Fact-checking George Monbiot’s ‘Stop eating fish’ opinion in The Guardian

The headline of George Monbiot’s latest opinion piece in The Guardian reads: ‘Stop eating fish. It’s the only way to save the life in our seas.’ We’ve seen our share of terrible headlines, but this one is “Dewey Defeats Truman” bad.

When wrong information about fisheries and sustainability is promoted in mainstream press, it is usually a passing reference to an old fishery myth or a misunderstanding of what fully-fished means. Sometimes we ignore the misinformation, sometimes we email the author, every so often we begrudgingly become reply-guys on twitter, but rarely have we ever felt compelled to write an entire blog.

Presenting an ‘opinion’ that has little to no factual backing is presenting something in bad faith—a dishonest tactic meant to gaslight the public and hijack civil discourse. Hiding falsehoods behind “I’m just stating an opinion” can also be dangerous. Calling out these bad faith opinions is an important part of functioning democratic societies so here we are: a fact-check of every statement made by Monbiot.

Unhindered by regulation, driven by greed, the fishing industry is the greatest threat to our oceans.

Were we to become fully aware of our predicament, we would demand systemic change. Systemic change is highly threatening to those who own the media. So they distract us with such baubles as a royal baby and a vicious dispute between neighbours about a patio. I am often told we get the media we deserve. We do not. We get the media its billionaire owners demand.

  • This is a correct statement. Systemic change is necessary to reverse climate change and create more sustainable food and agriculture policies.

…the seas. Here, life is collapsing even faster than on land. The main cause, the UN biodiversity report makes clear, is not plastic. It is not pollution, not climate breakdown, not even the acidification of the ocean. It is fishing.

  • This is a willfully ignorant interpretation of the UN biodiversity report. The report summarized the number of animals listed as vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered.
Threatened species by taxa from IPBES report
IPBES
  • Note that bony fishes have lowest percentage of threatened species though sharks and ray are concerningly data-deficient.
  • It is factual to say that most of the declines of marine animals were caused by overfishing, but it is not factual to say marine life is declining more than terrestrial life.
  • I would also point out to Monbiot that fish reproduce differently than most other animals. Rebuilding a fish population is much easier and faster than rebuilding nearly any other kind of animal population on the planet. No marine fish has ever gone extinct due to fishing, and it would be very unlikely that one did.

An investigation by Greenpeace last year revealed that 29% of the UK’s fishing quota is owned by five families, all of whom feature on the Sunday Times Rich List. A single Dutch multinational, operating a vast fishing ship, holds a further 24% of the English quota. The smallest boats – less than 10 metres long – comprise 79% of the fleet, but are entitled to catch just 2% of the fish.

  • The way that fishing quota is divided up can be an equity issue, but Monbiot makes no mention of how quota was originally divided. Unjust fishing quota distribution is bad, but concentration can also happen when smaller boats sell their quota to larger boats. Generally, fishing quota is a safe, sustainable way to manage fishing.
  • Vilifying fishing for using a quota management system is ridiculous.
  • Having fishing quota concentrated makes management easier as there are fewer actors to regulate.

The same applies worldwide: huge ships from rich nations mop up the fish surrounding poor nations, depriving hundreds of millions of their major source of protein, while wiping out sharks, tuna, turtles, albatrosses, dolphins and much of the rest of the life of the seas. Coastal fish farming has even greater impacts, as fish and prawns are often fed on entire marine ecosystems: indiscriminate trawlers dredge up everything and mash it into fishmeal.

The high seas – in other words, the oceans beyond the 200-mile national limits – are a lawless realm. Here fishing ships put out lines of hooks up to 75 miles long, which sweep the sea clean of predators and any other animals that encounter them. But even inshore fisheries are disastrously managed, through a combination of lax rules and a catastrophic failure to enforce them.

  • Longlines have a higher bycatch rate than many other kinds of gear, but again, the counterfactual here is how many animals would be lost if we produced that food on land? The answer is much more. Terrestrial agriculture has caused more extinctions than any other human activity since civilization started.
  • 33% of fisheries are unsustainable, while 67% are fished sustainably. Most of the largest fisheries are managed sustainably so the amount of sustainable consumed seafood by weight is much higher than 67%. A rough estimate would say that around 82% of consumed seafood is sustainable.

