Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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The Food Waste that wastes the Lives of Sentient Wildlife

In 2022 the UK Guardian reported on the huge scale of fish waste: “Dumped at sea, lost on land or left to rot in shops and fridges, the global catch of fish is being wasted like never before” – killing hundreds of billions of wild marine animals and undermining ocean ecosystems.  What can we do to stop this terrible destruction of sentient life?

“In February 2022, a Dutch-owned fishing trawler released a silvery stream of 100,000 dead fish, which carpeted several thousand square metres of ocean off the coast of France. The vessel’s owners blamed the discharge on a faulty net. Environmental groups alleged that the fish were intentionally dumped. Whatever the truth, that spectacle of squandered sea life was the tip of the iceberg.”  Watch the short Sea Shepard France Video below:

A floating carpet of blue whiting off the French coast on the Atlantic Ocean.  (Copyright  RodolpheVillevieille/ Sea Shepherd).

Figures from WWF show that in 2019, at least 230,000 tonnes of fish were dumped in EU waters.

How many individuals lives is that?

“Most of the waste – 92% – is related to bottom-trawling, a fishing method that scrapes the seafloor, indiscriminately scooping up everything in its path. But this figure is a small fraction of an even larger global issue. “

“The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 35% of all fish, crustaceans and molluscs harvested from oceans, lakes and fish farms are wasted or lost before they ever reach a plate.”

Illustration by Mark Garrison, data from the FAO.  Image from this article.

Fish and seafood loss and waste is shockingly high at over a third of all fish and seafood caught or farmed. “Fish are highly perishable and fragile, which makes them more vulnerable to waste, a problem that is compounded by haemorrhaging fish at every step of the supply chain.” North America and Oceania are responsible for most of the fish and seafood waste and loss as shown below.

Illustration by Mark Garrison, data from the FAO. Image from this article.

Fish waste is especially shocking”, says Pete Pearson, senior director for food waste at WWF, because they “are wild animals, so we are harvesting wildlife. Fish populations are already threatened by overfishing, pollution, and the climate crisis. With current rates of fish consumption projected to double by 2050, things have to change.”

Just under half of all fish consumed by people is wild-caught at sea. 34% of global marine stocks are now overfished. Bycatch (unintentionally caught, unwanted fish) is a growing problem, too: roughly 10% of wild-caught fish are discarded worldwide each year, representing 8.6m tonnes of animals. The main causes of bycatch are imprecise fishing gear and policies that allow fishers to discard non-target species.”

There’s an economic driver, too. “I think there is a strong connection between subsidies and waste in the water,” says Rashid Sumaila, professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia. Although subsidies were historically devised to support small-scale fishers, today 80% of $35.4bn (£26.4bn) in annual fishing subsidies goes to a handful of industrial fleets, Sumaila’s research shows. These include gargantuan bottom trawlers that are uniquely equipped to travel out to the high seas and overfish, leading to discards on an industrial scale.

Spurdog or spiny dogfish bycatch and shrimps on a fishing vessel.  WWF, The Untrawled Truth, 2022.

“The impact of illegal and unreported fishing is also important”, says Sumaila, as it is likely contributing tonnes more bycatch to global fish waste.

The Guardian article goes on to propose a number of useless solutions from frozen fish, eating bivalves, to using the waste from fish processing, to selective gear, redirecting subsidies, and greater efficiency, but perhaps we can learn some lessons from a surprising source, the Whaling Industry.

We need a Moratorium on Industrial Fishing

Oliver Dirr is a German journalist and author of The Whale, the World and the Wonder (only available in German so far). In a recent article, featured in the Guardian, he notes: “For centuries, whales were hunted mercilessly. Whaling was a voracious industry on which half the world’s economy was built. Blubber became an essential natural resource, and whaling ramped up in step with technological advances.

Dirr continues: “Over the years, the industry had tried to regulate itself with quotas, bans and protected areas. It was an abject failure: whalers would use the highest stock estimates they could find to set quotas; when species were placed under protection, unknown subspecies were invented; when seasons were cut in half, more ships were sent in the remaining time; and when protection zones were established, they were areas without any whales to protect.”

Then, in 1986, a moratorium was announced, driven by newfound awareness of the glories of whale song – and, through that, an interest in their behaviour, intelligence and culture. In mere decades, the global economy performed an incredible about-turn, and weaned itself off blubber – and on to crude oil.”

How can this transition offer us clues as to how to regulate the fishing industry?

“Today, the moratorium is often cited as an example of how humans can change. But it is worth remembering that whaling did not end because the industry found its conscience or progress made everything better. Whaling ended because there were no longer enough whales to turn a profit – AND because people started standing up for them. When the young activists Bob Hunter and Paul Watson manoeuvred an inflatable boat into a Soviet whaler’s field of fire to protect a group of sperm whales off the coast of California in 1975, this was not only the birth of Greenpeace, but a major moment for the ecological movement.

Understanding and compassion grew. People became interested in the songs of humpbacks, the lives of sperm whales and blue whales, the worlds of orcas and dolphins. Cetaceans were no longer seen as a natural resource, but as intelligent and sentient beings that needed protection. “Save the whales” became a global symbol for a better and fairer future. The only policy that worked was an international whaling ban. 

Today we need a complete ban on Industrial Fishing – starting with an immediate Moratorium on Bottom Trawling

It may be helpful to remember that what was needed, above all else, was for people to take an interest and get involved. The end of industrial whaling was an epochal change but, in retrospect, it came almost overnight. That is a song worth repeating.  So although the UN have passed a High Seas Treaty, it will only be when industrial fishing is ended that we will understand the rich cultures and lives of marine species.

Take Action

  1. The first and simplest action you can take is to Go Vegan for the oceans. 
  2. Then for more information check out the Seaspiracy newsletter.  Seaspiracy is a 2021 documentary film about the environmental impacts of fishing, directed by and starring Ali Tabrizi, a British filmmaker, and calls for an end to fish consumption, rejecting the myth of sustainable fishing.  You can stay up-to-date with key ocean news, actions and stories by subscribing to the bi-monthly Seaspiracy newsletter.
  3. Get organising and involved in politics to end subsidies for fishers and to then bring an end to the nightmarish fishing industry.

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