Dr. Rainer Froese, GEOMAR, Kiel
Dr. German Jeub, BMEL, Bonn
Dr. Iris Menn, Greenpeace, Hamburg

Savouring the seas – are we decimating the oceans?

Dialogue forum on 11 February 2014

Fish is an important source of nutrition for the human race. However, the fish stocks in the ocean are threatened by over-fishing. The second evening of the 2014 dialogue forums addressed the subject of the current situation and the question of sustainable fishing. The panel guests were marine biologist Dr. Iris Menn from Greenpeace, Dr. Rainer Froese from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, and the Director of the German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture Dr. German Jeub.

The statistics below make it clear how critical the situation is for the fish in the oceans: 30% of the global fish stocks are over-fished, in areas such as the North East Atlantic or the Mediterranean, the percentage is 39 and 88% and even higher. The result: despite increasingly complex fishing methods, less and less fish are being caught. Whereas in 1970, in the German Bight, an average of 150 codfish were caught hourly in the nets, in 2010 only three to five were caught. "The big predatory groups such as tuna and swordfish that are right at the top of the food chain have even shrunk in the past 50 to 100 years by at least 90%", explained Greenpeace expert Menn. However, focusing on the dwindling fish stocks is not enough. A massive waste of life are the up to 20 million metric tons of by-catch that are usually thrown overboard every year. Many fishing methods are also extremely destructive. "The large trawling nets are like a plough in the field, mowing everything down that stands in its way – including the valuable flora", said Menn illustrating the problem, and added: "We must look at the ecosystem as a whole to be able to form a judgement on fishing practices".

More fish allow gentler fishing methods
Marine biologist Froese believes that there are other options for harvesting fish: "Sustainable fishing is possible. We know how the fish stocks are distributed and we know how to manage them sensibly. Not more than 20% should be taken from healthy stocks. Then they will remain intact. For this we need fishery management", Froese is convinced. If there are more fish, the change can also be made to gentle fishing methods, instead of today's customary practice of hauling huge trawling nets through the seas with a high energy expenditure. This would also improve the quality of the fish. "In other words, a win-win situation", he concludes.

He sees the alliance between the fishing lobby and politics that prevents rapid progress as problematic. The fishing lobby has a one-sided focus on the immediately achievable yield and is not interested in what happens afterwards. The politicians haven't a clue and follow the lobbyists. Subsidies are a further evil, as they make it worthwhile to catch even unprofitable fish. "This is a sure recipe for the collapse of the stocks", prophecies Froese. If the subsidies were cut, two thirds of all fishers would have to give up, because they would immediately be in the red. A good example of how things can be done better is New Zealand. The fishing industry was reformed there at a very early stage, and the fishers in the meantime are generating a profit margin of roughly 40%. "In the EU, despite subsidies, the margin lies between 0 and 4%", recounted Froese spelling out the difference.

Even just a few years of reduced fishing quantities would suffice to allow the stocks to recover. "It sounds insane, but economically speaking it would make sense: if the fishers paused for one or two years, they would have larger catches in the years after – and higher profits." However, Froese is doubtful of the feasibility: "We have a planned economy in the fishing industry. The decision on how much can be caught comes from above, ecology is not taken into account."

Current EU reforms a step in the right direction
Despite all this, Europe would be in a good position to push-start changes with a global impact. The EU fleet, according to Director Jeub, has the fourth largest catching potential worldwide and operates in all the seas. The EU furthermore maintains 22 bilateral fishing agreements with third countries and is by far the largest importer of fishery products. To live up to its responsibility, the EU has introduced reforms and ensured that scientifically based management plans were introduced. "The times in which the politicians flew in the face of scientific recommendations are over", explained Jeub.
It is important, he says, to change the practice of discarding catches. The European fishers are being successively obliged to bring almost their entire catch on land. The fundamental reform of fishery monitoring with an integrated inspection system, modern instruments and deterrent sanctions is also making itself positively felt. However, illegal fishing still remains a major problem. "This accounts for approximately 30% of all fish caught worldwide", complained Jeub. For certain types, such as tuna, which can fetch up to as much as €100,000 for an adult fish, the incentive is high. The effective fight to crack down on illegal fishing is an international challenge, but not all countries take adequately decisive action to combat it.

Consumers are over-challenged
Marine biologist Menn admits that the EU has made a step forward with its fisheries policies. However, the solution for the protection of the seas only works in cooperation with the fishing industry, the food retailing industry and the consumers. The example of tuna demonstrates how the customer at the counter is over-challenged by the situation. "There are seven different kinds, you really have to deal with this in detail if you want to make the right decision", acknowledged Menn. In view of the numerous quality and sustainability seals, it is also difficult to keep track of everything, especially as none of these seals covers all the relevant aspects in the eyes of Greenpeace. "The fact that it is difficult does not mean it is impossible", said Menn and drew attention to the fish guidebook by Greenpeace.

It is also clear that aquacultures are not the solution to the fishing crisis. There actually are ecologically sustainable aquacultures that are stocked, for example, with fish that feed on plants or are fed with fish waste. However, most of these cultures tend to exacerbate the problem even further, as Froese made clear: "For some species, five times more fish must be invested than are actually harvested." Only the most technically advanced aquacultures that account for a fraction of the global economy can distinctly reduce this negative quota. Aquacultures, as net fish consumers, therefore contribute to over-fishing. There is no way around the protection of the seas if we want to continue eating fish in the long run. The people most strongly affected once again are not the Europeans but the people in Africa, who are increasingly coping with droughts as a result of climate change. Fish in the African countries is an important protein resource when agriculture is weak. They need healthy fish stocks and not European trawlers fishing along their coasts.

Positive examples such as those of New Zealand confirm very clearly that solutions exist today already. Successful implementation is being foiled by short-term economic interests. If it proves possible to correctly educate all the relevant players and above all the consumers, considerable progress can be made very quickly in the fishing industry.

The next dialogue forum will take place on 25 March under the title of " How 'organic' is organic food?"