Industrial fishing is
the biggest threat to our blue planet. So why don’t we act on it?
By George Monbiot,
published in the Guardian 9th May 2019
It is the most
important news humanity has ever received: the general collapse of life on
Earth. So it’s hardly surprising that it appeared on the front pages of only
two of our newspapers (the Guardian and the Independent). The vast
international assessment of the state of nature, whose results, released on Monday,
reveal that the living planet is in a death spiral, didn’t make even the
sidebar on the front of any other paper. Of all the varieties of media bias,
the deepest is the bias against relevance. The more important the issue, the
less it is discussed.
There’s a reason for
this. Were we to become fully aware of our predicament, we would demand
systemic change. Systemic change is highly threatening to those who own the
media. So they distract us with such baubles as a royal baby and a vicious
dispute between neighbours about a patio. I am often
told we get the media we deserve. We do not. We get the media its billionaire
This means that the first
duty of a journalist is to cover neglected issues. So I want to direct you to
the 70% of the planet that was sidelined even in the sparse coverage of the new
report: the seas. Here, life is collapsing even faster than on land. The main
cause, the report makes clear, is not plastic. It is not pollution, not climate
breakdown, not even the acidification of the ocean. It is fishing. Because
commercial fishing is the most important factor, this is the one we talk about
least. The BBC’s recent Blue Planet Live series, carefully avoiding any
collision with powerful interests, epitomised this reticence.
The fishing industry
is protected by a combination of brute power and bucolic fantasy. When you hear
the word fisherman, what picture comes to mind? Someone who looks like Captain
Birdseye: white beard, twinkly eyes, sitting on a little red boat chugging
merrily across a sparkling sea? If so, your image of the industry might need updating.
An investigation by Greenpeace
reveals that 29% of the UK’s fishing quota is owned by five families, all of
whom feature on the Sunday Times Rich List. A single Dutch multinational,
operating a vast fishing ship, holds a further 24% of the English quota. The
smallest boats – under 10 metres long – comprise 79% of the fleet, but are
entitled to catch just 2% of the fish.
The same applies
worldwide: huge ships from rich nations mop up the fish surrounding
poor nations, depriving hundreds of millions of their major source of protein,
while wiping out sharks, tuna, turtles, albatrosses, dolphins and much of the
rest of the life of the seas. Fish farming, by and large, has even greater
impacts, as fish and prawns are often fed on entire marine ecosystems: indiscriminate trawlers dredge up everything
and mash it into fishmeal.
The high seas – in
other words the oceans beyond the 200 mile national limits – are a lawless
realm. Here fishing ships pay out lines of hooks up to 75 miles long,
that sweep the sea clean of predators and any other animals that encounter
them. But even inshore fisheries are disastrously managed, through a
combination of lax rules and a catastrophic failure to enforce them.
For a few years, the populations
of cod and mackerel around the UK started to recover. We were told we could
start eating them again with a clear conscience. Both are now plummeting. Young
cod are being illegally discarded (tipped overboard) on an industrial scale,
with the result that the legal catch in UK seas is probably being exceeded by
roughly one third. Mackerel in these waters, thanks to the scarcely-regulated
greed of the fishery, lost its eco-label
a few weeks ago.
The government claims
that 36% of England’s waters are “safeguarded as Marine Protected Areas”. But
this protection amounts to nothing but lines on the map. Commercial fishing is
excluded from less than 0.1% of these fake reserves. A recent
paper in Science found that the trawling
intensity in European protected areas is higher than in unprotected
places. These paper parks are a total farce, whose only purpose is to con the
public into believing that something is being done.
You might have hoped,
in view of the European Union’s failures, that Brexit would provide an
opportunity to do things better. It does, but it is not being taken. On the
contrary, while the EU will introduce a legal commitment to prevent any fish
species from being exploited beyond its replacement rate next year, the UK’s fisheries bill contains no such safeguard.
There are no plans to turn our “protected areas” into, er, protected areas. The
looting of our seas is likely, if anything, to intensify.
What makes all this
so frustrating is that regulating this industry is both cheap and easy. If
commercial fishing were excluded from large areas of sea, the total catch is
likely, paradoxically, to rise, due to what biologists call the spillover
effect. Fish and shellfish breed and grow to large sizes in the reserves, then
spill over into surrounding waters. Where seas have been protected in other
parts of the world, catches can grow dramatically.
As a paper in the journal Plos Biology
shows, even if fishing were banned across the entire high seas – as it should be – the world’s
fish catch would rise, as the growing populations would migrate into national
Nor are the rules
difficult to enforce. As WWF has shown, fitting every
boat over 10 metres that fishes in UK waters with remote monitoring equipment
would cost just £5 million. Cameras and sensors would record what the boats
catch and where, making illegal fishing impossible. But fitting this equipment
is currently voluntary. In other words, the fishing industry is left to decide
whether or not to comply with the law. Unsurprisingly, fewer than 1% of vessels
have agreed to carry it. Given the vast profits to be made by cutting corners,
is it any wonder that this industry keeps driving fish populations – and the
living systems they support – into collapse?
There are almost no fish or shellfish we can safely eat. Recent scandals suggest that even the Marine Stewardship Council label, that’s supposed to reassure us about the fish we buy, is no guarantee of sound practice. For example, the council has certified tuna fisheries in which endangered sharks are caught and finned, and, in UK waters, it has approved scallop dredging that rips the seabed to shreds. Until fishing is properly regulated and contained, we should withdraw our consent. Save your plastic bags by all means, but if you really want to make a difference, stop eating fish.