Not Too Much: Rethinking Sustainable Fisheries
By Stephen C. Curro, AMCS Volunteer.
If it’s one thing humanity loves, it’s seafood.
For thousands of years people have depended on bringing in a good catch to put food on the table. Fish and other sea creatures are interwoven into nearly every culture on the planet. The UK has its famous fish and chips. Lobster is an institution in America’s north-eastern states. Japan is known the world over for its prized sushi. In Australia, the phrase ‘prawns on the barbie’ is taught from birth.
Australia consumes 341,000 tonnes of seafood each year, an average 13kg per person. It’s an industry that supports 17,000 jobs and adds AUD $3.2b to the local economy¹. It was once thought that the sea was limitless in its bounty. Today, in the early years of the twenty-first century, it is increasingly clear that if we want to keep enjoying the goodness of the sea, we may have to rethink the way we bring seafood from across the oceans to the table.
With so many species being threatened by climate change and overfishing, many companies want to show their customers they care by sourcing seafood only from sustainable fisheries. It’s a beautiful goal. Yet, sustainability isn’t as easy as throwing a net. What even is sustainability, anyway?
In a nutshell, sustainability is producing a product without exhausting your resources. Take too many fish of a certain kind and you’ll drive that fish’s population to collapse, or worse yet, send a delicately balanced ecosystem into complete disarray. The practice becomes unsustainable. This is why many nations and companies have established quotas or catch limits in an attempt to keep certain fisheries from becoming exhausted.
But if we want to declare a fishery truly sustainable, we need to dive deeper. Checking in on the species to make sure their population is stable simply isn’t enough. It’s not just what you’re fishing that counts, but also how. Bottom trawling nets, for example, are an effective means of gathering fish, but they can be indiscriminate in their scope. They catch all the fish that are labelled sustainable as well as those that are already under pressure and in some cases endangered. Left unchecked, this can destroy vulnerable seabed habitats. In the wild, a fish has to worry about finding enough food, avoiding predators, seeking a suitable habitat and finding a mate. Any or all of these factors may already be undermined by relentless climate change, and a poorly managed bottom-trawling net could be the straw that breaks backs.
Think of it this way: imagine a family that has grown crops for generations. Times aren’t exactly easy; water is becoming more expensive and it’s difficult to find hands to hire. Despite these challenges, with hard work and a little luck, the family manages to plant, cultivate and harvest just enough vegetables to break even and pay bills. Then, one year, the climate becomes unseasonably dry. Months pass without a single raindrop. The price of water goes up and crops begin to wither. Now suddenly the already stressed family is wondering how long before they’re farm collapses and they’re forced to sell their cherished home.
It is much the same for many fish species. These are animals that cope with predators, shrinking food sources and an increasingly warm and/or acidic environment. Top that off with a well-intended but mismanaged fishing industry and things can start to turn bleak. Continuously monitoring a fishery is an excellent show of responsibility; the problem often lies in fishing that fishery to its absolute maximum limit. In theory we’re not doing harm, but in reality, we’ve added yet another stressor that pushes these species across the red line.
Sustainable fishing is something we should keep working toward. It’s a goal that customers, companies and lawmakers alike can all rally around in order to preserve the ecosystem and the jobs that benefit from it. But in order to do that, we must face the fact that sustainability is more complicated than merely declaring the health of a fish population. Like campers striving to leave no trace, we need to carefully evaluate the methods we use to catch the seafood we love. That, along with other measures to combat climate change, will help to keep our seas rich with life for generations to come.
¹ https://www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/research-topics/fisheries/fisheries-and-aquaculture-statistics accessed January 2021