Things Most People Don’t Know About Sustainable Fisheries and Seafood

Very often, the concept of Sustainable fisheries and oceans management is absurdly oversimplified by parties who simply want the public to think, feel and act in a certain way toward their products or services rather than wanting to accurately inform people on this topic. This results in the circulation of much false and misleading information on the topic, and this post is intended to offset that with a more accurate picture.

As the world’s 7th largest seafood exporter, Canada does an outstanding job with responsible fisheries and oceans management. The East Coast commercial fisheries account for 85% of total Commercial fisheries in Canada, supporting total Canadian wild seafood exports of nearly $6 billion annually, with $1.68 billion exported from Nova Scotia alone in 2015. Commercial and recreational fisheries are a valuable tool that fisheries managers use to help regulate the marine environment and achieve the desired ecosystem conditions that will foster greater ocean productivity and vitality. Globally, fisheries themselves, yield the primary source of protein for approximately 3 billion humans, and enable many of those same people to earn a living and support their families. Of the many human-caused factors that impact ocean biodiversity and marine ecosystem productivity, fisheries are the most scientifically regulated and controlled, and when managed responsibly, they provide the ocean with far more positive effects than negative ones.

Defining Sustainable Fisheries and Oceans Management – The first step to better understanding this topic is to understand the definition of sustainability, and exactly what is at stake when we talk about responsible oceans management.    Sustainability, in its most broadly accepted definition, means that resources (in this case freshwater and ocean resources) are managed in a way that provides reasonable assurance that they will be available for future generations to enjoy, utilize, and care for as we do presently. This is, by definition, subjective and impossible to predict with certainty. Events such as oil spills, or the long-term impact of factors such as climate change or ocean acidification can significantly impact population sizes, migration and spawning behavior, survival and recruitment rates, and ultimately reproductive rates. Fisheries scientists employ theoretical models based on many [subjective] assumptions to try to better understand these factors, but they cannot foresee the total effect on fish populations and marine ecosystems with anything close to perfect accuracy. Therefore, by definition, sustainable fisheries can never be assured completely. The best that fisheries managers can do is to adopt science based precautionary measures when making fisheries and oceans management decisions, and to establish management regimes that in their best estimation offer a high probability of sustainability. Such is the case with all major commercial fisheries in Canada, the U.S. and many other countries.

Understanding Oceans and their Importance – The world’s oceans are incredibly bio-diverse. Scientists have identified some 200,000 species, but suspect that millions more exist in unexplored ocean areas. Roughly 70% of the earth is made up of ocean, and the oceans do a lot more for us as humans than just provide us with seafood. Oceans absorb roughly 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions and produce roughly half of the world’s oxygen. The oceans’ ability to continue performing and those rates depends on our ability and willingness to treat oceans in a way that promotes healthy, vibrant, and productive marine ecosystems where plant and animal life can thrive, producing oxygen and food that supports the survival of terrestrial life, and absorbing CO2, an excess of which can have a slew of negative impacts on terrestrial life. In addition to mitigating the environmental impacts of atmospheric CO2 and providing terrestrial beings like us with air to breath, the ocean helps create and regulate weather around the globe, helping to make water available for food production on land. Also, more than half the people on earth live within 200 kilometers of the ocean, and seafood accounts for roughly 16% of the total animal protein consumed by humans.

Interconnected Marine Ecosystems – It’s important to understand that all oceans are interconnected ecosystems, so for example when people in Europe dump their trash in the ocean (which they do more than you would think), it impacts ocean productivity for us here in Canada, as well. Similarly, if for example, Central American countries don’t apply the same rigor as Canada and the U.S. to achieving science based fisheries management, the balance of predator-prey or the control of toxic algae, or other similar factors will impact the productivity of our oceans. All the toxic pollutants that enter the water inevitably reduce the production of phytoplankton (microscopic plants) and zooplankton (microscopic animals) that form the bottom of the ocean’s food web, and enable the survivability and reproductive activity of all species above them on the food chain. When life at any trophic level along that food chain experiences a sharp rise or drop in population of a particular specie (including, for example, grey seal overabundance) there is an increased risk of a trophic cascade where multiple species can experience population crashes. This can happen for many reasons that have nothing to do with commercial or recreational fisheries, including the many factors listed. Commercial fisheries are seldom the main cause of such an event, particularly in countries like Canada, that spend vast sums of money on their science and fisheries management programs.

