Frightening cost of that fish on your plate
France got into an ugly dispute with the UK this month as part of the latter’s acrimonious divorce from the EU. A French minister threatened to cut off power to the British crown dependency of Jersey, which is close to the French coast and gets 75 percent of its electricity from France. Paris was upset that French fishermen were not being allowed to fish close to the island.
Fishery is a relatively minuscule industry, not just for France and the UK but the entire EU. Yet some of the most ferocious disputes during the Brexit negotiations surrounded fishing rights.
According to estimates by environmentalists, there are more than 4 million fishing vessels — of all sizes and ages, using technologies that span decades, if not centuries — working the water across the world. This is about 2.5 times the number needed for all the world’s catches. Subsidies by most nations, from the richest to the poorest, have allowed fleets to stay afloat, even though such actions are neither sustainable nor competitive.
The large fleet and the subsidies also enable overfishing and the depletion of fish stocks around the world, which is one of the biggest challenges in sustainable development. There have been some international agreements and efforts by some countries to adopt sustainable fishing practices, but these have proven to be too little to be really effective. As a result, the proportion of global fish stocks that are sustainably fished has fallen every year since 1990.
According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, fish production and consumption have been rising incessantly across the world since 1990, reaching a record level in 2018, when total fish production rose by 122 percent. This growth has come at a hefty price, as global fish stocks that lie within biologically sustainable levels fell from a healthy 90 percent in 1990 to 65.8 percent in 2018.
However, the actual global consumption of fish products has risen much faster than the marine fishing growth indicates. Since 1990, aquaculture — the farming of aquatic animals and plants using freshwater or saline water, inland as well as near the coast — has taken off in a big way, growing by 517 percent. Aquaculture production in 2018 hit a record high of 114.5 million tons, significantly more than the 96.4 million tons of fish captured from natural stocks.
Global fish stocks that lie within biologically sustainable levels fell from a healthy 90 percent in 1990 to 65.8 percent in 2018.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Many nations and fishery players say that expanding aquaculture has helped keep natural fish stocks at sustainable levels, since a much higher global demand for marine products is being catered for through aquaculture production. But this is a fallacious argument.
Aquaculture sites across the world, notably in the developing world, have left a trail of all-round ecological destruction, starting with the pollution of water and soil thanks to the liberal use of chemical pesticides and fish food. The waste water released from these aquaculture farms is often untreated and is overloaded with fish food, antibiotics and excrement, which leads to the severe pollution of soil and ground water if the farm is inland and the destruction of mangroves and coastal ecosystems in the case of farming in coastal areas. The latter is the dominant type in most Asian countries, which account for 90 percent of global aquaculture production.
Studies show that coastal ecosystems are often completely destroyed by intensive aquaculture, especially in the case of artificial ponds created to farm tropical shrimp. Mangroves, one of the most important elements of coastal ecosystems, are entirely destroyed, leading to the disappearance of all the species that used to shelter among the trees. Mangroves are also the most important natural barrier against storms and tsunamis.
Another risk of aquaculture, though not at the same level, is the farmed fish that escape into natural water-bodies and then interact with the wild or naturally existing fish. This often leads to outbreaks of disease among the natural stock due to contamination by farmed fish.
Completing the scenario of threats facing the world’s marine ecosystem is climate change, especially global warming, which poses a major challenge to marine life. Rising ocean temperatures have already started to impact the spawning of a wide variety of fish, as many species are forced to move thousands of kilometers away from their traditional spawning sites. Moreover, the changing weather systems also impact the survival of adult fish.
A study by the University of Melbourne and the University of Tasmania says that the combined effects of rapid ocean warming and the practice of targeting big fish is affecting the viability of wild populations and global fish stocks. The study was the first to combine the impact of ocean warming and overfishing and state how this has led to a strong decline in the proportion of young fish in naturally occurring fish stocks. The most worrying part is that the extent of this impact clearly manifested itself after four generations of fish, or more than a decade. The study clearly points at the urgent need for scientists, governments and the global fishing industry to examine the long-term impacts of their current practices and urgently make adjustments.
Otherwise, dwindling stocks and polluted water and land resources will hurt the hundreds of millions of people who depend directly on fishing and aquaculture for their livelihood, not to mention the billions who relish having delicious seafood on their plates.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is the managing editor of Media India Group.