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Can Fisheries Ever Be Sustainable? | Ask The Expert

The narrative around the sustainability of fisheries is often characterised by alarming statistics and damning portrayals of an industry's inefficacy in addressing its environmental and social concerns. While this broad brush narrative was arguably justified over past decades, have we learned anything from past mistakes? And is there any hope for the future of our fisheries?

Professor Ray Hilborn has over 50 years of experience working as a scientist in fisheries and natural resource management. Ray joins us to help filter through the sea of statistics and discusses whether or not management efforts are having any positive impacts on fisheries today.

Is it possible to fish commercially and sustainably at the same time?

(Prof. Hilborn): Within the ocean community, all but a few people would agree that if properly managed – fisheries can be sustained. This is true for Aboriginal, subsistence, industrial or recreational fishing. There are, of course, concerns about what global warming will do, and some fish stocks may well disappear under global warming or via other forms of climate change. But, if the oceans are not totally transformed by climate change, there's no reason why many fisheries can't be maintained forever.

Recent media depictions of fisheries indicated that plastic-based pollution was more threatening to fisheries than any other factor. Is this true?

There are certainly some concerns, such as whether microplastics making their way into the food chain may pose health hazards. But, my personal opinion is that plastics are one of the most overblown issues in fisheries, and that’s mostly because it looks so visually terrible. But is it affecting the functioning of the oceans? I don't think there's any evidence that it's affecting how the oceans perform their major functions - whether it's oxygen production, carbon sequestration, or food production. Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean we should ignore it, but it would certainly be very low on my list of priorities when protecting the oceans.

So, what should be on the top of our priority list when it comes to the protection of oceans, and where does overfishing sit on that list?

There have been numerous surveys conducted around this question with ocean scientists and the public, asking, ‘What do you think are the biggest threats to the oceans as we know them?’. For ocean scientists, climate change always comes out as number one. In the public eye, plastic comes out as number one. Of the rough list of topics to address - including climate change, ocean acidification, exotic species, and pollution - overfishing is probably number five or six on that list. One thing to remember is that fishing, overfishing and even much of illegal fishing don't affect most of the marine ecosystem.

When we consider the impact of fishing on marine ecosystems, we must remember that the base of the food chain is phytoplankton. We've never fished phytoplankton. The next trophic level up is zooplankton - there's a minuscule exploitation of that. So, the whole base of the food chain that constitutes around 90% of what's in the ocean isn't really impacted by fishing. 

I would contrast that with agriculture by reminding you that in agriculture, what you eliminate is the base of the food chain - you eliminate the primary producers, the trees, the grasses and the shrubs, and even the soil. If you look at how fisheries affect the ecosystem as a whole, it is actually relatively small compared to how agriculture affects an ecosystem - even in poorly managed fisheries, the ecosystem is affected less than almost any form of agriculture.

A commonly used estimate places fisheries at total collapse by 2048 - is this a realistic reflection of the current trajectory, or is it more nuanced than that?

No, it's not really more nuanced; it's simply not correct. There's really no question that much of the world will have fish in 2048. Ultimately, after that paper came out in 2006, many of the authors of that paper, as well as myself and a number of others, sat down as scientists and said, ‘Okay, what do we really know?’. Three years after that paper came out (in 2009), we published another paper with the same first author (Boris Worm), showing that, in fact, where we had data, fish stocks weren't declining. 

Of course, places where we have data available are generally the better-managed fisheries in the world, and this is a consideration to bear in mind – the other half of the world where we don't have good data, the abundance of fish there is probably decreasing. We just can't talk about the global status of fisheries with a lot of accuracy. Certainly not with the accuracy we can about that half where we have relatively good data. 

We published a paper in 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that covers about half of the world's total fish production – this was also the most comprehensive assessment of managed fish stocks to date. Our findings showed that for these fisheries with available data, the abundance of fish is increasing, not decreasing. 

