Callum Roberts: Sustainable fishing can feed a growing world population

By Tierney Smith

Our appetite for fish is far exceeding the ocean’s limits. Current figures estimate that as many as 70% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited for significantly depleted.

In his recent book entitled ‘Ocean for Life’ Marine Conservation Professor Callum Roberts offers a comprehensive look at the state of the world’s oceans.

Ocean warming, acidification, over-fishing and pollution are just some of the many problems which Roberts details in what has been described as a ‘vital call to action’ to protect our seas.

Last week I took a closer look at some of Roberts’ argument for action on the oceans. But he is not just about the problems of the oceans – he also aims to find solutions.

The week I take a look at some of his solutions to our depleted fish stocks – both globally and on a much more local scale.

Refurbishing our Ocean

Overfishing is a continuing problem for oceans and while fishing quotas are set for fisherman working in many countries across the globe, they still far exceed what the scientists are saying is an acceptable number – the consequences, the continued depletion of fish stocks.

Roberts says the maths for protecting fish stocks adds up (© Tom Pearce/Creative Commons)

But how do we reconcile a need to continue to feed a growing population – with many communities relying of fish for their diets – with the need to protect the oceans, both as vital ecosystems and to make sure that we can continue to eat fish long into the future?

For Roberts the argument is simple:

“Simple maths tells you that restocking our seas makes economic sense. Think of it this way: if you have a million fish in the sea and we catch 20% of them every years without depleting the stock, that stock would give 200,000 fish a year.

“Now imagine that you nurtured your fish and gave them a chance to grow so that you had five million. Your 20% would come to a million a year.”

And the answer is simple too:

“We have to fish less, waste less, use less destructive methods to catch what we take, and provide safe havens where fish can reach their full reproductive potential, habitats and valuable speeches can be protected.”

While the basic solutions to over-fishing and therefore replenishing the oceans are staring us in the face, in practice they could still turn out to be an impossible task.

Severeal methods are used to limit fisherman's catches including using quotas and catch shares (Roberts says the maths for protecting fish stocks adds up (© Tobyotter/Creative Commons)

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world’s fish harvests in 2010 neared 89 million tones. Fishing is a vital industry worldwide employing around 2oo million people.

But WWF warns that the global fishing fleet is two to threes times bigger than what the oceans can sustainably support.

How do we stop fisherman from over-fishing when their livelihoods depend on catches? How to make governments, who think in short-term voting cycles, to implement rule bound to be unpopular? How do we encourage less destructive methods of fishing when the process continues to get tougher for fisherman?

These are all vital questions to be asked and answered to find real solutions to the problem.

Possible solutions

Roberts does point towards certain areas where people can help – both on the large scale and for the individual shopper.

One the large scale, methods are already being tried. For example Catch Shares – a policy which gives fisherman a share in the take – which have been implemented in fisheries in New Zealand, Iceland and North America.

The aims of the Catch Shares is to give fisherman a largely stake in the fish stocks and ending the race for fish. While they have been heralded by some environmental organisations Roberts warns that these catches could be oversold, and give away something that belongs to all of us.

And on a more local scale, Roberts says he is often asked by people can do individually. How can shoppers take control of what they buy and eat? The best place to start, he says is to stop buying overexploited fish.

While this seems like a simple idea, for consumers the supermarket can be a minefield.

Last year, supermarkets came under criticism from the Marine Conservation Society for having confusing labelling systems for their shoppers saying it was almost impossible to tell where their fish comes from.

While Marine Stewardship Council’s certification can be a good place to start for customers, Roberts says it can still be difficult to tell which fish have been sourced sustainably.

Roberts say the logic behind fishing numbers needs to be reversed Roberts says the maths for protecting fish stocks adds up (© Derek Keats/Creative Commons)

And big industry names are already falling over themselves to become certified under the scheme – a good think according to Roberts – as long as the rules are not relaxed to allow more companies to be involved.

He warns that a growing number of fisheries are being certified “that cannot possibly be regarded as doing little harm to the environment.” For example, with prawn and scallop fisheries, says Roberts, certifiers often turned a blind eye to wider damage if fisheries are managing the target species well, or in some cases fisheries have been certified on the promise to get better.

The label came under increased pressure again last month when fisheries biologist Rainer Froese of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany said around a quater of fish sold as sustainable was not meet this goal.

This does not mean shoppers can not be guided by the MSC label however. Roberts says the certification still offers a good guide for those aimed at shopping sustainably.

But for Roberts, the best option is to reverse the logic on fishing. The maths adds up but it is still not realised by those who are involved in the industry.

Roberts finishes the chapter with this note:

“Their logic is that economies compete with nature for space and nature should yield to economic interest. We have to reverse the logic. More space for nature means more space for us. Our interests overlap far more than most people recognise.”

‘Ocean of Life’ is now available for sale.

Have your say: Do you try and shop sustainably? What are your top tips for those trying to? How do you think we can get the fishing industry to fish more responsibly?

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