Overfishing pushing seas to the End of the Line
by Peter Munro
“WHERE have all the fish gone?” is the key question asked by new documentary film The End of the Line [above] or watch/buy it on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2SpIIM5. And it doesn’t pull punches in detailing the ravages of global overfishing. Collapsed species, poor people going hungry, our seas emptied of all but mud and worms.
But it’s the vivid colors in the film, based on a book by British journalist Charles Clover, that linger: the bright blood spilling from a hooked fish; the pallid rows of frozen bluefin tuna at a Tokyo fish market; the white froth of schools caught in a purse seine net.
Overfishing has changed the texture and hue of the deep blue. Eighty per cent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited – an “underlying crisis” the United Nations says demands an urgent response at a global level.
World per capita fish consumption has climbed steadily from an average of 9.9 kilograms in the 1960s to 16.4 kilograms in 2005. But it’s getting harder to find the fish to feed on. Technology allows us to fish more species in more spaces more efficiently than ever before. Nets have been cast wider and deeper, gradually draining the oceans first of big fish, then minnows. Trash fish and monsters of the deep – such as monkfish – now feature on restaurant menus in parts of the world. Scientists say that eventually we will be left with only jellyfish and plankton.
Simultaneously, measures to reduce our toll on the seas – such as marine reserves and cuts to fishing fleets and quotas – are showing promising signs of success. Scientists have renewed optimism for the future. But many conservationists argue too little is being done to stop us sinking to the end of the line.
“It has been like watching a puddle dry up in the sun,” says Australian Marine Conservation Society director Darren Kindleysides. “Globally, we are a long way from seeing sustainable seafood on our plates.”
“We are fishing down the food chain. Ninety per cent of the world’s big fish have disappeared from the ocean – tuna, swordfish, sharks. We now fish smaller species like anchovies and sardines, right to the bottom. We are at the last-chance cafe when it comes to fisheries.”
As each species declines, we simply adjust our palates. Growing up in bonny Bedford, in England’s east, Kindleysides remembers eating “huge portions of fish and chips, with cod as big as your head.”
“That’s become a thing of the past (in England),” he says now. “Now, you find haddock in fish and chip shops and the fillets are much smaller. Some of the fillets come from New Zealand hake. It is hard to see fish and chips not being part of our diet in the future, but it may be different, such as imported or farmed fish, even vegetarian fish.”
CARP and chips, anyone? In Victoria, fish and chips tends to mean servings of flake – otherwise known as shark. While gummy sharks are not under threat, school sharks inadvertently caught in nets (known as “bycatch”) are particularly vulnerable because they grow slowly, mature late and produce few young. In June, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated one-third of open-water sharks worldwide, including the great white and hammerhead shark, face extinction, primarily through overfishing.
Demand has also soared for shark fins, a Chinese delicacy selling at up to $200 a kilogram. Greenpeace estimates 100 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. Some are exported to Asia after being caught in Australian waters, including the Great Barrier Reef – a practice Kindleysides says should stop.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s sustainable seafood guide lists school shark in its “say no” category, along with eastern gemfish, orange roughy, silver trevally, southern bluefin tuna and red snapper. “We see sharks as being the new whales,” Kindleysides says. “We are asking the Australian Government to take the lead in protecting sharks in our own waters, firstly by banning their export.”
“That’s a simplistic demand,” is the response from Ted Loveday, managing director of industry body Seafood Services Australia. He points to recent measures to reduce fishing capacity, such as the cutting of most Australian fleets “by half or more”.
“The Australian community needs to realise there has been a huge amount of investment and a hell of a lot of pain to get fisheries on a sustainable footing,” he says. “The scientific evidence available in almost all cases now is that stocks aren’t under pressure.”
But that’s certainly open to question, particularly given the difficulty in accurately assessing fish stocks. It can seem, at times, like these opposing sides are watching the waves from two different planets.
