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Global Fishing Fleets
Credit: Cavan Images via Getty

Global Fishing Fleets

Call to action:

Halt extractive fishing fleets in our oceans to restore marine ecosystems, cut carbon emissions, boost local harvests, and help end a modern-day form of slavery.

Seas are a critical source of protein for billions of people. Small-scale fishing provides work or subsistence harvests to over 100 million people. Over the past three decades, however, the number of over-harvested fish stocks have more than tripled due to industrial-scale fishing, risking permanent loss of iconic species such as Atlantic cod, bluefin tuna, and a wide range of sharks. The unchecked expansion of the global fishing fleet, often with government support, is largely responsible for this state of affairs, including destructive harvesting practices like bottom-trawling and shark finning. Carbon emissions from industrial fishing fleets around the world has more than quadrupled since 1950. The damage fleets do to fish populations disrupts their critical role as biological pumps of blue carbon into the deep ocean. Forced labor and debt bondage on industrial fishing vessels are so extensive that some scientists estimate that nearly a third of the fleet is engaged in slavery at sea.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn more about problems caused by the global fishing fleet. It’s generally not small-scale fishers or well-managed regional fisheries that cause serious problems for the world’s oceans. The major damage is caused by industrial-scale fleets. China maintains the largest fleet in the world. The five main challenges to sustainable catches are:

Eat lower on the marine food chain. Eating fish like swordfish, tuna, or sharks has a disproportionately negative impact on the environment and can expose consumers to higher concentrations of contaminants like mercury, which bioaccumulate in the flesh of fish higher in the food chain. Shark finning for shark fin soup is a particularly wasteful and damaging practice.

  • Algae oil supplements have just as many omega-3s as krill/fish oil (algae is where the fish get their omega-3s too). Some brands to try: Wholier, Iwi, Nordic Naturals.
  • Herbivorous fish like tilapia and catfish take fewer resources from the environment to grow and are thus less wasteful to eat.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium produces Seafood Watch, a searchable guide to the sustainability of fish that you are likely to encounter at a restaurant or supermarket.
  • A wide variety of consumable seaweed products are listed in Ocean Farming Nexus.

Sign up for a community supported fishery. CSFs were inspired by community supported agriculture. They eliminate many of the worst practices from the industry by connecting individual consumers to small-scale fishers engaging in best practices. Members of a CSF receive regular shipments of fresh, locally caught servings of the fish or shellfish that are most abundant.

  • Dock to Dish in New York State connects Long Island fishers to the largest metropolitan area in the United States.
  • Other CSFs can be found in Maine, California, North Carolina, Alaska, and the UK, and many other locations around the world.
  • The Local Catch Network works across North America promoting community supported fisheries and is a great resource for finding sustainable local seafood.

Avoid prawns and shrimp unless absolutely clear about their sourcing. The vast majority of prawns and shrimp harvested around the world come either from destructive and bycatch-intensive bottom trawlers, some of which engage in slavery, or from polluting shrimp farms created through the destruction of sensitive habitat such as the mudflats needed by endangered migratory shorebirds or mangrove forests (see Mangroves Nexus).

  • In an FAO ranking of the most bycatch-intensive fisheries, the top nine were all engaged in shrimp trawling.
  • Shrimp farms pollute coastal waterways and are responsible for the destruction of mangrove forests, even when they are set up adjacent to mangrove forests. They often lead to land subsidence or saltwater intrusions into inland aquifers, harming coastal communities.
  • There are relatively sustainable ways to harvest wild shrimp or prawn populations. In the Pacific Northwest, many fishers going after the large spot shrimp use pots to precisely target the underwater rocky slopes and ledges that the species prefers.

Speak out. Taking a stand against the excesses of the global fishing fleet can take many forms, from signing a petition to leading a march.

  • Through legal proceedings and petitions, activists were able to reform fishing rights in the UK in 2013. Previously, just a single industrial vessel owned 23 percent of the fishing rights in UK waters, more than five times the quota allocated to all vessels under seven meters in length.
  • Moved by the plight of declining salmon stocks and the looming extinction of southern resident orca whales in Washington State, two young activists created an award-winning film and organized a 22-day march, successfully raising awareness.
  • The Blue Planet Society has a long history of organizing large petitions to help protect marine systems. They currently are collecting signatures for petitions to save dolphins and whales, bluefin tuna, and sharks.

Join up. A number of organizations could use your help or donations.

Groups

Fishers

Embrace precision fishing. A variety of new techniques that minimize bycatch have emerged.

