Are We Becoming Too Clever To Survive?
Ninety percent of marine fish are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. In a more exposed environment, this would be the cause for widespread alarm, but as most of the exploitation takes place on the high seas, or deep beneath the waves, it is a case of out of sight, out of mind for most people. We remove 170 billion pounds of marine life from our oceans each year, most of this unsustainably. On average, every one of us on the planet is eating twice as much fish as we did fifty years ago.
Like so many environmental problems we face today, this one is multi-faceted. Overpopulation, weather change and political lack of will all play their parts, but advances in technology have exacerbated the situation to critical levels. Where once, fishing to a depth of five hundred meters was considered the limit of man’s capabilities, depths of two kilometres are now regularly achieved. Long lines with thousands of baited hooks can be over one hundred kilometres long and bottom trawling devastates vast tracts of seabed whilst scooping up anything living in the process. We have become super efficient at catching fish but not a separating one species from another. All of these industrial processes trap tonnes of bycatch, unwanted sea life, that is simply tossed back into the sea to die. Yet another problem is so-called ghost fishing. Lost and discarded nets, normally of non-degradable plastic, that drifts around the ocean, trapping marine life and condemning it to a slow and painful death, for no benefit what so ever.
Commercial fishing is highly subsidised. At the moment we spend about twenty billion dollars per annum subsidising the fishing industry. Eighty-five percent of this spend goes to large fishing fleets, even though small fishermen make up ninety percent of the fishing industry. The vast majority of these small operations are in developing countries. Very often the larger, subsidized fleets, fish illegally in waters that once provided an income for smaller fishermen and it ceases to be viable for the small operator to compete.
There have been many international attempts to agree on rules about fishing methods and quotas, but the oceans are vast, and even when agreements are achieved, they are often unenforceable. Undeveloped countries frequently lack the naval or coast guard structures to implement any sort of marine fishing control, and when they are able to, corruption can become an issue.
There are two areas that offer some degree of hope in this bleak scenario. One is aquaculture, which is the fastest growing area of agricultural development at the moment. It is not without its problems. High use of antibiotics, the risk of disease from densely farmed species spreading to natural fish communities and higher fat content are just three of these. If governments were to divert some of the money given in subsidies to their buddies in the industrial fishing industry into research, perhaps we could move forward in overcoming these issues.
The second possible solution would be a dramatic increase in the number of marine reserves. The few reserves that have been established, less than 4 percent of the world’s oceans, have produced some promising results. There are different types of marine protected areas. Some allow artisanal fishing to take place and others provide protection for a specific reason or species. If we were to dramatically expand these protected areas there would be multiple advantages. Biodiversity and habit would be protected. The refuge provided would allow an increase in fish numbers and bordering areas would benefit from increased catches as well as larger fish.
The industry would, of course, cry foul and threaten massive job losses and a myriad of other catastrophes if we went ahead with such an audacious move. This is, after all, an industry that has quietly pushed many species to the brink of extinction in pursuit of their insatiable desire for more. One suspects that they will probably happily keep fishing until the very last fish is dragged from the sea. We can only hope that wiser counsel prevails and that politicians, somehow, develop the backbone needed to force through sustainable proposals.
Whilst it is tempting to lay all of the blame on the political and industrial brew, we need to look at what can be done on a more individual basis. There are things that each of us should be doing. Eating a diet higher in vegetables is one thing, and buying fish from ethical operators is another. The Marine Stewardship Council, started in the 1990s, supports small fishermen and allows them to label their catch under the blue MSC ecolabel. At the same time, fish like Atlantic Halibut, Monkfish, sharks and Blue Fin Tuna are all now under threat and should be avoided altogether.
It is tempting to suggest that we simply stop eating fish, but such a heavy-handed approach is unlikely to gain popular support. Encouraging moderate and discerning consumption, combined with education as to the damages large-scale fishing is having, is, I hope, the best route forward. If fish were to be regarded as an occasional luxury rather than a regular protein source, the demand would fall to more sustainable levels. We are entering an age where we are going to all have to start thinking differently about how we eat and what effect it is having on the environment as a whole.