Today, we are answering a very important question: is it okay to eat fish? Or rather, we are going to attempt to answer this controversial question. Can it be ethical to eat fish? The answer is not as clear-cut as I’d like it to be, so let’s get into this mess.
While everyone seems to be talking about the climate crisis these days, most people either don't think they can make a difference or think it is too late to change anything. And with the 1.5 degree goal getting closer and closer while policymakers and a capitalist world prioritize profits, it can feel like there really is nothing we can do.
Global temperature averages are rising and, even under the Paris Agreement, we are currently on track for 2.9-3.4 degrees of warming rather than the targeted 1.5 degrees. So, where would we start looking to reduce emissions? As about a third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are due to our food systems, starting there sounds like a good idea.
Remember that lovely Ray Hilborn I mentioned in the episode on Picking and Choosing Facts recently, a renowned pro-fisheries scientist and author? Well, he and a few of his colleages suggest seafood as a source of low-carbon protein. During a passionate speech at the Pacific Islands Fishery Group and Hawaii Fishermen's Association for Conservation and Tradition, he argued that eating fish is what's best for the planet. He paints a convincing picture by bashing his farmer son and comparing the worst of agriculture to an idealized view of fisheries—picking and choosing his facts. You might have heard me rant about that speech in that recent episode. He really pissed me off.
On the other side, Seaspiracy claims that the ocean will be empty by 2048 if we keep going the way we are. Even assuming he meant "empty of fish," that seems a tall claim. So, let's have a look at the state of the ocean, overfishing, and sustainable fisheries.
Are we overfishing the oceans?
First, let's see if the oceans are being overfished. Industrial fishing currently covers more than 55 percent of the ocean's surface, so four times the area covered by agriculture. There’s a really cool project called SkyTruth that uses satellite images and AIS—that’s a system on ships that broadcasts its position, originally meant to prevent collisions—to give us information like this. They also track bilge dumping—a practice we’ll get into another time—and illegal fishing.
Overfishing isn't a new trend. Since the early 1800s, we've fished quite a few fish populations to the brink of extinction. We are nothing but efficient when it comes to destroying nature. We’ve talked about that.
Well, if you think we’ve learned the lessons, let me burst that bubble: Thanks to subsidies to large-scale commercial fishing operations that are still going on today—and even increased in recent years despite agreements like the Common Fisheries Policy in Europe—the much more sustainable local small-scale fisheries are being supplanted in favor of large-scale commercial fisheries. According to a 2018 paper, 54 percent of high-sea fishing would be unprofitable if not for governments covering some of the cost through subsidies, making it "ecologically destructive and economically unprofitable."
Let me just say that again: more than half of the high-sea fishing operations would not make a profit if governments didn’t keep giving them part of our tax money. But it gets worse: The same study also found that labor exploitation and underreported catch are a factor in how high-sea fisheries stay profitable. So, they make some of their money because of our taxes, and much of the rest by exploiting people and cheating their way into quotas. Sounds worthy of support, right?
And it’s not just that we are killing the top predators of the food chains. No, when the top predators run out or are too low in numbers to be worth the hassle, fishers switch to animals further down on the food chain, so-called "fishing down.” With that practice, they are triggering chain reactions that upset ecosystem balances. And that's without considering the destruction caused by fishing methods like trawling and issues like by-catch. Fishing methods will get their own episode at some point. Between bottom trawling and bomb fishing, there’s a lot of “fun” to be had there. Yeah, I’ll do that.
Will all fish stock collapse eventually?
In the meantime, let’s return to that Seaspiracy claim about the oceans being empty by 2048.
Does that mean all fish stock will eventually collapse? The paper Seaspiracy quoted was published in 2006, and created quite the uproar. Some scientists found fault with the extrapolation methods, others attacked the authors themselves. Almost everyone agreed that overfishing was an issue, but to what degree seems up for debate. It’s pretty clear by now that the original paper made some mistakes and their projections were a little overkill. Even the original authors distanced themselves from that claim, trying to shift focus to the broader message of the paper instead of that one fact. But yeah, people still quote that original paper without even checking their sources. It sounds so nice and dramatic. Cod, we have enough actual drama in this issue. Why do we need to create more? It’s no wonder people don’t believe environmentalists, if people like that Seaspiracy dude keep going about it that way…
But, no matter if the original paper was right or not, things have improved since its publication. A group of researchers released a detailed plan last year on how to rebuild marine life. If, and only if, major pressure such as climate change are mitigated, "abundance, structure, and function of marine life could substantially recover by 2050. Fuck, that's a big if, though.
