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Oceans in crisis: the myth of sustainable fishing

Can ‘sustainable fishing’ exist for a population of over seven billion people? 

Disney’s underwater box-office success, Finding Nemo, introduced the world to the phrase ‘fish are friends, not food’ in 2003. This came in handy for me, a young vegetarian at the time, when asked that inevitable but exasperating question: “Yeah, but veg*ns still eat fish, right?” Fast-forward almost a decade, and threats to our oceans, and the biodiversity of the marine life that call them home, have been steadily gaining media attention in a much more serious way.  

News that the Dutch-owned, super trawler FV Margiris will hit Australian waters this month has seen this attention swell to new heights. The FV Margiris is a technologically sophisticated 142-metre vessel that works by dragging a 300-metre-long net above the ocean floor. The net, which is almost as long as the Eiffel Tower is high, sucks as much as 250 tonnes of fish a day on board to be processed and frozen. This is the world’s second largest super trawler, and it’s easy to see why environmentalists and fishers alike are worried about its impact. The FV Margiris has come under fire for depleting international fish populations to the point of crisis in the past, most notably in West Africa, and many protesters believe it’s set to do the same during its six to eight week stint in Australian waters.

Photo: GreenpeacePhoto: Greenpeace

Debate is raging over whether their 18,000 tonne quota of jack mackerel and red bait is as sustainable as the company inviting the super trawler into Australian waters, Seafish Tasmania, would have us believe. Jack mackerel and red bait are an important part of the area’s ecosystem, acting as a main food source for many larger species; Seafish Tasmania say this dependence has been factored into their quota.

This kind of large-scale fishing operation, in fact any kind of trawling, makes my skin crawl.  Surely, you can’t claim to be providing adequate protection for marine life when you’re literally dredging the ocean for the sake of profit. I am heartened to see so many voices speaking up against Seafish Tasmania’s plans, and Greenpeace’s call to ban super trawlers in Australia.

What I can’t understand is the idea that stopping super trawlers will solve the crises aquatic ecosystems the world over are facing. Stopthetrawler.net’s tagline reads, ‘Yes to sustainable fishing. No to high take, high risk super trawling’.

Can ‘sustainable fishing’ exist for a population of over seven billion people?

Marine biodiversity and our impact

When we talk about marine biodiversity, we include all biological life in coastal or ocean environments: plants, microorganisms, animals, and their intricate ecosystems. A 2010 census suggests this could cover over a million different marine species. It is not an exaggeration to say a large number of these species are in crisis, and it’s not an exaggeration to say humans are to blame. In fact, the US Committee on Biological Diversity in Marine Systems says the largest threats to marine biodiversity are fishing operations, chemical pollution and eutrophication, alteration of physical habitat, invasions of exotic species and global climate change. This article will focus solely on the impact of the fishing industry, though certainly the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems is critical.

Why this super trawler isn’t the (only) enemy

Photo: WWFPhoto: WWF

There are around four million fishing boats in operation annually. Most are not on the scale of FV Margiris, but together they take in over 140 million tonnes of fish a year. This is a colossal figure, unchanged by the fact that 90 per cent of large fish have been fished out thanks to industrial practices. Sadly, this means that if Disney had created Finding Nemo without rose-coloured glasses, nine out of every ten characters would have been on the cutting floor.

Currently, more than 70 per cent of fish species sought by humans are ‘fully exploited’, ‘over exploited, or ‘significantly depleted’ according to Greenpeace. This is a significant loss of life, but the consequences are much larger. The common practice of trawling damages the delicate ecosystems at the ocean’s bottom, and contributes to loss of habitat for floor-dwelling marine life. Shifts in the ecosystem often lead to further losses, and even permanent changes in the environment itself.

Then there is the related issue of by-catch – a horrifying symptom of large industrial trawling vessels like the FV Margiris that sees millions of marine animals caught, killed, and discarded each year. Because these species aren’t targeted by the trawlers, official figures on the number of ‘unwanted’ fish caught vary significantly. Estimates range between 6.8 million and 27 million tonnes of by-catch per year; 100 million sharks and rays alone are estimated to be caught each year as the seafood industry’s unwanted waste. Many vessels have measures in place to reduce by-catch, but their efficacy is yet to be proven. For example, using a vessel smaller than FV Margiris, Seafish Tasmania caught 14 dolphins in their nets in 2004, even with these systems in place.

What is the industry doing to reduce its impact?

For their part, the Australian Government has this to say about our national responsibility to protect our marine environment:

“As a developed nation with a maritime area larger than the continent itself, Australia has a special responsibility for the conservation and management of our marine and coastal environments and our living marine resources. Our vast ocean area supports one of the greatest arrays of marine biodiversity on earth…Currently scientists estimate about 80 per cent of our marine species in southern waters occur nowhere else in the world.”

What protections are in place for the thousands of species in our waters? Very few. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority places ‘quotas’ on each fish species, based on surveys of population numbers. There’s evidence of shonky practice within the AFMA, and not much proof their surveys are timely, ethical, or sustainable. For example, the FV Margiris quota has been called unsustainable by conservationists, and yet Seafish Tasmania holds only half of the entire seasonal quota for this particular fishery. The AFMA say they are conservative in their estimates, and rely on advanced science to develop their quotas. Interestingly, the quota for one of the species the FV Margiris will be fishing was doubled ahead of this season. The basis for this change, according to the AFMA, was a near-decade-old population report. Considering whole species have been fished out in less time than this, it’s hard to see how nine-year-old data could have been considered scientifically valid.

The fact remains that whether it is one large boat, or twenty smaller operations, the legal quotas remain the same. It is these supposedly sustainable numbers that need to be curtailed in order to protect marine ecosystems, not just one boat.

 Sustainable fishing?

Over the past few years, ‘sustainable fishing’ has become a buzzword among environmentalists, and the fishing industry has followed suit. This is a necessary reaction to destructive, unsustainable and cruel practices. With marine population levels at such a critical level, it’s hard for even the most unscrupulous profiteers to turn their eyes away. Biodiversity organisations across the world have developed lists of ‘good fish’ and ‘bad fish’, sustainable catching practices, and ones to avoid. This is a step in the right direction in terms of rectifying the damage done to marine ecosystems, but it only scratches the surface of the problem.

I can’t help but see sustainable fishing as the oceanic version of ‘happy meat’. Even if it were viable for all 140 tonnes of seafood to be produced annually in a manner that did not shake the fragile ecosystems under our seas – and I probably don’t need to tell you that it’s not – one species would simply replace another on the ‘bad fish’ list. Evidence suggests most marine animals, especially the larger kinds often seen on menus, simply cannot recover from overfishing fast enough to meet demand. Lowering quotas on one fish species to allow them to recover just puts pressure on another, unless we’re also reducing our overall intake. Considering the global fishing intake is estimated to be 2.5 times what fish populations could conceivably support, it’s clear the only sustainable way to buy seafood is not to buy it at all.

In answer to that insufferable question; no, veg*ans don’t eat fish. We don’t because we know no large-scale fishing operation can be ‘environmentally friendly’. They put profit above the health of our oceans. We could all stand to remember that fish are friends, not food, when making ethical and sustainable choices.

Additional resources:

"Understanding Marine Biodiversity: A Research Agenda for the Nation" Committee on Biological Diversity in Marine Systems. National Academy Press. Washington DC 1995.

http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/publications/marine-diversity-decline/index.html

http://www.nerpmarine.edu.au/

altAnna Angel is a Brisbane based journalist, writer, and vegan. She likes to daydream just as much as she likes to explore the big issues of life. Anna has been vegetarian for half her life, and vegan since 2007.

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