The Future

Unsustainable Fishing: The Situation in The Mediterranean

Almost all fishing is unsustainable and the only way out is to stop eating fish - these are the conclusions drawn by Seaspiracy, the latest Netflix documentary on fishing. The documentary was accused of simplism and sensationalism not only by the fishing industry, but also by the scientific community and even some of its interviewees.1 The producers cited obsolete sources, excluded important data, and reported on specific situations – allegedly the worst in the sector – to draw conclusions about the global situation.2 But are Seaspiracy’s mistakes bad enough to delegitimise its message?

Why We Can’t Overlook Seaspiracy’s Mistakes

Details are important, and fact-checking misleading narratives is necessary for the proper functioning of our democracies. Those who argue that the documentary’s mistakes can be overlooked because of the importance of its message forget that, on other occasions, distorting narratives could be used to support causes we don’t approve of. We can protect information from propaganda only by keeping away from the use of double standards and demanding that information is always as factual as possible.

The Situation in The Mediterranean

The risk, however, is to focus too much on criticism without finally taking the opportunity to shed light on issues and solutions. For example, although the documentary was wrong in depicting the global situation, it portrayed the gravity of the situation in the Mediterranean quite accurately. According to a report published in 2017 by the European Commission, 85% of fish stocks are fished in unsustainable conditions in the Mediterranean, and 64% are overfished to the point of risking collapse in the coming years.3 

Photo: Bluefin tuna in the net of a commercial fishing vessel.

“The situation in the Mediterranean is tragic, but we’re still overfishing,” says Gianpaolo Coro, researcher at Cnr-Isti. Coro is one of the members of the independent and international research team whose studies informed the European Commissions’ report. The team has developed the most widely used mathematical model (CMSY) to estimate the health of fish stocks.4 According to the model, fishing is sustainable if it allows fish populations to remain constant, in equilibrium – in other words, fishing is sustainable only if  the amount of fish caught still allows for a fish population to fully repopulate in a year. “When the population falls below a certain threshold, which is different depending on the fish stock, fish stops reproducing,” Coro explains.

Industrial vs Small-scale Fishing

In the last 20 years, more and more industrial fishing boats have joined small local fishermen in the Mediterranean (and, in many cases, have replaced them). These have often come after having depleted fish from other regions.5 “At the beginning of the 2000s, industrial fishing  boats from China and Japan arrived here looking for bluefin tuna. They would even keep the tuna in special pools on the boat, and bring it back home alive,” says Elia Orecchia, local fisherman from Genoa, Italy.

Small-scale fishing accounts for only 5% of all fish removed from EU waters.

Orecchia works on a small fishing boat together with his father, cousins, nephews, and sister. “If we suddenly didn’t have this employment, our family would die,” he says. Today, small fishing boats – those under 12 meters in length – are responsible for only 5% of all the fish removed from EU waters. Industrial fishing, on the other hand, grows and behaves like an insatiable predator, always tending to exhaust its resources.

Small-scale fishing would offer obvious social benefits from more employment per catch, but it is the most affected by the depletion of marine biodiversity. Industrial fishing boats, with their enormous nets, can fish the little that is left more easily. “You can’t afford to remove so many tons of fish in just a few hours. We have nothing left, it is logical those are not fishermen,” says Orecchia, “They are like people working in factories. The people you find on those huge boats may have a thousand qualifications, but they are not fishermen. It’s another world.”

4 Ways to Stop Unsustainable Fishing

But what can we do to solve these issues?

1. Fishing Restrictions

There’s some good news – fish reproduce relatively quickly, and marine life could replenish itself if only we gave it time to do so. Coro’s study showed that if we only cut fishing hours by 20%, the amount of fish we could source sustainably would increase by 70% by 2030.6 Instead of just cutting fishing hours indiscriminately, we could impose specific restrictions and prohibitions by type of fishing in specific areas. “The sustainability of a type of fishing depends on the place where it is practiced,” says Coro.

2. More Transparency & Traceability

In order to better understand the impact of different fishing practices in different areas, however, there is an urgent need for more transparency and traceability. A step forward has been taken thanks to the introduction of GPS systems (which make it possible to identify all ships present at sea in any given moment)7 and thanks to increasingly strict data collection systems. But a systematic analysis of the behaviour of the fleets and their impact has not yet been done. “There are large stock assessments that are often not very transparent from the point of view of the models and data used,” says Coro. Even according to Manuel Barange, the director of FAO’s fisheries and aquaculture department, the FAO data itself “should be interpreted primarily in terms of trends.”