Today, about a third of global stocks are overfished, and some areas like the Mediterranean and Black Sea are overfishing 62.5 percent of stocks. And some fish, like the Pacific bluefin tuna, have plummeted 97% from their historic levels. All pretty dire numbers.
In short, while we might not be overfishing all areas and all stocks, the fact that harmful subsidies are still handed out to large-scale commercial operations that are only profitable because of them, is a fact that should not be ignored.
It is highly unlikely that we'll collapse all fish stocks eventually, as lower trophic levels often benefit from a decrease in predators. But one thing to take into consideration is the chain reactions of ecosystem instability, the additional pressure of rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, and the fact that commercial fisheries are "fishing down," going for smaller and smaller fish. There is a lot of uncertainty here. If we can't find more tuna, will we go for the next trophic level down, collapse that, then the next?
I don’t know. So let’s return to the question of sustainable fishery in theory.
What is surplus production?
At this point, people like to bring up surplus production, so let’s get that out of the way, so we can move on.
The basic idea of surplus production is this: Surplus production is the production of stock (read: increase in fish biomass) that could be harvested sustainably without loss. Population growth (again in biomass, not individual fish, so getting fat counts, too) is not exponential or linear. It follows a bell curve—that shape that haunts the dreams of statistics students everywhere—meaning that there is a peak and then things slow down again. It means that fish populations don’t grow indefinitely large even if there is no fishing. They have a peak growth somewhere and after that factors like competition, pests, and such make them grow less quickly.
So, in theory, if we were to stay below that level, the fish population would stay stable, and we'd get the same amount of fish out of the stock each year. Sounds good, right? Well, yes, in theory.
One issue with this is that there is a lot of natural variability in fish stock. In some years, the population grows more quickly than in others. A study of sardines and anchovies found that the annual surplus production was indeed density-dependent (that’s the stuff I mentioned with competition and pests), but dominated by environmental variation. Fluctuations like those of periodic and quasi-periodic weather patterns like El Niño, La Niña, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation add further variation to the sustainable yield of stocks. And then there’s rising sea temperatures, pollution and eutrophication, and all the other factors that can influence fish stocks. What is sustainable one year, could significantly impact stocks in other years. A much larger margin of error would be necessary.
But, in theory, if we could stay above those levels, eating the surplus would not be harmful to the stock. Oh, of course, that's not taking underreporting and related issues into account that would push catch beyond the sustainable levels everywhere except on paper. Or ghost nets, the immense plastic pollution caused by the fishery industry, and such fun things. We’ll get into all those more in another episode.
One thing worth mentioning in this context, though, is that we are already creating an evolutionary shift in fish populations. To quote National Geographic, “Unlike natural predators that cull the sick, weak and unfit, human fishermen prize the biggest catches and throw the smallest ones back in.” And that’s not just preference, but also often regulation. You might have heard before that fish below a certain age cannot be sold. This is usually measured by length. So, while it used to be beneficial for fish to be large and strong, it is now beneficial to be small for your age, as you’ll survive longer. So, we are messing with evolution.
Are sustainable fisheries possible?
And that leads us to the big question: is it possible to fish sustainably? The answer, in my opinion, is: probably. Local small-scale fisheries lead by community members who thus have more than mere profit in mind can be sustainably done. Commercial fishing and sustainability are not opposites. Most small-scale fisheries are not the issue. Sure, there’s things like bomb fishing done by individual fishers, but that’s a different topic. That’s a fishing method that should just not be tolerated, much like bottom-trawling, but we’ll talk about fishing methods another time.
But, bomb-fishing aside, even the small-scale fishers usually use plastic nets by now, adding to the never-ending supply of fishing line and ghost nets for marine life to get tangled in. And even small-scale fishers tend to struggle with by-catch. So, small-scale fishery is not perfect, but they are also not why we are having such big issues with our oceans. That’s fishing done by large commercial fleets, driving further and further out for high-sea fishing or entering areas where they replace small-scale fisheries with little care about what they do to the local stock, communities, or ecosystems. It’s not their backyard, so why would they give a fuck?
