What do we know about fishing? Do you know where the fish you eat comes from?
Fish are not usually the protagonists of many informative articles or documentaries, but here we will give them a voice.
Fishing has played a fundamental role in human nutrition and in economic and social terms, especially for some coastal populations.
The fact that our seas are becoming depleted of fish and the demand for fish stocks remains high complicates the current situation. In addition, we are in a bleak context for a long list of interrelated issues -which we will review later- leading to the near collapse of these fishery resources in most marine areas. Finally, we must add the demographic forecasts, according to which the world population will be close to nine billion people by the middle of this century.
Fishing is and will continue to be essential, and it is possible to ensure its continuity, as many success stories indicate. However, it is necessary, on the one hand, to implement sustainable policies and management, i.e. fisheries management with an ecosystemic outlook centred on fishery resources, considering their needs and relations with the environment; and on the other hand, to raise awareness of the problem among consumers and promote good practices, which we will discuss later.
By way of a positive and nearby example, we have the bottom of the channel between Menorca and Mallorca. Although we have always fished its biological communities, they are in an excellent state of conservation. This exceptional situation is believed to be because small fishing fleets with non-aggressive gear (artisanal fish traps) have been employed with almost no dragging of the seabed. In addition, local fishermen maintain other good practices, such as washing fishing nets every time they use them before throwing them back into the sea or returning non-commercial species to the same place where they caught them. This shows that it is possible to exploit marine resources more sustainably and, more specifically, how traditional exploitation adapted to the cycle of seasonal species can be considered a suitable example of good practice (Domínguez, Gili & Grinyó, 2011).
1. Destructive fishing techniques
Over the last decades especially, the seabed of the continental shelves of all the oceans have suffered the impact of human activities, in particular the depths between 50 and 200 m that have been destroyed by different fishing gear praxis (Domínguez, Gili & Grinyó, 2011).
Over the last decades, human activities have particularly impacted the seabed of the continental shelves of all oceans, especially in depths between 50 and 200 m, which ended up destroyed by different fishing techniques (Domínguez, Gili & Grinyó, 2011).
What are the most unsustainable fishing techniques?
- Trawling: a net that is open at all times is dragged by a moving boat so that it catches everything it finds at the bottom. Thus, it is not very selective and harms the marine environment.
- Use of explosives or poison: throwing explosives, chemical pesticides or cyanide to collect dead fish with nets or divers. It is not selective because it kills other species and destroys or pollutes the seabed.
- Sein fishing: it consists in encircling a school of fish previously attracted by a boat of light with a circular net (like a curtain). It is an environmentally friendly and selective gear, but the problem arises when fishermen use powerful sonars, radars or other technologies to catch large quantities of fish.
- Trammel net fishing: the trammel net consists of three contacting mesh panels of different diameters deployed as a curtain under the sea, resembling a volleyball net. Fish get entangled in the mesh, so trammel net fishing is not a selective method and does not respect the marine environment. According to the International Whaling Commission, the United Nations banned nets longer than 2.5 km in 1992, as they used to be up to 50 km long and killed almost 10,000 cetaceans a year.
- “Ghost fishing“: nets and other gear abandoned at sea continue to catch species, including cetaceans and turtles.
Pollution is the introduction of harmful substances that are not usual in a given place. We usually think of the pollution of the seas and oceans by plastic, something obvious, given that we find it in the planet’s most remote places. In the Mediterranean Sea, for example, it accounts for 95% of the waste. Other pollutants derived from human activity include herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilisers, detergents, hydrocarbons, sewage and other non-plastic solids (National Geographic, 2016).
Many pollutants accumulate in the deep sea ecosystems. There, small organisms eat them, and thus pollutants enter the global food chain. But contaminants can also go the other way around. For example, medicines not properly used end up in the fish, salt or seafood we eat. Other pollutants such as foam, bags, and other solids that we spill into the sea also end up in the stomachs of smaller animals, such as marine mammals, fish and birds, because they mistake them for food (National Geographic, 2016).
Finally, another aspect of pollution is that ocean currents carry billions of decomposing objects, including plastic, to form giant “garbage patches” (National Geographic, 2016). Five so-called “plastic soup” zones have been identified: one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic (North and South) and two in the Pacific (North and South), all of them with a high concentration of microplastics. We should consider that surface plastics represent less than 15% of the total plastic in the sea, and it is only the tip of the iceberg (Greenpeace, 2022).
According to the United Nations, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the oceans every year. Seventy per cent of marine litter comes from land-based activities, and in the case of plastics, this corresponds to 80 per cent. We must say that despite destroying the seabed, trawl fishing gear has contributed to the reduction of solid pollutants since it is caught and returned to ports where it is generally recycled.
3. Illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing
The most common illegal fishing practices are under-reporting of catches and operating in an unregulated fishery that is not managed by anyone.
FAO estimates that this factor may account for fish catches of up to 26 million tonnes per year, with a market value of between $10 billion and $23 billion. Estimates indicate that global illegal fish catches correspond to 13-31% of the total reported production of fishery products. At the European level, WWF estimates that 15% of incoming fish comes from illegal practices.
For non-governmental organisations, all these figures reflect a widespread and common problem, mainly due to the lack of good fisheries governance, i.e. adequate management plans and control and monitoring protocols for the sustainable exploitation of resources.
On the contrary, the European Union is carrying out exhaustive controls to fight against this illegal fishing, thanks to the approval of a regulation in 2010. The other aim is to disseminate best practices to other countries, given that the European Union is the world’s largest importer of fishery products, with more than 60% coming from non-EU countries.
