These are just some of the responses I have seen on social media over the last week in response to the release of the documentary Seaspiracy on Netflix. The show has triggered a surge of media coverage and conversations all over the world about the horrors of the fishing industry. Right now, the industry is hiding behind a glass door as the world witnesses some of its worst practices. The disasters Seaspiracy has exposed are sights we have needed to see for a long time- our impact on the oceans is horrendous and we are driving them to their death. The documentary covers a whole host of threats our oceans currently face but the response I am seeing most across social media and the message most of us seem to have taken away is ‘there is no such thing as sustainable fishing’. There is no doubt that industrial fishing practices, as they stand, are by no means sustainable- even those with ‘sustainable’ or ‘dolphin safe’ labels. Nevertheless, I can’t help but consider the other side of this rusty, old coin.
The unique life of our oceans has been overfished from the moment humans were able to fish on any scale. We drove a number of species to extinction within years and have transformed a haven of marine life into an ecosystem on the edge of collapse by catching fish faster than we could eat it. Now that ocean life is a shadow of what it once was, there’s no way we could still be catching more than we need… is there?
The documentary exposes the excessive impact that our fishing habits are having on the planet as we catch 2.7 trillion fish every year which will land us with dead oceans by 2048. But, for years now, studies have been reporting that around 50% of seafood caught is wasted; be that by by-catch, through the production process or in our homes. Annual US seafood waste alone could provide daily protein for 2.7 million people for a year. Food waste, particularly in high-income countries, is a problem with all our food sources but it is a problem we can address by changing our approach to food and the systems we use to source it. Globally we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, but the reality is that too many people still go hungry every day. If we re-think the way we waste food we will not only help the humanitarian crisis we are facing, we can reduce the number of fish we take from our oceans.
A part of the problem here, too, is that fishing quotas (the number of fish a fishing fleet is allowed to catch) aren’t based on demand, they are based on maximum sustainable yield. The maximum sustainable yield is the highest number of fish that can be taken from a fish population, termed fish stock, for it to still be able to replenish itself. This means that they aim to allocate the number of fish each organisation can take based at the very top of that fish stock’s limit and a lack of focus on demand means that they are fundamentally designed to waste. The problem now, is that our oceans have been overfished for decades and what remains is a shadow of what we once had but we continue to exploit them. In 2019 almost half of the catch limits set by the EU were above the proposed limits from scientists. Half of the excess EU fish catch from the scientist’s catch limits was allocated to UK. If we are to restore our oceans as opposed to just protecting them, we need to fish well below what we currently do and below the maximum sustainable yield to allow our fish to bounce back.
The problems with fishing quotas go on. Fishing boats smaller than 10 metres in length make up 80% of the UK fishing fleet and are more sustainable than large ones but these small, local boats only receive 2% of the UK’s fishing quota. This means that industrial giants, driven by business, dominate in the fishing grounds and the fleets that often have a greater cultural connection to our oceans are given a tiny percentage. Dishing out less power to large, dominating companies is an essential step in healing our oceans and bringing sustainable seafood to our plates.
3 billion people on Earth rely on fish as their primary source of protein so fishing, clearly, is an essential way to feed our planet. This means that we cannot condemn all fishing practices. What we can condemn, however, is the domination of industrial trawlers killing the oceans of our fishing communities. Many small, native fishing communities have embraced sustainable fishing. Communities in St Helena have fished for tuna with a traditional pole and line method that has been passed down for generations. Even in North Cornwall an area of sea known as Trevose box is closed to fishing for 2 months during the year to allow fish to spawn and grow to sustainable fish size. This system was driven by the fishermen that fish those fishing grounds. Sustainable fishing practices do exist, and I believe that fishing can become sustainable if our oceans are managed properly. Governments need to focus less on corporate economy, trying to catch as many fish with the smallest workforce, and instead, should embrace the employment opportunities and long-term prosperity that come with sustainable fishing systems.
Globally, governments are subsidising the fishing industry $35 billion a year to keep fish prices low for us. The problem is that, in some cases, they are also making it easier for boats to stay at sea longer and hunt down dwindling fish stocks. These subsidies aren’t received by the arms of small fishing communities, full of people that rely on fish for food, they are concentrated around Europe, the US and China where business comes first, and we waste our food. Perhaps if our governments subsidised specific modifications to boats that make them more sustainable and stopped subsidising their trawling nets and fuel consumption, sustainable fish might become more of an option for consumers.
A key part of this journey will be the enforcement of ocean regulations, properly protected areas and the prosecution of illegal fishing. Protected areas will be key on our road to healthy oceans and a number of countries are working to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. This will only be effective if these areas receive high, or full, protection from fishing and if they are enforced through satellite and GPS tracking, patrols and repercussions. This requires governments to invest more. The reality is that the prevalence of illegal fishing in our seas is down to systemic flaws, the individuals are being allowed to get away with their crimes. Governments and organisations need to enforce ocean regulations better if we are to take back enough control of our oceans to protect them properly.
The documentary fails to highlight the fact that these issues are driven by capitalism and business. Instead, it tarnishes artisanal fishermen, small local fishing and indigenous fishing tribes with the same unsustainable brush. Seaspiracy has been an incredible step forward in exposing people to the worst aspects of the industry but I fear that a blanket statement like ‘there is no such thing as sustainable fishing’ that many of us have taken away, puts us in danger of a non-constructive mindset and the documentary alone inspires little more than a fish-less diet. It lacks hope. Yes, there is very limited fishing right now that is sustainable and, as consumers, we have no way of knowing, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. I fear that our reaction to this documentary will ostracise fishermen and that will not solve the problem. There are many poor fishing practices but not all fishermen are bad; there are fishermen who are trying to fish sustainably and are making use of innovative, sustainable methods. After all, these people rely on the oceans for their livelihoods- it is in their best interest to keep it healthy. I, for one, will not be eating fish from a supermarket or any unverified source again. But what I will be doing is talking to my fishmonger, contacting local fishermen, and finding out what we can do to help them fish more sustainably. Of course, the problem is complex but we can’t put all fishermen in the same boat and, in that sense, Seaspiracy is misleading. There are ways we can change the industry and revive our oceans but dismissing fishermen, their livelihoods and the 3 billion people that rely on fish, is not the way forward.
- Seaspiracy, Netflix
- UN, Sustainable Development Goals
- WWF, Sustainable Seafood- https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/sustainable-seafood
- Holt-Giménez, E., Shattuck, A., Altieri, M., Herren, H. and Gliessman, S., 2012. We already grow enough food for 10 billion people… and still can’t end hunger.
- Sumaila, U., Ebrahim, N., Schuhbauer, A. et al., 2019, Updated estimates and analysis of global fisheries subsidies, Marine Policy, (27);103695
- Roberts, C., Page, R., O’Leary, B., Allen, H., Yates, K., Tudhope, A., McClean, C., Rogers, A.D. and Hawkins, J.P., 30X30: a blueprint for ocean protection.
- European Commission; Fishing Quotas 2019
- Gillett R, (2015). Pole-and-line Tuna Fishing in the World: Status and Trends. IPNLF Technical Report No.6. International Pole & Line Foundation, London. 17 Pages.