This is the problem with this these sort of narratives, it’s that they want to be global. But the story is very different in different places. Certainly, in Europe, North America, most of South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, these larger major fisheries are doing well and, on average, are actually increasing in abundance.

And in fact, Boris Worm (the lead author on that original 2006 paper) has offered to hold a seafood banquet on December 31, 2047, and I'm really hoping I can attend that day because it will be my 100th birthday!

Why is there so much less data for the other half of world fisheries?

Many tropical countries simply don't have the kind of research agencies you have in Europe. They may not have research institutes with several research vessels, and they may not have hundreds of marine scientists. Because of this we know a lot less about their fisheries than we do about the richer countries’ fisheries.

How many of those fisheries with available data are overfished, and who is responsible for estimating these figures?

FAO is generally known as the most authoritative body for these estimates. Right now, they're estimating that globally, roughly 32% of fish stocks are overfished, and I suspect that's roughly right. 

But it’s worth noting here that overfishing doesn't mean collapsed. Overfished means that a stock is not producing at its maximum potential. FAO’s point is that ‘fully exploited’ is exactly what the objective of most national fisheries agencies is. They actively aim to ‘fully exploit’ the resources – meaning fisheries are being harvested in a range that produces long-term maximum yield. 

Inevitably, a percentage of the total catch will be made up of non-target species, or 'bycatch' - some older estimates even place this percentage as high as 40%. Is this number still relevant for bycatch today?

Around 30 years ago, it could have been approaching that (40%). Now, I think the best estimates are more like 10%, and that's due to several reasons. One reason is that in today’s fisheries, a lot more of what is caught is being used - particularly for aquaculture and agriculture feed. The other reason is that there have been a lot of technological changes around how to avoid bycatch. 

It's definitely still an issue, but a way to put it in context is that in the terrestrial food chain, around 30% of food is wasted - from being eaten by rats in storage bins to being thrown out because it’s past its ‘use-by’ date. While it would be good to eliminate the 10% (of seafood) lost at the production level altogether, it doesn't threaten the sustainability of using the oceans to produce fish.  

What generally happens to this bycatch, especially in those poorer countries with less strict regulations? 

In those places where the data are the poorest - like Southeast Asia - they now use virtually everything. Generally, the high-quality fish goes to markets like fresh markets, the next level down will typically go to make surimi, or fish paste, which is used for a whole host of products, then the lowest quality stuff - often just a slurry at the bottom of the hold - goes into aquaculture feed. Effectively, they've eliminated the problem with bycatch in terms of it being a concern of catching things and then throwing them overboard.  

Could we be focussing more on increasing the potential value of bycatch species in wealthier countries, too? 

Yes, I've been to restaurants run by chefs who specialize in only sourcing bycatch, and they’re amazing. There's a huge amount of underutilized fish in the world. Here where I live in the West Coast of the United States, we only catch around 25% of the allowable catch of all the bottom fish. Some of the reasoning for that is simply due to a lack of markets. These fish are not being discarded but simply represent lost potential food. 

I actually had a Ph.D. student who worked on whether there was a way to use those (less desired) fish species for food banks to get them to people who are nutritionally deprived. So yes, I think there is definitely a place for that.

Who’s job is it to manage individual fish stocks? Does industry have a role to play here?

Fish stocks are typically common property resources, and in some cases, international property resources. So we really do have to rely on the governments to manage these things. When governments are not doing enough, the fishing industries themselves are stepping up because nobody has a bigger stake in the sustainability of a fishery than the fishing industry. For the people who fish, that’s how they make their living, and in many places in the world, the fishing industry is augmenting what the governments are doing by doing research, developing new technologies, etc. That's really what a lot of the eco-certification is about - in places like Southeast Asia, where governments haven't done a lot in terms of fisheries management. In some cases, the fishing industries are putting what's called ‘fisheries improvement plans’ together to improve their sustainability, largely to get access to European and American markets.

Fisheries are often subsidised by governments to make fishing more profitable and keep prices relatively low for consumers. Do government subsidies have any influence on overfishing in fisheries? 

