As the world's consumers wake up to the benefits of eating fish, such benefits, it increasingly appears, are a two-edged sword as humanity counts the ecological, economic and sometimes fatal cost of bringing this super-food to the table. Michael Fitzpatrick reports from a troubled sector where crime, both organised and random, is rife.

Demand for fish consumption in developed countries has never been higher. Partly for health reasons, while fashion plays its part, too, but the real fears are that, if management of fish stocks overall is not improved, not only will there be no sushi for the richer world but also the poorer and economically weaker segments of the world's population will find themselves facing an ever-decreasing supply of fish and protein.

Early December saw common sense appear to gained a victory in Europe at least after what was becoming ostensibly an often pseudo-regulated, free-for-all in our oceans.

Sir Tom Blundell, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, stated recently that without stringent new measures, "many of the fish populations will just collapse". The EU heard his pleas and immediately proposed plans to close off fishing areas for years such as the North Sea for severely depleted species such as cod.

North Sea a prime example of mismanagement

Environmental activists Greenpeace welcomed the plan, its UK chief scientist Doug Parr pointing out that "the North Sea is a perfect example of just how badly wrong government has got marine management. One of the world's most productive seas is today one of the most degraded in the world."

However in the teeth of opposition from Britain and Spain such plans have been diluted fiercely. Now only two days are being cut from a monthly allowance for vessels catching cod, along with a promise of "tougher inspections".

If the notoriously pro-regulation EU has been lax then problems of overfishing are reaching catastrophe status, say experts - a problem the UN and other bodies have been attempting to deal with with little success over the last three decades as the international community grapples with achieving sustainable fisheries, undermined by countless nefarious practices.

In 1982, following lengthy and complicated negotiations, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 Convention) was concluded. It was widely believed that the convention would lead to the rational and optimal use of fish stocks. However, many have simply ignored the convention or in many other cases conditions for over fishing have been worsened by some in the fishing industry.

Stocks at crisis point

Now that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that 71-78% of fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, responsible management of fish stocks has become ever more urgent. More alarming still, recent scientific studies reveal that 90% of all large fish have disappeared from the world's oceans in the past 50 years.

As these figures hit the headlines, only now are consumers becoming aware of the price of overfishing. Shortages will be the next big consumer blow. In the world's biggest market, Japan, recently shoppers got a taste of just what happens when overfishing goes too far and the humble sardine reached record high prices equal with the best sea bass, because no sardines were caught last year in or around Japanese fishing grounds.

To meet demand Japan simply imported more fish - an irresponsible action say some. In 1999, imports rose to 3.416 million tons, a total value of ¥1.7395 trillion (US$16.46bn). This represents 26% of the total value of the international trade in marine products, making Japan the world's largest seafood market and fuelling the temptation to supply her increasing appetite for fish, thereby exacerbating depletion all over the globe.

Farming worse than fishing?

Meeting the demand for tuna for the sushi bars of Tokyo is a good example of how over-demand is bringing stocks to record lows, even when fishing bans forced some fisheries into farming the animals. An answer at last, thought some. Now the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that tuna farming is even a greater disaster than fishing.

Tuna, the WWF explains, has voracious appetite for fish which means that other fish stocks had to be heavily fished to feed tuna in captivity. While it takes three tons of wild fish to produce one ton of salmon and five tons of wild fish to produce one ton of cod, it takes a massive 20 tons of wild fish to fatten up just one ton of tuna for market. The effects on wild fisheries are devastating warns fisheries biologist Ransom Myers. Yet the European Union continues to fund the expansion of tuna farms in the Mediterranean.

"Ironically, there are also now serious questions about the impact of pen-reared tuna on human health," he says. Overfishing of tuna to fill the pens, says Myers, means the wild tuna are not even being given the chance to reproduce properly anymore as more boats chase fewer and smaller fish.

Organised crime

Other problems abound, says Greenpeace. "Primary among the threats facing high seas biodiversity are the impacts of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. Eliminating IUU fishing is not simply a fisheries management issue since some of the most destructive high seas fishing is unregulated, goes unreported and has major implications for marine biodiversity in international waters," says Greenpeace activist Karen Sack.

This illegal trade is enriching organised crime which will stop at nothing to land their  unreported catches. With such profits to be made, particularly from Japan, human lives mean nothing. Vitaly Gamov, 39, was a general in Russia's Border Guards, murdered last year by gangsters, say authorities, for his attempts to stop seafood smuggling in Japan.

As unlawful fishing remains rife worldwide so fish stocks will dwindle further. It's a gloomy picture but one that could be reversed now before it is simply too late and the fish supper and sushi join the Dodo dinner.

"First," says Greenpeace's Doug Parr, "The European Commission's call for a total re-think of the way we manage our oceans needs to be heeded first by the UK Government and then by EU. We need to create large scale marine reserves and outlaw destructive fishing techniques, like bottom trawling, that are strip mining the oceans.

"Governments should not cave in to business lobbying. What is now required is the political will."