In case you missed it, there’s an environmental documentary on Netflix that’s making waves right now. This film is directed by Ali Tabrizi and it explores how the multi-billion-dollar commercial fishing industry – and its role in the problem of overfishing – is destroying marine life at a rapid rate.
Seaspiracy doesn’t hold back on its shocking indictment of the industry either. The film claims that overfishing causes more damage to our environment than deforestation, that plastic fishing gear and nets being represent almost half of ocean plastic pollution which is killing precious sea creatures. Seaspiracy also brings into question the sustainability advocacy of organisations such as Oceana and the Marine Stewardship Council, implying that there is no such thing as sustainable seafood and that the oceans will be emptied of fish in 27 years.
At the end of the film, Seaspiracy makes a controversial assertion – the only way to save marine life is for people to stop fishing and stop eating fish entirely and go vegan.
Why should we ban fishing?
While Seaspiracy faces criticism for its use of incomplete and outdated data and misrepresenting conservation issues and marine organisations, the film does raise some valid points around the impacts of commercial fishing and overfishing.
On its website, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) acknowledges that “fishing is one of the most significant drivers of declines in ocean wildlife populations” and is only a problem when vessels catch fish faster than the oceans can replenish them.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that they have recorded the highest level of total global capture fisheries production in 2018. It reached 96.4 million tonnes – an increase of 5.4% from the previous years. What this figure tells us is that we’re pushing the limits of our oceans; it can’t reproduce its resources fast enough and if no action is taken, will result in a global food crisis and loss of employment for around 60 million people who work directly and indirectly in the fishing and fish farming sector.
So, should we ban fishing given these serious threats? Some argue that our oceans would be cleaner, that carbon emissions would reduce and that we’d have less problems with ocean pollution if we fishing was banned. Seafood stock would be replenished and the marine ecosystem would recover. This is great, right?
However, there’s the other side of the coin. Banning fishing would mean that 40 million people who are directly employed to catch wild fish would be out of a job. This figure doesn’t include the millions of fisherfolk living in coastal towns who rely on catching fish to provide food for their families. Without fishing as their main livelihood, they would struggle to survive.
And what about seafood for human consumption? Can we give up eating fish just like that? This is not a problem for some people, for instance, people living in more developed countries with access to plant-based proteins and people who don’t depend on subsistence fish farming for food.
For others, supposedly, there’s always aquaculture to save the day. Aquaculture currently supplies more than 50% of seafood for human consumption, and this is expected to grow as demand for fish increases. However, Seaspiracy also accuses the aquaculture industry for unethical practices, showing shocking footage of fish swimming in circles in its own filth and salmon infested with lice amongst others.
Alternative solutions to problems raised by Seaspiracy
While some might not necessarily agree with Seaspiracy’s conclusion to stop fishing and eating fish altogether, one thing that can be agreed upon is that drastic action needs to be taken to stop the further destruction of marine life – before it’s too late.
Here are some alternative solutions both at the local and global levels that can be adopted to protect our seas:
No fish zones
While banning fishing altogether is unrealistic, implementing no fish zones particularly on the high seas or waters 200 miles away from the territorial limits of coastal nations is more feasible. Currently, only those with large industrial fleets can fish in these areas leaving them to monopolize the catch. As marine biologist Daniel Pauly says, ending “high seas fishing would in effect create a vast marine protected area in nearly two-thirds of the world’s oceans, allowing fish stocks to rebuild and giving many less-developed coastal nations a fair share of fisheries resources.”
When this is implemented, local fishermen in Southeast Asian and East Africa countries who rely on fishing as their primary source of food and livelihood would catch more fish.
Create more marine protected areas
At present, less than eight percent of our oceans are protected from any kind of fishing. More marine protected areas (MPAs) will allow fish stocks to replenish and marine ecosystems to recover. But stakeholders also have to be clear in their understanding of what activities to allow in MPAs. Some existing areas still allow industrial and commercial fishing; some restrict visitations, and some MPAs allow only indigenous peoples to have access to these resources.
Of course, fully protected areas that don’t allow any destructive activities can expect better conservation outcomes for marine resources. However, creating more MPAs and banning high seas fishing would need international cooperation, itself a challenging proposition. Although surveillance technology is available, some experts “doubt there is political will to implement a ban.” But Deep Sea Conservation Coalition co-founder Matthew Gianni is hopeful that more nations are on board with the idea of creating more marine protected areas based on his observations during UN conventions.
Ban fishing trawlers
Trawling uses industrial-sized fishing nets to efficiently catch huge amounts of fish. Unfortunately, it also catches other marine life which aren’t intended to be part of the catch – other marine species such as small fish, crabs, dolphins, seagrasses, and corals – otherwise known as bycatch. Bycatch results in the destruction of marine ecosystems leading marine conservation groups to call for a total ban of commercial trawling. Studies show that such bans can achieve its goal of protecting overfished and sensitive regions.
In 2012, the Chinese government imposed a ban on trawling in the waters of Hong Kong and purchased the fishing vessels that were used for trawling. The government offered assistance to affected workers to help them transition out of the industry and into others. This is a good example of implementation; rather than just eliminating the “problem” and taking away people’s livelihoods offering incentives such as business loans to start new ventures or education programs focusing on non-destructive form of fishing can help to get stakeholder buy-in.
There should also be proper surveillance during implementation to ensure that fisherfolk don’t go back to trawling. Fishing regulations and sanctions should be in place to prevent violations.
Make the fishing industry accountable
It’s high time the commercial fishing industry is made accountable for the problems they have caused in the world’s oceans. A high percentage of the plastic pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from lost or discarded fishing gear from commercial fishing vessels. This gear is also responsible for the deaths of dolphins, whales, fish, and turtles – marine life that get caught and die trying to untangle themselves. What systems and protocols will these companies follow to ensure a reduction of waste and pollution?
Governments too cannot keeping turning a blind eye just because the industry bring in millions to their economies. It should not rely on the industry’s self-regulation and reporting; surveillance cameras on fishing vessels can help to promote better behaviours as would random audits.
The fishing industry should not be permitted to continue with business; governments should demand more transparency from the industry to ensure that companies are doing all they can to fish responsibly.
Make wise consumer choices
If you eat fish, reducing the amount of fish you eat is a start as well as demanding more transparency from the companies you purchase your fish from. Avoid eating big fish species such as sea bream, deepwater shark (flake), deep sea perch, silver kingfish and other endangered and overfished species. Ask your favourite restaurant or vendor the source of their fish and what steps they are taking to ensure suppliers are following sustainable fishing practices. Consumer demand for sustainably-caught fish and seafood can never be underestimated. The more customers demand for better practices in the industry, the more likely the industry will try to meet their demands.
The fight for the protection of marine life has to be faced on all forefronts – from the individual to the local to the global level. It is not too late for all of us – customers, fisherfolk, regulators, companies and conservationists – to work together and play our part in helping to protect our oceans and ensure there is plenty of fish and seafood available for the people who need these resources the most.
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Cover image by Evgeny Nelmin.