New reports question if there are plenty more fish in the sea

Posted by Willie — 4 August 2010 at 10:57am - Comments

Not plenty more where that came from © Greenpeace/Cobb

If you're reading this in the UK, you ran out of fish today.

Basically, the UK eats more fish than its waters produce and, thanks to some nifty fish-counting from the clever folks at NEF, that equates to the 4th of August being the day we use up our year's fish supply. In comparison to the EU as a whole, we fair a month better but then we are a country with quite a lot of seas, certainly in comparison with, er, Austria and Romania. Yet, for almost five full months we are relying on fish from somewhere else. And that might be okay, if there was plenty of it to go around. But of course, as the old saying should go, there aren't plenty more fish in the sea.

Across the world, fish stocks have been overexploited, with 90 per cent of big fish like salmon, swordfish and tuna having been fished out in the past few decades, and some stocks like cod on the Grand Banks have collapsed completely. The fish we import today may well have been taken out of the nets of developing countries, where the EU (and others) has a shocking record of exporting their overfishing problems via dodgy access agreements.

But sticking to our own waters, a new Defra report last month on the state of the UK marine environment is sobering news. The report says things are getting better, slowly, and that fish stocks are improving, slowly.

Unsurprisingly the seafood authority, Seafish (who, amongst other things, like to encourage us to eat more fish) were quick to tell us this is great news. And, obviously it shows they have been doing everything right.

But we need to look at this in context, as small improvements on a very bad baseline aren't necessarily good news. Fish numbers are not rocketing back to former abundances, we are just getting excited at a little bit of improvement on hugely-depleted numbers. Defra's own website clearly repeats: "Overall, the large majority of scientifically assessed stocks continue to be fished at rates well above the levels expected to provide the highest long-term yield."

It may seem a strange metaphor, but fish stocks are not out of the woods yet. Many of the stricter control measures that have led to the small improvements are direct results of increased consumer awareness, and political concern over fish stocks. That didn't happen all by itself, it was the result of some dogged campaigning by the likes of Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and others.

Many in the fishing industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming into acknowledging there was a problem, and then the real difference has been made by increased controls on fishing effort. Sure, that has been a painful process for the fishing industry, but let's not kid ourselves it would have happened anyway.

Overcapacity (too many boats chasing too few fish) and wasteful fishing methods have been, and still are, responsible for devastating fish (and other) species in Europe's seas, and it's the shameful legacy of the Common Fisheries Policy, which is fortuitously up for reform in the next year and a half.

Trying to sweep past problems beneath the seabed does Seafish and the fishing industry no favours, especially at a time when we need to be supporting and championing the fishing fleets and suppliers who are doing things well. Like the handline fishermen catching mackerel and seabass, like the development of more selective gear for catching haddock, like the conservation credits scheme for allowing cod recovery, and like traceability schemes re-connecting the boats that catch the fish, to the restaurateurs who serve it up.

The other major problem with assuming that the status quo on fisheries mismanagement is working, is that it acts as an effective barrier to the radical reforms that are so desperately needed - not least of which is the setting aside of large areas off-limits to fishing as marine reserves.

So, by all means let's support the good guys, but let's not celebrate just yet. There is a lot to do, and a long way still to go. Maybe this time, reform of the Common Fisheries Policy will be meaningful.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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