Global fish stocks being decimated by unregulated fishing
Seafood production in Australia is on the rise but fish stocks around the world are in crisis.
Figures just released by the Australia Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics put the value of Australia’s seafood production for 2017 at $3 billion, up 9 per cent on last year.
Australia has a good sustainability record, and high-value products such as lobster, salmon, abalone and bluefin tuna are being exported to markets in Japan, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam.
But 70 per cent of seafood sold in Australia is imported, and the sustainability of that product is often dubious.
Key species threatened
Four million fishing boats ply the seas and most fisheries are unregulated.
Many key species around the world are threatened, including bluefin tuna, several species of shark, cod, haddock, sea bass, hake, red snapper and orange roughy.
Many northern hemisphere waters are fished out, West African fisheries are over-exploited, and the Gulf of Thailand and the Java Sea are close to exhaustion, according to environment groups.
Professor Clive Schofield, from the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at Wollongong, is pessimistic about the future.
“The outlook is bleak. All of the trajectories the scientists give us are … heading towards zero,” he said.
Climate change could hasten the collapse of fish stocks.
Professor Rosemary Rayfuse, from the law faculty at the University New South Wales, said warmer water was pushing fish towards the poles, and governments were not moving fast enough to address it.
“Many of the soft shell organisms like krill, the foundation of the Antarctic food chain, will dissolve [and] the tropical tuna fishery will be decimated,” she said.
“If the oceans warm by three and a half degrees, that could be too hot for any fish species to survive.”
Danger in the South China Sea
The South China Sea is one of the world’s most prolific fisheries and produces 12 per cent of the global catch.
The Chinese Government has been increasing its military presence by turning coral reefs into islands, but that activity is destroying the environment and threatens the food supply for coastal communities.
Professor Schofield is concerned about a possible collapse of fish stocks and the impact that would have.
“If the fish are not there any more, what do these people eat?” he said.
Illegal fishing impacts developing nations
The United Nations estimates that about 30 per cent of the world’s catch is taken illegally.
Fishing boats have been tracked in marine protected areas.
They ignore bans on fishing at certain times of the year, drop catches onto refrigeration ships on the high seas to avoid quota restrictions in their own ports, bribe on-board officials to falsify catch records, turn off location systems to go under the radar, and fish for protected species.
On the coast of Africa, fleets from otherwise law-abiding European nations are fishing on “dormant” (expired) contracts, according to Victoria Mitchell, from the School of Law at the University of Greenwich.
She said that kind of illegal activity was having a massive impact on developing nations.
“The state economy is affected by the fact that the source of foreign exchange has been taken,” she said.
But there is some good news
Some of the Pacific Island fisheries have got together to address the damage caused by industrial fishing methods.
Some companies are going back to pole and line-fishing methods to reduce bycatch to almost zero, while global fishing association Pacifical has obtained Marine Stewardship Certification and is using the bycatch from purse seine (dragnet) fisheries to create other products.
According to Thomas de Kock, from global fish trading firm TunaSolutions, canneries are looking to get yield out of their waste, so skin and bones are turning into fish meal, which is going into medical uses and fish feed.
Policing what happens on the high seas has been extremely difficult, but a non-profit group has come up with a way to monitor fishing fleet movements around the world.
Global Fish Watch is a crowdfunded organisation supported by Google that is taking publicly available data on fishing vessel movements and mapping it to show suspicious behaviour.
The technology was used to track a vessel from the Marshall Islands that was fishing in a newly created marine park at Kiribati in the Pacific.
That ship was fined $2 million, a big figure for the island state, and now other nations are beginning to use the technology for compliance.
What to buy?
So if you are wondering what seafood to buy, you can use some guides already out there, including the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s sustainable seafood guide, and Greenpeace’s canned tuna guide.
Or, according to Alfred (Bubba) Cook from the World Wildlife Fund in NZ, you can wait five years for barcode technology that will enable your phone to tell you where your preferred fish is when you walk into the fish market.
“You’re seeing an intersection between the fish mongers, the seafood industry and the NGOs, [with] everybody wanting to reward the good guys, and you’re seeing technology converge in a way that is going to change our lives,” he said.