The Human Demand for Seafood
Humans have a limitless demand for all kinds of fish and seafood. The worldwide commercial fish industry is worth £63 billion pounds (1), and the UK government recommends that everyone should eat two portions of fish every week. With the UK population standing at 62 million that equates to 124 million portions of fish being consumed each week. With this in mind it is no surprise that fish stocks across the world are under massive pressure. Indeed, a 2016 report found that the total amount of fish taken out of the sea between 1950 and 2010 may have been underestimated, and could in fact be substantially higher than figures suggest.
The problem is that fish are not farmed in the same way as livestock such as sheep, cows and pigs. These animals are bred in captivity and intensive breeding programmes mean that they replaced in the same numbers that they are slaughtered. With fish we rely on natural breeding patterns to replace the fish that are taken from the sea, and attempts to farm fish in the same way as livestock are fraught with problems. From the middle of the twentieth century onward we have been taking much faster than they can reproduce, meaning that fish stocks have become seriously depleted. In certain parts of the world – such as the Grand Banks of Canada – have seen their fish stocks totally collapse.
The main method of commercial fishing is trawling – dragging a net through the sea to catch fish. The vessels used for trawling can range from small family owned boats working out of harbours to huge fish factory ships that can stay out in international waters for months at a time and catch, process and freeze thousands of tons of fish while at sea. These vessels can catch industrial quantities of fish. The biggest trawler of all is the hugely controversial Atlantic Dawn, while the world’s biggest fishing vessel is the Lafayette – a floating fish factory which is bigger than France’s nuclear powered Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier. Many of the world’s trawlers are operated by vast companies with thousands of employees and hundreds of vessels which operate on a world-wide basis. The fate of the Spanish commercial fishing company Pescanova clearly shows how closely industrial scale fishing and big business are intertwined.
Trawling takes two main forms – pelagic trawling involves pulling a net through the middle of the water column to catch fish that feed there such as mackerel and herring, while bottom trawling drags a net along the sea bed to capture the demersal fish which live and feed there such as cod, haddock and plaice. There are several variations of bottom trawling such as beam trawling which drags heavy nets held open by a metal beam across the seabed, and also lashes the seabed with ‘tickler chains’ to get fish out of the sediment and pulse trawling which uses an electrified net to shock and stun flatfish to move them out of the seabed where they have buried themselves. More information the different ways commercial vessels catch fish is available on the commercial fishing methods page. All forms of bottom trawling cause damage to the seabed, with beam trawling in particular wreaking havoc on the marine environment. Shellfish beds, seagrass and weed beds and marine reefs are all crucial parts of the marine ecosystem which are destroyed by heavy, weighted gear being dragged through them, with shellfish and crab populations also being destroyed. In fact beam trawling is so destructive that it is estimated that for every 1lb of marketable fish which is caught by this method 16lb of marine life has been killed (2) . Trawling has also been proven to result in fish becoming skinnier as the amount of bottom-dwelling creatures killed by trawling results in less food being available for the fish. In some parts of the world trawling also kicks up so much sediment that become suspended in the sea that it blocks out light causing marine vegetation to die off due to lack of light with serious knock on effects for all aspects of marine life. Sections of many seas and oceans which have been bottom trawled repeatedly for years have effectively been transformed from abundant sections of sea holding a wide variety of sea life to barren, featureless wastelands. In locations that have been subjected to intensive bottom trawling of any kind it is unlikely that fish stocks will ever recover even if commercial fishing stopped altogether as the environment and eco-systems that support marine life will have been destroyed. Dr. Les Watling, Professor of Zoology at the University of Hawaii has stated that: “bottom trawling is the most destructive of any actions that humans conduct in the ocean” (3) .
