Belfast Telegraph

How sea fear-mongering is really just a red herring

Yes, we have overfished our seas, but it's time we applauded the progress the industry is making rather than denigrating it, says Paul Williams

In today's society, we have to make difficult decisions and the Belfast Telegraph's recent week-long series of articles on marine life is a clear example of a one-sided approach to a complex issue.

Yes, fishing has an impact. It will reduce fish populations to around 25-40% of the population that it would have been if they had not been fished, but it provides food.

Seafood accounts for around 25% of the world's protein. If we stopped fishing, where would this protein come from?

The total land area of South America would not be enough to produce this protein on land - let alone the problems it would cause in water use, fossil-fuel use, a loss of biodiversity and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Seafood is good for your health, it does not consume vast quantities of water in its production, nor does it generate an abundance of methane or greenhouse gasses. In contrast to farming - which mostly eliminates and transforms the landscape, removing biodiversity and introducing alien species - fishing tends to degrade the marine environment, but rarely, if ever, completely removes species, or changes forever the marine ecosystem. We have lived with the visual impact of farming for generations, so we have come to accept the modified landscape that is a product of this industry.

Indeed, we have created national parks around these production systems and we have subsidised agricultural production to protect, manage and maintain their 'pristine' condition and appearance.

Without doubt, we have overfished our oceans, but there is significant progress being made in managing this.

There are increasing quantities of fisheries stocks around the world that are approved to Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) standards.

What is so rarely applauded is the progress that the fishing industry has made in Europe.

The European Commission recently published its Fishing Opportunities for 2013 document. It stated that, from a position where 32 out of 34 stocks were classed as 'overfished' in 2004, this had moved to 18 out of 34 by 2011. There is more work to be done, but let's applaud the extensive progress made, rather than simply denigrate.

The myth around fish 'disappearing from the seas' has been well promulgated by Dr Boris Worm and others in the journal Science (2006) and largely retracted in a subsequent paper (Worm, Hilborn and others, Science, 2009), which showed that fish stocks can recover if they are managed effectively.

Cod stocks in the Barents Sea and Iceland are at an all-time high and cod stocks on the Grand Banks and North Sea are showing progressive year-on-year increases.

In Northern Ireland, work is ongoing between the industry and the Government to design fishing gear and methods to both reduce discards and preserve cod stocks, which continue to require careful management.

Extensive measures have been proposed by the fishing sector to geographically limit fishing activities in Strangford Lough. Through initiatives in this area - and in many other areas - Northern Irish fishermen are playing leading roles as stewards of the marine environment here.

We need to balance our society's needs for food and community maintenance with the realities of the environmental impacts of fishing.

We can have a pristine environment, healthy fish stocks and communities that are badly impacted economically, with no fish to eat, if we do not fish; or we can have a moderately impacted environment, sustainably managed fish stocks and communities supported by the economic activity from fishing.

It's about getting the right balance, not only in terms of management and fishing activity, but in how we talk about and portray the marine environment.

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