Mood upbeat at World Fisheries Congress

An upbeat mood was noticeable at the opening of the 6th World Fisheries Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, yesterday, as keynote speakers tempered doom and gloom messages of the past decade with notes of optimism.

The Prince of Wales addressed some 1,200 delegates from 70 countries at the start of the four-day event, and warned of the social and economic consequences of failing to manage the world’s fish stocks sustainably. He set out the need for a greater understanding of the marine environment in order to keep healthy oceans thriving so they can continue to maintain food security. The Prince’s Sustainability Trust is working to help build effective partnerships between policy makers, fisheries stakeholders and non-governmental organizations worldwide, to ensure a sustainable and well-managed future for fish stocks.  

Professor Ray Hilborn from the University of Washington was particularly upbeat in his keynote speech, which looked at how a past reliance on catch data had led to an alarming picture of global stock depletion, whereas a more recent switch to studying abundance data gave  a more accurate picture.  He acknowledged that some stocks are undoubtedly in trouble, but explained that the overall picture is of many species in recovery or stable.  “There is no silver bullet to put things right, but a broad series of management measures to improve the sustainability of fish stocks is working,” said Hilborn.

He also pointed out that wild fish stocks can be captured at very low environmental cost. Asking if environmentalists have counted up the full cost to the planet of taking fish off the menu, he demonstrated that its replacement by other protein sources such as chicken, pork and beef would have a far higher environmental impact.

“The capture of fish uses hardly any water, no fertilizer, pesticides or antibiotics, and results in no soil erosion,” he explained. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. Fish live in a natural system but to grow more animal protein will need land to be cleared, plus intensive use of irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides, and I am not sure that consumers are aware of this.”

Hilborn challenged policy makers and the scientific community to research fully the implications of replacing world fish production on a large scale. For example, he had worked out that to replace with land-grown protein the 81.9 million metric tons of fish landed in 2006 (FAO), would require an area 22.3 times the size of the word’s rainforests. He also calculated that to substitute palm oil for Peruvian anchovies in fish feed, would result in the depletion of 4,604 orangutans, which would be of great concern to consumers.   

Mike Mitchell, director of Quality and CSR for Young’s Seafood, asked if lessons learned from history can give us hope for the future, using the decline of the fishing industry in his home port of Grimsby, England, as an example. 

He pointed out that today, seafood companies “choice edit” the species on sale, which has led to a reliance on particular stocks and an urgent need for better scientific data to help them make informed risk assessments and policy decisions such as Young’s Fish for Life.  

To achieve sustainability, Mitchell argued that voluntary Codes of Practice and participation in certification schemes such as Marine Stewardship Council are only part of the answer.

“Seafood processors and retailers alone cannot solve the problems of the sea, nor can politicians, fishermen or scientists.  Nor should you all continue fighting; instead you need to act as one to find solutions,” he stated. “Let us recognise and learn from the lessons of history and work with a new concept where the boundaries of science, regulation and commerce are broken down in recognition of a mutual interest.”

Mitchell called on politicians to develop policy that appropriately matches fishing capacity with resource availability; on fishermen to embrace science and work with scientists; and on scientists to engage fully and collaboratively with the greatest and most comprehensive research platform they will ever have access to – the fishing industry.

“If we do not – with some sense of urgency — align our scientific, political and fishing agendas around these simple principles, then I would fear for the fisheries and I would fear for the livelihoods of fishing communities — and I would fear for the future food security of society,” he said. He hoped that the stark lessons of overfishing and poor policy in the past would be heeded and that the new future would soon dawn. 


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