9 January 2011

Plenty More Fish in the Sea

By Mark Crutchley

What was once a byword for plenty is beginning to look like a rather hollow saying thanks to the destructive power of the fishing industry. With modern radar and spotter planes to locate the fish; artificial islands to lure them into certain locations and nets and lines which empty the seas over great areas, we are not so much harvesting the world’s fish resources as waging a war against fish from which they may never recover. Some research has suggested that unless we change our policies then by the middle of this century far from there being plenty more fish in the sea, there may actually be none at all.

In the Northern seas, which have been intensively fished for the longest time, there is a clear trend away from catches being made up of larger, higher level fish, towards smaller, lower level ones. We have fished out the stocks of large fish such as cod in many areas and are now left catching what was once their prey. The extent of the decline is difficult to assess because there are no records of what fish stocks were before we began to harvest them. But studies on the Newfoundland cod fishery have indicated that by the time it was suspended in 1992, stocks had fallen to just one third of one percent of their original size.

As we move down the food chain we run the risk of destroying stocks of these fish too and leaving ourselves with nothing left to catch. When a fish stock collapses, it can do so with remarkable rapidity. In 1966 over 1.2 million tonnes of herring were being caught in the North Sea, but less than a decade later this had fallen to just 200,000 tonnes.

One of the most appalling wastes in the industry is the killing of sharks for their fins to make sharks fin soup. Just the fin is taken from the shark, which is then thrown back into the sea to die. Sharks have been the top predator in the oceans for over 400 million years but in the blink of an eye humans are in danger of wiping them out, with some populations having been reduced by over 99%. Globally up to 100 million sharks are being killed every year and many species are rapidly approaching critical levels. If we don’t take action now to stop the slaughter then extinction looms for many species. As a start, if we all boycotted any restaurant we see selling shark fin soup, and let them know that we were doing it and why, then perhaps we could begin to make it as unacceptable to sell this as it would be if we saw somewhere selling tiger steaks – it’s really no different. Supporting the work of the Shark Trust (http://www.sharktrust.org/) is another way to help tackle the problem.

We need to start bringing pressure to bear on those who can do something about this widespread destruction. The EU Common Fisheries Policy is in desperate need of reform so it favours the fish, rather than those out to catch them. The scientific evidence of decline has been evident for years yet still quotas are set well in excess of levels which will allow stocks to recover, or even just stabilise. We need to target the manufacturers of fish products and retailers too, to force them to raise their standards and use only sustainably caught fish.

If we want our children to have the chance to eat fish in the future, then we have to stand up and do something about this now, before it’s too late.

I wouldn’t normally want to use this column to publicise a television programme, but next week there is a series of three programmes on Channel 4 called the Big Fish Fight where well known chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall investigate the devastating effects of the fishing industry on marine life. The programmes are on at 9pm on the 11th, 12th and 13th and promise to be well worth watching.


  1. Hi Mark,

    I agree that it's great that celebrity chefs are getting behind campaigns for more sustainable fisheries, but I can't help but think that their protestations are a little hollow.

    All still promote the eating of yet more sea fish - it seems to me that they're just saying we should throw less away and target other species: this is no answer. If we all (in the UK - and the fact is that for an island nation we're not really big fish eaters; we prefer our marine life to be processed by pigs first...) ate fish in the way Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall does and seems to encourage on his TV shows we'd be in real trouble really quickly.

    I think the answer is probably to stop eating marine species all together and, if people still want to eat fish, shift to fresh water aquiculture (with species like carp and tilapia that can feed on vegetable waste/compost worms - for example: http://www.theableproject.org.uk/produce/sustainable-fish)

  2. I agree the TV chefs are very orientated to encouraging people to eat fish (as of course are health policy recommendations) when the reality is we just cannot afford to take so much from the seas - at least not for many years until stocks have recovered. That said, the publicity which a TV programme with HF-W leading it can generate, stands a much better chance of getting politicians and supermarket chains to take action than does a campaign without his involvement. Tesco has already changed its tuna policy thanks to the threat of a Greenpeace campaign and being the bogeyman of the TV programmes.

  3. Me again Mark. Thanks for your reply.

    I'm afraid I'm a cynic who has a real fear of frog boiling. I worry that the kind of attitudes and behaviours campaigns like HF-W instil in the wider population are likely to lead to exactly this.

    I don't know if it's true or not because I've never tried, but at school our biology teacher gave us a very memorable description of the way frogs will struggle to escape before dying if dropped in a pot of boiling water but sit calmly until they are dead if brought to the boil gradually. I think poorly constructed policy is doing the same thing to us with regard to the global environmental crisis we face.

    Much as with the chicken programmes last year HF-Ws lifestyle campaign will convince people that something is happening... that something can happen, and that there are answers (like not discarding over-quota or bycatch and targeting new species) that will, essentially, allow them to carry on consuming much as before. A few supermarkets will make the right noises, MPs will get hot under the collar and the press will have a field day... Meanwhile nothing really happens and 12 months on it's pretty much business as usual (what happened about that chicken campaign by the way - other than it being good TV and good for the careers of the Chefs involved?).

    And so the heat is turned up and we all get a little bit closer to boiling point.

    In Cradle to Cradle McDonough and Braungart say something pretty similar (and I paraphrase because it's a while since I read the book) - better to have a stinking factory that belches out black smoke that everyone can see, has a direct impact on the neighbourhood and therefore can easily be closed and replaced with something genuinely sustainable rather than an almost clean factory (say pumping out small amounts of invisible dioxins) that no one notices but that will sure as hell damage the planet far more completely and insidiously.

    So I don't care if Tesco changes it's tuna policy and decides to fish tuna to extinction 'better' or more humanely...