Don’t fall for the deep-sea scaremongers – wild fishing is healthy and sustainable

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on The Conversation.

By Magnus Johnson, Senior Lecturer Environmental Marine Biology

Fishermen can’t win. The harder they work, the more successful they are, the more they are apparently despised. Take Scotland, for instance, where the EU (heavily influenced by well-financed NGO lobby groups) is attempting to exclude fishermen from large areas of the sea off the west coast that they may have fished for generations.

Most fishermen agree with conservationists that there is a need to protect deep-sea coral and other vulnerable ecosystems far beneath the waves. Fishing for species that live close to the sea bed, known as demersal fish, involves dragging a trawl over the sea floor which can disturb or bury other species found nearby.

These ecosystems can struggle to recover, especially if they are trawled regularly and aren’t used to being disturbed naturally. Many deep-sea species such as the orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) are extremely long lived, slow growing and have low rates of reproduction – some conservation organisations feel they should not be targeted at all.

Orange roughy: famous in the Faroe Islands.
Postverk Føroya – Philatelic Office

With agreement over the basic need for protection, the argument is instead over what rules should be applied. The EU and some fisheries managers would like to impose a blanket ban on fishing below 600m. The fishing industry argues this would protect areas that don’t need it and leave the sea above 600m vulnerable to increased efforts of fishing boats squeezed into a more limited area.

The EU’s case was apparently given a “scientific basis” by a recent academic paper which argued for a blanket ban based on the idea biodiversity is greater below 600m, despite the fact that (as its authors acknowledge) fishing has had no noticeable impact on deep-sea biodiversity and despite the fact they used data from 1989 through to 2013 without analysing trends over time.

Perhaps the greatest fault in the paper is its use of data from scientific or pseudo-commercial nets rather than data from fishing boats. The authors then equate the results of scientific trawls with likely commercial catches. However fishermen don’t fish scientifically (or they would quickly go out of business); they fish in order to catch a particular species and to minimise discard rates.

The particular fishery off the Scottish coast discussed in the paper has shrunk significantly since 2002. The boats still fishing are using much less destructive gear with larger mesh sizes and lighter ground gear that doesn’t impact on the seabed as much.

To analyse deep-sea fisheries using some data which is almost 40 years out of date and then try to draw a conclusion that could have major economic implications on an important part of the fishing industry seems ambitious to say the least. The EU needs to think about who it listens to first – fishermen who have a vested interest in the renewal of their stocks, or NGOs who live for the next foundation, corporate or governmental handout?

If you caught it, you land it

The deep-sea fishing industry, in fact the whole fishing industry, deserves some criticism for past actions that were wasteful and sometimes had an almost criminal disregard for the environment. Discard rates in some early trawl fisheries reached 80% and between 1992-2001 bottom trawling accounted for about 36% of global discards. But it is worth remembering that in the EU the quantity of discards were a product of management measures.

The industry is now focused on how it can sensibly deal with the forthcoming European “landings obligation” that will eliminate discards, requiring from 2019 fishermen to land everything that they catch, even if they do not have by-catch quota.

Well-resourced marine protected areas that have specific goals and measurable outcomes will be key, as conservationists hope fish will prosper in the protected areas and thus spill over into the “unprotected” sea. However it is ironic that, if protected areas are successful, it will become even more difficult for fishermen to comply with the discard ban and avoid catching fish for which they have no quota.

This is one of the reasons we need highly-selective fishing gear, tailored to each boat and target species. We also need to expand consumer tastes to make otherwise discarded fish such as Baird’s slickhead a valuable commodity.

Baird’s slickhead, Alepocephalus bairdii. Great name, shame about the taste.
Goode & Bean

It’s a fact that catching fish takes fish out of the sea and that this has an impact on the environment. Yet wild-caught fish are free from additives, have been “reared” as nature intended and are generally an incredibly healthy foodstuff. It is also a fact that wild-caught fish are less costly in terms of carbon budget than pork or beef. And, unlike some sectors of the farming and aquaculture industries, wild fishing doesn’t depend on intensive doping with antibiotics, the gross simplification of habitats, or animals reared in intensive care wards.

We have to make choices – and I for one will choose wild-caught fish over farmed beef, salmon, chicken or pork every time.


This article was amended on September 29, 2015 to remove a potential misrepresentation.

The Conversation

Magnus Johnson, Senior Lecturer Environmental Marine Biology, University of Hull

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Top image credit: Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

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