Tag Archives: sustainable fisheries

Modern Slavery and the Collapse of Fisheries

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a staggering 20-50% of the global catch. It is one reason fish stocks are plummeting: just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. Illegal operators rob mostly poor coastal states of over $20bn a year and threaten the livelihoods of millions of small fishermen. A huge amount of illicit fishing happens on licensed boats, too. They might catch more than their quota, or falsely declare their catch as abundant albacore tuna instead of the more valuable bigeye. In port fisheries inspectors are always overstretched. If an operator is caught, for instance, fishing with too fine a net, the fine and confiscation are seen as a cost of doing business. Many pay up and head straight back out to sea.

The damage from illicit fishing goes well beyond fish stocks. Operators committing one kind of crime are likely to be committing others, too—cutting the fins off sharks, or even running guns or drugs. Many are also abusing their crews… A lot of them are in debt bondage…. Unscrupulous captains buy and sell these men and boys like chattel

Too often, the ultimate beneficiaries of this trade are hard to hook because they hide behind brass-plate companies and murky joint ventures. Pursuing them requires the same kind of sleuthing involved in busting criminal syndicates. An initiative led by Norway to go after transnational-fisheries crime is gaining support. Much more cross-border co-operation is needed.

At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behavior and even identify illicit species being brought on board…. Equally, national regulators should set basic labor standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets.

Above all, governments should agree at the World Trade Organization to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labor, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west African coast. 

Excerpt from Monsters of the deep: Illicit fishing devastates the seas and abuses crews, Economist, Oct., 22, 2020

What really happens in the seas? GlobalFishing Watch, Sea Shepherd, Trygg Mat Tracking

Just Forbid It – Fishing: Fishing and Marine Protected Areas

Fish, whether wild caught or farmed, now make up nearly a fifth of the animal protein that human beings eat….In this context, running the world’s fisheries efficiently might seem a sensible idea. In practice, that rarely happens. Even well-governed coastal countries often pander to their fishing lobbies by setting quotas which give little respite to battered piscine populations. Those with weak or corrupt governments may not even bother with this. Deals abound that permit outsiders legal but often badly monitored access to such countries’ waters. And many rogue vessels simply enter other people’s fishing grounds and steal their contents.

There may be a way to improve the supply side: increase the area where fishing is forbidden altogether.  This paradoxical approach, which involves the creation of so-called marine protected areas (MPAs), has already been demonstrated on several occasions to work locally. A new study “A global network of marine protected areas for food “in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…explores the idea of extending MPAs elsewhere. If the right extensions are picked designating a mere 5% more of the world’s oceans as MPAs—which would triple the area protected—could increase the future global catch of the 811 species they looked at by more than 20%. That corresponds to an extra 10m tonnes of food a year.

The idea that restricting fishing would permit more fish to be caught may seem counterintuitive, but the logic is simple. Fish in MPAs can grow larger than those at constant risk of being pulled from the ocean. Larger fish produce more eggs. More eggs mean more fry. Many of these youngsters then grow up and move out of the safe zone, thus becoming available to catch in adjoining areas where fishing is permitted…

MPAs are especially beneficial for the worst-managed areas, most of which are tropical—and in particular for overfished species…They also have the virtue of simplicity. The setting of quotas is open to pressure to overestimate of how many fish can safely be caught…This is difficult enough for countries with well-developed fisheries-research establishments. For those without such it is little more than guesswork…Setting the rules for an MPA is, by contrast, easy. You stick up a metaphorical sign that says, “No fishing”. Knowing who is breaking the rules is easy, too. If your gear is in the water, you are fishing illegally.

Excerpt from Fishing: Stopping some fishing would increase overall catches. Economist, Oct. 31, 2020

Oceans Restored: the 2050 Deadline

A study published in Nature on April 2, 2020 claims that marine ecosystems could recover in just 30 years because of the growing success of conservation efforts and the ocean’s remarkable resilience. Some of these conservation efforts include the increase in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from less than 1 percent in 2000 to almost 8 percent today and the restoration of key habitats such as seagrass beds and mangroves

One great success is the restoration of humpback whales that migrate between Antarctica and eastern Australia. Their numbers have rebounded from a few hundred in 1968 to more than 40,000 today. Sea otters in Western Canada have also jumped from dozens in 1980 to thousands. Green turtles in Japan, grey seals and cormorants in the Baltic and elephant seals in the United States have all also made remarkable comebacks. However, “If we don’t tackle climate change and raise the ambition and immediacy of these efforts, we risk wasting our efforts,” Duarte, one of the authors of the study, told BBC News. The initial price tag on all this is hefty: $10 to $20 billion a year until the 2050 recovery date.

