I’m coining this term. It’s mine. Get your grubby mitts off it New Internationalist.
“What is Psuedo-ethical-purchasing?” I hear you whisper with a coy curiosity. Well I’ll give you some context. Picture me at the chippy. Obviously I’m angling for some Fish & Chips, but there’s Cod, Haddock, Plaice, and even flounder on the menu (I’m in the Cottesmore chippy in the UK). Decision time. Clearly, I’m a value driven type of guy, so I quickly rattle through the vague memories of an article I heard someone talking about that their mates’ mum’s sister saw in prison. I can recall some facts about Cod being over-fished, so I turn to my co-pilot and declare with the utmost conviction that I will not be purchasing Cod today. Haddock is my choice, as I feel very strongly about the fishies in the sea and I would like them all to exist happily together for me to eat at my whim, ‘sustainably’.
A prime example of Pseudo-Ethical-Purchasing. My purchase is driven by an ethical motivation, to source ‘sustainable’ fish, but my knowledge and understanding is less than impressive. I do this on many occasions. It’s not that I’m a bad man, I just prioritised the search for “How can I fit my own car stereo” above “What fish is sustainable” in my Google explorations. Alas, here we are, learning together, to build a better world.
So what does Sustainable really mean? Wikipedia states:
“A conventional idea of a sustainable fishery is that it is one that is harvested at a sustainable rate, where the fish population does not decline over time because of fishing practices.”
(I took that sentence straight from Wikipedia, and yes it really does say “…is that it is one that is…”, the most syntactically annoying combination of words EVER)
It goes on to describe how this idea includes a theoretical angle e.g. population dynamics of fisheries, and a practical angle e.g. avoiding over-fishing, or lobbying against destructive or illegal fishing practices. The worry here is that our harvesting of the ocean could permanently distort fish populations, to the point where they lose diversity and resilience to environmental changes. We could seriously fuck it up basically. Think Butterfly Effect. Take Tuna for example, we damage and permanently reduce the numbers of Tuna in the Ocean. This not only effects Tuna, but has a significant knock on effect through the fish that eat Tuna and the fish that Tuna eat. This is known as the Trophic Balance. It sounds beautiful, because it is. And we’re giving it a good old fashioned kick in the face through our fishing techniques.
Sustainable fishing means we can consistently harvest a quantity of delicious and healthy fish, without permanently distorting the Trophic Balance of the ocean.
With nearly 7 Billion mouths to feed, many of these with a particular taste for ocean offerings, our fishing practices have become somewhat industrial. Huge fishing boats trawl the seas with nets the size of which you could hardly fathom. We scrape the ocean floor for shellfish, with no regard for the delicate ecosystems of coral reef. Even our so-called ethical practices have huge flaws.
One of the main issues with all these techniques is ‘Bycatch‘. Bycatch refers to the species of sea-life caught accidentally through targeted fishing. Not wholly ‘targeted’ at all really. According to Greenpeace, estimates range from 8% to nearly a quarter of global catch is discarded. In some trawl fisheries for shrimp, as much as 90% of the catch is discarded. Anywhere between 6.8 million and 27 million tonnes of fish could be being discarded each year. The huge range in estimates here reflects the lack of knowledge and comprehensive investigation into the problems. What we do know is that through our bycatch we are seriously distorting the Trophic Balance of the ocean.
Mammals, sea-birds, turtles, sharks and numerous other species fall foul of our fishing techniques.
But we all buy ‘Line-Caught’ fish from Marks & Spencer now right? So that means those poor dolphins can chase the same little fish as the tuna but not get caught in the nets targeting the tuna, yes? Well, not really.
‘Line Caught’ fish conjures an image of the humble fisherman sat peacefully, rod in hand, modestly excavating tuna from the sea one fish at a time, with painstaking integrity. In actuality, an industrial fishing boat trawls a line up to 100km long, with baited hooks. Dolphins and such may not get caught in the net, but sea-birds, turtles and sharks most definitely get hooked on the line when going for the bait. Longline fisheryhas had a huge effect on populations of Albatross. I visited an Albatross sanctuary south of Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand. Too poor to actually pay the price to see the Albatross, we perused the museum and learnt much about the havoc Longline fishery causes with the Albatross. As the baited hooks are cast into the water they take a few moments to sink. The Albatross dive for the bait and get hooked. Then, as the bait sinks, the Albatross are dragged 1000ft into the watery depths, slowly drowning to death. A grim truth behind a so-called ethical fishing practice.
The issue of feeding the human race is an intricate web of cause and effect, and our fisheries are no exception. As with most things, there are huge economic variables at play, which all too often hold more weight than they deserve. There are fashionable ethics, such as the over-fishing of Atlantic cod, which become inflated beyond their truth. But is it really so complex that we the innocent and naive consumer are helpless in our efforts to build a more sustainable future?
Once again it looks like the hero of the day is education, and with the internet our beacon of shared information, we can make sure we understand the basics. There IS information detailing the species being damaged by our fishing techniques, and the the species that we are sustainably fishing. The Greenpeace website is an amazing resource for all issues oceanic. Not only does it have an international Red List of fish to avoid purchasing, but it has nation specific Red Lists. ForestandBird.org.nz have a comprehensive ‘scale’ of fish (accidental pun No.2) that are more or less sustainable.
Writing this has made me think about my own ethical approach to fishing as a sport. I’ve been killing and eating Kahawai and intend to fish for Elephant fish, Gurnard and Rig. Some of these fish are struggling with our fishing demands. But will my fishing really effect the population? I might pull 1 rig out of the ocean every couple of weeks, is that really going to effect the Trophic Balance of the ocean? What if every person in the world did that? I suppose there would be no bycatch, it would be the most targeted form of fishing. If we substituted our supermarket purchase for a night catching our own fish, I’m almost certain our ocean would maintain its balance.
If you really care about the issues of the ocean, investigate the resources below. You’ll quickly learn a whole heap of things you didn’t know about ethical fishery. And don’t stop enjoying food from the ocean. It’s delicious and healthy, and there is so much wholesome enjoyment in catching your own, preparing your own and eating your own fish.
Greenpeace International Red List – A list of unsustainable fish around the oceans
Greenpeace New Zealand Red List – A list of unsustainable fish in New Zealand’s oceans
WhichFish.org – A data table compiling info from 8 sources, including Greenpeace, Wikipedia & Fish Watch
FishWatch.gov – A source for the U.S fisheries
FishOnline.org – A UK buyers guide to sustainable fish
The Best Fish Guide 2012/13 – Forest & Bird’s Best fish guide for New Zealnd for the current year