The famous saying, “There are plenty more fish in the sea,” has become an analogy for telling someone they’ll meet the right person one day after a relationship goes wrong, but the literal meaning of the saying may soon no longer be true, as our marine population continues to decline.
We may well be saying there are “not enough fish in the sea” one day, if we’re not careful, as factors such as over-fishing and pollution are depleting the planet’s marine life at an alarming rate. The declining populations of certain species are causing particular concern.
© Igor Chaikovskiy / Adobe Stock
Latest statistics suggest our marine population, in general, is decreasing – and if it continues, scientists say the effects on the earth’s ecosystem will be disastrous. People are eating more fish, so we need to guarantee sustainability and tackle the problems immediately.
Hundreds of fleets of fishing vessels all over the world are catching thousands of tonnes of fish every day. Modern methods mean the catch can be processed, packaged and frozen within 24 hours. The fleet is out fishing again the following day and the process continues.
Fishing vessels work round the clock, leading people to believe it’s an inexhaustible food supply. Consumers believed there was “plenty more where that came from”, but commercial fishing on a global scale has shattered our illusions of a never-ending supply of fish.
Various governments have introduced legislation to manage fishing in a sustainable manner, but it appears this isn’t working. New fisheries laws were announced in 2018 by the Marine Management Organisation in an effort to combat the challenges of modern fishing practices.
The full Landing Obligation discard ban became law on 1st January 2019. It requires all fisheries to land and count all species of fish with catch limits (known as quota species), including undersize fish.
There are also new regulations that require fishing vessels to use more selective fishing gear. The law came into force in the Irish Sea on 1st January and will be introduced in parts of the Celtic Sea from 1st July 2019.
The World Organisation for Animal Health is also investigating ways of ensuring the welfare of “farmed” fish and has published welfare guidelines, stating it’s our “ethical responsibility” to cause as little pain as possible.
The organisation says “most” farmed fish across the world are not handled, killed and transported by methods that meet welfare recommendations.
A scientific report has been published by the EU relating to six farmed fish species – Atlantic salmon, eel, trout, common carp, seabream and seabass – and the welfare aspects of killing them. However, the directive falls short of recommending permissible rearing conditions, including stocking density.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the fishing industry and the MMO to find ways of dealing with “choke” species, which is the name given to any species of fish which has become so scarce that its quota can’t be fulfilled.
When this happens, it can close fisheries, as the fishing vessels are not permitted to carry on operating there to catch other species, which may not be in short supply. Some fisheries are identified as high-risk as a result.
The problem with fishing is that it isn’t a farm, where people can monitor the number of livestock. The ocean is a natural ecosystem, with hundreds of wild species dependent on the survival and reproduction of fish.
Scientists are calling for better management of our fishing practices so that the marine species in our oceans aren’t depleted irreparably.
Human population boom
Shortages are occurring because the earth’s human population has tripled over the past 70 years to 7.5 billion people, and the annual amount of fish caught globally increased from 20 million tonnes to more than 90 million tonnes in the second half of the 20th century.
Since the turn of the millennium, the number of fishes being caught has remained the same, even though fishing fleets have continued to grow. Scientists claim this indicates over-fishing, as larger fleets should mean bigger catches, so it means there are literally “not enough fish in the sea” to supply human demand.
Around 33% of today’s fish stocks are considered to be overfished. This compares to 10% in 1975, so the increase is taking its toll. In coastal regions, where most trawler operations are located, overfishing is ruining the ocean’s ecosystem.
If the current practice of overfishing continues, scientists say some species will be wiped out. Although ocean pollution is increasingly in the news, scientists say overfishing presents an even more serious threat to marine life.
Commercial fishing methods are being blamed for the decline in marine life, as the drift netting catches all species of fish living in the upper part of the sea, trapping as many as possible, but the fish that are the wrong species or size are being caught indiscriminately and die needlessly.
The other method of commercial fishing, trawling, means a giant net is dragged through the water, trapping any deep-sea fish that are in the vicinity. There are calls for smaller meshes to be banned, to allow juvenile fish to swim right through and escape.
Species at risk
Species most at risk from overfishing include sturgeon and roe – their eggs are used for the luxury food, caviar. Marine biologists say the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea is in “grave danger” of extinction. The US government has banned the import of beluga caviar in recognition of the gravity of the situation.
The Chilean seabass is also in danger of extinction and its numbers are so low that scientists say we should stop eating it. Popular in restaurants due to its white, fleshy texture, it is also victim to illegal fishing in some parts of the world.
A popular Japanese sushi dish, made with the Anguilla Japonica species of eel, has led to it being listed as endangered. Wild-caught eels are being overfished, leading to the species’ decline. Eels are also factory farmed and this is causing environmental pollution, as untreated waste from the pens and ponds is being discharged into the ocean.
Flatfish species of flounder, halibut and sole are also being overfished in the Atlantic. Shoppers are being asked to buy Pacific flatfish, rather than Atlantic species.
Impact of Brexit
The UK fishing industry is concerned that Brexit may impact on their livelihood, but economists are playing down the impact, claiming EU regulations have never harmed small UK fishing companies, so they are unlikely to see much difference.
Instead, economists say our own government has damaged the industry, as larger fishing companies have been allowed to corner the quotas. It is claimed smaller, eco-friendly trawler operators are being edged out by the most powerful trawler companies.
A new fisheries white paper, setting out the government’s proposals for an independent British fishing policy, has been delayed. It is believed it will outline an alternative approach to the future quota allocation.
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