Growing up in a coastal fishing village in Greece, fishing was always something natural for me and my friends, some of whom came from fishing families and have actually become fishermen themselves. Our family sailing vacations evolved mostly around some sort of fishing or underwater exploring – and sailing which as a matter of fact I hated, yes I very much disliked sailing for more then 2 hours, I still do but gained more patience.
From my early memories one particular thing always strikes out – how the fish have become smaller in number. This started with random stories from my grandpa and other older fishermen, to my dad complaining and finally to myself seeing it happen right there in front of me. Everyone had been saying the same thing: back in the days there was so much more and bigger fish blah-blah-blah… Through my early teenage years it didn’t really bother me, because a) I didn’t care enough, b) I was still catching plenty of fish, c) it’s hard for the human brain to acknowledge small changes, aka climate change, d) perhaps it is also easier to ignore things rather than taking responsibility.
Back when I was really young, I remember my dad often being ordered by my mum to stop fishing as soon as we had enough (I didn’t always agree). Often and despite my mum’s imposed quota, we would still catch more then enough and shared our catch (we would never throw it out, that was a taboo). But year after year the fish was getting less, and with it the dolphins and other marine life. We would still catch enough, but not too much anymore – no quota needed. Now we would often catch some plastic instead, which indeed annoying, wasn’t too concerning to me. It was to my parents to be fair, but not to the greater parts of society – not like today.
Time passed, I lost interest in fishing, probably because there wasn’t much to catch and I had started windsurfing to keep myself entertained. Then I was lucky enough to start studying marine sciences while also led to scuba diving. That’s when it struck me – there is a serious issue with our oceans, an emergency, similar to the climate emergency we have the joy of witnessing – no joy that’s just my weird way of writing.
Some not so fun facts:
- Overfishing is real and its happening since the industrial revolution-perhaps earlier?
- There have been entire collapses of fish populations, but also recoveries, along with spectacular examples of marine protected areas.
- Remarkably fish landings (fish caught) globally have not fluctuated remarkably as a response, which might sound good, but is actually very bad.
- Greenhouse gas equivalents from fisheries account for 4% of our global emissions, with a positive trend (Since 1990’s the emissions per caught ton of fish have increased by ~21% [source], due to increased efforts). Research also suggests that bottom trawling alone emits as much CO2 as the aviation industry in one year .
- Demand is so large, that it is driving the effort to catch fish into unprecedented levels, meaning: larger vessels, longer nets/lines, better equipment, larger target areas etc. In other words no fish is safe.
- Fisheries subsidies and tax redemptions on fuel make fishing even cheaper.
- Technology makes targeting fish even easier, so poor fish is fucked.
But why is that important? Fish stocks back in the day would recover by poor luck, or let’s say by the laws of capitalism itself? It would simply become too expensive to catch the few poor fish left, so they would survive and start all over. Fisheries have kind of unknowingly counted on it. It was a risky business back then and it is Russian roulette today. Today, one can spot fish from space or via ecosounding, while prices are often following some weird unrealistic patterns, like tuna prices or shark fins, driving demand crazy. Imagine the motivation to catch a tuna when the reward is that crazy high ($3.1m for an 278kg blue-fin tuna (highest). One can pay a large fishing vessel and crew for months just for one fish) . And with the tuna or shark, consider all the bi-catch. Disaster.
Back to my story. Having learned all the facts and solutions at university, I felt ready to solve the problem, well at least around my home fishing village. The ground was ready (or so I thought) fishermen had been complaining all along, I had some friends from fishing families and most importantly a friend running the local dive centre, who was even more motivated and engaged with the idea of protecting the local environment and enhancing diving and fishing tourism. It sounded like a good plan, we started working on it, mostly my friend from the dive centre, filming the pristine untouched underwater environment along with the destructed by fishing empty landscapes. He then organised a local event to share it with the local community with myself giving a presentation around more sustainable solutions and actions that would allow fish stocks to recover in benefit of all (the idea was to start a fruitful discussion, involving universities and policy makers later on). Although the event was surprisingly well organised and well executed, only a hand full of people showed up, mostly friends and some more concerned citizens, not one active fisherman or representative came. That’s where my patience and motivation unfortunately stopped and this chapter of ‘activism’ ended, the frustration might unfortunately also led to my friend closing his dive centre together with any hope for change.
Now my activism has changed form to jut writing my thoughts here – sad I know. The fish situation around most parts of Greece and the Mediterranean (probably globally) remains sad and in great emergency, with less and less marine life being around. And me and dad complaining of not catching anything.