Other commercial fishing methods include purse seining which involves setting a net around a school of fish and then drawing it closed to trap all of the fish. Massive quantities of fish can be caught in large-scale purse seines. Long-lining is a method of commercial fishing where up to thirty miles of heavy line is unreeled from the back of a ship. Thousands of baited hook snoods are attached to this line which is left at sea for a day o so and then retrieved, along with any fish that have taken the baits. Although long-lining does not damage the seabed in the way that trawling does it is still harmful to the environment as turtles, sharks and rare marine birds are all inadvertently caught by long-lines across the world. Gill and tangle nets are nets which are left in a fixed position and catch fish which swim into them, while drift nets are allowed to flow with the tide. As these methods do not involve dragging gear across the seabed they are less damaging than trawling, although there can be major problems when these nets are lost or abandoned at sea but go on catching fish as ghost nets.
Don’t be fooled by trawler owners who point to bulging nets full of fish as proof that the seas are still full. Today’s trawlers have extremely advanced fish-finding technology available to them, meaning that what fish are left can be tracked down easily. GPS plotters, sonar, echo locators and 3D seabed mapping allow even modest trawlers to fish at an intensity that was unimaginable a few years ago. Fish-finding technology is now big business in itself with companies such as Simrad and Piscatus have made millions through developing and selling technology to the commercial fishing industry. Furthermore, areas with a rocky seabed that would have once been inaccessible to trawlers and therefore provided a safe haven for fish are now easy for trawlers to navigate with all the technology they have onboard. The old image of a grizzled trawler skipper using nothing more than his experience and charts and maps of the sea to find his catch is very, very out of date.
Deep Sea Fishing
Just as the advance of technology has meant that shallower rocky areas can be efficiently fished for commonly eaten species, it has also meant that very deep sea areas which were previously unreachable by fishing vessels can now be exploited commercially. Deep-sea trawls can be used to target fish living at depths of hundreds of metres, meaning that the two deepest sea areas of the British Isles – the Rockall Trough to the west of Ireland and the Faroe-Shetland Channel to the north of Scotland – can now be commercially fished. With stocks of traditionally whitefish species such as cod and haddock being at record lows commercial fishing companies have been only too happy to expand their operations to deep-sea areas and create new markets for the species which can be caught there, with previously unheard of species such as roundnose genadier, black scabbardfish and especially orange roughy now being available in both fresh and frozen form to UK consumers. Many of these species have had to be re-named and re-branded to make them sound more appealing to consumers – roundnose grenadier was previously known as rat-tail, but this name is seldom used by the commercial fishing industry, and similarly the orange roughy’s previous common name of slimehead appears to have faded from use.
The main issues with ultra deep sea fishing is that the marine environment at depths of several hundred metres or more is extremely delicate and can be very easily disrupted by human behaviour. Due to the low light levels, freezing temperatures and low amount of energy/food available almost all the species living at these depths are have adapted to be long-living, slow growing and very late maturing. Orange roughy, for example can live for up to 160 years and are not thought to be able to reproduce until they are over thirty years old. Similarly the roundnose grenadier is thought to be able to live for 70-80 years and needs to be at least ten years old before it can breed (in contrast cod can reproduce at the end of their third year of life). This longevity and late maturation means that deep sea species can be pretty much wiped out with a fairly low intensity of commercial fishing as once numbers are reduced it would take generations to restore stocks to their original numbers, even if commercial fishing stopped altogether. Orange roughy numbers are thought to be just a few percent of pre-fishing levels, and ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) has stated that roundnose grenadier are at a serious risk of extinction at current fishing levels. While there has been some work around the world to protect global stocks of species such as orange roughy even a complete cessation of all commercial deep-sea fishing in these areas would only see stock levels remain at their current reduced levels for years before they began to recover. Deep sea trawling is an immensely wasteful way of fishing. Only four species have any commercial value (orange roughy, roundnose grenadier, black scabbardfish and blue ling) but a huge number of other species are caught in trawlers’ nets and simply discarded. Species such as bird beak dogfish, rabbit fish, Portuguese dogfish, leafscale gulper shark and the velvet belly lanternshark have all had their numbers reduced through being caught as bycatch and thrown back into the sea dead. Furthermore, because we know so little about the deep sea ecosystem no one really knows what damage trawlers’ gear does to the seabed – a single trawl by a deep sea fishing vessel can destroy deep-sea corals which may have been over 8000 years old. The commercial fishing industry (and consumers) have to accept that it is simply impossible to catch any amount of fish from deep sea fisheries on a sustainable basis.
In December 2013 the European Parliament had the chance to ban the destructive practice of deep sea trawling. However, the vote was narrowly defeated by 342 to 326 votes. Instead, weak curbs and restrictions were placed on Europe’s deep sea trawling fleet. However, in July 2016 news emerged that an informal agreement had been made between ministers and MEPs to ban deep sea fishing below 800 metres and restrict the areas where this type of fishing could take place – measures which will at least go some way to protecting the deep sea environment and the marine life found there. The measures were confirmed at end of 2016.
Quotas, Discards, Bycatch, High-Grading and Black Fish
The word ‘quota’ refers to the amount of fish that a vessel can legally catch and bring back to port. Quotas are set on a Europe-wide basis by the Common Fisheries Policy and are based on historic fishing rights and scientific advice on sustainable fish stocks. In theory this system should work. Fishing is regulated and controlled throughout Europe and scientific advice is taken into account when setting quotas for every species. However, the reality is the total opposite. The quotas system has created a sickening, wasteful mess that is sending Europe’s fisheries into crisis.
Fishing vessels are only able to retain species which they have quota to catch. Any fish which are caught over the quota will have to be thrown back into the sea dead. The term discard therefore refers to fish that commercial fishing vessels have caught and thrown back over the side of the boat dead because they cannot legally take it back to port to sell. The discards issue is just one of the horrible, wasteful practices commercial fisheries take part in. Bycatch is another. When trawling for cod or haddock in a mixed fishery (which all the seas around the UK are) other fish are inevitably caught. These other species are referred to as bycatch. Good quality bycatch – like monkfish or halibut – will be kept and sold. But bycatch made up of small species, undersize fish or species with no commercial value will simply be thrown overboard back into the sea. Fish which are thrown back into the sea as bycatch or due to a vessel being over quota do not live. By the time they have been dragged up from the seabed they are usually already dead, and fish which still have some life left in them will not live as their swim bladder will be ruptured meaning they will not survive.
There is also the issue of high-grading. This is the practice of commercial fishermen throwing low-value fish they have caught back into the sea to make more room in the hold of the ship for the higher value fish. For example a ton of whiting will be thrown back overboard as a discard to make room for a ton of haddock, as the haddock will gain much more at market. Theoretically, there is a ban on high-grading taking place by fishermen from EU nations, but no procedures exist to determine whether this is being followed, although occasionally vessels are caught and punished for this practice. In 2015 the skipper of the world’s largest trawler (which previously known as Atlantic Dawn) was fined over €105,000 when he was caught high-grading his catch by the Irish Navy.
The figures for discards don’t make pretty reading for anyone who cares about the state of our seas and oceans. In the North Atlantic alone 1.3 million tons of fish are thrown overboard dead or dying because they are too small, over-quota, or not a species that will sell (6) . Internationally the numbers are even bleaker: in 1994 (the last year for which accurate records were kept) it was estimated that the world total for discards of fish and shellfish was twenty-seven million tons (7) . Thankfully, 2011 saw the issue of discards getting media attention through the work of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his Fish Fight programme on Channel 4. This brought the madness of discards to the attention of the public and through this some changes appear to be taking place. There has been debate across Europe to end the discards system, although changes still seem a long way off (8), (9) . Unsurprisingly, there has been opposition to this from commercial fishermen who fear they will be forced to land low value fish, rather than throw them back and continue fishing for higher value species (10) . There is also the murky world of ‘blackfish’ – species that have been caught and landed illegally because the fisherman has ran out of quota for them or never had a quota for them in the first place. These fish are illegally unloaded at ports and then make their way into the legitimate food market, ending up in fishmongers, supermarkets and restaurants. Half the fish on sale in the UK could be blackfish (4) . Cheating the system can be extremely profitable: in 2012 seventeen Scottish trawler skippers and several people involved in running fish processing plants were fined and jailed for their part in a £63 million black fish scam (5) .
