We have reached a crossroads at which we are faced with a choice: to fish in a sustainable way and have the boundless choice of seafood available to us for years to come or continue over-fishing and contaminating the ocean only to cross fish off the grocery list in the not so distant future.
The decision seems simple enough but in practice it is proving to be exceptionally difficult to restore the balance of the ocean. However, this is not an impossible mission, in theory.
Regardless of how daunting the task may be it would be short-sighted to ignore the warnings. To simplify things let’s begin with the umbrella issue of over-fishing. This occurs when fish are caught at a rate that does not allow adult fish to procreate at a sustainable rate. This rate is three to four times above the limit at present, threatening many species to the brink of extinction.
For example, cod, a delicacy on the menu is a severely endangered species. In 2004 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that cod would become extinct within 15 years. Industrial expansion, pirate fishing and over-fishing have all contributed to this. Although seas and oceans are governed internationally as a common heritage its vastness makes it difficult to manage. Thus far international governance has not been very successful in combating over-fishing.
While the balance of the marine ecosystem is being destroyed steadily by over-fishing the ocean, it is also persistently being polluted by toxic fuel emissions from ships. The gaseous emissions from these ships also pollute the air. Broader environmental issues such as climate change further aggravate the condition of marine life.
Additionally fishing methods such as purse-seining and trawling have a devastating impact on marine life. The purse-seine method involves a drag-net with rings at the bottom through which a line is passed. The net is drawn shut at the top which also pulls the rings tight and the fish are prevented from escaping. Trawling on the other hand involves pulling a net through the water behind one or more boats.
These types of net-fishing lead to an increased rate of the removal of species. If predators are over-fished then fish lower down the food chain thrive; creating an imbalance in the marine ecosystem. The abundance of sardines, for example, has been linked to the exploitation of tuna. On the other hand, the exploitation of sardines and anchovies has led to an abundance of jellyfish.
No doubt, more attention needs to be devoted to purse-seining and trawling as these are related to large-scale unsustainable fishing practices. But in order to genuinely achieve a sustainable industry the so-called ‘by-catch’ of many other animals needs to be reduced.
The by-catch includes countless marine species, like dolphins, turtles and sometimes even birds that are being senselessly slaughtered in the fishing process.
By-catch from the more than 40 species of tuna, the fourth most popular fish in the world, even include sharks. Dolphins often swim close to tuna; and are used as an indicator for tuna resources. Bird by-catch on the other hand is associated with the long-lining method. In some shrimp harvesting fisheries, by-catch levels are as high as 20kg for every 1kg of shrimp caught. For every shrimp captured which is more than a trillion annually, about 40 other living organisms are killed.
At one stage it was believed that farming fish, or aqua-farming as it is commonly known, could be a solution to the world’s need for fish; however it has come with its own set of negatives. Aqua-farming basically aims to recreate the life cycle of fish in a protected environment. The production cycle starts with hatcheries where eggs are hatched and the fingerlings are raised. This happens in fresh water tanks on land or in cages in rivers and the sea. Thereafter they are allowed to mature for roughly one year.
What makes aqua-farming risky is that high densities of fish increase the risk of bacterial and viral diseases and the antibiotics used to counter these are known to cause health problems in humans (apart from being an issue of animal health and welfare). Eventually fish also become resistant to it.
To rear predatory fish like salmon at least three pounds of feed, consisting of other fresh fish, is needed to produce two pounds of farmed salmon with the consequence that increased aquaculture contributes to the depletion of wild fish. This farming method is also a water pollutant as the chemicals that are used to treat diseases are washed into the sea.
Clearly the fishing industry is rife with problems, but we can use our buying power to make better choices about what species of fish to eat and buy them from sustainable sources.
That is not all; corporations can also secure a future for the fishing industry by adopting certifications from organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Friends of the Sea. Certification labels ensure, as much as possible, that fish stocks are not over-exploited and also that other environmental externalities are reduced. Companies can also choose to market species that are not under pressure.
Our first port of call should consistently be to eat less fish as certification systems will not be effective if consumption still soars. To help you make more informed decisions you can consult consumer guides such as Seafood Watch who assess which species are under threat in a given geographical region.
When standing at the crossroads where the signs are ‘Fish’ or ‘No Fish’, the choice is simple. Where governments are failing and corporates are stalling, it is the consumer who can start walking down the right road and enable fish to stay on our grocery list for years to come.
Image by christopherallisonphotography.com (CC License)< Back