Aquaculture, or “fish farming”, where species are rounded up and fattened in large cages, also polarises debate. The plunder of small oceanic fish to feed the caged stocks concerns conservationists. On the other side, the Queensland Fisheries Minister last month crowed that aquaculture could solve the world’s future food needs. “Feed the world – let them know its [sic] seafood time!” read one buoyant press release.
Peter Trott, fisheries program manager for the World Wildlife Fund, has watched over both sides of the debate – including in his former role as fisheries manager for the Tasmanian and West Australian governments. “On average, across the world, Australia is pretty well better than most. We’re above par, if you like,” he says. “But we’ve still got overfishing occurring, we’ve still got problems with stocks and major issues with bycatch and ecosystem damage occurring. There is no conclusive evidence to show stocks of school shark have increased. Southern bluefin tuna is critically endangered and going to continue to decline at the current rate of fishing.
“One fishery in NSW is talking about increasing the take of mixed shark species by over 150 per cent, without any robust scientific assessment at all. We’ve got to move from this mindset of business as usual. You wouldn’t run your farm down to zero for short-term gains — fisheries need to adopt that approach.”
BEFORE dawn, the trawlers chug in from sea to the Lakes Entrance Fisherman’s Co-operative. Pelicans wait in the water nearby, hoping to snare some scrap spilled from the boats as they unload their haul.
Some of these trawlers brim with up to 600 plastic bins of fish, each bin weighing about 30 kilograms. By 8.30 am, under a rising sun, their icy stocks travel by conveyor belt into the co-op, before being trucked to the Melbourne Wholesale Fish Market, which on a busy day caters for up to 200 tonnes of seafood.
But the sun has set on the years when up to 9 million kilograms of seafood a year were fed through the Lakes Entrance docks. The 2007-08 haul was just 4.1 million kilograms, much of it flathead and gummy shark.
Lakes Entrance, Victoria’s biggest co-operative, was once a leading port for orange roughy – the long-living species one environmentalist compares to “eating your grandma”. But much of the deep-water habitat of the slow-spawning, overfished species has since been closed to fishing. Other stretches of sea have been cordoned off to protect gas and oil concerns. More recently, Lakes Entrance lost about 21 fishing licences in a government buyback to cut capacity.
Dale Sumner, general manager here for 10 years, watches over a dwindling fleet of about 40 boats. “People have this perception fishermen can go out and trawl for anything, anywhere but, in reality, there is only a tiny patch of dirt left,” he says.
“A lot of people see fishermen as rapers and pillagers, but they’re not going to make two, three-million-dollar investments without looking out for the industry.
“A lot of rogues we had in the past have gone through buyouts and other measures. Now, there are only serious players remaining with substantial investments in the industry, who are keen to see it go forward for generations.”
Indeed, there are signs Australia is moving in the right direction after many years of heady plunder. The number of local stocks classified as overfished or subject to overfishing is falling, according to the latest fisheries status report by the national Bureau of Rural Sciences. The 2007 report, released last September, voiced concern over only 16 fish stocks, down from 19 in 2006 and a peak of 24 in 2005. But, significantly, the status of more than half of the 96 stocks studied remains uncertain.
Overfished stocks include eastern gemfish, school shark, orange roughy, yellowfin tuna and swordfish. Only one stock under sole Australian management — the pink ling — was known to be suffering from overfishing. Other stocks under threat were highly migratory species, such as southern bluefin tuna, which are managed through regional organisations — which many experts consider ineffectual at best.
The report credits Australian governments for cutting fishing quotas and licences, building marine reserves and introducing harvest strategies to shore up fishing stocks.
Australia won further praise in a study released last month on the state of the world’s fish stocks. In 2003, Canadian marine biologist Boris Worm and colleagues famously found that only 10 per cent of the stocks of large fish (such as tuna, swordfish and marlin) that were present in 1950 were left in the ocean. He later warned that the world’s supply of seafood could well run out by 2048 unless we restrain our plunder.
