Coast KZN

06 Nov 2023

Fishing down the food web: Bye-bye big fish, hello jellyfish and don’t talk about conservation

Don Pinnock (Daily Maverick) Picture: Daily Maverick. Fishing down the food web: Bye-bye big fish, hello jellyfish and don’t talk about conservation

An alien civilisation coming across our solar system would name our planet Ocean, for most of Earth is under water. Being air-breathing and living on the bits that stick out, we mostly regard the vast liquid blue that surrounds us as a beautiful but often scary “other”. Billions of us, however, rely on it for food. This is Part Four of a series about the relationship between the creatures below the sea’s surface and the people in boats who catch them. Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three

Against our technology, fish don’t stand a chance. We are using huge nets; efficient engines that allow boats to stay on the catching grounds for years; supply ships to keep them there; sonar and satellite tracking to know exactly where fish hang out; cold storage ships to keep fish refrigerated for weeks; and tens of thousands of boats in unpoliced open oceans… it’s hunting on steroids.

At that scale we’re not operating within the rhythm and cycles of nature; we’re vacuuming the ocean so fast, we’re driving down to the base of the food chain, leaving no time for stocks to recover. Species by species, catch volumes have been declining since 1996. This cannot end well.

A person who has spent much of his life tracking this process is Dr Daniel Pauly, a professor of fisheries and marine biology at the University of British Columbia. His research has revealed huge flaws in the data that global bodies use to estimate the health of the world’s oceans and has set up the world’s most reliable tracker website to prove it. He was happy to share his findings with Daily Maverick.

Don Pinnock: You work with very large data sets covering an entire planet. What are your key findings concerning the state of fish?

Daniel Pauly: I’m one of the few fishery scientists working on a global scale. Most colleagues conceive fisheries as a local affair – that kind of boat targeting this kind of fish. To understand the state of fish you have to think globally, as we do for the weather system or the financial systems.

People say that fish have no borders but that’s ridiculous, they have borders of temperature, preferred prey, etcetera. It’s the deep-water fishing fleets that don’t have borders. Chinese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Spanish, French. They go wherever fish gather, they move; you can see the clusters of vessels on the Global Fishing Watch tracker. They are the global system and they’re targeting the global south.


state of our oceans© Provided by Daily Maverick

China has the largest deep-sea fishing in the world. (Photo: Supplied)

Don: What are they catching?

Daniel: Basically everything. China is a major player in fisheries, and also a big importer of shark fins. Shark meat is also increasingly consumed, and Brazil, for example, is importing huge quantities of shark meat. The EU, Japan, the US are big fish importers and much of it is coming from Africa, Oceania and South America. But you can’t rely on official catch reporting. South Africa’s Department of Fisheries has more information than it sends to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) database. For instance, subsistence and sports fishing are not reported. It’s a big factor.

Around 400 people from various countries worked for 12 years to establish the corrected catch amounts, which are now on our website. We found that the world catches far more fish than what’s reported. So instead of 80–90 million tonnes a year, the world catch is in fact 130–140 million tonnes a year, which is a 50% under-reporting.

state of our ceans© Provided by Daily Maverick. The rise in Chinese fishing subsidies. (Graphic: Supplied)

Don: You mentioned that another problem was subsidies.

Daniel: Big problem! The large fleets, including those from Asia and Europe, that fish in the Global South, receive enormous government subsidies. They couldn’t cover much of their operating costs without them. If you cannot make money or break even catching the fish that are produced naturally at a given place, then you shouldn’t fish in that place. Either there’s not enough fish for natural reasons, or you’ve depleted the local fish population through overfishing. Nature itself signals that fishing is not sustainable.

With subsidies, you can ignore this and continue operating in overfished or unproductive waters, catching whatever small population remains. Your costs, including fuel and crew expenses, are covered. So essentially, you can continue to overfish without facing the consequences, which would be financial ruin otherwise. Eventually of course you will lose your shirt, but until then you’re stripping everything.