We generally divide subsidies into two groups – good subsidies and bad subsidies. In almost all countries, the government pays for the science associated with the oceans and its management. These are so-called good subsidies - they support the management of the fishery. What are considered ‘bad subsidies’ are most commonly fuel subsidies or construction subsidies. In some cases, those will contribute to making the fishing pressure higher than it would be if they weren't subsidized. 

Now, in fisheries like European and American fisheries, where we manage fisheries by quota, that concept simply isn't applicable. Because the total allowable catch is controlled by regulations, not by economics. But for example, the Chinese supply fuel subsidies for their high seas tuna fleet - then there's no question about that leading to more pressure on the high seas tuna fisheries than there would be in the absence of those subsidies. There's general agreement that we should get rid of fuel and construction subsidies except in special cases for certain communities.

Monitoring all actors within supply chains is logistically difficult at sea, so can we really trust claims made by eco-certifications like MSC?

Well, there are always gaps in the system. But I guarantee you that fisheries that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council are among the best-managed fisheries in the world. And the environmental impact of eating those fish is almost certainly less than the alternative foods produced on land.

Does aquaculture offer a potential solution to reducing the environmental impacts of wild catch fisheries?

While aquaculture will probably continue to be the fastest-growing global food sector, we can't just talk about all of aquaculture. A very high portion of global aquaculture is freshwater aquaculture, and another large portion is shellfish. Shellfish is one of the most sustainable foods in the world - you don't have to feed them, and in terms of carbon footprint production per area, they cannot be beaten. When we look at other forms of aquaculture, we have to consider the cost of feeding them. This is the real environmental cost of production, and that's where all of the critics of salmon farming get it wrong. They talk about sea lice, and they talk about dead zones in the sediments underneath salmon farms. The total area of Norwegian salmon farms is on the order of the size of the Oslo airport. The real environmental impact of the Norwegian salmon farming industry is where the crops are grown to feed them - and that's not trivial. But even then, a salmon converts food to flesh more efficiently than a chicken, pig, or cow. So, if you’re going to eat meat, I would still say that farmed salmon is a more environmentally friendly choice than beef, chicken or pork.

Is small-scale commercial fishing more sustainable than large industrial operations?

That's a very common misconception -  that somehow small-scale fishing is always more sustainable than industrial fishing. The thing to remember is that generally it’s the large vessels, certainly in the US, that all have independent observers onboard run by the government, whereas that's very difficult to do on small boats. We actually know a lot more about the large boat fisheries than we do about the small boat fisheries. This does not make either better or worse necessarily, I think they can both be very well managed. 

Increasingly, the added technology of onboard camera systems and satellite tracking means we can know what's going on in small boat fisheries. I know a lot of fishermen don't like me to say that, but this would allow scientists to always know where they are, and what they're catching.

Why wouldn’t fishing operators want to adopt this new tracking technology?

I'd say the first reason is cost. It does cost them money to implement these additions – a consideration mostly for smaller independent fishermen. It could also be the idea of having yourself on camera all of the time. But these changes need to happen, and my attitude is that if you are using a public resource, then that’s just going to be one of the costs of doing business.

Are you hopeful for the future of fisheries?

I'm hopeful. Over the last 30 years, we have reduced fishing pressure and rebuilt fish stocks in many places. We simply need to bring good management to all of the world's fisheries.

Fisheries are vital to food security, employment and culture in much of the world, and we need to protect and maintain them.

What are three ways we can reduce our impact on unsustainable fisheries today?

To boil it down to 3 general tips, I’d say these: 

  1. In general, a good way to reduce your impact is to either eat local seafood where you know where it came from or to eat fish certified by MSC. For Americans, look at Monterey Bay Seafood Watch advice to learn more about the species you’re eating.
  2. Generally, eat less and waste less! The rich people of the world eat more than they should for their own health and for the planet.
  3. Where you can, try to eat low on the food chain.
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