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Overfishing is a fixable problem. So let’s fix it — now


Rupert Howes

Chief Executive, MSC (Marine Stewardship Council)

Our oceans are under threat from overfishing. Better enforcement of regulations is needed, and consumers should only buy fish from sustainable sources.

The news from our oceans is grim. Rupert Howes, Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), puts it in context: “a third of fish stocks are overfished globally and, while progress is being made in the Global North, the situation is worsening in the Global South, where most of the world’s seafood is caught. Add to that climate change, ocean acidification and illegal fishing and we have a real crisis on our hands,” he says. 

Three-fold increase in overfishing since 1970

Global seafood production has increased five-fold since the 1950s, with an estimated 4.6 million boats now fishing around the planet. This growing demand for fish has contributed to a three-fold increase in overfishing since 1970. Unsustainable fishing depletes precious fish stocks, harms ecosystems and ultimately means that our oceans will be less abundant and productive for future generations. 

It’s not just our oceans that are affected by overfishing. “Fish is a very low-carbon source of protein,” says Howes. “If we decimate fish stocks, we’ll have to clear more land for farming, use more intensive agriculture methods and create more carbon emissions to fulfil the global requirement for protein. So, for humanity’s sake, it’s absolutely critical we manage our oceans sustainably.” 

Overfishing is a global issue

Addressing the challenge of unsustainable fishing requires global collaboration with global solutions. 

Despite the enormity of the challenge, there are grounds for optimism. 193 nations have signed up to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Framework – a route map for humanity to protect the planet, eradicate poverty and deliver prosperity for all. SDG 14, ‘Life Below Water’ has several ambitious targets including ending overfishing and illegal and destructive fishing practices by 2020. 

While this deadline is ambitious, progress has been, and continues to be, made with organisations like the MSC helping to galvanise change.

The time to act is now

There are many reasons to be hopeful, says Howes. Fish stocks are incredibly resilient and can bounce back with effective management. He points out that we know exactly what the problem is and what to do about it. Still, to deliver real, lasting change, the time for talking has to stop, and action has to start. Urgently.

“There isn’t one silver bullet to solve this problem,” explains Howes. “Instead, we need to scale workable solutions. We need governments and, critically, the regional fisheries management organisations to implement and enforce sound fisheries policies and to agree quotas and rules based on scientific advice. And we need international co-operation to eradicate illegal fishing.

Choose sustainable fish with the blue tick

Howes notes, “it’s not just governments and institutions that need to act. The market, including the retail and food service sector, and critically – consumers – must demand sustainable and traceable seafood choices. The more the supply chain rewards and demands sustainable fishing, the more incentive there is for fisheries to improve their performance.” A recent 2018 survey found that 72% of seafood consumers believe that in order to save the ocean, we must consume seafood only from sustainable sources. This is a powerful message that needs to be heard at a global level.

Certification as a workable solution 

To that end, credible certification labelling programmes, such as that run by the MSC, are vital. Independently verified sustainable seafood labels enable well-managed fisheries to demonstrate their activities are sustainable to retailers and, ultimately, consumers. The MSC Fisheries Standard is used to assess if a fishery is well-managed and sustainable; while seafood sold with the MSC blue tick means it was caught by a responsible fishery in a sustainable way.

“There’s growing evidence that MSC certification incentivises real and lasting change in the way our oceans are fished,” says Howes. “When major retailers or food service sector companies say to their suppliers: ‘We care about the oceans and we’re not going to buy your seafood unless you can provide assurances that it’s from sustainable and traceable sources,’ that provides an incredibly powerful incentive for fisheries to improve their performance where needed.”

How you can make sure you don’t support overfishing

Seafood consumers have a crucial role to play. “They can look for the blue label to reward fisheries that are fishing sustainably, and so incentivise others to improve,” says Howes. “Without that assurance, consumers could be inadvertently supporting overfishing and practices that damage the ocean environment’’.

With 16% of wild seafood catch certified or in assessment, the MSC is helping the seafood sector to move in a positive direction – one that will help achieve the ambitious SDG goals that governments have set for themselves.

“It’s imperative we put the focus on sustainable fishing. And to be optimistic, with the SDG framework in place, increasing political will, and a global call to action from consumers to retailers, there has never been a better time to fix this fixable problem.”

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