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.
- The majority of fisheries are sustainable.
- The greatest threat to our oceans is warm water caused by excess carbon in the atmosphere. A quarter of biodiversity in the ocean is found on coral reefs which are being hit extremely hard by warming-induced bleaching and ocean acidification. Few commercial fisheries impact coral reefs.
- This is a correct statement. Systemic change is necessary to reverse climate change and create more sustainable food and agriculture policies.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wealthy countries stealing fish from poor countries is a travesty and one of the worst examples of injustice in the seafood industry.
- Bycatch is an unfortunate part of fishing and certainly led to the depletion of several species, like sea turtles. However, bycatch peaked in 1989. Since then, fishery management has been much more proactive about preventing bycatch. Sea turtle populations have been significantly increasing for a while, according to the latest data.
- All food has environmental costs. Food from fishing costs the lives of some charismatic megafauna like albatrosses and dolphins, but food from terrestrial agriculture is usually more impactful! Wild-caught fish is, by far, the lowest impact animal protein people can eat.
- If aquacultured fish and prawns were fed plant-based feed instead of fishmeal, the environmental impact would be higher.
- 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.
- I am not an expert in EU or UK fisheries, but Griffin Carpenter is and here is what he said about Monbiot’s take:
On fisheries policy, the state of play is that fish populations in the EU are increasing, but not fast enough to reach the 2020 deadline in the CFP and not at all in the Med. Still, that's *increasing*, which is not the impression you get from the article. https://t.co/kdOz6XrdJf— Griffin Carpenter (@gwcarpenter) May 9, 2019
- Closing the high seas to fishing is a hotly debated topic in fisheries. We have featured 2 different discussions among scientists on our site, one involved the paper he mentions and another is on how high seas fishing contributes to food security.
- The spillover effect has been observed in very small MPAs, but evidence is very limited that the spillover effect happens in large MPAs. Large MPAs are typically a waste of time.
- 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!