The Big Fissue

To be honest there are times when I don’t want to pick up a newspaper for fear of what I’m going to read. The bad news can be too overwhelming. I am sure that everyone who gives a damn about our environment has times likes these and sometimes you need to allow yourself these little ostrich moments and just stick your head in the sand and wait for it to pass. But when we are looking at the worlds fish declining fish stocks we cannot afford to look away. This is an issue that is as terrifying as it is large but it is not hopeless. Yet.

“Globally, 75 per cent of wild marine fish are now either fully-exploited or overfished. This means these species require conservation and management in order to survive in their present numbers”.

~United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO)

If the world continues its outright assault on our fisheries then we will have no more edible fish left in our oceans by the middle of the century. By 2048 (by which time the global population will have increased by a third) we will have eaten 90% of the fish population from 1950. Already 90% of our big fish (tuna, marlin, swordfish, and sharks) are gone. If we cannot control our appetites now then we compromise the food security of millions of people in the future. The only way that the world can prevent this from happening is by reducing the catch and weight quotas, eliminating unsustainable practices and setting up large marine parks – and lots of them. And the only way that this will happen is if we – the consumer – vote with our dollars. (More on how to do that tomorrow). So how have we got to this stage? What is wrong with the way we are fishing?

Bycatch and its nasty bonus!


Every year a quarter of all the fish caught worldwide are discarded – considered an incidental waste product known as bycatch. Bycatch is any other marine animals that are unintentionally caught along with your target species. So your target species may be Cod which will result in bycatch of turtles, sharks, whales, fish, seabirds and dolphins. The methods that are often used by industrialized fishing fleets are described as non-selective – they lack modifications that deter or completely exclude unintentional catch. Common examples of non-selective techniques are Bottom-trawler nets (which have a heavy steel bar that drags along the sea bed), seine nets (which hang vertically in the water dragged by a boat to encircle marine creatures) and gill-nets (charming devices that snare fish by their gills). Looking at all of these methods it is easy to understand how other species get caught up in the haul whether they are scooped up or entangled.

Pic by Ross Flett - Orkney Seal rescue

Pic by Ross Flett - Orkney Seal rescue

In the tropical waters of Northern Australia the average bycatch ratio for Prawn Fishers (which use bottom trawlers) is 15:1 – for every 1kg of prawns caught there are 15kg of other species hauled up as well. These species are then scooped up and dumped onto the deck while the workers sort through the creatures and get the priority goods (the prawns) into freezers. After being trodden on and left in the sun the remaining animals are thrown overboard, where the majority of them then die if they aren’t already dead.


Large industrialized fishing fleets litter the ocean with literally millions of tons of organic and non-organic debris every year. Fleets regularly dump overboard gear, twine, food containers and plastic bags which have obvious effects on the surrounding ecosystem. These floating factories (fish processing plants) also unload unregulated wastes and effluents into the water. Referring back to the above paragraph and we see that bycatch poses another serious problem. It amounts to approximately 27 million tons of marine life thrown overboard every year.

Then there is ghost fishing. When equipment, like pots or gill nets, are lost or discarded they continue to catch and kill marine life until they break apart. They are designed to be resilient and can take a very long time to breakdown. I used to watch The Deadliest Catch (reality show about dangerous crabbing season on the Bering Sea) and see the Captains frequently lament the price associated with loss of crab pots in storms. Not once did I think about the price that the environment was paying for every pot that sunk into the darkness. One study into a US squid fishery by the U. S. National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that .06% of driftnets were lost each time they were set, resulting in 12 miles of net lost for every night of the season which equated to 639 miles of net lost in the North Pacific Ocean alone each year.

Global Warming

Fish are often considered as the “environmentally-friendly” meat because they do not produce methane, need forest to be felled to produce them, drink a lot of water etc. But boats still burn an incredible amount of fossil fuels when not only catching the target species, but in the case of farmed carnivorous fish, catching their dinner and then processing them into pellets. Overfishing also severely reduces the ocean’s ability to resist diseases, filter pollutants, and absorb carbon dioxide thus worsening the effects of global warming.

