I admit I am one of those people who calls themselves a vegetarian but is relaxed on the fish front. I would eat it occasionally if it had the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label, certifying scientifically that it is sustainably sourced. However, in 2019 I discovered that one of its labelled fish, North Sea cod, had been stripped of its MSC certification. In fact, it should never have labelled sustainable in the first place. The cod fish stocks were far more depleted than previously thought, and the extraction rate was nearly double the maximum limit. Far from sustainable.
This has exposed how scientific analysis and assessments for evaluating the condition of fish stocks can be highly uncertain and lead to inaccurate advice provided to the fishing industry. MSC certified or not, the reality is that in European waters 88% of fish stocks are overfished. According to the UN, 71-78% of the world’s stocks are fully exploited, over exploited or significantly depleted. At our current rate of consumption, it is predicted that almost all our fish stocks will collapse by 2050.
A huge threat to our marine life is the industrial fishing industry and bottom trawlers. These are ships that drag heavy chains along the seabed ripping up everything in their path. It destroys entire habitats and ecosystems, scooping up all life within them.
It is estimated that around 10% of world catch is discarded for being either unwanted species, undersized, over-quota, cetaceans etc. This ‘bycatch’ is discarded back to sea, mostly dead. Thousands of tonnes of fish are illegally thrown back into sea in the UK each year in this way.
The question is, why are we not more appalled by this industry the way we are apalled by mass livestock farming? One reason may be that our oceans are mysterious, dark and unknown to us. Its inhabitants are ‘out of site out of mind’ and thus more easily forgotten about. It is difficult to feel empathy towards slimy, coldblooded creatures, unlike their more tangible and relatable terrestrial cousins. The WWF attracted attentions to this issue with their poignant poster campaign.
A family member recently asked me, why does it matter if we lose a species of fish? Well, it matters because the loss of one species creates changes in the whole complex food web and reduces the resilience of the entire marine ecosystem. As a result of overfishing we are losing our ocean’s apex predators. This is affecting predator-prey dynamics and leading to trophic cascades. These occur when a trophic level in a food web is suppressed leading to a cascade of effects on the entire ecosystem. An example:
Overfishing practices in Alaska in the 20th century led to a decline in fish populations. This led to a decline in sea lions and harbour seals. Killer whales in turn had to change their diet to sea otters. This resulted in a mass decline of sea otter populations which usually predated on sea urchins. Sea urchin populations as a result exploded and overgrazed on kelp, an important seaweed. Kelp grows up to 30m in height and forms an incredible marine forest that provides shelter, feeding grounds, spawning and nursery grounds for hundreds, if not thousands, of species. Kelp also captures carbon from the sea. 75% of the net carbon fixed annually in the sea is by kelp. By decarbonising our oceans it plays a hugely important role in mitigating ocean acidification.
To summarise, sea otters are just one example of a keystone species that plays a crucial role in the interconnected web of life on our planet and the storage of carbon. Here is a little homage collage to sea otters, because.. well, just look at them:
Climate Emergency & Justice
The climate emergency, deep-sea mining, pollution (e.g. eutrophication, plastic, oil), and other threats have further pushed our oceans into crisis. Notably, marine fisheries are dependent on colder water species. As the temperature of the ocean increases, these fish migrate towards the poles. This is having a disproportionate impact on tropical regions by the equator where fish production is already shutting down. One billion people rely on marine fisheries as a source of protein here, an essential component to their health. To compound this threat, EU distant vessels are exploiting fish stocks in these developing countries in order to meet demand for fish (as a ‘health food’) back home or to feed to livestock as fish meal. In other words, excessive fish consumption in Europe is also contributing to international health inequalities and environmental injustices.
Is fish farming the answer to overfishing? Unfortunately, no. Firstly, the production of fishmeal for aquaculture is just as unsustainably sourced. Fishmeal and aquaculture need to be de-coupled for fish farming to become a potential alternative. However, fish farming also raises serious ethical, environmental and health questions.
Take salmon farming for example. Apparently the UK consumes 1 million salmon meals daily. Local and sustainably sourced wild salmon is near to impossible to find here. Supermarket shelves are instead stacked with farmed salmon (alongside unsustainably sourced wild salmon). Salmon farming involves fish enclosed in extremely cramped pens. These are easily infested by parasites such as sea lice which essentially eat the salmon alive. This is tackled by large amounts of pesticides. Even if these chemicals don’t manage to kill the salmon, they are in any case retained in their bodies and subsequently land on our plates.
The open cages also mean that the salmon can see outside the netting into the open water, exacerbating their feeling of panic within the confined, overcrowded space. Prolonged heightened stress levels have shown to make the fish depressed and even deformed. Their systems become so overloaded that they can’t respond anymore and give up on life, lose their hearing as a result of deformed ear bones, and develop broken, kinked spines. Around 20% of the salmon die in captivity. To top it all off, all the faeces, chemicals and dead fish that fall through the pens, kill the marine life around it. I know some readers will hate to hear this, but salmon consumption of any kind is simply a no go.
What can we do?
An alternative to conventional fish farming may be aquaponics, a mix between aquaculture and hydroponics which raises fish and cultivates plants in a symbiotic, cyclical way. But more fundamentally, we need to drastically reduce our consumption of fish, and entirely eliminate threatened species from our diets. We also need to improve global ocean governance and increase Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and pave the way towards fully protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030. This month Greenpeace drew much needed attention to their campaign for this. Activists dropped natural granite boulders into the North Sea to prevent illegal bottom trawling in a 47 square mile protected area. They also left a boulder on the doorstep of the UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as a little gift and reminder to take better care of our seas. Earlier this month the Guardian revealed that bottom trawling and dredging were happening in 97% of our offshore MPAs, making a complete mockery of their “protected” status.
On a positive note, there is a big drive for offshore wind farms in the UK. Our waters provide high and reliable wind speeds. Apparently around 40% of the EU’s entire wind sources are available in British waters. The secondary benefit of these farms is that they provide exclusion zones where destructive fishing practices, such as trawling, are prevented. Discussions have been taking place in the UK to decide whether new windfarms can be co-located within marine conservation zones.
To finish, I highly recommend Callum Roberts’ book The Unnatural History of the Sea (2007). It provides a comprehensive historical account of how fishing has developed over time and its impact on the ocean. To me it was really surprising to learn how we have been mistreating our oceans for centuries, not just in the last hundred years. Callum Roberts frames today’s concerns for the ocean in relation to what it was like in the ancient times, giving attention to the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. He says: “Shifting environmental baselines cause a collective societal amnesia in which gradual deterioration of the environment and depletion of wildlife populations pass almost unnoticed. Our expectations diminish with time, and with them goes our will to do something about the losses.”
This book has made me seriously question the (shifted) baseline against which scientists evaluate the sustainability of our marine populations today. One thing is clear to me now: the MSC label does not absolve me.
I also recommend David Attenborough’s latest documentary film and witness statement A Life on our Planet (2020), and the beautiful mini-series Our Planet (2019). There is still time and potential for change.
1. Reduce your fish consumption and refer to the Good Fish Guide for species to avoid entirely.
2. Write to your Member of Parliament to support the protection of our oceans.
3. Read up more about this, find out where the food you eat comes from, and take steps towards more sustainable living.