And that’s where those harmful subsidies come into play, yet again. As long as harmful subsidies support large commercial fishing fleets, these more sustainable local small-scale fishers are having a hard time making a living—and often give up. Let me not get into how South Africa—not the country, the Southern part of the continent, I mean—ended up with this much piracy. That, again, is a story for another day.
Okay, back to sustainable fishing, or rather the idea of sustainable fishing. Ray Hilborn, that pro-fishery scientist dude, thinks fish is the most sustainable source of protein. There’s a lot wrong with his logic, but his definition of sustainable fishing kinda makes sense. Kinda.
If we believe Ray Hilborn, sustainable fishery is fishery that has a long-term constant yield, preserves intergenerational equity and maintains biological, social and economic systems.
Let’s take that apart. Long-term constant yield, okay. So, the first idea is to keep yield, so what fishers get to take out of the system, stay constant. Fishery is only sustainable in his view if fishers don’t lose out on their catch. The first problem with this first point, long-term constant yield, is the aforementioned natural variation. What’s sustainable one year might not be sustainable the next because nature is wont to be unpredictable. More importantly, this approach looks at fish stock in isolation, ignoring that fish are part of an ecosystem—and that’s just not how reality works. And finally, fishing methods such as bottom trawling have long been known to destroy ecosystems. It's the underwater equivalent of clear-cutting forests. But sure, let’s look at constant yield. To be fair, there are two more points to this list.
To the second point, intergenerational equity, so meeting the needs of the current population without messing things up for the future ones, and the third point of maintaining biological, social, and economic systems:
Both are great concepts in theory, but they sound more like mockery by now. Firstly, it would require a lot of effort now to return the oceans to their prior diversity and abundance. As mentioned above, that's possible, but would require mitigating large pressures like climate change. And how would we even undo all the damage practices like bottom-trawling and anthropogenic pollution have done for the next generation? So, to be able to maintain biological, social, and economic systems, we’d need to first restore these systems to a point worth maintaining. And, not fucking shit up for the next generation, yeah… Well. We are the first generation to really feel the effects of climate change. We are likely the last generation that will be able to stop this cascade of shit from rolling. And yet, while our house is on fire, we are just sitting there claiming that “Everything is fine.”
All of these issues are just worsened by the fact that even consumers who want to eat sustainable seafood can't rely on labels like the MSC label as thoroughly explained by the WDR due to corruption, falsified data, commercial interests of the for-profit organization MSC, and similar issues with reliability. They give a false sense of sustainability to consumers who think they are doing the right thing while essentially just lining the pockets of the MSC.
And finally, an often overlooked point, is the role fish and marine life play in the carbon sequestration of the ocean, both by storing carbon in their bodies and by facilitating carbon movement to the deep ocean via the poo express. So, taking fish out of the ocean furthers greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, further raising sea temperatures, bringing us back into the entire cycle of affecting the catch and natural variation and all that. I attended a three-day seminar on this topic last year, and it was incredible, just how much of our greenhouse gas issue could be mitigated if we stopped large-scale commercial fishing. Anyway, let’s move on.
Fisheries management: what it does and what it should do
When I tell people all this, they usually bring up the policies in place to prevent this mess. “But shouldn't fisheries management take care of all these issues?” or “Isn’t their job to ensure that industry stays below those catch quotas that are sustainable and maintain all those lofty goals?”
In theory, yes, fisheries management should keep fisheries sustainable by keeping the catch at sustainable levels. A great example for how well this works is the Common Fisheries Policy in Europe. The goals the policy set were admirable, with ideas to end overfishing by 2015 for most cases, but at the latest by 2020. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, even the goals set by the signatory countries often were below the aim, so the results were even more insufficient.
The IFW Kiel wrote an entire paper evaluating the short-comings of the original policy and why it failed: Political decision-making instead of clear-cut rules that allow short-term interests to trump long-term aims and a lack of consistent enforcement were two of their very valid points. The CFP was designed for failure and has failed very expectedly—and somehow the only consequence is to set new aims for the next ten years. This has failed, so let’s keep going that way.
