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Sustainable fishing helps preserve fish stocks

Although the fishing industry keeps upgrading its vessels, catches continue to fall. According to scientists and environmental associations, many stocks have been overfished, calling for a radical shift towards sustainable fishing.

The concept of sustainability may conjure up thoughts of corporate ad campaigns trying to polish a company’s ‘green’ image. The term comes from forestry and actually means that people should only take out as many trees as will grow back. Scientists and environmental associations postulate that this rule should apply to all public goods that are collectively managed. This includes global fish stocks, which serve as a major source of protein in the human diet, especially in newly industrialising and developing countries. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), around 10 to 12% of the world population is directly or indirectly dependent on fishing as it makes up a large part of their incomes.

Unsustainable practices lead to massive overfishing

Ever since the beginning of the 1990s – when massive overfishing off the coast of Newfoundland caused cod stocks to collapse, pushing the concept of sustainable fishing further into the research spotlight – experts have warned against the further depletion of this important source of nutrition. Politicians threw many of these warnings to the wind, as one-third of global fish stocks are now overfished and more than half are virtually exhausted. There is no room here for any further increase.

The fishing industry, which employs around 500 million people, is also suffering from this crisis, which is confirmed by a World Bank study. Dwindling fish stocks have caused the industry to lose at least 50 billion US dollars per year; over the past three decades, the total loss has been 2 trillion US dollars. Researchers assume that three-quarters of the global fish stocks would yield more money if they were managed sustainably, that is in a more careful and controlled manner.

Record levels of fish consumption

Global fish consumption reached record highs in 2012: 18.4 kilogrammes per person, according to the current Fishery Report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). However, a growing part of this comes from aquaculture, which the FAO states is already supplying more than 40% of the demand for fish. Catches of sea fish, however, are stagnating, and it has been this way since the middle of the 1990s, despite massive investments in more powerful engines, larger ships and better nets. Unless it switches to  sustainable practices, the fishing industry will become unprofitable because its raw material is diminishing while production continues unabated. A Canadian study from 2006 confirms this, claiming that sea fish will be so rare and so expensive by 2048 that very few people will be able to afford it.

The reasons behind overfishing are economic greed and political failure. Although the FAO has been issuing fishing regulations for many years, none of the 53 largest fishing nations has fully complied with them; 34 of the countries do not even meet 40% of the criteria. And illegal fishing is still rampant: 2,700 trawlers are profiting from gaps in maritime law and lack of checks and claiming one-third of all catches.

Buyers’ guides to sustainable fish

The gravity of the situation is now clear. But the question remains as to what can be done to ensure sustainable fishing. Stricter controls, higher penalties, protected areas and fishing bans for endangered stocks – such measures have been pushed by environmental associations and researchers for years. There have been small advances, for example in the area of sustainable fish consumption. Environmental organisations in Europe have developed buyers’ guides on the topic. They recommend buying sustainably caught fish that carry the label of organisations such as the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) or Friend of the Sea (FoS), which are certifying more and more stocks. However, these organisations have become so large that they in turn are being criticised for not carrying out sufficient checks.

European reform for sustainable fishing

Political support for sustainable fishing also seems to be increasing – not least because of the need  to secure the future of the fishing industry. The USA and Canada have already made at least some successful reforms, which will safeguard stocks. The EU, where nearly half the stocks are overfished, also has the potential to do the same. The recommendations for the upcoming reform of the EU fishing policy in 2013 are a step in the right direction, according to associations such as WWF and Greenpeace, as well as most scientists.

However, EU states are again beginning to fight and scale down the Commission’s recommendations for a smaller fleet, stricter controls and a focus on sustainable stock sizes. The negotiations are still ongoing, and it will not become clear until the beginning of 2013 whether the EU is capable of making a radical shift of course.

January 2013

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