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. But the documentary was accused of simplism and sensationalism by the fishing industry, the scientific community, and even some of its interviewees. The producers cited obsolete sources, excluded essential data, and reported on specific situations – allegedly the worst in the sector – to draw conclusions about the global situation. 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 only protect information from propaganda by avoiding 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, a researcher at Cnr-Isti. Coro is one of the independent and international research team members whose studies informed the European Commission’s reports. 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 and in equilibrium – in other words, fishing is sustainable only if the amount of fish caught still allows 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, a 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 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. 

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. With their enormous nets, industrial fishing boats can fish the little 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 where it is practised,” says Coro.

2. More Transparency & Traceability

However, to better understand the impact of different fishing practices in different areas, 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 at 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 must reverse our consumption trends and, more generally, how 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 reduce our fish consumption drastically, 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 fish species 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, 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 at fisheries after a long time,” says Coro. The risk is that even if fish consumption dropped, industrial fishing (fueled by generous subsidies) could continue 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 the 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, or diet. Food is politics. And we are not just consumers. We are citizens. So we must apply pressure, as we can, in both guises.

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