Contrary to what we may believe, plastic is not the biggest problem our ocean is currently facing. A deeper dive into the root of its decline reveals that, while plastic is an extremely serious, complex and growing problem, the biggest threat to our ocean today is something that often goes unnoticed.
The deep sea is one of the few remaining wild frontiers on the planet – too large to govern or police effectively. This has resulted in it becoming somewhat of a dystopian realm, where unsustainable overfishing, unethical fishing practices and mega overconsumption of its wildlife is contributing massively to its imminent collapse.
Recently, the controversial Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, made waves by revealing the grim demonstration of devastation at sea. From industrial-scale trawling nets full of tuna and unwanted, helpless sea life like turtles, dolphins and sharks, to fetid parasite-infested salmon farms, slave labour and horrific human rights abuses taking place on fishing boats… it is evident that there is a big, big problem. Overfishing is not only one of the biggest drivers of the decline in the ocean’s wildlife populations, it is irreparably damaging ecosystems, and jeopardising the welfare of those who depend on the ocean for food and work.
The conclusion of Seaspiracy’s filmmaker, Ali Tabrizi, after revealing the true cost of overfishing and what we stand to lose, is to stop supporting commercial fishing by ditching fish for good.
But, is the only route to saving our ocean giving up fish entirely?
Is this a sustainable solution to a problem that requires bigger systemic change?
Is it feasible for the ocean to wait for each and every individual on the planet to go vegan?
The fact is, like plastic in the ocean, overfishing is a hugely complex phenomenon. On one hand, it is undoubtedly the main cause of the decline in wildlife in the ocean, and on the other hand, it is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world.
The demand for fish has steadily begun to completely outweigh the ocean’s capacity to provide. It is one of the most highly traded commodities, fuelling a global industry of over $360 billion. Millions across the globe depend on fish, particularly those in coastal communities. This exorbitant demand for dwindling stocks is the most significant driver of overexploitation and environmental degradation – aggravating the merciless cycle even further.
An outright global ban on eating fish would unfairly disadvantage millions. We have to work together to find lasting solutions, sustainable solutions, that look after people and the planet.
Smarter consumer choices
It goes without saying that switching to a more plant-based diet is good for the health of the ocean, and the planet as a whole. If you have the privilege to make this switch, please do! It’s important to remember that the majority of people worldwide don’t have such a privilege. These are generally people who live in harmony with the ocean, neither exploiting it nor taking more than it can give. These are generally the people suffering from the industrial-scale, mega-fishing conglomerates of the high seas who are shamelessly catching fish at a faster rate than they are able to reproduce.
Focusing on eating sustainable seafood (see the Marine Stewardship Council sustainable seal of approval), buying local, opting for wild and not farmed fish, and steering clear of fish that have been exploited for years (like tuna, salmon, halibut, monkfish and sharks), can have a positive effect on ocean wildlife, the environment, and also people.
In order to be classified as ‘sustainable’, rigorous requirements for sustainability as set out in the MSC Fisheries Standard are strictly monitored. Sustainable seafood must come from fishing in ways that ensure the long-term health of a stock or species and the wellbeing of the ocean, and contribute to the recovery of fish stocks and their habitats. According to MSC, to become certified, these fisheries must comply with requirements across three principles:
- only fishing healthy stocks,
- being well-managed so stocks can be fished for the long-term, and
- minimising their impact on other species and the wider ecosystem.
Abundant fish stocks and a healthy ocean environment are crucial for the ocean, as well as the livelihoods of coastal communities, so smarter, more sustainable consumer choices are an excellent start.
Have a go at government
It is important to note that the ocean is our biggest carbon sink, home to around 80% of life on the planet. It is also the largest reservoir of carbon on earth. Having a healthy ocean means more carbon sequestration, which means less climate change. We simply cannot solve the crises in climate and biodiversity if we don’t protect the oceans.
Patchwork policies and legislations, lax law enforcement at ports, and the difficulty of monitoring and policing such a vast ocean have resulted in an onslaught of illegal overfishing which accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood each year. Governments need to be held accountable and forced to update legislations, increasing traceability and transparency across supply chains, and tackling the dark underbelly of bribery and corruption to detect and eliminate illegal fishing.
We also need to have a go at governments around the world who let commercial fisheries off the hook for the damage they do to the ocean, noting that this savage exploitation is hindering its very ability to sequester carbon. It’s simple: the ocean dies, we die. By setting fishing quotas in line with scientific advice on what is sustainable, we can collectively play our part in ending overfishing.
Support existing conservation groups and sustainable start-ups
A quick Google search will reveal many organisations and groups doing amazing work to establish and support the sustainable seafood system. These range from the big global campaigners like Greenpeace International, World Wildlife Fund International, the Environmental Defence Fund, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, to smaller, local sustainability start-ups that you may be able to source in your own area.