Big Fish Fight – will it change anything?

Here in the UK there’s a massive wave sweeping the nation: a demand for a change to the way we destroy fish ‘stocks’. Led by marine biologists who have noted the disastrous collapse in the number of fish in the sea and the way that bycatch and quota limits means that millions of fish are thrown back into the water dead every year, the TV watching public are being shocked out of their complacency, and demanding an end to the pillaging of the sea to feed an ever-fatter population…

Say what? Marine biologists on TV, the public demanding a temporary ban on all fishing until numbers recover, the man in the street swooning at the glory that is a Tuna, one of the most wonderful and perfectly evolved predators in the sea, the discussion around the water-cooler agreeing that instead of us humans viewing everything in the oceans as ‘ours’ and to hell with every other living thing we’re instead going to rein in our colossal appetites and allow the seas to recover…?

No chance. This is the UK. We don’t do science, we do celebrity. These aren’t marine biologists educating the public – these are famous chefs: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (of River Cottage fame), Heston Blumenthal (who has invented new ways to cook sea cucumbers and ‘chocolate starfish’ [sic] specially for this ‘Fish Fight’), Jamie Oliver (the cheery wunderkind who’s Fish Fight programme is trailled with “Jamie Oliver offers ten delicious and easy new recipes that use less-pressured species, including crab, trout, squid, pouting and sardines“), and Gordon Ramsay (who’s hypocrisy knows no bounds as he slams the Chinese for using shark fins while using Endangered Eels – the species was listed as endangered in 2008 after a 90% drop in its population – in his own recipes and championing foie gras).

Yes, chefs who make a great living selling us food inventing new ways to ‘save’ fish by urging us to change our food habits so that instead of only eating Cod and a handful of other species we instead, for example, ‘learn’ to love Coley (which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says has “somehow, over time, slipped from our consciousness”) and every other previously ignored species in the sea. And when a chef says ‘love’ what he really means is ‘eat’.

I don’t want to be completely mean-spirited – after all these guys have at least managed to kickstart a debate that our politicians and fishermen have managed to keep smothered for decades and are at least making a hitherto complacent public realise that there is a problem – but am I really alone (as comments to me on Twitter suggest) in not understanding how urging millions of people to turn from a fish with a low population to a fish with a currently high one and to exploit animals we know virtually nothing about is a long-term fix to the real problem: overfishing and rampant pillaging of the oceans?

What exactly is going to happen if the ‘Fish Fight’ succeeds in sparking a fish feeding frenzy amongst the British public, who now number nearly 62 million and most of whom are more than happy (it seems) to take their scientific advice from non-scientists? The logical conclusion is that we’ll end up with more threatened fish species, not less, more ‘harvesting of resources’ not less, and a public who – appetites whetted – will be on a continual hunt for new tastes to try. Have we learnt nothing from for example the story of the Orange Roughy – a deep-sea fish found off Australia? Prized for its firm flesh and promoted as being ‘new and different’ it was caught in vast numbers, and went from abundant to threatened within just thirty years.

End the pillaging of the oceans by eating more crab, more prawns, more of everything? What that will leave for the wildlife that actually depend on so-called ‘seafood’ isn’t explained. We’re already an obese, over-fed nation that wants for nothing – but how about birds like shearwaters and auks (or penguins in the southern hemisphere), other fish, like tuna and sharks, that actually depend on fish and marine animals to survive? What will they eat when us humans really get stuck into what’s left in the sea (though in reality we needn’t worry about sharks because we’re eating all of them already, and of course we’ve overfished some tuna species so that they’re now rarer than the Tiger)?

One of the main themes of ‘Fish Fight’ is to enforce sustainability. Of course – let’s please do that, but through a vote by a mass of people who despite years of overfishing, warnings from scientists, numerous films and documentaries (the superb ‘End of the Line should be required watching IMHO)’ have to be told about the problems by chefs. I don’t mean to belittle chefs in any way (though I don’t join in the lionising of people who make a very good living finding new ways to use animals for the ephemeral pleasure of ‘taste’), but in fact Hugh F-W reveals his real concerns on his website when he asks visitors to sign a petition with the line that “It’ll take you a few seconds but it could help to ensure we, and our children, continue to eat and enjoy our fish for many years to come”. ‘Ours’?