To be fair and as staying positive really is important, things are changing, people become more mindful. Policies change, protected areas have been created and some seals, although sometimes shot (yes shot – fishermen still hold them responsible for the decrease in fish and the destruction of their nets. Had they only listened to our presentation) are being spotted around my hometown in Greece. I really hope this story will continue in a positive way, but for now however it’s mostly sad. But it’s on us to contribute, creating new stories, making them happy and positive.
At this time you probably wonder if you should or not eat fish? Well maybe I tricked you into believing that I have the answer. Well it really depends what and how much you eat. Ideally we all should not eat fish at all for the next few years, allowing the pristine ecosystem to recover.
But we all know that is not the answer we want to hear. Not everyone is willing to do so (including myself – but I am getting there). If we can’t stop, let’s reduce and be more mindful, take action locally, fight for preservation of our oceans. Our approach is to reduce any animal consumption to a great minimum. Treating fish consumption as a luxury, sort of a privilege, ideally self caught and species that are not under immediate threat like tuna. After all, fish is glorious and pretty important. It gives us joy, it feeds dolphins and seals that arguably give joy to everyone. Moreover they help balance the only and most pristine environment of all, helping us breathe. A healthy ocean is one of the main targets to tackle climate change.
Some good news:
- Protective actions have fast and positive results.
- Light fishing activities can be sort of sustainable.
- Some countries have managed to keep their fishing stocks fairly stable even recovering them from collapses.
- Marine protected areas benefit everyone, even fishermen, if managed correctly.
- Alternative fish products made out of kelp look very promising, with minimal impact, similar taste and nutritional value – also a potential great investment opportunity, similar to meat alternatives.
- Less fish consumption might actually be good for you as they are often quite loaded by heavy pollutants.
You can make yourself familiar with some of the existing fishing methods and their consequences, this might help you choose what could be morally OK when buying or fishing. As per my experience following are some of the best and worse methods :
|More ok methods||Less OK methods||Not OK methods|
|Spearfishing, perhaps the cleanest and most targeted method of fishing. Why? You can actively choose your target/size, you can to some extent make the kill fast and safe while not leaving anything behind. *only OK if still following rules and restraining on volume caught.||Nets and traps, can be to an extent selective but still cause bycatch and entanglement of dolphins, turtles and seals, kill slowly. Contribute to waste plastic pollution in the form of ghost nets. However latest could perhaps be reduced by more mindful practices.||Trawling, especially bottom trawling, insanely destructive and less targeted, comes with large by-catch, destroys benthic species, while releasing CO2.|
|Angling, similar to spearfishing, with however the risks of loosing lines and bites and hurting unwanted fish in the process. *only OK if still following rules and restraining on volume caught .||Long lines, often insanely long with thousands of hugs, target and kill all sort of protected species.|
|Large circling nets, used to trap entire regions, catching everything within. Well you can imagine how that goes.|
|Any illegal fishing, not respecting catch sizes/zones, catch season, limits.|
You might find that most wild fish available on the market comes from some kind of destructive fishing activity. While the real impact is not limited to the piece of final fish product, actually making it to your plate, but also includes : by-catch (fish, seabird, turtles, sharks), pollution (ghost gear), destruction (sea bed, corals) & greenhouse gas emissions. Sorry, I ruined that one for all of us.
Interesting links for further information and motivation towards a greener ocean:
- Any documentary that includes Sir Attenborough. (Our planet, Blue planet 1&2)
- Seaspiracy documentary
- Any oceanography/fishery handbook for a better understanding of this incredible system called ocean.
- Chasing coral documentary
- Mission blue documentary
- A plastic ocean documentary
- Please suggest more…
Personal note: The more I think about it, the more I realise that its probably pure selfishness that is hindering us from pausing fish consumption for a while. I mean its definitely not because we care too much about the fishermen and the associated business that will be lost, its purely because we love to eat fish. Obviously there will be problems with the fishermen etc. and they should be addressed adequately, perhaps subsidised by all of us to continue fishing for plastic or trained in other emerging industries. But apart from the fishing industry, which is arguably struggling already. The benefits would be huge, nature would perish, it would be probably one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Not only for marine life, but for our own survival. While 2-3 years complete stoppage of all commercial fishery would probably be enough for a significant recovery. Our oceans health would improve drastically, aquariums would become obsolete, waters cleaner and clearer. All that would help us mitigate the climate crisis – healthy oceans can absorb more carbon dioxide. Some sort of Paris agreement for the oceans is what is needed. At the bright side we could probably start eating some fish after that again, implementing some fail safe regulations.