Why we need to stop eating fish

seafood in Portugal 2
© Lloyd Alter – Seafood market in Portugal

The recent UN biodiversity report states that overfishing is a bigger threat to the world's ocean than plastic or acidification.

Few images have filled me with as much dread as the one in George Monbiot's most recent column. It depicts a grim reaper below the sea, the blade of its scythe a ship floating on the surface. "Stop eating fish. It’s the only way to save the life in our seas," reads the title.

Monbiot proceeds to describe the horrific situation that's playing out underwater. There, according to the latest UN report on biodiversity, life is collapsing faster than on land, and the cause is "not pollution, not climate breakdown, not even the acidification of the ocean. It is fishing."

The way in which the oceans are fished is destroying them completely. This is due in part to technology that allows fishers to remove far more than can ever be replenished and that ruins whole ecosystems in the process, though processes like dredging; it's also caused by lax regulations and non-existent or toothless oversight.

Our "bucolic fantasy" of what fishing is must be revised. Monbiot writes that 29 percent of the UK's fishing quota is owned by five families, and a single Dutch company with a vast fleet owns another 24 percent. Small boats "comprise 79 percent of the fleet, but are entitled to catch just 2 percent of the fish." He goes on:

"The same applies worldwide: huge ships from rich nations mop up the fish surrounding poor nations, depriving hundreds of millions of their major source of protein, while wiping out sharks, tuna, turtles, albatrosses, dolphins and much of the rest of the life of the seas. Coastal fish farming has even greater impacts, as fish and prawns are often fed on entire marine ecosystems: indiscriminate trawlers dredge up everything and mash it into fishmeal."

seafood in Portugal© Lloyd Alter – Seafood at a market in Portugal

Claims that the waters are safeguarded are bogus. Monbiot calls marine protected areas "a total farce: their only purpose is to con the public into believing that something is being done." While fishers are legally obligated to comply with quotas, avoid no-take zones, and not overfish, there is no legal requirement for monitoring equipment to be installed on board – something that could be done across the entire UK fleet for a mere £5 million (not much, considering what it would do).

Marine oceanographer Sylvia Earle put seafood consumption into perspective in a TED article in 2014. She argues that it's time to think of fish as more than an edible commodity. They play a crucial role in the ecosystem that outweighs their value as food.

"They’re part of the systems that make the planet function in our favor, and we should be protecting them because of their importance to the ocean. They are carbon-based units, conduits for nutrients, and critical elements in ocean food webs. If people really understood the methods being used to capture wild fish, they might think about choosing whether to eat them at all, because the methods are so destructive and wasteful."

Earle points out the absurdity of eating apex predators like tuna and sea bass that can live up to 32 and 80 years, respectively. Bluefin tuna takes 10-14 years to mature, which is radically different from land-based mammals that are slaughtered after a few months (like chickens) or a couple years (cows). By comparison, "think of how many fish have been consumed in a 10-year period to make even a pound of one of those wild ocean carnivores."

dried seafood in China© Lloyd Alter – Dried seafood for sale in China

Except for people living in coastal communities that have limited choices about what to consume, eating wildlife should be viewed as a luxury, not a right. Especially in North America, there's almost always another choice. In Earle's words, "[Eating seafood] is never, as far as I can tell, a true necessity, given our access to other food sources."

Nor is there any truly ethical seafood. Monbiot points to recent reports of the Marine Stewardship Council's failure to protect scallop beds and endangered sharks. Fish that we've told are safe to consume, like cod and mackerel, have seen their numbers plummet yet again. Aquaculture is contaminating ocean waters with its disease-ridden open pens. The message is clear; the times have changed.

"It isn’t like 10,000 years ago or 5,000 years ago or even 50 years ago. These days, our capacity to kill greatly exceeds the capacity of the natural systems to replenish."

If you care at all about the oceans, worry less about the plastic bags and more about the fish – and keeping them off your plate.

Why we need to stop eating fish
The recent UN biodiversity report states that overfishing is a bigger threat to the world's ocean than plastic or acidification.

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