While many countries have implemented policies to mitigate overfishing, they are often too late and do too little or prioritize the commercial wants of the lobbies over the health of our planet. In addition, bias in the assessment of fisheries management is common, and catch numbers are often falsified or lowered by exploiting loopholes. We’ll get more into those loopholes, when we talk about fishing methods.
Even where fishery management exists, a big issue is often the information the management is based on. Even if the fisheries managers are doing everything right, they need to rely on the information provided by policymakers who in turn rely on fisheries scientists.
If you look at articles online that paint fishery in a positive light, you will very often find Ray Hilborn there. Hilborn himself is a great example of why fisheries management is often biased: Ray Hilborn has been paid a significant amount of money by the seafood industry—money he didn't report until called out by Greenpeace. It's hard to be objective when you are paid by one side of the debate.
But even when the data provided is accurate—it often is—the lobbies work hard to drown out the accurate information and influence policymakers. And political systems are slow and sluggish, as maintaining the status quo is often both easier and what industry lobbies push for. As long as politics are in play, personal profit will often be louder than science. We saw this with the fossil fuel lobby sewing misinformation about climate change. We saw this with the tobacco industry sewing misinformation and doubt about the harmful effects of cigarettes. And we are seeing it now with overfishing. Lobbies are loud, while decent scientists are often quietly doing their job.
Is it ethical to eat fish?
So, to answer the original question: Is it ethical to eat fish?
At this point, many people get aquaculture into the conversation, as a sustainable source of fish. And while there are upsides to aquaculture, they often lead to more issues than they solve. One major issue is that pests and illnesses are introduced through the dense populations in aquaculture that then are released into the wild populations. Another major issue is that the feed used in aquaculture often requires a large amount of smaller fish as feed. We’ll talk more about aquaculture when we talk about fishing methods, as well.
As you can tell from what I've said, fish from large-scale commercial fleets should not be supported. If you know where your fish comes from, and you are certain it has been fished sustainably, supports local communities instead of exploiting them, and there was no exploitation of labor, misrepresenting of catch numbers, and so on, by all means, eat your fish.
Another example of fish that would be okay to eat is the consumption of invasive species. If you don’t add plastic to the ocean to catch it or burn massive amounts of fossil fuels to get to the reef, eating invasive species we idiots introduced to other ecosystems would actually be beneficial rather than harmful. Take the lionfish for example. It’s fucking good at catching prey, has venomous spikes that keep it from getting eaten, and unfortunately was pretty enough for aquarium hobbyists to want to keep them. These idiot aquarists were likely the reason the lionfish was released into the Caribbean. They wreak havoc around Florida and the coasts of the Caribbean Sea. As nothing eats them, their populations explode, and as the local fish usually don’t even detect it as a predator, they swim right in front of their mouths and get eaten. So, if you want to eat fish, eating an invasive species—and yes, lionfish can be eaten and is supposed to even taste good—would be a good way to go about it.
But, if you don’t have lionfish or another invasive species, what’s the answer For most of us, the most important step would be to stop taking marine life for granted. Cheap fish comes at a cost, even if the cost is not yours. Supporting large-scale commercial fisheries means taking money away from small-scale fisheries and supporting the overexploitation of our oceans. And while it's close to impossible to know what fish is sustainable as a consumer, saying no to fish might be the answer.
Every big change in human history has started with a few people. Don't think you can't make a difference. While your personal decision to stop eating commercial fish might not save the world, speaking up, educating others about these issues, and leading by example, definitely can lead to change. Your voice and your actions matter.
There is a lot more to talk about, and I’m itching to go more into this topic, but I think this is a good place to leave it for today. Next week, we will continue our climb along the Tree of Life, and I’ll finally get to talk about octopuses and the like. Yay!
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Thanks friends! Until next time! Weirdly yours, Kate Hildenbrand
I study Marine Ecology at the University of Hamburg, so a lot of this knowledge comes from hours of research and sitting through lecture after lecture.
Going through the lecture slides from school is a process that involves a shit-ton of fact-checking, as a lot of what we learn is pretty outdated. So, all semester, I google things to death, read papers and essays, ask a million questions, and discuss things with friends and classmates.
Where the source isn’t our lecture slides or unidentifiable sources from hours of late-night knowledge hunts, I have linked them in the text.