The Human Cost

For us (the privileged) we can choose our proteins the way we choose our undies – whatever feels right on the day will do just fine. This is not the case for 20% of the world who depend upon fish as their primary source of protein. Fishing is central to the livelihood and security of 200 million people. There is no denying that global fish stocks are in free-fall (since the 1980’s) and a practice that is being hailed as the solution to world hunger is farmed fish. Penned as an industry that will help ‘feed the world’ – salmon farming in particular is actually responsibly for mass starvation and huge environmental damage as well. Salmon are carnivorous and in the wild eat smaller fish like herring and anchovies. Because Salmon stocks are now so low (but small fish are in abundance) richer nations make deals with poorer countries to export their small fish which are then turned into pellets that are fed to the salmon. Not only is it an extremely inefficient means of food production but it is removing a vital food source from locals in developing nations. It takes 5 pounds of small fish to make enough pellets to sustain 1 pound of salmon. These controversial deals already exist between Europe and Northern Africa and Britain is also under heavy fire for the effect this practice is having on the people of Peru.

“Overfishing cannot continue. The depletion of fisheries poses a major threat to the food supply of millions of people.”

~Nitin Desai, Secretary General of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg.

Damaging Ecosystems

Non-selective fishing techniques damage the environment. Yes - those are dolphins.

As I mentioned, we use bottom trawlers when shrimp-fishing and it is also the method of choice when fishing for cod, sole and flounders among others. The problem is they literally drag a weighted steel bar along the bottom of the seabed damaging formations, fragile ecosystems and stirring up sediment as they go. Particularly sensitive networks are those with sea grass fields, coral reefs, algal beds or when tube worms or sponges are present. The bottom trawler does not discriminate and can literally damage an entire ecological community. Not only that but the sediment that is stirred up from essentially ploughing the seabed then drifts downstream to another community where it blocks sunlight and suffocates sponges, corals and other marine animals that form the base of the surrounding ecosystems.


Well this one had me scratching my head. There is now huge demand for prawns and developing countries are clearing mangrove forests at a rate of knots to make room for farms to capitalise on the demand. There are varying estimates and studies supporting each regarding what per cent age of mangrove forests have been felled for this purpose but they range between 10 and 45%. Regardless where the figure falls between those ranges, it is too high. These farms also are heavy polluters which then affect coastal towns and villages and the ecosystems that they live off.

Dolphin Friendly?

When that terrible footage surfaced back in the 80’s – the footage of dolphins being drowned or left to die on the deck of a tuna boat – there was a worldwide call to boycott tuna. By the 90’s it was estimated that over 7million dolphins had died by the fishing methods employed by industrial tuna fleets. Fleets used to harvest yellow-fin tuna by spotting, encircling and then drowning the dolphins in seine nets. Horrific. Since then there have been various standards put in place to make tuna fishing ‘dolphin safe’ which includes no intentional chasing and netting of dolphins, no accidental drowning and then paradoxically not allowing any dead dolphins being put into the ‘dolphin-friendly’ wells in the boat hull. This is still a gargantuan improvement from the days of yore when fisherman were deliberately hunting down dolphins. Today, the annual kill of dolphins due to tuna fishing is estimated to be around 3000. Just another statistic to throw at you, the annual quota for the Taiji Bay dolphin slaughter – the slaughter that has the world up in arms – was approximately 2,400 and now sits at 200 dolphins every year. How is it any different?

Why are we overlooking this?

For me all those factors combined are enough to give up marine products altogether (except for oysters – which I will explain tomorrow). It is so easy to become complacent with seafood because it really is a case of out of sight, out of mind. The big blue has always provided and under the surface we do not see the fish stocks plummeting – it is not like watching the Amazon slowly falling, the icecaps melting or Indonesian jungles being burnt to the ground for palm oil. But I can guarantee that there are island nations and developing countries that are watching them visibly disappearing.

Fish are also handicapped by their lack of ‘cuteness’ for want of a better word. How many Fish-Eating-Vegetarians have you met in your life? They have no warmth in their eyes and are easy to pass off as mindless clones that don’t feel pain. There have been countless studies that disprove this however if that still doesn’t sway you – bycatch is effecting all the ocean favourites from the cute and cuddly (seals, albatross) to the awe-inspiring (dolphins, whales, sharks and turtles).

This being said, we don’t all have to abstain to make a difference. We don’t have to stop eating fish – but we do need to adopt a much more responsible attitude towards our oceans. Tomorrow I will blog about how you can as a consumer switch to more sustainable fish habits and what we need our governments to do as well.

** Editors note – Vegetarians and Vegans… it has been brought to my attention that I didn’t put a “Already have given up fish!”. How did I forget myself??? Maybe because this information so long ago was what made me give up fish? Please just vote for the top option if you already do not eat seafood. 

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need,

but not every man’s greed”

~ Mahatma Gandhi