360: How you think about fish could save the world

Earth Matters

“If the oceans die, we die.” This dire warning came from marine wildlife conservation and environmental activist Paul Watson but he wasn't talking about the fish we won’t be able to eat. He was talking about something far worse. Something that few had heard of. Something that had been hidden from us.

Your local seafood market may appear to be stocked to the gills with every type of fish but it is hiding a global crisis: overfishing. Overfishing occurs when people catch more sea creatures than the ocean can sustainably replace. In its 2020 Living Planetreport, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated 68 per cent of all wildlife on this planet had been wiped out in the past 50 years. Fish stocks have been especially hard hit. Our unsustainable appetite for fish is responsible for the destruction of our oceans.

'There’s very little difference between fish cognition and terrestrial vertebrates. We need to start [thinking] how we treat them.'

“We need to allow the ocean to repair the damage that we’ve done to it,” Watson told a TEDx event in Noosa in 2015. The situation has only deteriorated since then. Watson, who founded the Sea Shepherd organisation in 1977 had a radical solution. “We need to leave it alone which means the shutting down of all commercial fisheries, the shutting down of animal agriculture … Animal agriculture is a major source of groundwater pollution, of dead zones in our oceans.”

In 2014, WWF reported 80 per cent of commercial fish stocks were fully exploited or over exploited. Almost 31 per cent of the world’s fish populations were overfished and another 58 per cent were fished at the maximum sustainable level. Fish simply can’t reproduce as fast as 8 billion people can eat them. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation "State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020" report backs up these claims, stating one third of the world's fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits.

With nearly one-third of all fish species declining in population over the past 15 years, if the intensity of commercial fishing continues at this rate, researchers predict all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. This means we are going to have fishless oceans before the middle of the century.

That has implications for global warming. The Global Ocean Commission calculates “fish save the world up to US$222 billion in climate change damage by storing carbon dioxide in our oceans”.

The takeaway is, we need fish if we want to survive. They are far more valuable if left alone in our oceans than as food on our plate. Without fish, the oceans die.

Hunting the toothfish mafia

To meet the global demand for seafood every year, the fishing capture industry primarily uses massive factory-style conical fishing nets called “trawls” which can stretch for kilometres . Environmentalists say these factory trawlers are emptying the oceans at an alarming pace, essentially the underwater equivalent of clear-felling forests.

In the process, an estimated 38 million tonnes of sea creatures are unintentionally caught. This "bycatch" makes up an estimated 40 per cent of the global fish catch. These “unwanted” animals are thrown back into the ocean, where they usually die soon afterward. More than 100 million sharks are killed every year due to fishing capture.

Marine environmental activist Haans Siver has seen this disposal of bycatch first hand. She is a 12-year veteran of Sea Shepherd, a direct-action marine conservation organisation which rose to prominence in Australia protecting whales in Antarctic waters from Japanese whalers. More recently, the organisation has also focussed on commercial factory fishing fleets.

Split image of a tangled fishing net and the bycatch inside it, a dead seal.When a tangled fishing net is opened it reveals its bycatch, a dead seal.SEA SHEPHERD GLOBAL

In 2017, the organisation took a break from Antarctica and decided to use this break to start something new. “We took that opportunity to go down and protect the Patagonian toothfish which was being overfished by the Spanish Mafia. I went down on the Bob Barker [ship], and we were at sea for 147 days,” said Siver, who is now ship manager for Sea Shepherd's 59-metre flagship, Steve Irwin, in a Zoom interview.

The Bob Barker found the most notorious fishing vessel in the Spanish fleet within the first two weeks of the journey. They then gave chase, pursuing the vessel for 110 days before the Spanish fleet sunk its own ship in front of them, making this the longest sea chase ever in maritime history.

“We were able to get the big vessels like the Spanish vessels or the Chinese vessels that are coming in with their big nets and they just take everything and they’re taking a lot of by-catch with that as well. And we’re able to get them out of their waters and the fish are able to replenish,” Siver said.

Think fish, not food

Many of us don’t spend much time thinking about fish. We love our beer-battered fish and chips at the beach. We love having a Fillet-O-Fish burger at McDonald’s on a lazy day. We love our prawns on the barbie. When we think of fish, we think food. There is no empathy. We don’t attribute thoughts, emotions or sentience to them.

This is a serious problem for fish. If we do not consider them live conscious beings, we can deny they feel pain and treat them as if they don’t. To see fish as sentient would have major implications for way in which the billion-dollar global aquaculture industry operates. No surprise then that the debate on whether fish can feel pain is contested.

Professor Culum Brown, Australia’s leading expert on fish intelligence, believes they do. Through his research, looking at how the environment shapes the intelligence of fish, he has demonstrated fish do feel pain. In the Fish Lab at Macquarie University, in Sydney’s north-west, Brown is studying heritability and social learning in guppies.

“More broadly, we’re really interested in how the environment that a fish comes from shapes its ability in terms of how it sees the world, the sorts of information it can process and how well it does that sort of thing,” Brown said.

“Over the many years that we’ve been studying fish intelligence, we’ve come to realise that they are really smart. In fact, there’s very little difference between fish cognition and terrestrial vertebrates. So, we need to start thinking about that in terms of how we treat them,” Brown said.

Twenty years ago, Swedish scientist Dr Lynn Sneddon discovered fish have nociceptors (cells that detect pain) in their mouths. Brown and Sneddon have since worked together on fish cognition.

“They are not only smart but they have this capacity to feel as well. They have personalities. They can be shy and bold and those sorts of things. They clearly suffer from stress and anxiety,” Brown said.

Brown says the realisation that fish are sentient and experience pain has serious implications for how we deal with fish across a range of categories. This includes recreational fishing, commercial fishing, wild fishing, the aquarium trade and scientific research.

We are the solution

Steve Moralee founded Fish Save, a non-profit organisation, to fight against overfishing through educating consumers. There is no bigger day for fish consumption than the Christian holiday of Good Friday, when many Christians will not eat red meat. For Moralee there was no better day to meet and talk to fish consumers so he organised a vigil at the Sydney Fish Market.

When you talk about fishing, people “have it in their minds that there are people on boats with the fishing lines and stuff. They’re not thinking about ocean trawlers that indiscriminately wipe out schools of fish. They trawl the ocean floor, they rip up coral, they take out sea beds and it’s a complete destructive process that is destroying the ocean.”

“We’ve just decided that we need to start influencing the consumer and they need to become far more aware of that. Through Fish Save and through those discussions and conversations, we’re becoming acutely aware and hopefully sharing that message with people… It’s not just about the number of fish being taken, it’s about the damage being done to the ocean,” he said.

Fossil fuels get most of the headlines but our planet is at a crisis point in part because of the aquaculture and animal agriculture industries. We are now experiencing the largest mass extinction of species in 65 million years. If fishing rates continue,the ocean ecosystems are forecast to collapse by 2048. That’s only 26 years away. A collapse of ocean biodiversity could ultimately lead to the collapse of civilisation.

To protect our planet, we need to act now. One action would truly make a difference in restoring our oceans. It’s both very simple and really hard. We must reduce our demand for all seafood.

Supply is driven by consumer demand. If we demand fewer marine and land animal products, then fewer animal products will be farmed or harvested from the seas. This means that less trawlers will be used, and this huge problem will start to go away.

Eat more thoughtfully. Healthier plant-based foods will become cheaper and readily available as demand grows. and will nourish our bodies and our planet.

It’s time to empathise with fish, or their pain will become our own.


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