07 May, 2021

Far from the fishing crowd: industrial fishing, sustainabilty and climate change

by Alessandro Balduzzi

The link between industrial fishing and the damage inflicted to oceans has long been a debated subject among pundits. However, only recently it has stolen the limelight on the public stage due to the growing popularity of Netflix’s documentary Seaspiracy

Whereas most scientists and activists praise the latter as it aims to make aware a wide audience of an impelling environmental issue (around 200 million Netflix subscribers around the globe), data quoted and solutions suggested by the documentary are much more debated.

For instance, a research paper according to which oceans will be empty by 2048 is regarded as outdated and wrong by the author himself. Furthermore, such a statement would ignore the recovery chances for thousands of currently depleted fish populations.

Seaspiracy also asserts that ocean plastic pollution mainly consists of fishing related activities (notably 70 percent of microplastic at sea would come from fishing gear) whereas it regards land-based ocean plastic pollution as neglectable (stressing that plastic straws amount to only 0.03 percent of plastic entering the oceans). Thus, the attempts to reduce plastic waste in our daily life is dismissed as trivial. 

Most significantly, however, Seaspiracy denies the existence of sustainable fishery at all. This stance involves two main consequences. Firstly, it leads to ignore the growing amount of well managed fisheries which already work in a sustainable way and can also contribute to fish stocking. Secondly, In light of this interpretation, Seaspiracy calls for a complete halt to fishing as a whole and the adoption of a vegan diet to counter the negative effects of industrail fishing. 

As Oscar Wilde would put it, «there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about». Seaspiracy should be appreciated since it points the finger at the elephant in the room. Or better to say, in the ocean. Still, industrial fishing - which often results in overfishing (Britain is a case in point) - is just one of the phenomena threatening the oceans.

Whereas overfishing mainly concerns the direct management of the world’s largest ecosystem in relation to human activities, the other side of the coin is climate change and its impacts - which are likewise caused by anthropic factors but in much a more complex way. 

First, we cannot forget that the ocean is the planet’s largest carbon sink. It absorbs around 23 percent of annual CO2 emissions produced by human activities and helps mitigating the impact of climate change. To absorbe carbon dioxide involves seawater acidification, a phenomenon that has exponentially increased since pre-industrial times and nowdays endangers coral reefs, marine species, fisheries and aquaculture. 

The more acid the ocean becomes, the lower its CO2 absorption capacityAccording to the United Nations, a 100–150 percent rise in acidity is to be expected by the end of this century, affecting half of all marine life. 

This trend inevitably reverberates on fishing and food chains. Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization suggest a 2.8-8.5% decrease in maximum catch potential in the world’s exclusive economic zones by 2050.

Whilst this global average is not particularly large, projected changes in catch potential vary substantially between regions. The biggest decreases can be expected in the tropics while increases are forecasted for the high latitudes. Further effects of climate change on food chains include increases in the growth rates of pathogenic marine bacteria, parasites and food-borne viruses as well as in the occurrence and virulence of pathogens, particularly in the aquaculture sector.  

Last but not least, a remarkable connection between climate change and fishing - in addition to the plastic pollution stressed by Seaspiracy - is represented by the (relatively small) contributions of the sector to global emissions of carbon dioxide. As the aforementioned Fao paper recalls, fishing vessels (including inland vessels) emitted 172.3 million tonnes of CO2 all over the world in 2012, about 0.5 percent of total global CO2 emissions that year. For the aquaculture industry, it was estimated that 385 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent was emitted in 2010, around 7 percent of those from agriculture.

“To conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” numbers among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14) adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

In light of this, what strategies do the UN support to fulfill this goal? Let’s have a look at some of them.

  1. First, the creation of more marine protected areas. They represent a key resource to safeguard vulnerable species, conserve biodiversity and avoid conflicts through a precise definition of allowed activities. As of December 2019, over 17 percent of waters under national jurisdiction were covered by protected areas. Likewise, a meaningful contribution to ecosystem conservation is the increase in coverage of key biodiversity areas (KBAs).
  2. Second, concerted international action to curtail illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The number of parties to the Agreement on Port State Measures – the first binding international agreement that specifically targets this type of fishing - currently amounts to 69 (including the European Union). Still, further concerted global actions are urgently needed.
  3. Third, sustainable fishing, whose basic definition is catching the right amount of fish, each year, in perpetuity. Unlike what Seaspiracy asserts, sustainable fisheries do exist and are vital to a large number of communities in the most disadvantaged countries. Their contribution is fundamental to alleviate poverty, hunger and malnutrition and to generate economic growth whilst not depleting fish stocks. Examples of their contribution to the gross domestic product can be found, for instance, in small island developing states in Oceania (1,55 percent of GDP) and in least developed countries (1,11 percent of GDP). A contribution ten times higher than the global average. Nevertheless, it is doubtless that the proportion of fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels has been declining: According to the latest “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” publication by FAO, it decreased from 90 percent in 1974 to 65.8 percent in 2017.
  4. Fourth, a more important role for small-scale fishers. Despite accounting for more than half of total fishery output in developing countries and fulfilling a critical role in providing food for local communities, they continue to be among the most marginalized food producers. Moreover, they belong to the main players in the aforementioned sustainable fisheries. 

As this article has tried to convey, sustainability is the answer also when it comes to fishing. Whereas the so called developed world can decide on its own diet and could theoretically shift to a plant-based diet (whose economic, environmental and nutritional sustainability is in turn debatable), fish products are essential in the fight against hunger and poverty in the global South as a key factor to guarantee food security.

Moreover, up to 10% of the global population relies on fisheries for their livelihood, overwhelmingly in developing countries. Reinforcing international and regional governance mechanisms and managing aquatic ecosystems sustainably must be a staple in our relations to oceans, seas and marine resources.