If I asked you to think about the oceans, what do you picture? I think of the beach, of sifting through tidepools as a kid, I think of eating lobster rolls in the summertime on Cape Cod. I think of watching the Planet Earth documentary, or the movie Finding Nemo. Of sailboats, and fishing, and Moby Dick. I think of a mysterious, beautiful world teeming with life.
This ocean of our dreams is nearly gone. Our oceans have been raped, repeatedly and often, by the very same species that depends on it for their livelihood: humans.
I don’t want to get unnecessarily preachy. But as I start to question my own lifestyle and look for ways to live more sustainably, I decided to start researching the state of our oceans and the impact of fisheries today. I mean, I knew we were using unsustainable fishing practices. Overfishing was something I had at least heard of. But I wanted to really understand.
What I discovered has hit me at the core of my being. Our oceans are dying. And not slowly, not in the next century. Right now. Today. This very minute, fish stocks are collapsing and with them, the entire ecosystems that make up the ocean. The things I’ve read about the impact of the fishing industry have sent me into a tailspin.
Let’s start with some facts and figures. Those are easy to digest, right?
Last year human beings sent out a total of 4 million fishing vessels that caught a total of 160 billion tons of fish. Of those 160 billion tons of fish, 40% was bycatch. Meaning in the last year alone, human beings killed and wasted 64 billion tons of fish.
In the United States alone, 47% of edible seafood was wasted. That adds up to 2.3 billion pounds of seafood, equal to the total catch of some smaller nations.
And the fact is, the oceans cannot continue to support this. From 1970 to 2012 the total marine population dropped 40%. If we narrow the focus to mackerel, tuna, and bonito, the total population dropped an unbelievable 74%. According to the World Wildlife Fund and FAO, over 61% of the world’s fish stocks are fully fished, meaning they have nothing left to give.
The fish species most at risk are tuna, swordfish, and salmon. Go figure.
And yet, fish consumption is increasing. Per capita, in 1960 we ate 9.9kg/person but in 2012? 19.2kg a person! So let’s get this straight… fish stocks are rapidly in decline and yet fish consumption is rising. Help me out here, how does that work?
And though there are about 3 billion people in developing nations who rely on fish as their main source of protein, the highest consumption is still in fully developed countries where people could eliminate fish completely from their diets and not suffer one bit. It’s pure, conspicuous consumption.
Some scientists estimate that if we continue on our current path, there will be no fish left in the ocean by 2050.
This systematic destruction of our ocean’s marine life has been going on since the 1950s. Even though fish stocks began collapsing in the 1990s, this issue has not gotten the media attention, nor the political attention that it demands. Outrageously wasteful and indiscriminate fishing methods coupled with an almost complete lack of regulation means that we are destroying the oceans to satisfy our lust for sushi buffets.
The largest problem in the fishing industry is bycatch. I absolutely dare you not to get fired up when you read about this issue.
Bycatch is a fancy word that means “waste”. Fishing ships go out to catch Tuna, and instead they catch dolphins, whales, turtles, salmon, baby tuna, and birds, among other things. All of this, mostly dead, gets thrown back into the ocean often unrecorded.
Let’s just focus on the United States for a minute. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is supposed to regulate and control the fishing industry, including bycatch. Yet although it is recommended to have “observers” onboard 20% of all journeys to record bycatch, in practice there are observers on less than 1% of all fishing journeys. In some fisheries, they never have observers. So this issue of bycatch is underreported and underregulated.
Basically, they can dump a shit ton of wasted dead fish in the ocean without any repercussions.
You may be wondering, how could we go out fishing and have to throw away almost half of what we catch? I’ve lined up for you the top 3 most destructive and disgusting fishing techniques that humans have invented:
In third place, with a solidly destructive effort, we have….
The practice known as long lining involves sending out long lines that have shorter, baited lines coming off of them. These long lines can be up to 30 miles long. Found all over the oceans, they is used to catch cod, halibut, sablefish, grouper, and Chilean sea bass.
As bycatch, this charming fishing technique accidentally catches Bluefin tuna and marlin, which are illegal to intentionally catch. But the fishermen don’t get in trouble because it is “bycatch”. And we wonder why tuna stocks aren’t recovering?? They also catch birds and the mammals that die from drowning because they can’t get up to the air.
Alright, in second place as the most despicable and disgusting oceanic rape method…
Also referred to as “walls of death”, this method involves leaving a net hovering in the water with floats at the top and weights at the bottom. It can sit on the sea floor or hover at whatever level. The net is invisible and small enough so the fish’s head can fit through but the body gets stuck. Charming.
This is used to catch cod, Pollock, flounder, monkfish, halibut, striped bass mackerel, swordfish, sharks, and salmon. So that sustainable “wild caught” Alaskan salmon? Double check your facts on that…
Unintentionally, these nets catch whales, seals, seabirds, sharks, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles… the list goes on. Used off the coast of California so if you’ve ever driven up the PCH and stopped to stare at those charming sea lions laying on the beach, well the next step for them is to navigate waters that are littered with “walls of death”.
AAAAAND bringing it home for first prize, the gold medal of douchebaggery goes to…
If you haven’t heard of this before, you’re in for a treat. Also called “ocean bulldozer” this is a cone shaped net that is weighted so that it rolls across the ocean floor, indiscriminately scooping up everything in its path.
The normal size is about the length of a football field by 3 stories high, but the largest trawling net in the ocean is large enough to fit 13 747s. Fucking 13.
When a bottom trawler runs along the sea floor it destroys 5-25% of all sea life. It wipes out corals, eliminates sea grasses, and takes down sea mounts. And they can use a bottom trawler up to 2km (6000ft) down!
