“Sustainability” sounds like an ambitious shared goal for the citizens, companies and governments of the world to achieve, but its premise is really quite simple. In terms of producing food from the wild, being “sustainable” means committing to harvesting animals or plants in a way that means you don’t run out of that species or population. It is hardly a bold statement to say “we agree not to catch so much wildlife that we ultimately run out of it”; it’s a commitment to the lowest common denominator, to rational sense.

And yet, in the ongoing developments around its post-Brexit fisheries law (the Fisheries Bill), the UK government has failed to make sustainable fishing a legal requirement. If the UK cannot even commit to avoiding overfishing in law, surely this undermines its other ocean promises, from “Blue Belts” to “Highly Protected Marine Areas”, intended to show strong leadership in marine protection. The UK’s marine biodiversity faces a daunting array of fishing-related challenges, from the heavy reliance of its domestic fleet on seabed-damaging fishing gears to the bycatch risk posed by distant water “supertrawler” vessels. Ensuring the fishing that happens in its waters is sustainable is only the beginning of the journey to safeguard ocean health; far greater tests lie ahead.

75% of the world’s fish catch is unmonitored

Let’s start with maintaining fish populations: despite past pledges, the new Bill will not have sustainability as its “primary objective” and therefore a legal requirement. The UK government insists this is a trivial matter of wording, but laws are strong predictors of the slow and steady drive to restore depleted fish populations. Globally, sustainably managed fisheries are not widespread: 75% of the world’s wild fish catch is unmonitored and the proportion of monitored catches that are sustainable has been declining since the late 1970s. However, there are some success stories and the European Union – for all the flaws of its Common Fisheries Policy – is one of a growing number of large fishing entities, from the USA to New Zealand, that is committed to fishery recovery and beginning to see positive signs, at least in terms of the proportion of managed fish populations no longer at risk of collapse.

 

26 out of 68 critically important fish populations are overfished in the North Sea, despite the rise of sustainably fished populations in Northern Europe

The signal sent by the current Bill is worrying in its potential to disrupt this global progress. In spite of the rise in sustainably fished populations in Northern Europe, 26 out of 68 critically important fish populations (many of which the UK has a significant stake in) remain overfished, including haddock and herring in the Irish Sea and cod and sole in the North Sea. Short-term decision making and political opportunism within the EU continues to see many of these populations subject to fishing catch levels set above the limits they can withstand. There is still much work and international collaboration needed to end overfishing in Northern Europe and the absence of a formal legal basis for sustainability in the UK’s fishery decision-making is therefore a significant step backwards.

Beyond sustainability

But sustainability is a word that only tells half the story. Finfish and shellfish are wildlife. They are the lifeblood of our ocean. Capturing them from the wild (even at “sustainable” levels) can alter the balance of marine ecosystems, making them simpler and less able to cope with change. Where governments and industry choose to extract something from the natural world (like a fish population), it can lead to “collateral damage” to other parts of the ecosystem (like other marine animals or the seabed). In the case of the UK, additional refused amendments to the Fisheries Bill included plans to reduce the impacts of habitat damage from domestic and European bottom-trawling and dredge fleets (that target demersal finfish and shellfish on the seabed) and of bycatch from distant water “supertrawlers” (that target pelagic finfish in the water column).

 

UK Fisheries Bill
75% of the world’s wild fish catch is unmonitored and the proportion of monitored catches that are sustainable has been declining since the late 1970s. Credit: Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock

Like overfishing, destructive fishing is also a global issue; every year, the world’s seabed is bottom-trawled over an area four times larger than the area of forest that is clearcut. Vast swathes of ocean prohibit bycatching endangered species, but there’s not enough observers on board the world’s fleets to guarantee this doesn’t happen. The UK is by no means a leading offender here, but it’s worth noting that, of the five most valuable species landed by domestic vessels in 2019, three (scampi, cod and scallops) are caught using either bottom-trawling or dredging. Tackling “supertrawlers” is an even more complex conservation problem, requiring sustained international collaboration on top of strong domestic legislation in order to avoid displacing these gigantic floating factories to other, poorer nations. Fishing “sustainably” in these instances is just the beginning; relieving the enormous pressure these activities put on the UK’s seabed and non-target species must be the long-term goal.

In its current form, the UK Fisheries Bill does not put nature first. It is a huge missed opportunity to recognise the vital role of a healthy ocean in feeding us. FFI and others in the UK marine conservation sector eagerly await the upcoming return of the Bill to the House of Lords and hope this process provides a chance to better protect the UK’s seabed, species and sustainable fisheries.