Overfishing | Viva! - The Vegan Charity


The sea and me

The growing devastation caused by overfishing shows no signs of being remedied as politicians put the telescope to their blind eye


Fishing is in my blood! Or at least it was. I was brought up in what was the largest fishing port in the world – Grimsby. The clatter of ‘lumper’s’ clogs on paving stones was my alarm clock and the aroma of decaying fish wafted around my house whenever there was a Westerly wind, which was most of the time.

I have been to sea and have watched as the ‘cod end’ on the trawl is opened to release a cascade of flapping, writhing, gasping creatures on to the deck, thrashing around, unable to breathe in an alien environment.

I have watched razor-sharp gutting knives plunging into pulsating bodies and disembowelling them and I have seen the myriad of unwanted creeping, crawling, and scuttling creatures that constitute bycatch. They are shovelled back into the sea to die. This vandalism is re-enacted daily by Britain’s 7,000 fishing vessels – hundreds of thousands across the globe.

There is a unique culture surrounding fishing and fishermen which I understand and empathise with but am not seduced by. Fishing has brought the world’s oceans to the brink of collapse and is no longer acceptable.

The Canadian experience illustrates why. In the 1960s, 800,000 tonnes of cod were dragged from the sea annually off Newfoundland but by 1980 had reduced to a ‘sustainable’ catch of 250,000 tonnes.

In 1992, the cod disappeared from these vast and once teeming waters. Scientists said they would recover but they didn’t and now European cod stocks are heading in a similar direction.

But what made me rethink fishing was a solitary little orange gurnard. I watched aboard a South-coast trawler as the catch was sorted. A gurnard detached herself from the other fish and ‘walked’ across the deck, looking for a rock to hide under using bones of her pectoral fins that have evolved to look and act like legs.

She was retrieved and tossed into a bin where she slowly suffocated. As her life ebbed away, so did the extraordinary colours that had shimmered in the sunlight. The pearlescent orange of her body became a dull, ruddy brown; the translucent aquamarine, turquoise and deep pink bands on her fins faded to nothing and her bright eyes dulled with death.

This utterly beautiful little creature is deemed almost valueless but as I watched, I realised just how important her life was – to herself and to the interdependence of life beneath the waves.

In 2002, the United Nations declared that 75 per cent of the world’s fisheries were either fully exploited or over exploited. In 2003, the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) declared that 82 per cent of fish stocks were on the road to extinction. But still the fishing continues.

When one species declines, the industry moves on to another. In the 1980’s they discovered unknown fish in the darkest, coldest, deepest depths where lives are extraordinarily long and reproduction remarkably slow. In just a few short years they have almost been exterminated.

About 830,000 tonnes of fish are landed annually in the UK. Incredibly, a similar quantity of fish throughout EU waters are shovelled back into the sea, dead or dying because they are too small or are in excess of the quota. That’s quotas for you!

No ecosystem can indefinitely sustain such an onslaught. Oceans soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and are the major source of the world’s oxygen. To trash them with such disregard is to court disaster!

One of the supposed solutions to overfishing is aquaculture – fish farming. There is the morality of cramming together thousands of free-roaming creatures such as salmon, trout and cod in cages. There is disease, antibiotic use and dreadful pollution. And there is the fact that for every ton of farmed fish produced, three to four tonnes of wild fish are caught as food for them. Fish farming is part of the problem not the cure.

There is a solution, of course – stop eating any creature that comes from the sea. You cannot be green and do otherwise.

Tony Wardle

Click here to read more about Viva!'s campaigns against fishing.