Our Burning Planet


Fishing down the food web: Bye-bye big fish, hello jellyfish and don’t talk about conservation

Fishing down the food web: Bye-bye big fish, hello jellyfish and don’t talk about conservation
Marine biologist Dr Daniel Pauly has revealed huge flaws in the data that global bodies use to estimate the health of the world’s oceans. (Photo: Supplied)

We’ve wiped out 90% of the ocean’s large fish and governments are unaware and under-report how much the industry catches. With millions of tonnes being hauled out every year, it’s a race to the bottom.

An alien civilisation coming across our solar system would name our planet Ocean, for most of Earth is under water. Being air-breathing and living on the bits that stick out, we mostly regard the vast liquid blue that surrounds us as a beautiful but often scary “other”. Billions of us, however, rely on it for food. This is Part Four of a series about the relationship between the creatures below the sea’s surface and the people in boats who catch them. Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three

Against our technology, fish don’t stand a chance. We are using huge nets; efficient engines that allow boats to stay on the catching grounds for years; supply ships to keep them there; sonar and satellite tracking to know exactly where fish hang out; cold storage ships to keep fish refrigerated for weeks; and tens of thousands of boats in unpoliced open oceans… it’s hunting on steroids.

At that scale we’re not operating within the rhythm and cycles of nature; we’re vacuuming the ocean so fast, we’re driving down to the base of the food chain, leaving no time for stocks to recover. Species by species, catch volumes have been declining since 1996. This cannot end well.

A person who has spent much of his life tracking this process is Dr Daniel Pauly, a professor of fisheries and marine biology at the University of British Columbia. His research has revealed huge flaws in the data that global bodies use to estimate the health of the world’s oceans and has set up the world’s most reliable tracker website to prove it. He was happy to share his findings with Daily Maverick.

Don Pinnock: You work with very large data sets covering an entire planet. What are your key findings concerning the state of fish?

Daniel Pauly: I’m one of the few fishery scientists working on a global scale. Most colleagues conceive fisheries as a local affair – that kind of boat targeting this kind of fish. To understand the state of fish you have to think globally, as we do for the weather system or the financial systems.

People say that fish have no borders but that’s ridiculous, they have borders of temperature, preferred prey, etcetera. It’s the deep-water fishing fleets that don’t have borders. Chinese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Spanish, French. They go wherever fish gather, they move; you can see the clusters of vessels on the Global Fishing Watch tracker. They are the global system and they’re targeting the global south.

state of our oceans

China has the largest deep-sea fishing in the world. (Photo: Supplied)

Don: What are they catching?

Daniel: Basically everything. China is a major player in fisheries, and also a big importer of shark fins. Shark meat is also increasingly consumed, and Brazil, for example, is importing huge quantities of shark meat. The EU, Japan, the US are big fish importers and much of it is coming from Africa, Oceania and South America. But you can’t rely on official catch reporting. South Africa’s Department of Fisheries has more information than it sends to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) database. For instance, subsistence and sports fishing are not reported. It’s a big factor.

Around 400 people from various countries worked for 12 years to establish the corrected catch amounts, which are now on our website. We found that the world catches far more fish than what’s reported. So instead of 80–90 million tonnes a year, the world catch is in fact 130–140 million tonnes a year, which is a 50% under-reporting.

state of our ceans

The rise in Chinese fishing subsidies. (Graphic: Supplied)

Don: You mentioned that another problem was subsidies.

Daniel: Big problem! The large fleets, including those from Asia and Europe, that fish in the Global South, receive enormous government subsidies. They couldn’t cover much of their operating costs without them. If you cannot make money or break even catching the fish that are produced naturally at a given place, then you shouldn’t fish in that place. Either there’s not enough fish for natural reasons, or you’ve depleted the local fish population through overfishing. Nature itself signals that fishing is not sustainable.  

With subsidies, you can ignore this and continue operating in overfished or unproductive waters, catching whatever small population remains. Your costs, including fuel and crew expenses, are covered. So essentially, you can continue to overfish without facing the consequences, which would be financial ruin otherwise. Eventually of course you will lose your shirt, but until then you’re stripping everything.

It’s like subsidising Apple to keep producing its original Apple II computer. It’s crazy. Subsidies are not favoured by the conservation community and are opposed by nearly everyone except industry lobbyists. Unfortunately, these lobbyists hold significant power for cultural and political reasons.

Depleting our oceans

We’re fishing down the food web, says Daniel Pauly. (Graphic: Supplied by Daniel Pauly)

Don: So the fishing industry is digging far deeper into fish stocks than they should, preventing the possibility of recovery?

Daniel: Precisely. And it uses dangerous reasoning. There are fishery scientists whom I call Vogons – you know, the bad guys in the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – who defend the industry at all costs and they predicate their argument on profitability alone. They say fisheries are doing fine. In many cases they are, but at what cost? Apart from subsidies, having wiped out the previously abundant large fish, they’re targeting the now profitable squid, crabs, octopus and lobsters that were the food of the big fish.

