Angeli Mehta reports on how initiatives like Global Fishing Watch, Sky’s Ocean Rescue and the retailer-led Seafood Task Force are trying to tackle a practice that is doing untold damage to the marine ecosystem
Marine life is struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing ocean environment, but its resilience is being undermined by fishing on an industrial scale. Over-fishing not only threatens a valuable source of food, but the entire marine ecosystem.
Ninety per cent of the world’s fish stocks are described as either fully fished or over-exploited; some populations have collapsed altogether. The big fish – desirable because they reproduce when older – disappear first, so fisherman move down the food chain, taking greater numbers of smaller fish, which are themselves food for other marine creatures.
The scale of these losses eclipses the likely stresses from future climate change.
Fisheries increasingly deploy fish aggregating devices (FADs), which can extend 50 metres or more below the surface. They are an efficient means of catching fish such as tuna, because the fish are attracted to the floating devices. But their use is largely unregulated and causing untold damage.
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at York University, told a House of Commons inquiry: “The scale of these losses eclipses the likely stresses from future climate change. This means that reversing the declines, which we can do by protecting places in marine reserves and better managing exploitation outside them, will go a long way to mitigating climate-change impacts.”
In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommended that nations protect 30% of global waters from all extractive activities by 2030. This would give stocks a chance to recover and help preserve biodiversity, thereby building some resilience in ocean ecosystems.
In 2017, marine-protected areas covered just over 6% of the ocean, but many of these are open to fishing. Even where MPAs exist there’s little information on how well-managed they are. So WWF has been working with Sky's Ocean Rescue campaign to improve its management, and look at how to bring money into such conservation areas, initially around UK shores.
The EU has a commitment to end over-fishing in its waters by 2020. However, the latest fishing quotas, which were agreed in December, ignore scientific advice and have been set too high to meet that target, according to Andrew Clayton, project director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which works on marine conservation.
Take mackerel, the UK’s most valuable stock. It’s widely distributed across the north-east Atlantic. Populations have been sustainable in some areas, but gradually catches have crept up, to the extent that some areas are over-fished. “Scientists recommended a drastic cut of 62%, but they [EU] went for a much smaller cut.” The full details on EU quotas aren’t public yet but they are understood to be 20% in the largest mackerel fishing areas.
We push our luck and fish at the absolute maximum, then luck runs out and we need to make deeper cuts
He acknowledges that fishing ministers are under huge pressure, but “we push our luck and fish at the absolute maximum, then luck runs out and we need to make deeper cuts”.
Scientists say changing mesh sizes of nets, or increasing the minimum landing sizes of fish would lessen impacts, while fisheries managers could give higher quotas to fleets that demonstrate a lower impact on ecosystems.
Another worldwide issue is bycatch, where fishermen net species they can’t sell or don’t want. Tropical prawn fisheries are particularly problematic. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California estimates that for every pound of shrimp (prawns) caught, another six pounds of other species are discarded. Turtles, seabirds and larger marine mammals get trapped, too.
According to Lyndsey Dodds, head of marine policy for WWF in the UK, around 1,000 harbour porpoises are caught in fishing nets in UK waters each year.
The EU has set bycatch limits for 2019. It is hoped that the new landing obligation will reduce waste by controlling the total amount of fish caught, rather than the amount fishermen bring to port. “It should mean we can improve our knowledge of what’s happening, and management in the long term,” says Dodds. But while quotas have been increased to take account of the landing of bycatch, Clayton says they allow non-target stocks to be caught in numbers well in excess of scientific advice.
Determining sustainability is presently reliant on certification. The largest scheme is run by the Marine Stewardship Council – and is relied upon by many retailers. But it’s come in for heavy criticism from environment groups, who say it concentrates on quantity not quality – something MSC robustly refutes. (See Are sustainability certification schemes fit for purpose?)
MSC is the best that we’ve got and we want to put the effort into ensuring they’re as good as they can be
Dodds of WWF, which helped set up MSC, says: “It’s the best that we’ve got and we want to put the effort into ensuring they’re as good as they can be.” She adds: “The challenge for MSC is to look at the wider environmental impact, rather than just the health of the stock that has been fished.”
All these efforts rely on monitoring. “At the moment,” says Dodds, “less than 1% of fishing trips have observers – and when observers are there, fishing boats may behave differently. Observers are also treated badly.” Remote monitoring with CCTV would be cheaper, and even if only 10% of the data collected was analysed, coverage would be better, she adds.
Several organisations are trying to address the data gap, amongst them Global Fishing Watch, which uses satellite technology and machine learning to track fishing vessels and monitor their behaviour. Its aim is to track all large-scale fishing vessels within the next 10 years.
To do that it needs governments to share their data, and has had some striking successes, beginning with Indonesia in 2017. Now Panama, one of the biggest flags in the world, is also considering offering its data. It’s also talking to the UK government about how British waters could be monitored after Brexit.
Chief executive Tony Long told Ethical Corporation that there’s a patchwork rather than a global system of enforcement. “So rather than try to enforce through half-locked doors, make it a fisherman’s job to be compliant and reward them.” Compliance is easier to track, so countries can focus their efforts on the outliers. Ideally, suggests Long, “every country in the world says ‘Unless I know who you are and where you’ve been, you can’t get into our port’.”
That’s not yet feasible, but the Agreement on Port State Measures, an international treaty designed to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, does give ports the power to impound or deny entry to vessels where there is some doubt about where it caught its fish. Invoking these powers should mean states with few resources can better target enforcement measures.
Sainsbury's, M&S and Morrisons are leading the way on tracing their seafood supply chains
Long’s organisation is philanthropically funded but he wants governments to start taking responsibility: Canada is the first to make that commitment.
At the G7 meeting of environment, energy and oceans ministers in Halifax last September, Canada announced it would invest up to C$11.6m to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing throughout the world and declared support for Global Fishing Watch, committing to publicly sharing information about the health of Canada’s fish stocks and its fisheries management.
Companies and consumers have a huge role to play too, suggests Long. Sainsbury’s, M&S and Morrisons are all leading the way on tracing their supply chains. Sainsbury’s works with Ocean Mind, using both satellite technology and observers to try to ensure its tuna are not caught using FAD, and last autumn M&S launched an interactive map so that customers can see where its fish are caught, and how sustainable stocks are.
Corporate power was amply demonstrated after the EU “yellow carded” Thailand in 2015 over the mis-management of its fisheries. Potentially some €840m of trade into Europe was at risk, says Long.
Thai Union, Nestlé, Walmart and others set up a seafood supply chain taskforce, which forced the Thai government into taking action on unregulated, unreported and illegal fishing, and improvements have been made. So much so that last month the EU lifted the yellow card. And it hopes that Thailand’s controls over foreign vessels landing at its ports will have a multiplier effect across the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
This article is part of the in-depth Saving our Oceans briefing. See also: