“Industrial fishing has never been sustainable, it’s always been using the capital, not the interest,” Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, told a rapt audience at the Aspen Environment Forum 2012 in late June.
Pauly explained that since the advent of modern industrial fishing, spurred by such inventions as refrigeration, diesel engines, and more recently, satellite navigation, commercial fleets have been fishing out waters and then moving on to the next area. Over a century, industrial fishers depleted waters off Europe and North America, and have been venturing farther south, in bigger and bigger boats (some nearly as large as aircraft carriers), until they are now essentially strip-mining the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.
“It’s been like a ponzi scheme,” Pauly told the audience in Aspen, Colorado, at the postcard-perfect campus of the Aspen Institute.
Ayana Johnson, a marine biologist and director of science and solutions for the Waitt Foundation, pointed out that marine protected areas cover only 1% of the ocean’s surface, and even in those places enforcement of restrictions on fishing “can be a problem.”
Johnson said her group has been working with local communities near marine protected areas to help them better safeguard and manage the resources. These safe zones provide critical habitat to many animals, many of which range far outside the protected areas and form part of the backbone of ocean ecosystems.
“Small-scale, artisanal fisheries have a great opportunity to be sustainable,” Johnson added. She pointed out that seafood protein remains a critical part of the diet of many people in developing areas, and that protecting sustainable fisheries is an issue of food security.
Miguel Jorge, director of National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative, said overfishing remains the most immediate threat to the blue planet. “It’s fixable,” Jorge said. “We need to reach out to a broader community.”
Pauly said one important step would be re-evaluating, and in many cases eliminating, the $26 to $27 billion in subsidies given to industrial fishers around the world.
Jorge added, “I believe we codify fishers’ right to fish, because they’ve done it for millenia, and link it to ecological limits, so they see it’s like a bank. We need to create a market that rewards fishermen for rebuilding fish stocks.”
Better Alive Than Dead
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle told the audience, “Let’s look at fish as valuable alive as well as dead, as swimming in the ocean as well as swimming on your plate in lemon and butter.”
Earle said she wants to “shake up how we view the oceans.” When it comes to harvesting wild seafood, she said, “it’s all bushmeat after all,” referring to the much criticized practice of eating endangered or rare wild animals on land.
Earle said, “Trawling is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds. We are seeing collapse of ecosystems. We’re taking out so much and disrupting the chemistry of the oceans.”
But Earle did point to some bright spots, especially recent anouncements by the governments of Australia and the Maldives, made at Rio+20 in Brazil, to set aside vast swaths of their exclusive economic zones as marine protected areas that disallow industrial fishing. Australia’s plan is to have 20% of its waters protected, she said.
“The Maldives made 100% of their waters a reserve because they get more money from tourism then they did from fishing,” said Johnson.
Earle pointed out that other developing countries are starting to exercise greater control over their waters, in some cases policing international fishing fleets closer, and in others at least demanding a higher share of the economic haul.
Earle added that when people ask her how much is enough when it comes to protecting the seas, she says, “Consider the ocean as the blue heart of the planet. How much of your heart would you save?”
When it comes to deciding which fish are ok for consumers to eat, Pauly told the crowd in Aspen that he has some doubts about the effectiveness of seafood guides, like the well-known ones put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Part of the problem is that traceability is often a serious challenge, and fish are commonly mislabeled all over the world.
“More than one-third of the time people in the U.S. aren’t eating the fish they think because it has been mislabeled,” Pauly said.
Johnson added that when people ask her which fish are ok to eat, she said you really have to know the species, where, when, and how it was caught, and how that local population is faring. “Asking consumers to understand all of that is absurd,” she said.
When pressed, Johnson said she tells consumers that the most important things to avoid are fish that are caught with large trawlers, which wreck havoc on the ocean bottom, and shrimp, since wild-caught varieties result in a “bycatch” rate of 90%, meaning nine pounds of ocean life is killed, and largely wasted, for every one pound of shrimp recovered. Johnson said about half of shrimp consumed worldwide is now raised through aquaculture, although she pointed out this practice has resulted in widespread destruction of critical mangrove forests along coasts.
Jorge added that, in order to make things as easy for consumers as possible, National Geographic has developed a seafood guidethat takes into account not only the health of fish populations, but also their healthy Omega-3 content and mercury content. “People should eat fish that is good for them and good for the ocean.”
“Her Deepness” Sylvia Earle told the crowd that she abstains from all seafood. She said people can get Omega-3s from new plankton-based products–the ultimate source of the heart-helpful molecule for many fish any way.
Earle asked, “Why can’t I buy a no-fishing license? Some want them dead and I want them alive. You can buy a patch of forest and decide not to cut the trees.”
Earle concluded by saying, “There’s a blue U.S. that’s larger than what’s above the water.” She asked the audience at Aspen to think about that and how we might take better care of our blue heart.
Check out this brief video interview I did with Earle on location in Aspen:
Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.