We’re fishing down the food web on a journey to the bottom. In 1998, I published a paper called Fishing Down Marine Food Webs, which is my most cited paper. It was published in Science and it caused a big stink globally. But it was never accepted by the Vogons, who say the profits of fishing companies are more important than their contribution to food security. In the past, for example in the 1950s, we went after fish that were abundant, including in South Africa and not after invertebrates.

Fishing down the food web happens globally, it’s an incredibly pervasive trend. The large fish have largely gone, just check the IUCN’s Red List for confirmation. Almost all the big fish in the world are on that Red List, including sharks. What’s not there are small species like herring, sardines, anchovies and the like. Actually we’re now replacing sardines with jellyfish in Namibia, right near the bottom of the food chain.

As a matter of priority, we have to rebuild fish populations embedded within functional food webs within “no-take” marine protected areas.

A sardine catch off India; sardines are being used to make fishmeal to feed farmed species. (Photo: Supplied)

Don: In a recent podcast, you were talking about so-called “trash fish”. What is that?

Daniel: In aquaculture, we farm salmon and other carnivorous fish. These fish are not vegetarian, and so they have to be fed with fishmeal or other forms of proteins. There is more protein that goes into making salmon than the salmon contains. The aquaculture sector does not produce fish. It converts fish of lower price, into pricey fish.

Along the coasts of northwest Africa – specifically Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia – 14 factories popped up over the course of eight or nine years. All these factories produce one thing, fishmeal, which they will tell you is made from trash fish. But these fish are not trash, they are mainly sardine, the staple of local communities.

Don: So what are we looking at up ahead?

Daniel: We will have oceans without big animals, a trend that’s exacerbated by global warming, which is deadly for larger fish. The reason is that warm waters contain less oxygen, and fish require more oxygen when temperatures are high. These two factors put pressure on larger fish, because they have larger bodies but relatively smaller gills. They extract oxygen through their gills, whose supply cannot keep up with the demand of their growing body.

So, you have fisheries depleting the population of larger fish at temperatures making life difficult for big fish. That’s another global squeeze.

Daniel Pauly warns of a future ocean without big fish, a state that is being exacerbated by global warming. (Photo: The Sea Around Us.org)

Don: Fifty years from now?

Daniel: If we don’t solve the problem of our global greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll lose most of our fisheries – but by then that will be the least of our concerns. The bigger issue would be the collapse of our food system, which is heavily reliant on agriculture.

In the grand scheme of things, fisheries are a relatively small part of the global food supply compared to staples like wheat and rice. If we haven’t made substantial progress in curbing emissions long before 50 years from now, we’ll face extreme heat waves that will not only kill all the fish but us as well. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Daniel Ackermann says:

    We have been struggling with his problem since we can remember.

    Since the collapse of the pelagic fisheries in California, Peru, and South West Africa (Namibia) in the seventies, we have not yet came up with a suitable model for predicting the biomass of the fish stock to enable us to forecast sustainable harvesting.
    That together with poaching and illegal fishing puts us in this mess.

    Too many people, not enough resources to feed them.

  • Peter Atkins says:

    I’ve been an almost vegetarian for about five years now and love it ( the almost bit is because of bacon, for its taste, and once a week fish, for omega-3). I will have to rethink the almost bit after reading this article.
    A global big swing to meat-free and fish-free eating would make a huge difference to our environment. Start with “meat-free Mondays” and “fish-free Fridays”.

  • Fisheries are an obvious example of unsustainable practices in producing food for humans. Politicians quibble about all sorts of trivia, but the really big issues, such as how we will feed our populations in the future, get ignored in favour of short-term gains. Catastrophe stares us in the face, but we carry on as if it’s all fiction. Environmental scientists, with the support of journalists like Don Pinnock, need to scream from the rooftops if there is to be any chance of their being heard.

  • Big Bronco says:

    These four articles by Don and Melissa have depressed me big time. I had no idea that this situation was so bad. Problem is the world’s rivers must be in the same state. What on earth are we humans doing to this earth and ourselves? My heart breaks

  • Alan Salmon says:

    The major most important crisis facing this earth is too many people, and not a single government anywhere that I know of is doing anything about it. In my lifetime the world population has almost tripled!! Fortunately populations in many countries (including China) are starting to decline, but Africa is again way behind and still growing at unsustainable rates. World leaders need to wake up !!!

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    Salient message. If governments do not heed the science of ocean economy, food security provided by oceans will be lost. But again, this is another example of short term exploitative economy that is chosen by weak governments.

    And !
    Its theft from the future generations. I wonder if the future generations will start mass actions against the previous economic regimes?
    They should, but sadly it won’t bring anything back.

  • Ron Ron says:

    In early 2020 I got to visit that part of Somalia which is the province of Puntland, with its capital at Garowe. This is the province from which the bulk of Somali Pirates operated. I had spoken to a person from there (he was driving a taxi in Seattle at the time) maybe 12 years before and what he had told me struck a chord. He said the reason many of those Somalia had stooped to piracy was because the fish stocks had been destroyed by Asian fishing vessels, illegally stripping their waters of fish, so small time fishermen could no longer make a living. Piracy drove the fishing boats away. In 2020 the coastal fish stocks were really much improved and fishermen were making a living again, but with the eradication of piracy, the fishing boats were beginning to reappear….

  • Excellent series by Don Pinnock

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