Last night EU fisheries ministers agreed to ban the discarding of bycatch (accidentally caught fish) by European fishermen. While this seems like a step in the right direction, the new plans won’t stop the impacts of the hugely destructive fishing methods which are the cause of bycatch in the first place. In fact, one can argue that the proposed ban actually legitimizes overfishing.
Ever since the rise of industrial fishing about 50 years ago, fishing ships and operations have taken on monstrous proportions. Fishing nets can now measure kilometers in length and the scale of the global fishing activity has resulted in detrimental consequences for the marine life. One of these is bycatch. Because fishing operations are aimed at ‘producing’ large volumes of fish at cheap prices, the methods to catch these animals has become increasingly non-selective. Trawlers are one of main culprits. These ships pull large nets behind or alongside them and in doing so, catch everything in their path. This means that a lot more is caught than the fisherman wants, or is licensed to. A shrimp trawler for example might throw overboard over 80% of the wildlife it catches, as only the few remaining shrimp have commercial value and is the species that the fishermen has been allocated a quota for.
This waste of life is disastrous and one of the main reasons the world is currently in an overfishing crisis. For the last 30 years organisations have campaigned to end the practice of catching and discarding bycatch. Some have done so by aiding the development of more selective fishing gear, in order to reduced unwanted bycatch. Others, including The Black Fish, focus their work on shutting down the most damaging of operations, not standing for a so-called ‘solution’ that only minimizes impact in the short term while ignoring the inevitable: that unless we stop the global over-consumption and overfishing of the world’s fish populations, we will end up with a dead ocean.
The banning of discards won’t result in less overfishing unless the causes of the bycatch, such as the use of destructive trawlers described above, are stopped. While the EU is talking about the banning of discards, it is still allocating fisheries subsidies to help build new trawlers that, in their very design, will cause further bycatch.
In a wider context, the discussion on overfishing has very much been dominated by the promotion of ‘sustainable’ fishing and the idea that we need to fix this problem because we want to continue to eat fish and consume seafood delicacies. The oceans are overfished and increasingly in trouble because we eat wildlife that doesn’t stand a chance of recovering against our industrial might that is the fishing industry. The banning of discards is put forward as a good idea because some people hate to see good food wasted but the issue is far more complex. The oceans are the largest life support system on earth and we simply cannot allow it to be subjected to any further damage. It is important for people to realise that the over-consumption of seafood is the issue here and that the individual power to do something about it are the choices you make with your own fork.
The industrial scale of fishing operations in European waters have resulted in sharp declines in all fish populations over the last 50 years and over 80% of fish stocks in European waters are now overfished. Last year Europe reached a new tipping point with the need to import more seafood than our own fishermen could catch. This gives us clear indication that our own waters are heavily overfished but also that to sustain our levels of consumption we will be increasingly reliant on fish being imported from Asia, South America and Africa.
To the biodiversity that is under threat from our increasing hunger for seafood it really doesn’t matter whether bycatch is discarded or not. There won’t be less overfishing because of the new proposed discard ban unless we work to end the industrial methods that cause bycatch in the first place. If we wish to see a healthy and well protected ocean in the centuries to come, we need start pushing for real changes and stop investing in campaigns for short-term feel good options.