For Australians who like to eat fish, here’s some uplifting news fresh from an international expert who gloomily describes the world’s oceans as a “giant Ponzi scheme” of overfishing.
Daniel Pauly and his colleagues from the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia have developed a “truer” picture of the ecological impact of global fishing.
Australia’s fisheries are relatively well managed and have a small footprint when compared with the industrial-scale plunder of the planet’s sea life, Dr Pauly says.
What’s more, he believes it is futile for consumers to attempt to assuage their guilt by dining on one species of fish rather than another.
Or you order a plate of this shrimp instead of that shrimp and it’s supposed to have an impact on the fisheries,” the French-born marine biologist said. “Actually, it doesn’t – because there is no transmission up the market chain.”
Dr Pauly will deliver good news and bad on Thursday when he gives a TEDx talk in Sydney and, hours later, an oration to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, to be introduced by its patron, novelist Tim Winton.
For decades, nations have reported their catch to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation based on the fish landed by their commercial fisheries. However, this omits recreational and indigenous fishing and the massive bycatch of commercial fishing that is thrown back into the ocean – most of it dead.
For Australia, Dr Pauly and his researchers in Vancouver have found, the 8.1 million tonnes reported between 1950 and 2010 almost doubles to 15 million tonnes when they take into account 2.2 million tonnes for recreational fishing, 98,000 tonnes for Indigenous fishing and more than 4 million tonnes of discards.
The discard rate for prawn trawlers has been as high as 88 per cent, but improved fishing methods have cut the overall bycatch waste by an estimated 90 per cent over the past 20 years.
Australia’s exemplary footprint is demonstrated on a colour-coded world map.
However, Dr Pauly warned: “There is a tremendous pressure knocking at the door, saying, ‘Hey, your resources are not kaput. Let us in to exploit them.’
“The alarm bell for Australia – and it is a truly alarming bell – was in letting one big trawler, and perhaps more later, into the country.”
The 95-metre trawler he refers to, the Dutch-owned Geelong Star, caught four dolphins and two seals in its net on its first outing in Australia last month.
The factory-freezer vessel was forced to suspend fishing this month when it killed another four dolphins and two seals, which Environment Minister Greg Hunt called “unacceptable and outrageous”.
In 2012, the then federal Labor government banned the super trawler FV Margiris and any fishing vessel over 130 metres.
However, Dr Pauly said the Geelong Star was capable of similar damage.
“They are both monsters,” he said. “They can catch as much as 150 of your local boats in one go.”
Dr Pauly said Australia had the option not to repeat the mistakes of countries such as New Zealand, where foreign trawlers had contributed to a big ecological footprint (40.1 million tonnes compared with Australia’s 15 million tonnes between 1950 and 2010).
He was worried about the Abbott government’s decision to review the vast federal marine parks announced by Labor in 2012 and to lift restrictions on fishing in the reserves.
The co-chairman of the review, Colin Buxton, adjunct professor of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, has argued that the parks would only serve to eliminate the sustainable use of ocean resources for a nation that imports 70 per cent of its seafood.
Dr Pauly argued: “Marine parks are part of the reason you are not in a mess. The notion that we’re going to fish everywhere is absurd. We would not have a bit of forest if we could grow things everywhere.”
To rebuild their fisheries, Europe and North America would have to ban fishing of certain stocks.
“You don’t have that situation in Australia.”
Like the fraudulent Ponzi investment schemes, global fishing industries used profits from unsustainable fishing to take evermore fish, said Dr Pauly, who is also principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“The Ponzi nature of the thing is to expand and expand and expand . . . until it crashes. If you can draw on other people’s capital into your scheme, you can continue for a long time, so long as you find fools.”
While consumers could not change the world by their choice of fish at a restaurant, they could make a difference by joining in the shaming of big fishing companies and importers.
“What works in society is shaming the people who do bad things. It cannot be guilt-driven. It has to be shame-driven.”