  • Circular hooks decrease the rate at which sea turtles, especially the vulnerable loggerhead sea turtle, ingest hooks on fishing lines and die.
  • Turtle excluder devices have been required by shrimp trawlers in the U.S. since 1987, and significantly reduce sea turtle mortality. This success still needs to be replicated in some countries around the world, and in other fisheries in the U.S.
  • Shrimp trawling nets with large mesh top panels can reduce bycatch of juvenile halibut, redfish, and polar cod with no loss of shrimp.
  • Antishark hooks have been around since at least 2011. Researchers have shown they work for spiny dogfish and bonnetheads (two species of sharks), but not the Greenland shark. Still, they should be required in any long-line industry that has significant shark bycatch.
  • Learn more in Ocean Farming Nexus.

Be a voice against industry excess. Voices from within the fishing industry are especially powerful for creating change.

  • Speak out against harmful and anticompetitive fishing subsidies, especially from the top culprits: China, Japan, Korea, and Russia. While a partial agreement was reached by members of the World Trade Organization in June 2022 to end some harmful fishing subsidies, an agreement on other subsidies remained elusive.
  • Outlets like Mongabay and Oceans Inc. have a strong track record of helping tell the stories of whistleblowers who have personally seen or experienced the excesses of the industry.
  • Whistleblowers working on Chinese vessels that fish in Africa under a local flag have been instrumental in revealing how official agreements between countries turn into illegal harvesting practices at sea.

Go independent or small scale. Industrial fishing is the central problem facing our ocean life, not smaller, independent operators.

Nonprofits

Continue effective education campaigns. Awareness of just how overfished our oceans are is due in large part to the efforts of nonprofit organizations.

  • The Blue Marine Foundation partnered up in the creation of the documentary The End of the Line which educated millions on the global extent of overfishing.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has steered millions of consumers to more sustainable fish options at the supermarket and restaurants.
  • The Marine Stewardship Council created classroom tools for marine education.

Help develop monitoring and enforcement tools. Modern technology has opened up new tools for cracking down on the global fishing fleet.

Hold the fishing industry and retailers to account through pressure campaigns. There is a growing awareness among consumers that all is not well in the oceans thanks in part to nonprofit-led education campaigns.

  • Greenpeace’s Carting Away the Oceans rankings were successful for pushing retailers into making commitments to transparently stocking only products that were caught or raised according to best practices.
  • A pressure campaign pushed the largest tuna company in the world, Thai Union, to adopt more sustainable practices and push for broader change in the tuna market, including addressing problematic harvest techniques, transshipments, and labor issues.
  • The Marine Protected Areas Nexus includes nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Marine Conservation Institute pushing for the creation of new MPAs.

Advocate for smarter policies. Many nonprofits have had success in pressuring policymakers and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). More effort is needed.

Companies

Source seafood responsibly. Resources exist to help companies—from distributors to retailers to restaurants—source their seafood sustainably.

Invest in and market products from lower on the food chain. Fish protein and supplements can be derived from algae or other marine life lower on the food chain. Many of these operations, however, need research grants from private entities, and many products are still new to the marketplace.

Be transparent. Most consumers prefer sustainable options when available. Without transparent labeling, those choices are harder to make.

  • The Ocean Disclosure Project is an NGO venture that helps companies like supermarkets disclose information about their seafood.
  • An article in Supermarket Perimeter breaks down how retailers can be more transparent in their seafood labeling.
  • Whole Foods has received plaudits for its transparent labeling of seafood products and offers a good model to follow.

Governance

Shut down the high seas to fishing. The biggest action that governments can take is to agree to end all fishing in international waters beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that extend from the shores of every country with a coastline. Negotiations that would create a legal mechanism for establishing large Marine Protected Areas are ongoing. Reasons include:

  • Most of the high seas have very little primary productivity due to low nutrient levels at depths where the sun can reach.
  • Ending fishing in international waters would paradoxically boost global catch of migratory fish species by up to 30 percent, and allow that catch to take place closer to shore, thereby ending some of the most fossil-fuel-intensive fisheries on the planet and doubling profitability.
  • Negotiations have been ongoing for ten years. Despite an inconclusive final round of talks in March 2022, the newly formed High Ambition High Seas Coalition, which consists of fifty countries, including the entire EU, is pushing hard for talks to be concluded in a way that benefits biodiversity on the high seas. Bringing China onboard to an international high-seas treaty is both a critical and daunting task.
  • Pew Charitable Trusts created an online brief ahead of the most recent round of negotiations, outlining what’s at stake.