How is this done in practice? Yellow or red warning cards are used to get countries such as Thailand and Cambodia that export a lot to European countries to act to control this illegal fishing in their fleets and territories (WWF, 2022).
4. Climate change
As University of British Columbia researcher William Cheung explains, one of the primary indicators of climate change in marine ecosystems is the temperature of the water. The oceans are warming and acidifying (by loss of oxygen), a process affecting all marine organisms, which are moving towards the poles following the temperatures that allow them to live in optimal conditions. As a result, scientists expect an increase in species number in temperate or subtropical zones. The main problem is that the sea will lose non-mobile marine species, such as corals, because there will not be new generations to replace the lost individuals. In addition, many fish associated with these corals will also be indirectly affected.
On the other hand, scientific studies show that sea warming has been affecting fish stocks for decades. The study published in Science by the University of Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Bren Management concludes that globally, between 1930 and 2010, global ocean warming caused an average 4% decline in fish catches.
El col·lectiu científic avisa que hi ha molts buits de coneixement per dissipar encara: quins subsectors es veuran més afectats? Com interactuen els plàstics i els microplàstics en aquestes condicions ambientals? Quins impactes es donaran als tròpics? Fins a quin punt i com poden els mateixos oceans mitigar el canvi climàtic? Com interactuen els impactes que causem a medi marí? Com veiem hi ha moltes incògnites així que cal potenciar investigacions en aquestes línies de recerca juntament amb polítiques de control i monitoreig, però sense oblidar que cal divulgar i tenir informada a la població.
The scientific community warns that there are still many knowledge gaps we need to fill: which sub-sectors will be most affected? How do plastics and microplastics interact in these environmental conditions? What impacts should we expect in the tropics? How and to what extent can the oceans themselves mitigate climate change? How do the alterations we cause to the marine environment interact? As we can see, there are many unknowns, so it is necessary to promote research in these lines of investigation together with control and monitoring policies, but without forgetting that it is imperative to disseminate and keep the population informed.
5. Overexploitation: the sea is emptying!
Most of the studies have been carried out in the European Union and North America area, so the data obtained are usually from these places, but we still see some data provided by Greenpeace and WWF:
- 63% of the world’s fish stocks are considered overfished.
- The collapse of one overfished cod stock implies 40,000 lost jobs.
- Overfishing also affects 90% of the fish stocks surveyed in the Mediterranean Sea and 40% in European Atlantic waters.
- In the last 40 years, the stocks of tuna and Atlantic bonito, which are very important for human consumption, have fallen by 74%.
As we said, there is a lack of information on fish stocks. A decisive type of information we don’t have is the conservation status of fish stocks that are highly vulnerable to high fishing pressure. In addition, we must consider the change in fishing techniques. Sustainable fishing (some artisanal) was abandoned and replaced by giant boats with fishfinders that destroy entire shoals of fish -and the seabed- which they then freeze and process. In addition, once there is no longer enough fish to catch, fishing vessels head for new territories, ready to fish again and raze everything to the ground (Greenpeace, 2022).
Per tant, actualment s’estan pescant massivament i amb desconeixement sense permetre una recuperació natural de les poblacions i sense cap tipus de selecció tot afectant a altres espècie en perill com cetacis i tortugues.
Therefore, we are currently fishing massively, unselectively, and without knowledge, not allowing the natural recovery of the populations and affecting different endangered species such as cetaceans and turtles.
What problems does overfishing cause?
- The seas are emptying!
- Disrupts the trophic balance of marine ecosystems
- High social impact on communities that depend on these resources
- Fish are a vital source of protein for more than half of the world’s population.
WHAT SHOULD SUSTAINABLE FISHING LOOK LIKE?
We have reviewed the main problems commercial fishing faces, so we must be aware that this model of fishing and consumption alters our seas and oceans at breakneck speed..
What must be done to reverse the situation?
- Eliminate the black market in fishery resources.
- Improve the working conditions of fishermen.
- Scientifically informed fishing, selective (returning species of no interest for human consumption and those that do not meet the biological optimum) and respectful of the seabed.
- Research to assess the state of fish stocks, prevent overfishing and tackle the impact of climate change.
- Raising public awareness through outreach and environmental activities.
- Controlling the marine environment pollution. It requires a contribution from society as a whole.
- Improve compliance with regulations and even make them even stricter, especially regarding non-EU countries.
- Extend the network of marine reserves.
- Give more importance to inland fisheries.
- Reduce the negative impacts of fishing on the environment through technology and community management solutions.
- Compile and publish a global catch production database.
- Improve understanding of the socio-economic aspects of fishing.
- Recognise the importance of artisanal fishing as fundamental to poverty alleviation and food security.
LET’S TAKE ACTION!
- Supporting artisanal and sustainable fishing.
- Consuming local and seasonal products: reducing carbon dioxide emissions from transport and staying true to the life cycles of the fish. It will benefit the fishing community and provide us with fresh, quality products.
- We must inform ourselves and raise our awareness that the vast majority of waste ends up in the sea. So we must focus on all those things that depend on us as consumers. For example, a good way is to reduce packaging and plastics.
- Finding out the fishing method used, rejecting unsustainable fishing gear and buying in authorised places to avoid encouraging illegal catches and health risks.
- Buying products with official labelling that includes all the information required by governments and consumers is vital. The labels must include the following data:
- Fishing technique used
- Food operator (business and address)
- Production method and catch area
- Port and date of landing
- Storage conditions
- Best-before or use-by date