Excerpts from Oceans Can Recover by 2050, Study Shows, EcoWatch, Apr. 2, 2020

What Shrimp and Beef Have in Common? carbon footprint

Shrimp farms tend to occupy coastal land that used to be covered in mangroves. Draining mangrove swamps to make way for aquaculture is even more harmful to the atmosphere than felling rainforest to provide pasture for cattle. A study conducted in 2017 by cifor, a research institute, found that in both these instances, by far the biggest contribution to the carbon footprint of the resulting beef or shrimp came from the clearing of the land. As a result, CIFOR concluded, a kilo of farmed shrimp was responsible for almost four times the greenhouse-gas emissions of a kilo of beef

Eating wild shrimp is not much better: catches are declining around the world as a result of overfishing. Trawlers can pull as much as 20kg of by-catch from the sea for every kilo of shrimp. And reports abound of the appalling treatment of workers on shrimp-fishing vessels, including human-trafficking and child labour. When UN investigators interviewed a sample of Cambodians who had escaped virtual slavery on Thai fishing boats, 59% of them reported seeing fellow crew-members murdered by the captain.


Most of the world’s shrimp and prawns come from Asia. The continent accounts for 85% of the farmed sort and 74% of the wild catch. Global sales were around $45bn in 2018 and are thought to be growing by about 5% a year. But the industry is controversial, not just because of its part in global warming. Razing mangroves also leaves coastal regions vulnerable to flooding. Many shrimp farms are unsanitary; ponds often have to be abandoned after a few years because of problems with disease and pollution.

All this has given one Singaporean company a brain wave. “Farmed shrimps are often bred in overcrowded conditions and literally swimming in sewage water. We want to disrupt that—to empower farmers with technology that is cleaner and more efficient,” says Sandhya Sriram, one of the founders of Shiok Meats. The firm aims to grow artificial shrimp, much as some Western firms are seeking to create beef without cows. The process involves propagating shrimp cells in a nutrient-rich solution. Ms Sriram likens it to a brewery, disdaining the phrase “lab-grown”….The hitch is that producing shrimp in this way currently costs $5,000 a kilo.

Excerpts from How artificial shrimps could change the world, Economist, Feb. 28, 2020

Unwanted Fish: Another Waste

Long before fillets reach your dinner plate, lots of seafood is thrown away. Overboard, actually. As fishing crews sort through their catches, they toss unwanted fish back into the sea—as much as 20% of the global catch. The vast majority die. On 1 January, 2019 the wasteful practice became illegal in waters of the European Union. Scientists believe the policy will lead to more efficient fisheries and eventually boost stocks, while incentivizing more selective fishing gear and strategies. But in the short term it could mean hardship for the industry and perhaps even compromise fisheries data, if hidden cheating becomes widespread.

Few expect all fishing vessels to obey the discard ban. “Put yourself in the boots of a fishermen who can see he will run out of quota for a species. If he does, he would have to tie up for the rest of the year. He might have to sell the boat, or sell the house,” says Barrie Deas, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in York, U.K. “What’s he going to do?”  Scofflaws could jeopardize not just fish stocks, but also data about how they are faring. Researchers, who suggest catch levels to regulators, get their discard data largely from independent observers on just a few boats—less than 1% of the EU fleet. Observed boats are now likely to discard much fewer fish than other vessels, leaving an official undercount of the discard rate and a falsely rosy picture of how heavily stocks are fished, says Lisa Borges, a fisheries biologist who runs a consultancy called FishFix in Lisbon. “It could bring about a very big, negative change,” Borges says. “I get very worried about European fisheries management.”

Environmentalists want to toughen up enforcement by installing cameras on ships, the practice in New Zealand and a few other places with discard bans. But Voces de Onaindi says this is impractical on some vessels and raises privacy concerns. Countries where discard bans have succeeded, including Norway and Iceland, have gradually introduced incentives and controls to develop the economic use of unwanted fish and create a culture of regulatory compliance. Those steps, Andersen says, lessen conflict but can take decades to achieve.

Ships banned from throwing unwanted fish overboard
Erik Stokstad

Fishing in the Arctic: Banned

The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) in Ilulissat, Greenland was adopted on October 3, 2018.  The historic agreement represents a collaborative and precautionary approach by ten countries to the management of high seas fish stocks in the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement covers approximately 2.8 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

Ice has traditionally covered the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean year-round. Recently, the melting of Arctic sea ice has left large areas of the high seas uncovered for much of the year. The Agreement bars unregulated fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean for 16 years and establishes a joint program of scientific research and monitoring to gain a better understanding of Arctic Ocean ecosystems. It also authorizes vessels to conduct commercial fishing in the CAO only after international mechanisms are in place to manage any such fishing. This effort marks the first time an international agreement of this magnitude has been proactively reached before any commercial fishing has taken place in a high seas area.

