubber for lamp oil. Since then species including the Atlantic cod and herring as well as California’s sardines were almost fished to extinction. These seemingly isolated events operating at regional levels have had massive implications globally, due to their highly unsettling effect on the food chain.


Enter At Own Risk. Image ©  Tracy van Vuuren / Shotbru

The situation right now is that the most coveted fish species (Atlantic Halibut, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy etc) have collapsed. With the future of large-fish populations in question, commercial fishing fleets have started going deeper into Davey Jones’s locker in search of viable and alternative catches. This method, more commonly referred to as ‘fishing down’, is disturbing the vulnerable and ancient balance of our oceans. According to the journal Science, marine scientists have rather ominously predicted that if left unaddressed, we could soon be surfing in an empty ocean as of the year 2048. I don’t know about you, but I would really dig it for my lightie to know what it’s like to land their first fish.

Over the past 60 years, whilst fisheries have yielded decreased returns, people have slowly begun to take notice of the ocean and its unanswered cries for help. What we once viewed as infinite is now becoming ever more finite. Through a combination of pressures placed on the ocean by pollution, habitat loss, climate change and overfishing it is easy to view the ocean as a system in crisis.


Local fisherman, Trevor Naidoo, pictured at the notoriously polluted Blue Lagoon / Umngeni River Mouth, Durban. Image © Robyn Perros

However, in light of all the negatives there is still hope for our oceans. Majority of scientists believe that most fisheries can be restored to their former glory through aggressive management and policing across the world’s oceans. Many countries across the globe have started implementing more progressive fisheries policies; however illegal fishing and over harvesting still remain a thorn in the side of sustainability.

As surfers, we are stewards of our oceans and we need to come together as a collective and speak for those who can’t – the fish. There has never been a more important and critical time to take action and make a commitment to saving our planets oceans. By choosing a path for fisheries that safeguard the ocean food web, we are making a choice for our very own sustainability. If we don’t check our inside channel and accept what’s coming whilst resisting the urge to drop in, the only thing left at the end of the line will be an empty hook pointing back at us.

Image © Tyrone Leech

What lies beneath. Surfers huddling close. Destination unknown. Image © Tyrone Leech / Shotbru

June 8 is International World Oceans Day. Treat the ocean with the utmost respect, reduce, re-use, recycle, stand up to unethical fishing practices and spread the stoke rather than the problem.

About The Author: Sean Kelly is a lifetime surfer and conservationist with an academic background in both Environmental Science and Environmental Management at Rhodes University, South Africa.

Lead Image © Magdalena Wysoczanska / Shotbru


  1. Kate
    8 June, 2016 at 1:30 pm · Reply

    Great article! Thought provoking…

  2. Jenni
    8 June, 2016 at 1:36 pm · Reply

    Great Article, thanks for opening my eyes! What are we doing to our Oceans???? we need to stop NOW!

  3. Michaella
    8 June, 2016 at 3:40 pm · Reply

    It is so important that people are aware of this! Thank you for sharing the knowledge! “treat the ocean with utmost respect” it gives us life in so many ways! Thanks you for the great read.

  4. StuartS
    9 June, 2016 at 11:31 am · Reply

    I’m going to forgive the writer because he’s a veggie but that’s a bakkie load of Cape snoek, not Natal snoek. No meat eater would make this error.

  5. Davek
    13 June, 2016 at 2:35 pm · Reply

    One issue that has not been addressed globally is requiring all trawlers to have their tracking devices on at all times and for an international authority to be able to track every trawler globally in real time. International maritime law does not allow for this currently.

  6. Christopher
    11 June, 2018 at 8:53 pm · Reply

    For a add on to the whaling they also hunted the stellar sea cow. It was discovered in 1741 and in 27 short years it was hunted into extinction. Thanks for the knowledge of the modern fish crisis

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