There is also the matter of the massive international water areas outside of the 200-mile sovereign limits (Exclusive Economic Zones or “EEZ”) that remains largely unregulated and the regulations that do exist remain largely unenforced. While the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (“DFO”), with limited resources, does an excellent job of patrolling and protecting Canada’s EEZ (as does the U.S. with it’s own EEZ), European and Russian vessels remain extremely active in draining resources just outside our EEZ and there is essentially nothing that Canada can do about it. Meanwhile, Canadian vessels are forbidden by Canada from fishing in the waters outside our EEZ.

Striving for Sustainable Fisheries and Oceans Management – The common and misleadingly simple definition of sustainable fisheries management is that fishing fleets should be allowed to catch and keep less fish biomass than the amount of new fish biomass that a population produces through spawning. Reproductive rates represent a critical factor and are impacted by a broad range of other factors outside the control of fisheries managers, including the following.

  • Ecosystem and Population Dynamics – This may relate to prey species on which the subject specie feeds, predator species that prey on the subject specie, or other related species such as animal or plant parasites, coral, sponge or other plant life such as eel grass or kelp that provide habitat and/or nutrition for various fish species. The dynamic events constantly taking place within complex ecosystems impacts both the reproductive rates and carrying capacity of the ecosystems.
  • Industrial Pollution – Effluent discharge from industries from mining, offshore oil and gas, and pulp and paper mills has a significant negative impact on ocean water quality, which can negatively impact spawning and migration and damage critical fish habitat.
  • Trash Dumped in Oceans – Municipal solid waste, or other trash and debris dumped into the ocean in other countries (Canada and Norway dump the least trash in the ocean by far) represent a toxic cocktail of chemicals, plastics, and toxic metals that can and do have many harmful effects on marine life behavior, sensitive marine habitat, and marine ecosystems overall.
  • Agricultural Runoff – Chemical fertilizers and pesticides from farms, manicured lawns, and gardens are washed into rivers, streams, and eventually into oceans. This places further strain on marine ecosystems and in some cases of intense runoff can wipe out entire species.
  • Ocean Plastics – Plastics, including everything from plastic bags or food packaging to micro-plastic beads from cosmetics and synthetic fiber clothing enter the ocean via peoples’ toilets or washing machines. This represents one of the most concerning ocean management issues because plastics break up into microscopic particles that will stay in the oceans for many thousands of years. Plastics have already entered the ocean food chain as zooplanktons consume micro-plastics, reducing nutrition, and increasing toxicity in the food web.
  • Vehicle and Vessel Pollution – According to National Geographic, leakage from U.S. cars alone send 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean every eight months. Vehicle pollution from around the world, including densely populated countries that use diesel as their primary fuel for passenger and commercial vehicles, must produce much worse effects. Additionally, all of the ocean tanker traffic, naval vessels, pleasure crafts, etc. dump oily bilge water into the ocean with great regularity.

All of the above impact ocean health and productivity, including fish populations, and almost none of the above are caused by the fishing and seafood industries. 

