Archive for May, 2013

The State of Global Fisheries

Friday, May 31st, 2013

So what is the global state of wild-caught or capture fisheries?

In recent decades, the amount of wild caught fish has leveled off, even declined, while the amount of farmed fish and shrimp has grown ever greater. We could conclude that we are now fishing sustainably from wild populations, and the surge in farming has helped reduce the pressure on them.

We would be so wrong.

Though the global sale of fish continues to climb, farmed fish are responsible for all the recent growth (earth-policy.org)

Though the global sale of fish continues to climb, farmed fish are responsible for all the recent growth (earth-policy.org)

Instead over the past few decades fishing fleets have grown in size and searched for fish ever further in the world’s oceans. The result is ever greater fishing effort, but increasingly less catch per unit effort. These are features of unsustainable fishing, not sustainable. The FAO estimates that 57% of fish stocks are fully exploited, and 30% are over-exploited. That doesn’t leave much.

As effort in fishing has increased (number and size of vessels), the catch per effort has decreased (worldbank.org)

As effort in fishing has increased (number and size of vessels), the catch has decreased (worldbank.org)

How can an industry continue to grow despite declining yields? This is a result of huge government subsidies, valued at about 19 billion dollars US per year for developing countries and about nine billion for developed.

Another view - as more and more of the world's oceans have been fished, the catch per effort has declined (worldbank.com)

Another view – as more and more of the world’s oceans have been fished, the catch per effort has declined (worldbank.com)

And there is much more.

For instance, we know that bottom trawling with its indiscriminate destruction of bottom habitats and of non-target species continues to occur on almost every coast and in increasingly deep water despite condemnation by conservation organizations and fisheries scientists.

We also know that for both fish stocks and coastal fishing communities to persist, large areas of coastline need to be protected as ‘no-take’ areas, but still only about 1% of the world’s coastlines are protected in any way. That number should probably be around 20-30%. Even where no-take areas exist, enforcement is often difficult or impossible.

No-take zones in marine protected areas work - like this area in the Dry Tortugas off of Florida where yellow tailed snapper and red grouper have a chance of survival (saltwatersportsman.com)

No-take zones in marine protected areas work – like this area in the Dry Tortugas off of Florida where yellow tailed snapper and red grouper have a chance of survival (saltwatersportsman.com)

If you want to really dig into the state of the world’s fisheries, the best place to go is The Sea Around Us Project where you can explore what is happening and what has happened in each of the world’s 65 coastal Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs). It is a very sobering journey.

Much of all of this of course has been known for decades, but what’s new is that the amount of data, of evidence, has become immense. What’s now emerging is an ability to assess things accurately on a global scale.

For example, we now know that global fishing effort needs to be cut by about 40% in order to keep fish stocks sustainable. To get there, government subsidies need to eliminated, the number of large fishing vessels and licenses need to be reduced through buy-back programs, and smaller quotas need to be enforced. Reducing the industrial scale and increasing the locally managed fleets of smaller craft would mitigate some of the economic pain and support community-based management.

At the same time, the goal of global fisheries scientists remains to manage fisheries not at the species level but at the ecosystem level, even the level of the LME. Almost all nations except for USA and North Korea have ratified the UN Law of the Sea, agreeing to accept the associated obligations and commitments. Imperfect though it no doubt is, it is a vehicle for regulating fishing pressure and resolving differences. We know that where a few or more nations share an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), fisheries agreements are elusive at best and dangerously volatile at worst (as they currently are in the South China Sea). But treaties continue to emerge, and opportunities for cooperative management at least exist.

 Worth watching: China claims most of the South China Sea, and may reject the lines drawn as a result of UN Law of the Sea adjudication (victoryinstitute.net)


Worth watching: China claims most of the South China Sea, and may reject the lines drawn as a result of UN Law of the Sea adjudication (victoryinstitute.net)

With increasing global information about the world’s oceans – including challenging data on coastal development, pollution, ocean warming and acidification – we can encourage decisions that recognize that the Earth is a single, dynamic and adaptable system whose resilience in the face of rapid change is clearly not unlimited.

Bottom-Trawling Still Badly Regulated

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Is there any more damaging fishing method than bottom-trawling – dragging a heavy net along the seabed? Well, probably dynamiting and poisoning reefs are worse, but at least those methods have been banned.