[Monbiot mentions a lot of EU and UK fisheries in several paragraphs]

  • I am not an expert in EU or UK fisheries, but Griffin Carpenter is and here is what he said about Monbiot’s take:

What makes all this so frustrating is that regulating the fishing industry is both cheap and easy. If commercial fishing were excluded from large areas of the sea, the total catch would be likely, paradoxically, to rise, due to what biologists call the spillover effect. Fish and shellfish breed and grow to large sizes in the reserves, then spill over into surrounding waters. Where seas have been protected in other parts of the world, catches have grown dramatically. As a paper in the journal PLOS Biology shows, even if fishing was banned across the entire high seas – as it should be – the world’s fish catch would rise, as the growing populations would migrate into national waters.

There are almost no fish or shellfish we can safely eat.

Save your plastic bags by all means, but if you really want to make a difference, stop eating fish.

  • If you really want to make a difference, get informed and trust science and expertise over the opinion of George Monbiot.

I ran out of steam there at the end. Here are the main takeaways:

  • Bad faith arguments are bad.
  • Opinions without factual backing are bad.
  • Protecting biodiversity is good.
  • Seafood provide low-impact protein to the world. Replacing seafood with plant-based protein would cost the world far more in deforestation and biodiversity loss than not fishing.
  • Fishery management tools work: We don’t need to close the oceans, we just need to improve management and use proper tools. This is not necessarily an easy or simple solution, but there are several examples of fishery improvements thanks to improved management.

Have a great weekend everybody!

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max studied environmental perception & policy in grad school. He thinks a lot about how other people think about the planet. He is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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6 Responses

  1. Max, (Barton Seaver sent me here via instagram)

    in relation to Monbiot’s article, can I ask
    is trawling for scallops highly destructive or can it be sustainable…..?

    And labelling organisations for sustainability of wild fish….
    the fish that he mentions that do get an MSC certification do then get hammered as consumers think they are an ethical choice; are these bodies ‘Green washing’ for the fishing industry or are these organisations independent?

    best
    Adey

    1. Hi Adey,

      Trawling or dredging for scallops is almost always sustainable. The Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program lists nearly every kind of scallop fishery as a “best choice” or “good alternative”. See here: https://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/groups/scallop?q=Scallop&t=scallo

      MSC is an independent organization, we really like what they do and feel 100% comfortable recommending any seafood that has its label. That isn’t to say that seafood not labeled with MSC is unsustainable – getting MSC certification costs a lot of money in scientist fees and evaluation so the large fisheries can more easily afford it. There are plenty of sustainable fisheries without certification. An easy and quick way to evaluate a fishery’s sustainability is to look at the country of origin. Here is a write up we did of a scientific paper that measured different countries’ sustainability: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/worldwide-fishery-management/

      We also have a whole explainer on labeling fish in grocery stores you might find interesting here: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/seafood-101/labels/

      You can read a longer explanation of why country of origin matters here: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/seafood-101/management-enforcement/

      Let me know if you have any other questions – we’re always happy to help!

      -Max

  2. Good work and much appreciated, but I fear that it’s an uphill struggle to get people to read articles like Monbiot’s critically. A comment (see below) that I posted in the Guardian got 2 likes compared to 320 for a comment about how terrible dredging is.
    “Unfortunately the debate about fisheries, like much else, has become highly polarized and I’m afraid that it is hard to take articles like this one (i.e. Monbiot’s) seriously. It is quite true that the regulation of fisheries in European waters has not yet curbed excessive levels of exploitation or eliminated illegal practices, but it has come a very long way. So what would happen if we believed the headline and stopped eating fish? It would deprive us of a wonderful food supply that is in many cases being harvested sustainably. It would deprive many people of a useful livelihood that they love. It would require the shortfall in food supply (~15% of global protein) to be made up from terrestrial sources – is more factory farming really a good thing? It would be a kick in the teeth to the progress that has already been made in making marine harvesting sustainable. I suggest you go and read sources other than this article before you decide.”

  3. Hi Max,

    “No marine fish has ever gone extinct due to fishing, and it would be very unlikely that one did.”

    Do you not believe that a species could become extinct with completely unregulated fishing pressure? I.e. If commercial fisheries weren’t closed for Atlantic Salmon and aquaculture didn’t take the lead on farming these fish, do you think salmo salar would exist today?

    Thanks,
    Jacob

    1. Thats an interesting question. There are still a few wild Atlantic Salmon runs, though I do not believe any are commercially fished. Salmon are a marine fish, but are highly dependent on freshwater river health for reproduction. Most scientists would argue that declines in Pacific salmon have been mostly due to freshwater disturbance rather than fishing.

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