Signatories include the United States, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Norway, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation.

Excerpt from U.S. Signs Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Commercial Fishing on the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, NOAA Press Release, Oct. 3, 2018

Open-Ocean Farming

Ocean Farm 1 is the first of six experimental fish farms ordered by SalMar, a Norwegian firm, at a total cost of $300 million. InnovaSea, an American firm, makes large open-ocean aquaculture nets called SeaStations, which are currently used off the coast of Panama and Hawaii, but Ocean Farm 1 is “by far the largest open-ocean fish farm in the world,” says Thor Hukkelas, who leads research and development on aquaculture at Kongsberg Maritime, a Norwegian engineering company. Mr Hukkelas’s team provided Ocean Farm 1’s sensor system: 12 echo sounders mounted on the bottom of the frame, high-definition cameras dangled into the water at different depths, oxygen sensors and movable, submerged feeding tubes.

Fish farming plays an increasingly central role in the provision of sufficient amounts of protein to Earth’s population. People eat more fish globally than beef, and farmed fish account for almost half of that amount  Many wild fisheries are already at or past their sustainable capacity, so efforts to make fish farming more productive are vital.

Ocean Farm 1 aims to automate what is an expensive and difficult business, and to solve two key problems that occur in near-shore aquaculture: that there is not enough space and that it is too polluting. The excrement from millions of salmon can easily foul up Norway’s fjords, and their shallow, relatively still water is a breeding ground for sea lice. In the open ocean the water is deeper and better oxygenated. The currents are stronger and so better able to sweep away excrement.

Near-shore farms normally spread feed on the water’s surface and allow it to sink, but Ocean Farm 1 has 16 valves at varying depths, through which feed can be pushed. By putting it farther down in the cage it is able to keep the salmon in deeper water. The salmon are fine with this. The sea lice, which like the shallows, are not.

All of this means the number of fish can be increased. The Norwegian government wants to triple its aquaculture production by 2030 and quintuple it by 2050. “Scaling up of traditional aquaculture is not going to reach these high-growth ambitions,” says Mr Hukkelas.

Kongsberg is gathering data from all the sensors on the farm to build a machine-learning model, called SimSalma, which learns the behaviour of the salmon in order to optimise their feeding. Currently, human operators on the structure decide when and where to feed the fish by examining the data. By 2019 Kongsberg plans to have automated this, pushing feed at optimum times and places and reducing human involvement. The success and expansion of such projects would represent a major step towards maintaining global fish stocks.

Net gains: Open-ocean fish farming is becoming easier, Economist,  Mar. 10, 2018.

Regulation of Deep-Sea Fishing

A study published in 2009 suggested that in all but the deepest of their waters—those with a seabed closer than 1,500 metres to the surface—yields had dropped by 70% over 25 years. Even in the abyss below that depth, the fall was 20%. To try to stem this decline the European Union, which regulates fishing in much of the area, is proposing to limit the depth at which trawling can take place. This would, in effect, create a marine reservoir below that level, a form of protection additional to the system of species-specific quotas that already exists. The question is where the line below which trawl-gear is forbidden should be drawn. And, until now, there have been few scientific data to inform that decision.
This has just changed, however, with the timely publication, in Current Biology, of a study by Jo Clarke of Glasgow University and Francis Neat of Marine Scotland Science, a government agency. Their work suggests that the appropriate cut-off would be at a depth of 600 metres—below which the ecological damage caused by trawling increases substantially.

Ms Clarke and Dr Neat derive their conclusion from data collected between 1978 and 2013 by Marine Scotland Science and the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews. These data record species caught, and also the depths of the trawls that caught them, which ranged from 250 to 1,500 metres.

The researchers note that biodiversity increases with depth. On average, an extra 18 fish species show up with each 100-metre increase. Many of these, though, are of little commercial value. Such so-called by-catch gets thrown back, but by then most of it is dead. And that, particularly because deep-sea species tend to grow more slowly than those which live near the surface, and have lower fecundity rates, can have profound effects on ocean ecology.  Trawls at 300 metres, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat found, have a ratio of catch to by-catch (in terms of weight) of five to one. At 600 metres the ratio is around three to one. At 800 metres, though, it is ten to nine; at 1,000 metres one to one; and at 1,200 metres, one to two.

Based on these findings, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat suggest that a trawl limit of 600 metres would be a suitable compromise between commercial reality and ecological necessity.

Excerpts from Fisheries: Drawing the line, Economist, Sept.  5, 2015, at 80