No fish science fiction

Imagine a future without fish; a dystopia where overfishing has destroyed our oceans. We aren't there yet – but we could be.

By Paula Barbeito Morandeira

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Humanity throws eight million tons of plastic into the sea every year

Noise pollution endangers marine resources

Humans fish 32 million tons secretly

Sharks at risk of being overfished

You are not daydreaming, and this is not science fiction. These are the latest ocean headlines. Despite policies, international agreements, and restrictions, overfishing remains a problem worldwide. 

How did we get here?

Well, let’s take a look at our history. The root of this catastrophe is the long-held belief that the oceans are inexhaustible. With this assumption in mind, fishing modernized between the 1950s and 1990s. A wave of government subsidies, policies, and loans worldwide improved catch technologies for economic interest, with little attention to social or environmental concerns. Sophisticated technologies to find, extract, and process fish increased so rapidly that new industrial fishing displaced many local fishermen.

Industrial fishery has created a new culture that transcends seas, fish, fishermen and traditions. Try to imagine the sheer number of people directly or indirectly involved in fisheries, apart from fishermen: ship-owners; ship-operators; employees in the factories that process fish; ice producers; workers in harbors and markets.

As the industry has grown, so has the global appetite for fish. We as consumers have become quickly accustomed to a broad selection of fish varieties, available at affordable prices. But as a result, almost one third of fish populations worldwide are overexploited. In Europe today, the amount of fish that arrives to harbors is only a fraction of what it was 15 to 20 years ago. Since 1986, 47% of fishing jobs have disappeared and more than 50% of the fleet has abandoned fishing because their catch is disappearing.


Let me tell you something about European fisheries…

Among other requirements, the amount that every European Union member state is allowed to fish is mainly regulated by Total Allowable Catches (TACs). This is the total harvest permitted in a fishery in a given period of time: for example one million tons of haddock per year. The European Commission allocates TACs to each member state, which in turn divides up its national allowance amongst its fisherman.

To set TACs, the Commission looks to its scientific committee. This committee mainly collects catch data to develop models about the state of various fish stocks. Based on the results, they propose a TAC to the Commission for each member state.

Aware of the overexploitation situation, scientists have proposed lower catch limits in the last decades. However, politicians have opposed fishing restrictions: on average, between 2001 and 2015, European TACs have been set higher than scientific advice by 20% per year; approximately seven out of every 10 European TACs were set above advised amounts. 

The Commission recognized this failure and introduced a new, much stricter measure regarding conservation and exploitation. Starting in 2015 and lasting for the next ten years, TACs are based on what is called Maximum Sustainable Yields (MSY), catch limits that will, in theory, allow fish stocks to recover. 

Call me skeptic if you want, reader, but I do not believe it can work.

The new models are based on reported catches. However, research has shown that countries only report industrial fishing: artisanal or illegal catches, as well as discarded bycatch (unintentional catch that is returned to the sea, either dead or alive) and recreational fishing, are not included. This same study demonstrated that catches in 1950 and in 2010 were 50% higher than reported data: our numbers are a mere approximation.

But counting and quantifying stocks is just one dimension of the problem. There are several other factors that remain unknown: interactions among fish species, prey-predator relationships, and reproductive rates, for example. We also do not know if the forecasted recovery time of overexploited stocks is correct – rebounds could take longer than scientists expect. All this means that even when fishing is held to so-called sustainable levels, it is still possible that we are overfishing.

The Commission has also introduced a Discard Ban. Discards, or bycatch – fish and other animals that are thrown back into the sea – occur for a variety of reasons: perhaps they are too small, or maybe the fishermen didn't mean to take them in the first place. 

Nearly a quarter of all European catches – 1.7 million tons every year – are thrown back into the sea injured or dead. And remember – this amount is not included in the models. The Commission therefore wants to introduce a landing obligation on any species that are caught: in other words, fisherman will be obligated to bring the fish they catch to land, rather than discard them, even when no one will buy or eat some species. 

A recent study in Nature found that other fish sometimes eat what gets tossed overboard, which suggests banning discards could actually have negative impacts on the environment by eliminating an important food source. Meanwhile, there are likely to be significant economic repercussions and increased costs for individual fishing fleets, as fishermen will need extra boxes and ice or additional storage space to separate catch from bycatch. The measure is understandably controversial: it will lead to better catch estimates but is another economic blow to already-struggling fishermen.

We know how to ride out the storm," says Basilio Otero, a Galician fisherman who saw his fears towards the implementation of the Discard Ban confirmed in local newspapers after it took effect in January 2016. "But once we are on land… what are we going to do with the discards?"

For sustainable fishing, social aspects are as important as economic and environmental drivers.

In the context of less fish, fewer jobs, an economic crisis, and environmental pollution, we need to consider the welfare of the ocean over short-term interests.

Fishermen still have to pay mortgages and make a living. They need better incentives to fish less, comply with rules, and transition towards sustainability. Their opinions and knowledge need to be taken into account during decision-making: they know more than the catches that they record in their logbooks. They see the patterns that signal environmental change.

Traditional fishing knowledge, combined with scientific approaches, can be a powerful instrument to improve the quality of the environment, and to build trust between local communities and governments— essential to management where cooperation rather than competition is the rule.

Despite new approaches and good intentions, I do not believe Europe is doing enough to stop overfishing.

One big step is acknowledging previous failures. Now we all have to take responsibility together – from fish producers, to end consumers. We as a society must work with fishermen if we want to force politicians to set resource management on the road to sustainable development. There are small steps consumers can take: the next time you buy fish, ask where it came from, how it was caught, and by whom. If the seller doesn't know about the origin and quality of their product, consider buying your fish somewhere else. But keep this in mind as well – we are more than consumers. We are inhabitants of this planet, and the ocean is our common heritage. It belongs to us all.

Here is my wish for you, future child: I hope that you also have the chance to discover fish and to be as delighted by it as I am – as delighted as so many worldwide.

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Paula is a marine scientist and a graduate student in Sustainability, Society and the Environment at the University of Kiel, Germany. She loves the ocean and listening to the stories of the elderly. In her free time you'll find her going for long walks and hikes, scribbling on a small piece of paper, or listening to music. Photo courtesy of Yul Sánchez.

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