This incredible fishing method is responsible for half of all discarded fish worldwide. It is used to intentionally catch cod, squid, rockfish, haddock, flouder, sole, and octopus. But it is most commonly used to catch shrimp. In the Gulf of Mexico the shrimp industry is so wasteful, it is estimated that for every 1 pound of shrimp caught, they throw away between 4 and 10 pounds of bycatch. So enjoy that shrimp cocktail. Have another.
You may be thinking, “But Megan, this is America. We must have laws against this!”
Some states do. The US has some restrictions. But not enforced. And we don’t govern international waters. The reality is that almost all of the fish that we consume has been pulled out of the ocean by one of these methods.
They bring us the sushi we love so much.
And that’s the whole story folks.
Just kidding! That isn’t even half of it.
Let’s talk about the relationship between developing and developed nations. Developed nations eat more fish yet developing nations need the fish more.
Let’s take one example, for the sake of brevity.
All the way back in 1979, the EU signed it’s first agreement with Senegal to buy fishing rights in the waters off their coast and proceeded to utterly obliterate the fish stocks there. By 2005, the Senegal’s fishing stocks were depleted. And yet, in 2015, the EU renewed the agreement for another 5 years! And what fish are they seeking? Tuna. Fucking. Tuna. And what kind of fishing ships is the EU sending down? Fucking “Super Trawlers”. The rate of bycatch? 75%! 75% of the fish they catch is killed and immediately thrown back into the ocean to rot.
The Senegalese fishermen didn’t stand a chance. When the stocks collapsed in 2005, with their jobs gone and food supplies shrinking, 31,000 men made the dangerous journey to the Canary Islands and onward to Europe to look for work. 6,000 men drowned during the journey.
Okay so there must be international political pressure to stop this, right? I mean, it’s a scandal!
Nope. Developed nations are fucking subsidizing it. Global fishing subsidies range from between $14-35 billion per year. Of those, only 20% go to management of resources, but 60% subsidize costs of fuel, of building new harbors and outfitting new ships.
The top three governments that shell out these ocean-destroying subsidies?
3. The United States.
I could also talk about the environmental impact and how all of this raping and pillaging of the oceans is impacting global warming, destroying ecosystems, and dramatically altering life in the oceans, but I think we’ve heard enough horror stories.
But just in case I haven’t made myself as clear as crystal, let’s recap: the fishing industry is destroying the world’s fish populations. The worst hit is Tuna, which has dropped at least 74%. Other fish that are nearly gone are Salmon and Swordfish. On top of that, the fishing industry also catches and kills all the creatures we love so much. Animals like whales, dolphins, and sea turtles are ruthlessly caught and killed and thrown away, UNREPORTED, every day. Billions of tonnes of them.
Alright enough negativity. Let’s work together and fix this.
One commonly sited solution is aquaculture or “fish farming”. Okay great, we eliminate our need to fish in the wild oceans. We have a safe, sustainable way of producing fish.
Wrong. The fish that we farm, namely Salmon, is carnivorous and needs to eat smaller fish to survive. And where do we get the smaller fish? The ocean. Something like 30 tonnes of sardines equals 1 ton of Salmon. Not exactly sustainable.
There are a whole plethora of problems with fish farming. They concentrate fish stocks which in turn concentrates waste and pollutes the local water supply. Diseases spread easily and when fish escape, these diseases spread quickly to wild populations. It makes it easier for invasive, non-native species to enter local ecosystems, and is bad for animal welfare if stock density is too high.
Okay, are there real solutions? Or are we just fucked?
I believe there are real solutions.
The important thing is that we need to act now. Today. You’ve made it to the end of this rant, so take it upon yourself to do something! Make a conscious decision to move beyond slacktivism and start to change your habits for the better.
- Buy only MSC certified fish. It is certified sustainable. Look for the label.
- Buy frozen fish. This helps cut back on wasted fish sitting in your fridge. Save the fresh fish for very special occasions, and buy smaller servings.
- Educate yourself on how to consume responsibly.
- Don’t eat Tuna.
Become a vegan.*
*Being a vegan is extreme, and you’re a meat eater. Or at least a pescatarian. Switching to the vegan lifestyle would be a shock to your system and you probably don’t know how to prepare vegan foods anyway. And vegans are annoying. So fine…
Don’t become a vegan immediately. But at least learn some lessons from the vegan lifestyle. Have one vegan day a week, every week. “Meatless Mondays” then have two days a week. The environment will thank you.
You can find article after article extolling the virtues of fish for your health. It’s high in protein but low in fat, curbs the appetite, provides valuable omega 3s. Well I’ve got some news: plant proteins are low fat, high protein, have fiber to help curb your appetite, and there are plant sources of omega 3. Even some recent research showing that your body can convert plant omega 3s INTO the kind you get from fish.
There exist mountains of research pointing to the positive health benefits of a plant based diet. Its good for you, and it is good for the planet. You simply cannot say the same for a fish heavy diet.
Now you’re thinking. Ugh, I mean I know you’re right Megan, but I just love sushi!
The next time you want sushi, or seafood, take a step back and please think about this article. Remember that the human race is made up of many individual parts, and you are one of them. YOUR choices, YOUR decisions are important. Choose to skip the seafood today.
The fact is, this is an emergency. And it isn’t getting enough attention. Do not wait for the people around you to change. Do not wait for our culture to change.
Eat dramatically less fish. You do NOT need it as a vital part of your diet. If you eat less, the people on this planet who do rely on fish will have more. And you won’t have to explain to your children and grandchildren why all the fish are gone.
This change CAN happen from the ground up. Start now.
Live sustainably. Live happily.
If you’re interested in some further reading, here are my sources for this text: