This article, which I co-authored with environmental lawyers Ambika Hiranandani and Roland Miller McCall, was first published in The Times of India
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” goes the old Chinese proverb. “Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Nowadays, with massive trawlers dragging 60km nets scooping up a dozen jumbo jets worth of fish in one go, that adage is looking rather shaky. Not only is overfishing the single greatest threat to the ecosystems of our oceans, but as fish are caught much faster than they can reproduce, it is driving traditional fisherman, who can no longer rely on their skills to feed themselves for a lifetime, out of business. Such is the scale of the problem that in recent days Cheers star Ted Danson has weighed in to slam the subsidies that promote unsustainable fishing practices. But we shouldn’t need American TV icons to tell us we’re on a bad path.
As many as 20 million tonnes of fish are caught every year by bottom trawling. It’s a non-selective method that takes no prisoners. Powerful boats trudge metal-weighted nets across the ocean floor, scooping up turtles, sharks, dolphins, endangered species and young fish. “The holes in the mechanised nets are very, very small and so fish don’t get a chance to breed,” says Narendra R Patil, general secretary of Machimar Kuti Samhiti. “There are no fish left for traditional fishermen.” According to a 2004 study by the United Nations Environment Programme, almost a quarter of the fish pulled from the sea never even find their way to market. Meanwhile the oceans, once considered an inexhaustible resource, are running out of fish. “The fish don’t stand a chance,” says the World Wildlife Fund.
It is, however, another old Chinese proverb that tells us, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” If we act now to bring overfishing under control by using restrictive gear, closing areas to fleets and limiting the total allowable catch, there is hope. A study published this year in the journal Science found that in a few select regions such as Iceland and Australia, careful management of marine ecosystems has allowed fish-stocks to recover. “Our oceans are not a lost cause,” says Professor Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University and a co-author of the report. However, he cautions that the trend, although far from irreversible, is far from being reversed. “Across all regions we are still seeing a troubling trend of increasing stock collapse,” he says.
Efforts to deal with the problem are continually hampered by ineffectual regulation at an international level. According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, every nation maintains sole fishing rights within their Exclusive Economic Zone. The high seas, however, are known as the common heritage of mankind, a heart-warming term evoking images of international co-operation, that in reality has entirely the opposite effect. In many areas, illegal and unregulated fishing is on the rise, undermining national and regional pushes towards sustainability. “Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, the cornerstones of international fisheries governance, are struggling to fulfil their mandates despite concerted efforts to improve their performance,” the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation found. The problem arising, in part, from “a lack of political will to implement decisions in a timely manner.” It is, after all, hard to light a candle in the wind.
An international consensus has emerged on the need to combat the environmental crime of Illegal Unregulated and Unreported fishing by blocking illegal fish from entering international trade, thus removing financial incentive. However, eliminating illegal fishing, whilst a necessary first step, is not enough to avert the coming crisis.
As Abbie Hoffman once said, “murder in a uniform is heroic, in a costume it is a crime.” When the criminal element has been removed, what remains to be challenged are the legal methods which continue to devastate the oceans. As such, it is imperative that we eliminate bottom trawling, by-catch and discards. In the state of Maharashtra, a ban on fishing is in place from June 1st to August 15th. “This should be increased to 90 days nationwide to allow fish stocks to replenish,” says Rambhau Patil, president of the National Fishermen’s Forum. At the same time, marine sanctuaries must be established in which fishing is prohibited. “Cat fish, Bombay duck and promfret and now rare, and hammerhead sharks are diminishing,” Patil says. Whilst governments around the world have responded to the pressing need to preserve endangered species and habitats on land, existing marine parks account for less than 1% of the world’s oceans. Increasing this percentage is the only way to ensure breeding grounds for fish are maintained and the only way to ensure the livelihoods of fishermen for generations to come.
Of course, it is not simply a problem of production. It is one of consumption. Only by reducing demand – eating less fish, avoiding species like cod and tuna, or cutting it from our diets entirely – can we end the reliance on destructive methods of mass fishing. If we all light a candle, there’ll be no darkness left to curse.