But in a new collaborative study, published in Science in July, he told of a brighter future. Almost two-thirds of all seafood stocks require rebuilding, the study found. But since the 1990s, average exploitation rates had declined in five of the 10 ecosystems studied — including the south-east Australian continental shelf — through measures such as marine reserves, reduced fishing capacity and tightening of rules for fishing gear. Improvements were such that Worm reportedly remarked he hoped to be alive in 2048, when he turns 79, and “hosting a seafood party — at least I hope so”.
But the news is mixed. A significant fraction of stocks will remain collapsed unless there are further reductions in exploitation rates. And there are growing concerns over the push of industrialised countries into the developing world — like pirates seeking out new treasure in waters around Africa and the Pacific.
Significantly, the study was the collaborative work of marine ecologists and fisheries management scientists. Leading Australian marine ecologist Keith Sainsbury says the united front is welcome, after years of polarisation between those predicting total failure of fisheries and those pushing examples of sustainable fishing.
“Up until 10 years ago, it was very hard to find trends that were not looking downhill. But the interesting thing documented in the paper is that the extra effort people have put into getting regulations right has made a difference globally and locally,” he says. “Now, we are seeing those downward trends turned around.”
Sainsbury, vice-chairman of the London-based Marine Stewardship Council and an adviser to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, has watched over the sea since he was a young boy, growing up in a fishing village near Wellington, New Zealand. He recalls one day diving in the water and seeing the seabed emptied of once-abundant abalone after the opening of a fishery nearby.
The experience helped him chart a course between the opposing forces of conservationists and the fishing industry. “My reaction was not so much that we should stop all this, but how can we manage fisheries properly,” he says.
“It isn’t just an environmental problem but also a social and economic problem. And the people who bear the brunt of that are usually fishermen.
“We know what needs to be done and there are quite a few places where it is demonstratively being done: Alaska, large chunks of North America, Australia, New Zealand. On the other side, we’ve got large chunks of the world where this has not yet even started. Even in Australia, there are overfished stocks we are having trouble grappling with.”
Australia, for example, hauls in 5635 tonnes of overfished southern bluefin tuna a year, from a reported (and likely understated) global catch of 11,850 tonnes.
“In Australia, we’ve got one in six fisheries overfished. We don’t even know what the status is of 52 per cent of our fisheries,” says Greenpeace Australia oceans campaigner Genevieve Quirk. “The industry and, increasingly, government paint a pretty picture of Australian fisheries. But we definitely have an enormous amount of improvement to make.”
Momentum is growing to restrict trade in bluefin tuna at next March’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Every campaign needs a rallying call. And lately, the heat has been on the Nobu restaurant chain — part-owned by actor Robert De Niro — to drop bluefin tuna from its menu. In May, Greenpeace members picketed the exclusive restaurant in New York, parading fake menus with other rare delicacies such as “Rack of Mountain Gorilla seasoned with Powdered Rhino Horn”.
Nobu Melbourne, which De Niro opened two years ago, has escaped similar scrutiny, despite serving both southern and Atlantic bluefin tuna under the guise of “toro” (a more palatable term, perhaps, for the fatty belly of the bluefin). Southbank diners can enjoy toro tartar [sic] with caviar ($65) or, for the budget-conscious, a bluefin tuna sushi roll.
Elsewhere, there are clear signs that as sea stocks change, so, too, are the fish being served up on dinner plates. Melbourne chef Guy Grossi has taken swordfish and skate off the menu at his restaurants. Aldi supermarket shelves boast canned red and pink salmon certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, and will soon offer sustainable herring fillets and albacore tuna. Coles products sourced from MSC-certified fisheries include West Australian rock lobster. Heinz this year phased out the use of vulnerable yellowfin tuna in favour of skipjack tuna, and is relabelling its Greenseas range to inform consumers of the change.
Further focus on overfishing is likely when The End of the Line, released abroad in June, obtains a local distributor as expected. But author Charles Clover, on the phone from London, tellingly warns against feeling too despondent over the future of our fish. “The human race has got a pretty good record of looking into the abyss and turning away,” he says. “I’m optimistic we can do it, but we must do it now. It is almost more urgent than global warming. In terms of things we need to do something about, this is top of the list.”