The Role of Commercial Fishermen
Being a commercial fisherman is the most dangerous job in the UK (11) . Make no mistake; commercial fishermen work a hard, dangerous job. Many fishing communities go back for generations and fishing in ingrained into the fabric many communities. Documentary TV series, such as Trawlermen about life in the fishing industry of Peterhead in Scotland and Trawler Wars which focuses on trawlers working out of Brixham, help promote this view of fishing as a hard, dangerous and yet honest and noble way to make a living. But it is this enormous goodwill towards commercial fishermen that is one of the stumbling blocks to reforming the fishing industry and rebuilding fish stocks. Commercial fishermen have extremely powerful lobby groups on their side who will always fight for higher quotas of fish. Politicians fall over themselves to keep the fishing industry onside. As journalist Matt Spence states:
“Commercial fishermen have been highly effective at selling their message to the UK population that they are hard-done-by and barely making a living. In truth they are well organised, well funded and effective at influencing policy, and their voice is magnified due to the many areas where commercial fishing is relevant to the local economy” (12) .
No one wants to see fishermen out of work – especially small-scale traditional fishermen who still catch fish in a sustainable way – but we urgently need to catch less fish commercially. We need a smaller European fishing industry and one which uses less destructive fishing methods. Mining, shipbuilding, heavy engineering and farming industries have all collapsed in the UK in recent years and the people made redundant have just had to get on with it. There is no reason why the fishing industry should receive special protection. At the rate we are taking fish from the sea there will be no fish left and then everybody involved in the fishing industry, and all the businesses it supplies, will be out of work. If we want seas that still have fish in them, then reform is unavoidable.
Sustainable ways of Fishing Commercially
With trawling being so destructive, we can still enjoy eating seafood with a clear conscience by choosing fish that have been caught by sustainable methods. Here small-scale inshore fishermen lead the way. They catch fish using hooks and line in a manner similar to recreational angling. Line-caught fish are a much better alternative to fish that have been caught by a trawler as there is no bycatch, no destruction of marine environments, and small or endangered fish can be easily unhooked and returned to the sea.
Greenpeace recommends only buying line-caught fish, and has had some success in pushing for this with major supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s now selling only line-caught cod and haddock (13) . Small fixed nets and lobster and crab pots are also used which do not damage the environment and undersized crabs can be returned to the sea alive, as can lobsters which are heavy with eggs. These fishermen are not wealthy – their average salary is £15,000 per year (14) – but they definitely deserve support ahead of millionaire super-trawler owners who are making their fortune by stripping the oceans bare. Fish farming is sometime presented as a way of taking pressure off wild fish stocks, but there are a number of serious problems associated with raising fish in captivity.
Do recreational anglers damage fish stocks?
Compared to commercial fisheries anglers take only a tiny amount of fish. The previously mentioned Atlantic Dawn can take 400 tons of fish from the sea every 24 hours. the average UK sea angler will catch a fraction of this in their entire lifetime. Furthermore anglers can be selective in a way that commercial fishermen cannot by returning unwanted, endangered or undersize fish to the sea. And, of course, sea angling does not destroy the marine environment in the way that trawling does. Overall, provided it is done responsibly sea angling has a very low impact on the environment. Angling can even help both fish stocks and seaside communities. Charles Clover explains:
“The value of a rod-caught fish is much greater to the local economy than that of a commercially caught one. Rod-and-line fishermen stay in hotels, hire cars, eat in restaurants and catch relatively few fish. Estimates suggest that two million people go sea angling in Britain at least once a year. They spend £1billion on equipment, travel, food and accommodation – about the same amount of economic activity [caused] by the commercial catching industry. Surely favouring the anglers and restraining the wasteful industrial boats would be a more sensible idea …? (4) .
This idea of favouring recreational anglers over commercial fishing operations has been tried out in Ireland and both the bass stocks and income of sea side communities have increased dramatically. The UK government agrees that angling plays an important social and economic role. A 2013 report stated that British sea anglers supported more than 10,000 full time jobs in the UK economy, with UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice MP stating “Sea angling creates money and jobs for rural communities as well as making an important contribution to the national economy … It’s in everybody’s interest to manage fish stocks sensibly so people can continue to enjoy the sport and support local businesses.”