The Pursuit of Sustainability is Expensive – DFO, supported by scientific advice from its scientists and input from industry and ENGO stakeholders, is tasked with understanding things like the health and behavior of fish stocks, the interaction among interrelated ocean life species, and the overall health and productivity of marine ecosystems in order to understand the amounts of fish biomass available by species and to set catch quotas accordingly for all commercial and recreational fisheries. That requires a lot of science generating a lot of meaningful data, and it requires a lot of analysis by a lot of very smart people. Once catch quotas are set and other fishing restrictions defined for conservation purposes, DFO has to police Canadian waters and enforce regulations effectively. All of this is very costly. DFO spends billions of dollars on doing it right, including expenditures to support science, management, conservation and protection, regulatory enforcement, etc. Additionally, industry associations and ENGOs engage in collaborative science with or in addition to DFO’s efforts, and despite all of that, Canada’s fisheries still don’t receive their due recognition for it in the marketplace. Instead, consumers typically flock to inexpensive shrimp and calamari imported from countries with poorly managed fishing jurisdictions, often not realizing that it’s inexpensive because of the irresponsible (often deplorable) practices that helped bring it to their plates. Despite all the talk of sustainability, nearly all distributors, food service buyers, and consumers want their seafood ultra-cheap, even at the expense of quality, but still want a feel-good assurance of “sustainability” that they can relay to their customers or dinner guests. The fact is that if the world wants high quality seafood to be sustainably caught through truly responsible managed fisheries, it’s impossible for it to be cheap – responsible fisheries and oceans management costs real money, and one way or the other, someone or something is paying for it. Cheap wild seafood is not sustainable under any realistic scenario.

Some Common False Perceptions Regarding Sustainable Fisheries

Commercial Fishing is Bad – Many people wrongly believe that commercial fishing is the greatest threat to sustainability. In fact, the opposite is true. Commercial fisheries represent valuable tools that help fisheries managers to pursue achieving optimum conditions for healthy and productive marine ecosystems. Also, inshore fishing fleet members, typically small owner-operators carrying on their longstanding family traditions, have more at stake than anybody when it comes to maintaining healthy and productive marine ecosystems, and are the most willing to modify their practices for the ocean’s benefit.

Certified Means Sustainable – The various sustainable seafood certification programs, most notably Marine Stewardship Council (commonly known as “MSC”) have helped to achieve real and meaningful progress toward more industry led marine science initiatives, more transparency and accountability, and more awareness of sustainability issues. However, certification by MSC or other similar organizations should not be viewed as a final definitive statement that the certified fisheries are sustainable. Such programs are certifying that a responsible science based approach to fisheries management is in place, and that deficiencies identified in the certification audit process are matched with specific plans and milestones for their rectification. MSC certification is in some cases awarded over the formal objections of ENGO groups, who sometimes clash with certifying organizations. The notion of certified sustainable seafood is a good concept that will undoubtedly continue gaining popularity, and like all good things, will continue to be challenged, tested, improved, and strengthened over time.

Aquaculture is More Sustainable the Wild Catch Fisheries – Much of the aquaculture being practiced, in particular, the farming of salmonids (Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, arctic char, etc.) relies on wild caught fish for the production of its feed. An increasingly large portion of forage fish catches (anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel, etc.) are used to produce fishmeal that feeds much of the world’s aquaculture. This effectively removes the food of larger fish such as wild salmon, Atlantic cod, halibut, tuna, haddock, and many others, meaning that the ecosystem can support fewer of them, and in turn, it will support fewer of the species that prey upon them such as swordfish, sharks, and whales. So effectively, in order to feed farmed fish that consumers perceive as being better for wild stocks, we are greatly shrinking an important lower trophic level in the food web, risking a multi-trophic cascade and multi-specie population crash. Much work is being done to develop more eco-friendly feed options for the aquaculture sector, including algae based feeds and land based closed containment fish breeding. However, these efforts have yet to yield products that the salmonid aquaculture sector can widely adopt.

The Bottom Line

Consumers in Control – It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, consumers are in control of our progress toward sustainable fisheries and oceans management. If consumers can become properly informed, are willing to shun irresponsibly produced seafood, and pay premium prices for seafood that is responsibly caught through science-intensive and sophisticated management regimes then there is a good chance that our oceans can recover and remain productive for future generations. If not, then we are the last generations of humans who will enjoy the healthy and delicious seafood available to us today.