As the demand for fish and seafood grows, the fishing industry has continued to evolve more ways to catch more fish, more quickly. Seafood used to be one of my favourite foods. However, I soon decided I couldn’t keep supporting the fishing industry. One of the reasons I become vegetarian is that overfishing has overexploited our oceans, destroyed ecosystems and is a major contributor to marine plastic pollution.
Fishing and Plastic Pollution
It’s brilliant that we’re seeing all of these bans on single-use plastic like straws and microbeads and it definitely should continue to happen, but it’s important to point out that fishing poses a huge threat to marine life through the plastic waste it produces. A study with Ocean Cleanup looked at the contents of the Great Pacific garbage patch and found that 46% of the plastic comes from fishing nets (by mass) while the majority of the rest was miscellaneous discarded fishing gear.
Around 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost to the ocean each year. These are called “ghost nets” as they create a huge danger to marine life even after they have stopped being used. Ghost nets continue to entangle animals such as birds, whales, seals, turtles, sharks and fish, trapping, injuring and killing hundreds and thousands every year.
Bycatch is defined by NOAA as “discarded catch of marine species and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing vessels and gear” . This includes non-target species such as seabirds and turtles but also target species that are discarded as they are the wrong size, sex or quality.
It is difficult to put a number on the amount of bycatch that occurs due to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. However, it has been predicted that 20% of animals caught in commercial trawling nets are bycatch. The bycatch of fish contributes further to overfishing, impeding efforts to rebuild fish stocks. It has also caused population decline of several vulnerable species, including loggerhead and leatherback turtles which are listed as endangered or threatened. Between 1990 – 2008 85,000 turtles were caught accidentally worldwide. Bycatch can also have ecological impacts, often destroying habitat-forming benthic species like corals and sponges which provide important environments for fish and other species.
Commercial fishing has not only caused species loss through accidental capture, but overfishing continues to threaten natural stocks too.
Overfishing and Species Depletion
According to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), over half of global fish stocks are being fished as hard as possible, with a third overfished or depleted. 40% of popular species such as tuna are being caught unsustainably.
I really remember learning about The Tragedy of the Commons in my undergrad and it is an easy way to understand what has happened in our oceans in regard to overfishing. Hardin was an ecologist and in the 1960s. He created this analogy to support his idea that as human populations continue to grow there will be an increased pressure on finite resources which inevitably results in overexploitation, jeopardising sustainability.
Imagine an open pasture or “commons” that is shared by multiple farmers who have their sheep grazing there. In the beginning the pasture is under carrying capacity and all the farmers benefit. The pasture is unregulated. If one or more of the farmers increases their herd too much, for increased profit, and goes over the carrying capacity of the pasture it becomes degraded and all of the farmers will feel the impact on their herds. Unless environmental costs are accounted for, the pasture will continue to degrade and the land will be no longer able to support the animals.
The unrestricted nature of the open ocean means that it is extremely difficult to monitor unsustainable and illegal fishing practices. Currently, the global fishing fleet is 2.5 times bigger than what oceans can sustainably support, resulting in the depletion of numerous species.
How you can help
Commercial fishing will continue to cause plastic pollution and bycatch. By choosing where you buy your seafood from, or cutting down on how much you eat can really make a difference. Cutting down on seafood consumption would reduce the pressure on the fishing industry to meet such high demands and therefore fish unsustainably. If we as consumers create more demand for sustainable fishing practices, the fishing industry will have to show that they do this. There are lots of ways you can support sustainable fishing:
- MSC created the MSC blue fish ecolabel which shows customers that the product has been sourced sustainably. Look out for it when you choose your fish!
- Farmed fish and aquaculture also have certain standards including: Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standard, Global Gap standard, Global Aquaculture Alliance standard which shows that products are of responsible practice in farmed fish.
- In the UK, only 5 species make up 80% of what we eat: tuna, salmon, prawns, cod and haddock. By trying something new and choosing different species such as monkfish and Dover sole you can take the pressure off some over the overexploited species.
- Buy local and if you do buy at the supermarket check how sustainable the supermarket is. In 2018, 80% of Aldi’s seafood range is certified sustainable compared to M&S at just 19%!