When considering the issues of overfishing it is easy to overlook the irony of it all: everyone – the commercial fishermen, recreational sea anglers, environmental groups, politicians and the public – all want the exact same thing: seas full of fish. It is fighting over the dwindling stocks of remaining fish that is causing the conflict. This leads us to another deeply ironic point – if fish stocks were given a chance to recover the fishing industry would be much more profitable. In 2012 it was widely reported that replenished fish stocks would allow 3.5 million more fish landed in ports, which would generate an additional £2.7billion and support an extra 100,000 jobs in the fishing industry (15), (16) .
Despite the universal benefit that allowing fish stocks to recover any agreement on how to achieve it seems impossible to reach. Plans to limit discards, repopulate fish stocks and reduce fishing fleets face being delayed and weakened. To be fair the British government is (along with Germany, Sweden and Norway) pushing for reform. However, other countries such as France and especially Spain and Portugal put the short-term interests of their fishing industry above all else and block reform (17) . Chris Davies MEP points out that many key EU committees which have the power to block legislation to reform fisheries and alter the Common Fisheries Policy are dominated by politicians from southern Europe who represent communities which have few other sources of employment other than commercial fishing.
However, it would be wrong to place all of the blame on other European countries when there are plenty of barriers to reform coming from the UK. As stated many politicians are desperate not to upset the powerful British commercial fishing lobby and in many circumstances will resist any change that is seen to disadvantage UK fishermen. Similarly Seafish – the body funded by fishermen and the British government to promote the industry – fights the corner of fishermen at any given opportunity. Anyone thinking that Seafish is a fair-minded and balanced organisation should consider the following. In a nepisode of the BBC Radio 4 programme Costing the Earth (which was broadcast on 23rd April 2013) Hazel Curtis the chief economist of Seafish was interviewed. She stated that she didn’t think that fishing pressure was responsible for lowering fish stocks. She stated:
“Fishing pressure is not the only, and in many cases not the main factor, which affects the size of a fish stock … if you look at the Irish Sea for instance there environmental factors are probably more important … I wouldn’t say that the agreed [commercial] fishing opportunities are a massive burden on our fish.”
With spokespeople for an official government quango coming out with such utter and complete nonsense like this is it any wonder that any reform of commercial fishing at all is so difficult to achieve?
However, all is not lost – yet. Prof. Callum Roberts, the world-renowned marine biologist based at the University of York, sums up the course the worlds fisheries need to take perfectly in a single sentence:
“We have to fish less, waste less, use less destructive methods to catch what we take, and provide safe havens where fish can reach their full reproductive potential” (18)
Recent developments have been encouraging and the sounds coming from the EU appear to be indicating that reforms are coming. Maria Damainaki, the EU fisheries minister, and the person who has the most power to change fisheries across Europe, was interviewed by the Sunday Times in July 2012. In this interview she admitted that the EU fisheries polices had been “unreasonable” and lacked “logic.” She went on to say “We were not good managers … We were pushed by interest [groups]…and we could not resist.”(19) She then outlined plans for robust legislation to bring in a licensing system which would limit deep-sea trawling (currently deep sea catches are eight times higher than scientists say is sustainable), and backed the discards ban, and further plans to make it compulsory for retailers to label the origin of all fish they sell, as well as the methods used to catch every species (19) .
A loose and shaky commitment to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks by 2020 has been formed by the EU the keystone of which is to ban discards of pelagic fish by 2015 and to bring in a phased ban of demersal fish discards between 2015 and 2018. Although the progress of this legislation through the labyrinthine system of the EU will see it altered (and the usual suspects of France, Spain and Portugal will do their best to water it down) it will make it into law. There are also plans for Britain to create over a hundred Marie Conservation Zones around England and Wales, and the possibility to protect tropical species by creating zones around the fourteen British overseas territories in the South Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. In addition to this British politicians, such as the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, are pushing for international legislation to rewrite the law of the sea to create MCZs in international waters (20) . There are also plans to hand more of Britain’s fishing quota to the sustainable inshore fleet and limit or reduce the quota that large-scale trawlers have, and publish exactly who owns quota to catch fish in British waters, so everyone will know the identity of the millionaire skippers who have made a fortune from emptying the seas.