It’s like subsidising Apple to keep producing its original Apple II computer. It’s crazy. Subsidies are not favoured by the conservation community and are opposed by nearly everyone except industry lobbyists. Unfortunately, these lobbyists hold significant power for cultural and political reasons.

Depleting our oceans© Provided by Daily Maverick.We’re fishing down the food web, says Daniel Pauly. (Graphic: Supplied by Daniel Pauly)

Don: So the fishing industry is digging far deeper into fish stocks than they should, preventing the possibility of recovery?

Daniel: Precisely. And it uses dangerous reasoning. There are fishery scientists whom I call Vogons – you know, the bad guys in the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – who defend the industry at all costs and they predicate their argument on profitability alone. They say fisheries are doing fine. In many cases they are, but at what cost? Apart from subsidies, having wiped out the previously abundant large fish, they’re targeting the now profitable squid, crabs, octopus and lobsters that were the food of the big fish.

We’re fishing down the food web on a journey to the bottom. In 1998, I published a paper called Fishing Down Marine Food Webs, which is my most cited paper. It was published in Science and it caused a big stink globally. But it was never accepted by the Vogons, who say the profits of fishing companies are more important than their contribution to food security. In the past, for example in the 1950s, we went after fish that were abundant, including in South Africa and not after invertebrates.

Fishing down the food web happens globally, it’s an incredibly pervasive trend. The large fish have largely gone, just check the IUCN’s Red List for confirmation. Almost all the big fish in the world are on that Red List, including sharks. What’s not there are small species like herring, sardines, anchovies and the like. Actually we’re now replacing sardines with jellyfish in Namibia, right near the bottom of the food chain.

As a matter of priority, we have to rebuild fish populations embedded within functional food webs within “no-take” marine protected areas.

Fishing down the food web: Bye-bye big fish, hello jellyfish and don’t talk about conservation© Provided by Daily Maverick. A sardine catch off India; sardines are being used to make fishmeal to feed farmed species. (Photo: Supplied)

Don: In a recent podcast, you were talking about so-called “trash fish”. What is that?

Daniel: In aquaculture, we farm salmon and other carnivorous fish. These fish are not vegetarian, and so they have to be fed with fishmeal or other forms of proteins. There is more protein that goes into making salmon than the salmon contains. The aquaculture sector does not produce fish. It converts fish of lower price, into pricey fish.

Along the coasts of northwest Africa – specifically Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia – 14 factories popped up over the course of eight or nine years. All these factories produce one thing, fishmeal, which they will tell you is made from trash fish. But these fish are not trash, they are mainly sardine, the staple of local communities.

Don: So what are we looking at up ahead?

Daniel: We will have oceans without big animals, a trend that’s exacerbated by global warming, which is deadly for larger fish. The reason is that warm waters contain less oxygen, and fish require more oxygen when temperatures are high. These two factors put pressure on larger fish, because they have larger bodies but relatively smaller gills. They extract oxygen through their gills, whose supply cannot keep up with the demand of their growing body.

So, you have fisheries depleting the population of larger fish at temperatures making life difficult for big fish. That’s another global squeeze.

Fishing down the food web: Bye-bye big fish, hello jellyfish and don’t talk about conservation© Provided by Daily Maverick. Daniel Pauly warns of a future ocean without big fish, a state that is being exacerbated by global warming. (Photo: The Sea Around

Don: Fifty years from now?

Daniel: If we don’t solve the problem of our global greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll lose most of our fisheries – but by then that will be the least of our concerns. The bigger issue would be the collapse of our food system, which is heavily reliant on agriculture.

In the grand scheme of things, fisheries are a relatively small part of the global food supply compared to staples like wheat and rice. If we haven’t made substantial progress in curbing emissions long before 50 years from now, we’ll face extreme heat waves that will not only kill all the fish but us as well.