Posted on: 23rd April 2021
Photo by Nina Constable
Recent media attention on the fishing industry has prompted many to consider the impact of their seafood choices. Documentaries such as Cornwall: This Fishing Life highlight the challenges faced by local fishers in a changing industry while films such as Seaspiracy challenge the misuse of terms such as 'sustainable' and call for radical action. Below you can read Cornwall Wildlife Trust's response to recent questions surrounding the impact of fishing and how this fits with wildlife conservation.
Sustainable fishing is a term used to describe fishing that is well managed and has minimal impact on the environment and other marine species that are not being targeted.
Unfortunately, it is a word that is often misused. Marine ecosystems are incredibly productive and when healthy they are one of the most efficient ways to obtain protein to feed humans. It is easy to get fishing wrong, however if too many fish are removed or if an ecosystem is damaged the system becomes vastly less efficient.
The Cornwall Good Seafood Guide rates all seafood caught and farmed in Cornish waters on sustainability using a rigorous system created by the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide. This internationally recognised system uses up to date information from trusted scientific sources to calculate the status of the stock (population) of a fish species, the level of fishing pressure on this stock, how well the fishery is managed, and the wider impacts of the method being used to capture the fish (for example, seabed impact, accidental bycatch of non-target species such as dolphins, seals and sharks). Using this system we produce a list of seafood recommended by the Cornwall Good Seafood Guide. We do not run a certification system, but we provide up to date information to help us all make good seafood choices, and prior to the existence of this system there was very little information in the public domain about Cornish fishing – a complex and diverse subject, with over 60 species being targeted and 13 different fishing methods in use.
All methods of fishing have pros and cons. There is a big difference in the impact of large-scale industrial fishing such as pelagic trawling and the smaller-scale fishing carried out by Cornish day boats using a wide array of different methods of catching seafood. Fishermen are constantly trying to improve the way they work to minimise impacts, but there is always an impact of some kind.
For some people any impact is too much and we respect that viewpoint. However, we feel that there are huge gains to be made in ocean conservation by working with the fishing industry and the government to help create effective improvements. These improvements include measures such as: spatial management where some areas of seabed are rested and allowed to recover, gear modification to reduce impact (a great example being the use of acoustic dolphin deterrents, known as pingers, that alert cetaceans of nets) and regulations that restrict fishing for the long term benefit of fishers who in time will benefit from ocean recovery and healthier stocks. It is undoubtedly difficult to achieve truly sustainable fishing, however we feel that we are most likely to be able to positively influence the fishing industry to minimise its impact by working with the industry and informing consumer choice, rather than criticising.
Fishing is vital for Cornwall’s economy and culture, but as a wildlife conservation charity, we strive to protect nature and aid its recovery. As such, we believe that the best way we can reduce the impacts fishing has on our local seas is to continue our current approach of educating people - consumers, fishers, chefs and fish sellers - about sustainability and to continue to lobby for better management of our fishing industry to ensure long-term viability and minimal impacts.
Many people can (and have already taken action to) stop eating fish and we completely respect that decision. No one with an environmentally-aware conscience wants to buy fish that supports fishing practices that damage our marine ecosystems. It is not realistic, however, to think that everyone globally will stop eating fish and that this is a solution to all fisheries issues.
In the UK, 97% of households regularly eat fish. Even if all of Cornwall Wildlife Trust's members stopped eating fish today the fishing industry would continue. Fish would continue to be exported and fishermen who have invested huge amounts of hard work and money into their boats and gear won’t stop fishing. Rather than campaign against fishing and engaging in polarising arguments, we think that by highlighting the most sustainable options (small-scale inshore fishing using hook and line or pots, for example) we can ensure that consumers are given the information needed to support good local fishing practices. By highlighting areas where improvement is needed we can incentivise government to better manage fishing. Instead of creating a divisive campaign calling on people to stop eating seafood, we call on our supporters to help us to use our collective power to call on industry and our government to manage our oceans properly.
Our oceans deserve it, but we are fully aware that a huge amount of work is still needed.