A demersal or bottom-trawler drags a large net indiscriminately along the bottom seascape (saveourseas.org)

A demersal or bottom-trawler drags a large net indiscriminately along the bottom seascape (saveourseas.org)

Even in the 1800s trawlers were aware that they were causing huge fish declines. Bottom-trawling spread around Britain from the 1820s, and as fish declined in numbers the inshore trawlers had to travel greater distances and increase their gear size to maintain their catch. By the 1880s they were calling for closing territorial waters to protect nursery and spawning grounds. However, the Royal Commission reports of 1866 and 1887 either disbelieved the fishermen, or simply failed to recommend restrictions. A model for the future.

Trawlers off the coast of Louisiana leave little of the bottom substrate untrawled (Wikipedia.org)

Trawlers off the coast of Louisiana leave little of the bottom substrate untrawled (Wikipedia.org)

Bottom trawling of course spread around the world, leaving no suitable coast untouched. As inshore fisheries declined and EEZ limits extended to 200 miles, off-shore and deeper-water trawling continued to grow. When sea mounts were discovered and mapped, trawlers extended their reach to depths of 1500 meters. Such deep-water trawling continues, with an impact that is surely devastating though largely unknown.

The damage left by the pass of a single trawler through grass beds (oceana.org)

The damage left by the pass of a single trawler through grass beds (oceana.org)

And yet everyone knows the problems associated with bottom-trawling, whether inshore or deep-water. It ploughs the bottom, removing its sediment, smoothing, radically changing the bottom seascape. It destroys ecosystems through the direct damage of the net, otter-boards and rock-hopper gear. It destroys ecosystems though its destruction and capture of non-target species. It decimates populations of target species through non-selective capture.

Bottom trawlers smooth out the seascape, changing the ecosystem (scientificamerican.com)

Bottom trawlers smooth out the seascape, changing the ecosystem (scientificamerican.com)

What can be done? Well, enter the Marine Stewardship Council. You are probably familiar with it, or at least with its blue logo indicating a fishery it has certified as sustainable. MSC was created in London in 1997, a joint effort of WWF and Unilever. In 1999 it became an independent non-profit organization.

Marine Stewardship Logo, promising the consumer a clear conscience (MSC.org)

Marine Stewardship Logo, promising the consumer a clear conscience (MSC.org)

Its rules for certification include the following: For a fisheries to be certified, fishing must continue indefinitely without over-exploiting resources. Productivity of the ecosystem must be preserved. All local, national and international laws must be upheld. And every company in the chain from boat to plate must be certified.

Between 2000 and 2004, MSC certified six fisheries, and the commercial benefits of certification began to be recognized. In 2006 WalMart announced that all fish it sold would be MSC certified by 2010. Whole Foods Market has gone the same route. So has Sainsbury’s, and Costco.

What better way to control, restrict, even prohibit bottom-trawling, which in no way meets the essential criteria required for certification? This looked very promising.

Instead, MSC began to certify bottom-trawled fisheries, mostly since 2011. Now certified are the fisheries for North Sea plaice, cod, haddock, and sole; New Zealand Blue whiting; Alaskan pollock in the Eastern Bering Sea (the largest single trawled fishery); and South African Hake, Barents Sea cod and haddock, Baltic cod, Iceland cod, North-west Atlantic shrimp and haddock. Others are in the pipeline.

Crew members opening a zipper in the net full of Alaskan Pollock on the F/V Ocean Hope 3 trawler. This fishery has been certified by MSC, but it shouldn't be (alaska-in-pictures.com)

Crew members opening a zipper in the net full of Alaskan Pollock on the F/V Ocean Hope 3 trawler. This fishery has been certified by MSC, but it shouldn’t be (alaska-in-pictures.com)

In 2011 National WWFs furiously denounced placing any bottom-trawled fish on the MSC list. Remember WWF helped found MSC in the first place. Greenpeace has also denounced it, as has the Pew environmental Group. And so have some of the very fisheries scientists who helped create the MSC.

MSC disagrees, as it proceeds to certify its 200th fisheries. But clearly it has radically loosened its rules for certification. One might be forgiven for thinking that once again the market place sets the rules instead of conservation.

We have not come very far from those disappointing Royal Commissions of 150 and 130 years ago.

There simply is no acceptable justification for bottom trawling. And MSC has failed us.

Belize has banned all bottom trawling within its 200 mile EEZ, a rare exception (uncharteredatolls.com)

Belize has banned all bottom trawling within its 200 mile EEZ, a rare exception (uncharteredatolls.com)