Stark headlines in the media over the past year have presented us with a bleak outlook on the future of fish stocks and the provision of seafood in our diet.
A picture is painted of severe global fish shortages widespread, relentless and unregulated exploitation and extreme environmental impacts that jeopardise the global sustainability of our oceans. The overall message is stop fishing, but simple messages like this often don’t stand up to scrutiny, as is the case here.
When we think about the issue of managing how and what we fish for, we must recognise that fish is food and a vital part of a global food supply system.
With a global population of around seven billion and rising daily, 20% of whom derive a fifth of their protein from fish, there is a need to balance societal needs for food with the realities of the environmental impact of fishing.
It is true that our oceans have been overfished in the past, but significant progress has been made in managing fish stocks appropriately and the combined efforts of the fishing industry and environmental groups are starting to have positive effects.
Increasing quantities of fisheries stocks around the world are being approved to Marine Stewardship Council or Food and Agricultural Organization standards, and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea regularly monitors stock numbers with often positive, if cautious, results.
” It’s about balance and how we talk about the marine environment”
The oft-quoted myth around fish “disappearing from the seas” started with a publication in 2006 (Worm) but was later largely retracted (Worm, Hilborn et al 2009), which showed that fish stocks can recover, if managed effectively. The fact is that cod stocks in the Barents Sea and Iceland are at an all-time high and even the at-risk cod stocks on the Grand Banks and North Sea are showing increases.
The European Commission’s Fishing Opportunities for 2013 document stated that 18 out of 34 stocks were classed as “overfished” last year compared with 32 out of 34 in 2004.
How? The industry has been working hard to secure long-term sustainability, be it through new advances in gear technology, or its work with scientists to understand how we can best implement marine-protected areas with a minimal socio-economic impact for fisheries. There is more work to be done, but let’s recognise the extensive progress made.
If we do not fish, we can have a pristine environment, abundant fish stocks and communities that are badly impacted economically, with no fish to eat. The alternative is a moderately impacted environment, sustainably managed fish stocks, and communities supported by the economic activity from fishing. It’s about balance, both in terms of management and fishing activity, and in how we talk about and portray the marine environment.
Fish is food, just as grain is. No one is denying that there are impacts, just as we cannot deny the fundamental role it plays in feeding a growing population or the fact that every fisherman at sea creates four jobs on land.
There can be no substitute for a fair and balanced approach to reporting the issues.
Dr Paul Williams is chief executive of Seafish