Yes, let’s fish ‘sustainably’ – but can I ask what ‘sustainable’ means to those suddenly voting for it? Can all these new converts to sustainability define what ‘sustainability’ is? Do most of us even know WHO fixes what level ‘sustainability’ is defined as? Scientists can’t count what’s in the sea (it’s a bit big for that) so often use the figures given to them by the fishing industry to work out what’s left – but does anyone actually know of a fishing industry that adheres to quotas, doesn’t fix figures, doesn’t overestimate ‘stocks’ and under-report catches, and doesn’t put the interests of its members far above the welfare of the fish they hunt and kill in vast numbers?

An example? Check out the disgraceful debacle of pumped egos and misdirection that was last year’s International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna meeting which ended with Birdlife saying, “After a 3-year seabird risk assessment that found tuna and swordfish longline fishing has significant impacts on Atlantic seabird populations, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas failed to act at a recent meeting in Recife, Brazil” and which led The Ecologist to say that “The ICCAT summit on bluefin tuna was stained by a lack of transparency, allegations of illegality and disturbing examples of financial interests trampling over environmental concerns”.

Greenpeace (who support Hugh’s ‘Fish Fight’) said in Dec 2010 that “The EU has utterly failed to manage fishing activities…Fisheries management should be guided by science and not by lobbying power, but ministers are too often dancing to the tune of the powerful fishing industry. Instead of dishing out unsustainable quotas, ministers should end overfishing and scrap destructive boats…Fishing quotas are set too high because politicians are trying to maintain vast fishing fleets that are simply too big and destructive.”

In the ‘Fish Fight’ Jamie Oliver et al are urging the nation’s fish and chip shops to switch from serving Cod to serving Mackerel. If that catches on how will that be any sort of disincentive for eg Iceland – which raised its Mackerel ‘quota’ from 130,000 tonnes last year to 147,000 tonnes in 2010 much to the anger of UK fishermen who would like to do exactly the same – to throttle back?

The RSPB are urging members via Twitter to support the ‘Fish Fight’ despite what I took to be a powerful statement against over-exploitation of the marine environment when they wrote in ‘Safeguard our Sea Life‘ that: “Fishing can be one of the most damaging activities in the marine environment. Over-fishing leads to the depletion of fish stocks, some fishing gears damage seabed habitats, and discarded fishing nets can be lethal, drowning seabirds, seals and dolphins…Shipping creates pollution and there is the risk of oil spills from accidents, while rubbish discarded overboard can end up in the stomachs of marine animals…In addition to these traditional activities, fresh challenges are emerging for our marine environment, with the UK now looking to the sea to provide increasing renewable energy and recreational opportunities…all these different uses will need to be carefully balanced to ensure that the UK’s treasured marine wildlife is not compromised, and that the seas around our coast continue to be rich in wildlife.”

“Continue to be rich in wildlife” while supporting TV campaigns to fish, fish, and fish some more, that urges us to eat species of fish so far deemed unpalatable, and create our own sushi industry with a demand for sea cucumbers and starfish? I’m sorry, perhaps I’m being ignorant – but how does this ensure there is food for our seabirds exactly? In oceans already threatened with acidification or marine pollution do we really know how to keep our seas rich in wildlife as things stand now?


I fully understand the concept of ‘one step at a time’ conservation: the public, so I’ve been told, will not give up eating fish, so conservation needs to take baby steps to at least change their habits. For sure – though I have to say I’m an ordinary member of the public who loved eating fish and ‘seafood’ but stopped once I realised that I was complicit in the destruction of mangroves in Asia by the Tiger Prawn industry, the wrecking of seabeds by bottom-trawlers, the drowning of huge numbers of albatrosses by longlining, the near-extinction of Tuna for sushi, so it can be done if you decide it’s right – but is this the CORRECT step? Is urging us to eat MORE really the way fish conservation needs to be heading? Is treating everything in the ocean as ‘ours’, as something we can ‘eat’, as just another ‘resource’ the best way to recreate a balance between us and the oceans? I know it’s a radical thing to say, but actually we humans don’t have the right to think of every other living thing as only having worth if we can somehow use it.

There are now close to 7 billion of us on the planet, and fish and ‘seafood’ are constantly being touted as something that are ‘ours’ and that we should all ‘enjoy’ into the future. And how will that work exactly? I’m no mathematician but the numbers just don’t add up. As we grow richer, more demanding, more affluent, and more numerous our appetites will only take more from what I believe (though perhaps I need a TV chef to confirm this fact) is a finite planet.

Perhaps I’m just being hugely cynical but I sincerely believe this campaign has the potential to backfire spectacularly, though I would hope rather than just tell me that I am in fact being mean-spirited and foolish someone will point me to data that proves that taking more out of the sea actually means that biodiversity increases. And that getting people who professionally cook pieces of animal are the ones to deliver a conservation message that actually means anything…


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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