This is all good news but we all must work to ensure that it happens. The 800,000+ signatures Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign gained made a real difference when it came to trying to ban discards. There was simply so much public opinion that UK politicians had to act and were forced to take the argument to the EU, where there is now signs of real progress being made (21) . Significant increases in fish stocks and an improvement in the whole European marine ecosystem are within reach, but legislation must be pushed through and the vested interests of big business and southern European countries must not be allowed to derail it. As Maria Damanaki said in her Sunday Times interview “We have to change…We need a radical reform…[but] of course, it takes time” (19) .
Charles Clover’s book, The End of the Line, is available from Amazon by clicking here, and the feature-length documentary film of the same name, based on Clover’s book, is available on DVD by clicking here.
Update 1: On 6th February 2013 the European Parliament voted to end discards. After several last minute attempts by minority interest groups to derail the policy the vote was eventually passed by 502 votes to 137. Further details will emerge as the policy is debated throughout 2013, and there will be attempts to stop or water down the discards ban. However, the overwhelming majority of MEPs which passed the vote offers real hope that discards will be banned in the near future.
Update 2: However, in April 2015 the European Parliament granted a number of significant concessions to commercial fishermen. It will now be legal to discard fish which have been damaged by predators or disease and there will be a two year delay before sanctions are brought in against fishermen who fail to comply with the ban. It is feared that the ability to discard damaged fish back into the sea will be used by unscrupulous fishermen to dump healthy but low-value fish, as it will be up to the fishermen to decide which fish are classed as being damaged or diseased. Both pieces of legislation have been seen as seriously weakening the discards ban, and the European Union has – under pressure from the commercial fishing lobby – began to backslide on some of the most important aspects of the discards ban. At the time of writing this update [May 2015] it remains to be seen how much of the original discards ban legislation will eventually come into force as the ban is phased in.
Please note: This page was last updated in 2016. Developments which have taken place since then will not be reflected in this article.
1. Global Fish Consumption Hits Record High – BBC News.
2. Bottom Trawling – Greenpeace.
3. Bottom Trawling Impacts on Ocean – Science Daily.
4. Clover, C. (2004) The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, Ebury Publishing, London.
5. Skippers and Firm Fined Almost £1m for Part in £63m ‘Black Fish’ Scam – BBC News.
6. Charles Clover – It’s Make or Break for Life Under the Waves, The Sunday Times, 10/6/12.
7. Alverson, D. L. (1994) A Global Assessment of Bycatch and Discards, FAO Fisheries Technical Paper.
8. Unethical’ Fish Discards Must End, Says EU Commission – BBC News.
9. Ministers to Ban Wasteful Practice of Discarding Fish at Sea – The Ecologist.
10. Fishing Industry Fights EU Ban to End Discards – The Guardian.
11. Fishing ‘Most Dangerous Job’ – BBC News.
12. Spence, M. (2012) All We Have is Hope, Sea Angler Magazine, Issue 478.
13. Sustainable Seafood Breakthrough! Sainsbury’s Move Towards Line-Caught Fresh Cod and Haddock – Greenpeace.
14. The Fisherman’s Apprentice, BBC 1, March 2012.
15. Healthy European Fish Stocks Would be Worth £2.7billion a Year – The Guardian
16. Net Cost of Overfishing: Boosting Stocks in the Sea Would Create Jobs, Say Experts – The Daily Mirror.
17. EU Fishing Reforms Face Weakening – BBC News.
18. Roberts, C. (2012) Ocean of Life.
19. Bojan Pancevski – EU Fishing Chief to Ban Deep-Sea Plunderers, The Sunday Times, 1/7/12.
20. Charles Clover – Victory in Battle to Ban Discards, The Sunday Times, 10/6/12.
21. Jonathan Leake – Minister Fights for Sea Reserves, The Sunday Times, 10/6/12.