AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We now take you to the Aegean Sea where the fish are disappearing and so are Greek fisherman. They used to supply all the fresh fish served up at island tavernas, but dwindling stocks mean empty nets. Today, what you eat might be farmed. Joanna Kakissis visited a Greek fishing village on the island of Leros.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's a sunny afternoon in the port of Laki. The beachside tavernas are filled with happy tourists and local families listening to traditional violin music and eating fresh grilled fish. But fishermen like Parisi Tsakirios are not celebrating. He's cleaning a bright-yellow net on his wooden fishing boat. Two days at sea, he says, and barely a catch.
PARISI TSAKIRIOS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: "We caught just 20 pounds of fish," he tells me. "We can sell that for 200 euros," he says, and that's about $225. "But fuel costs almost as much, so we'll be lucky if we make 20 euros." He will split that with his 58-year-old father, Yannis, who fishes with him.
YANNIS TSAKIRIOS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: "It's so hard to make a living these days," Yannis says. "I work much longer hours now than I did as a young man." On the other side of the bay, another fisherman, Michalis Kastis, blames large commercial trawlers for scooping out most of the fish.
MICHALIS KASTIS: It is the bulldozers of the sea.
KAKISSIS: The bulldozer of the sea?
KASTIS: Yes. They destroyed everything. Soon - soon, after five years, the Mediterranean Sea is going to be a desert - empty.
KAKISSIS: Maybe not empty, but certainly fragile.
PARASKEVAS VASILAKOPOULOS: In the Med, most stocks - actually, the vast majority of stocks - are below safe biological limit.
KAKISSIS: That's Paraskevas Vasilakopoulos of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research in Athens. He is the lead author of a 2014 study into declining fish stocks in the Mediterranean Sea.
VASILAKOPOULOS: It has to do with overexploitation. So we catch more fish than we should if want to sustain viable populations. At the same time, in the Mediterranean, there's an additional problem of catching fish when they are too young, too small. So we catch too many fish before they get the chance reproduce, to spawn at least once.
KAKISSIS: Greece has the largest fishing fleet in Europe - more than 20,000 vessels - but most of them are small, family-owned boats. Fishing regulations are not well enforced in the Mediterranean. Vasilakopoulos only has to look at the seaside outside his office window for proof.
VASILAKOPOULOS: For example, you see, like, a small fishing boat going out. You'll never know, like, what he caught, if what he caught was more than what he caught yesterday. There's also a spear-gun fisherman over there. Can you see that? We don't know what he caught, where he caught it, how he caught it.
KAKISSIS: Greece is now farming fish to meet demand. But there are concerns that such farms pollute the sea, so these scientists are testing fish meal for toxins. At the marine research institute, Vasilakopoulos and a coworker show me tanks full of farmed sea bream, a popular fish in Greek Tavernas.
Y. TSAKIRIOS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: It's not a catch fishermen like Parisi Tsakirios see anymore. He's about to set off on another fishing trip. His four-year-old son hops on the boat to kiss him goodbye.
Y. TSAKIRIOS: (Foreign language spoken).
P. TSAKIRIOS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: "Is there anything to fish," the boy asks. "I'll find something," his dad says and laughs. But next year, he says, he has to find another job. His wife is expecting their second child, and fishing just cannot pay the bills. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.
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