3. Eat Less Fish

The situation won’t be resolved until we take on our responsibilities as “intensive” consumers. To save our seas, we will need to reverse our consumption trends and, more generally, the way we relate to wildlife. “We need to rethink the way we perceive food availability globally,” says Coro. Reducing our consumption, by the way, won’t mean abandoning tradition. If anything, it will mean recovering it. Our global fish consumption has more than doubled since the 1960s.8 This means that we have gotten used to eating so much fish as a society only over the past few decades. Not only that. We have gotten used to eating the same species, on any day of the year, and very cheaply. “We have become spoiled. Every now and then some customers come asking for fish and if the fish isn’t there they get angry, they say they won’t come back then. Now everything is taken for granted,” says Orecchia.

We don't need to become vegan, but less spoiled

The vegan choice, contrary to what the producers of Seaspiracy argue, won’t be necessary. But we will have to drastically reduce our fish consumption, make it a more occasional treat, and in the Mediterranean, buy it as much as possible from small-scale fishing – in markets and from small fishmongers. This will also mean accepting that some species of fish might not be available at certain times and places. When we decide to eat fish, we could try different species that are more available, even if we’ve never heard of them. “For example, the Chub Mackerel, which is found here in Genoa, is not a very renowned or posh fish, but a very good one. When people say no to it, they don’t know what they’re missing,” comments Orecchia.

4. Demand Political Action

Urgent change is needed to restore a sustainable fish stock to our oceans.

The frustrating part is that even if reducing our consumption is necessary, it won’t be enough. The relationship between fisheries and the consumer market is much more complex than it seems. “The fishing industry is not directly dependent on retail demand, and the input from consumers arrives to fisheries after a long time,” says Coro. The risk is that, even if fish consumption dropped, industrial fishing (still fueled by generous subsidies) could go on for years at the same pace.

What is needed – and what is missing – is the political will to make difficult decisions. We urgently need local and international efforts to impose more stringent regulations. As Daniel Pauly argued in his Vox article, just as the fight against tobacco in indoor public places has been won by smoking bans, and not by appeals to smokers, the fight against illegal fishing and malpractice in the fishing industry will need government-led action.

Currently, the governments of 30 countries plus the European Union make the decisions that shape 90% of global catch. The real problem, then, is that there are not enough people actively demanding political action. The fishing situation in the Mediterranean is one of the many proofs that food is not just culture, tradition, diet. Food is politics. And we are not just consumers. We are citizens. So we must apply pressure, as we can, in both guises.

Related articles

Most viewed

Earth First

Food Fraud | When Does Food Become Criminal?

Luke Cridland

The modern consumer wants to know about the food they’re buying - is it organic, is it vegan,…

The Future

High-Tech Vending Machines

Claudia Parms

Vending machines: you never notice them until you need them. When you missed your train and are…

Human Stories

The World Of Hunting on the West Coast of Norway | Interview

Jane Alice Liu

What is the world of hunting like? I sat down with Susanne Tonheim to hear her experience growing up…

Human Stories

The Problem with Seafood Supply Chains

Jane Alice Liu,Margaux Friocourt

What are the biggest problems in our seafood supply chains? What are the driving forces behind these…

Human Stories

The Indian Farmers Battling Climate Change With 10,000-year-old Emmer Wheat

Sanket Jain

Across India, farmers have been reporting major losses at the hands of recurring climate disasters.…

Earth First

Plastic-Free Food Packaging: Where Do We Stand?

Madhura Rao

As an avid advocate for keeping groceries as plastic-free as possible, I have always wondered about…

The Future

Alexa, How Should We Farm?

Annabel Slater

At a tech expo this year, Microsoft claimed to know me better than I knew myself. Artificial…

The Future

4 Futuristic Food Innovations That Already Exist

Oliver Fredriksson

We’ve come a long way from horse and cart agriculture. Who would have thought it’d be…

The Future

3D Printed Food: Gimmick or Game Changer?

Antonio Derossi,Aran Shaunak

Today, 3D printers are a common sight in workshops, hackspaces and even in some homes –…

Earth First

Fungi in Sustainable Food Production

Anne Reshetnyak

Fungi are not just fun to forage and delicious to eat, they can also be useful for food…

The Future

Cheap Seafood | The Social Cost of Production

Madhura Rao

Many workers employed onboard offshore fishing vessels have been subjected to unsafe working…

The Future

Regenerative Agriculture | A Portrait in Greece

Toon Lambrechts

Agriculture and nature have always been at odds with each other. Food production puts an enormous…

Keep updated with the latest news about your food with our newsletter

Follow Us