Reform Regional Fisheries Management Organizations. RFMOs have mostly proven ineffective at preventing overfishing, leading many, including the United Nations General Assembly, to point out the need for reform.

  • RFMOs need to adopt ecosystem-based management approaches that ensures the future of a fish stock by factoring in environmental shocks, robustness of prey populations, and the overall health of ecosystems.
  • A 2009 study found that out of firty-eight fish stocks managed by RFMOs on the high seas, thirty-two had either critically low numbers or were actively being overfished.
  • One underutilized means of improving RFMO effectiveness is to wield trade sanctions and other market measures to bring bad-actor states into line.

Monitor all and ban some transshipments. Some have called for blanket bans on transshipments as a way of reining in IUU fishing and slavery at sea.

End harmful fishing subsidies. International negotiations are required, and they have been stalled for over two decades, with a debate of a draft agreement finally set to occur in June 2022.

  • A major impediment is China, which gives out not only the largest amount of subsidies (nearly $6 billion a year), but also has one of the highest ratios of harmful, capacity-enhancing subsidies to beneficial subsidies that promote conservation or better resource management.
  • Other prominent countries that are giving out more than $1 billion a year in harmful subsidies include Japan, the EU, South Korea, Russia, the U.S., and Thailand.

Ban destructive fishing practices. Some fishing activities are inherently cruel, wasteful, or target species that are so slow maturing that it is essentially impossible to harvest them sustainably.

  • Shark finning involves catching sharks, cutting off their fins, and throwing the rest of the live animal overboard to die. This is done to feed demand for shark fin soup, mainly in China, Taiwan, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Shark fins and meat often contain high concentrations of mercury and the neurotoxin BMAA. Fortunately, demand is declining, in no small part due to a campaign led by basketball star Yao Ming. China has banned shark fin soup at official events and faux shark fins have been developed as a substitute ingredient for the dish. Bans on the trade of shark fins have emerged in many countries and U.S. states, but more are needed.
  • A number of fish species that live in the deep ocean waters take decades to mature and are thus highly susceptible to overfishing. The slimehead (better known by its marketing name, orange roughy) can live up to two hundred years. These species are usually caught by bottom trawling with weighted nets and is thus inherently unsustainable.

Establish stricter Marine Protected Areas. Currently, very little of the ocean is protected from fishing. Some MPAs actually allow forms of fishing. The World Parks Congress called for 30 percent of the ocean to be strictly protected by 2030, a goal that has become a rallying cry. Balancing that goal with the needs of coastal communities, especially Indigenous and subsistence communities, will require careful but feasible tradeoffs.

Bad Actors

Corporations that engage in high-seas fishing with track records of extreme labor abuses include:

  • Dalian Ocean Fishing, a Chinese firm engaged in lethal high-seas fishing under slavery-like conditions. The directors are Yingchun Yi, Li Li, and Yanyan Liu. The company’s email contact is webadmin@chinatuna.net. The company’s phone number is 86-41182658080.
  • Thai Union Group, one of the largest fishing conglomerates in the world (and owner of the brand Chicken of the Sea), some of whose vessels engage in slavery at sea and IUU fishing. Its CEO is Thiraphong Chansiri. His email is chansiri@mail.thaiunion.co.th. His phone number is 66 34 816 500.
  • Zhoushan Zhenyang DWF Ltd, a firm that received the lowest score by far out of 180 distant-water fishing firms rated for compliance by China’s Ministry of Agriculture. The general manager is Yazhong Weng. The company’s email is zslgroup@mail.zsptt.zj.cn. The company’s number is 86-580-3665-682.

Seafood retailers that stubbornly refuse to engage in transparency or removing unsustainable fish from their shelves include:

  • Wakefern, the umbrella company behind ninety-six ShopRite and Price Rite stores that received the very lowest score among U.S. retailers in Greenpeace’s 2018 Carting Away the Oceans initiative. The CEO is Joseph Colalillo. His email is joseph.colalillo@wakefern.com. His phone number is 908-527-3300.
  • Trader Joe’s has been criticized for its poor transparency and lack of sustainability labeling. Trader Joe’s CEO is Dan Bane. His email is dbane@traderjoes.com. His phone number is 626-599-3700.

Learn

Listen

Gone Fishing (Council on Foreign Relations, 35 mins.)

An End to Overfishing (NOAA, 11 mins.)

Resources

The Sea Around Us (University of British Columbia)

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