The Real Catch with Fishing

by Joanna Benn

There's been quite a buzz lately about depleting fish stocks, mostly generated by the hard hitting documentary film, the End of the Line, which offers a persuasive case that major species of edible fish are headed for extinction in the next 40 years.

The film's ensuing publicity and campaign provoked a number of celebrity comments.

The Telegraph reported that Sienna Miller, Charlize Theron, Jemima Khan, Woody Harrelson, Laura Bailey, Alicia Silverstone, Zac Goldsmith, Sting and his wife Trudie Styler jointly wrote to
exclusive fish restaurant Nobu asking them to remove endangered bluefin tuna from the restaurant’s menus, so they can “dine with a clear conscience”.

The Sun also carried the story saying:
Sienna Miller blasted a top London restaurant for putting endangered bluefin tuna on its menu.”

If all of this passed you by, then on a more personal note, perhaps you’ve noticed different types of fish in the supermarket or on restaurant menus recently?

Have you heard rumblings that fish stocks are in crisis, but not sure if it’s scaremongering or what you can do about it?

The reality is that more and more people are competing for fewer fish. It’s obvious to those that study the oceans and earn their living from them, that we’re taking far more than nature can replenish.

If we need a clear example where this might lead, let’s look around. We’re still stumbling through the consequences and aftershocks of a global financial crisis because, simply put, we borrowed more than we can repay. Nature is no different. Extract and exploit too much, over-extend into debt and the system collapses.

As of 2007, 76% fish stocks monitored by the UN were fully exploited, overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. It is worth reading that sentence again. Over three quarters of fish that we like to eat is either at its limit, or past it. Scientists predict that unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food will collapse by 2048.

End of the Line covered many aspects of overfishing and it did a pretty good job covering a massive global subject in a couple of hours.

However, in its valiant efforts to get across the main message, it somewhat glided over one huge issue - all the fish and animals that gets caught in nets that no one intended to catch in the first place.

A group of scientists and conservationists lead by WWF researched and released a paper in April this year showing that 40% of everything we take from the oceans is either unused, or unmanaged, meaning it’s not accounted for, not regulated and certainly not part of anyone’s management plan.

Is there any other industry on the planet that would tolerate levels of waste and lack of sustainable management of around
40 percent year on year?

When vessels go to sea, they go after their so called target catch which varies wildly depending who is deciding what the target is. As most fishing gear is not selective, fishing fleets also catch millions of tonnes of other marine creatures and fish.

This is termed “
bycatch” and using a definition proposed by WWF, it amounts to a staggering 38 million tonnes a year.

A second issue is the type of gear used. Some of the nets used regularly are large enough to hold 12 jumbo jets. Boats are bigger and faster than ever. The pass of a single trawl can remove up to 25% of seabed life.

Shrimp trawlers, particularly those in the tropics, can catch over 400 marine species in their nets and shrimp fisheries are responsible for one third of the world's discarded catch, despite producing less than 2% of global seafood.

This recent assessment and conclusion has not focused on whether the animals that are caught are later used or consumed. Frankly, it’s irrelevant.

Even if bycatch is used later, there is no way to tell whether is was sustainable to remove it from the ocean in the first place.

Bycatch costs fishers time and money. It contributes to the already critical problem of overfishing, threatens future revenue and long-term food security. It’s also a major killer of marine wildlife, putting several species at risk of extinction and drastically altering the sensitive balance of marine ecosystems.

It’s obvious that we cannot afford to let this continue. Despite the urgency, the good news is that there are solutions. Environmentalists are working around the world to develop, test, and implement new fishing gear, as well as to integrate science into effective fisheries management. Many advocacy groups are also working to strengthen legislation to lessen bycatch and to raise consumer awareness about sustainably caught fish.

In October 2008, Norway and the European Union jointly agreed to an immediate ban on high grading (discarding less valuable fish to make room for more valuable fish) in North Sea fisheries.

In 2007, the Moroccan government banned gillnetting - a fishing gear responsible for extremely high bycatch levels - in its waters. Under the new law, Morocco will destroy all its driftnets, thereby ensuring that the banned gear is not simply sold on to other countries.

These stories show that that a combination of political will and practical changes that support sustainability, if enacted quickly, could ensure that the oceans recover.

The sea is not an inexhaustible resource and this mammoth indiscriminate waste is taking a deadly toll on marine life, human jobs, health and security. We’re seeing tough times already, let’s not make things tougher.

Fish stocks, perhaps unlike the FTSE or the Dow can rebound relatively quickly if given the chance.

Let’s give them and us that chance.

Joanna Benn is a journalist, writer and consultant specialising in environmental issues.