The Great Fishing Debate

Commentary by Sea Shepherd CEO Steve Roest

The Great Fishing FebateChannel 4’s television show The Big Fish Fight is currently front-page news in the United Kingdom. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is in the news following his run in with Costa Rican shark fin poachers, during which he was allegedly covered in petrol and held at gunpoint for following the illegal trade. In the same TV series, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall investigated the practice of discarding, whereby fishermen are compelled by European Commission rules to throw away perfectly good fish caught unintentionally that they have no quota for, while pursuing the species that they do. Fearnley-Whittingstall sailed aboard a bottom trawler that catches a totally random selection of fish in nets dragged over the seabed, note that the year records began in 1889, we landed 4.3 times more fish in England and Wales than we do today from a fleet made up of mainly small sailing boats.

Unfortunately, also in this TV show, multi-award winning and world renowned chef Hester Blumenthal scores a spectacular personal goal of choosing to cook wolffish cheeks. Atlantic wolffish, also known as the Seawolf, has declined in English and Welsh trawl fisheries by 96 percent since 1889. This species is particularly vulnerable to overfishing, and has been so depleted on the other side of the Atlantic, that it has already been declared endangered in Canadian waters. This level of decline in Europe is sufficient to qualify them for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Do these celebrity chefs care about the sustainability of the fish they cook, or is it really solely about their own profit and celebrity?

It is fantastic that the media has finally recognized the wholesale rape and destruction that is happening every second, of every day, in every one our oceans. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s President and Founder Captain Paul Watson might have been telling us this for the past 40 years, but hey, we’re talking about it now, so better late than never…hopefully.

The only problem is that while governments debate quotas and fishing practices, and chefs debate which fish they can still “sustainably” cook and serve in their Michelin star restaurants, we have experts and marine scientists from around the globe painting a truly terrifying but realistic picture:

"Species have been disappearing from ocean ecosystems and this trend has recently been accelerating," said lead author and expert marine scientist Boris Worm. "Now we begin to see some of the consequences. For example, if the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime -- by 2048.” Worm is an assistant professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Canada.

"At this point," Worm continued, "29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed -- that is their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating. We don't have to use models to understand this trend.”

It has been estimated that 90 percent of large predatory fish have already been extracted from our oceans, and 40 million tons of fish are discarded each year as unwanted bycatch (that’s 40 percent of the global catch). So, we have a huge and totally unprecedented depletion of fish; we expect there to be insufficient stocks in the oceans by 2048 for all commercial fishing; and we currently throw away 40 percent of what we do catch as “unwanted.”  What an amazing and horrifying paradox.

Sea Shepherd is not an animal rights group, we are a conservation organization, and although I’m a vegetarian, I was brought up in a home where we ate fish once a week. But now many people eat fish every day, families eat filet of fish several times a day from their local fast food restaurants, shark is sold in 14,000 fish and chip shops in England (oddly labeled as ‘rock salmon’), environmental groups like Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund debate over what is and is not sustainable and greenwashing entities like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provide eco-labels to promote and certify certain fish as ‘sustainable,’ but the simple and obvious truth is that too many people are eating far too much fish, and if we don’t dramatically change our eating habits we will completely destroy all fish stocks within 40 years.

There is a word that describes, ‘when something is not sensible and is likely to have extremely bad results,’ and that word is insanity.

The way this planet’s population manages its ocean resources is insane. While some debate over quotas and which species are sustainable, the commercial fishing fleets are inexorably sucking every living creature from the seas. We have all the scientific evidence we need, we can even look at our own very recent history—such as the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s—to see the truth of our behavior…insanity.

What should we do? Well, we should stop eating fish (or at the very least drastically reduce our individual intake), there should be vast ocean marine reserves and No Take Areas covering more than 50 percent of our oceans, and the commercial fleets should be shut down. If we don’t do this, there will not be a recovery to the fish stocks and there will be nothing left to debate about.

As Captain Watson so eloquently states, “If the oceans die, we die.” Let’s remember that the destruction is our doing, and we can stop it if we can find the collective will to act.

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