The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Recent Article in Economist Broadly Addresses Ocean Policies

Last week The Economist published Getting Serious about Overfishing, an article meant to address some of the pressures on global fish stocks. The piece is quite different than its headline as it focuses on regulations across a broad spectrum of ocean issues from fishing to climate change to plastic pollution and beyond.

When addressing fishing regulations, the author was very skeptical of quota systems. Theoretically they could work, as has been the case in US fisheries, but quotas encourage bad fishing habits, the authors suggested. “Because they want to land the largest fish they can find, fishers throw back undersized specimens, which often die as a result. And because fish mix, species caught by accident are thrown back if a fisher has no quota for them.” More damning is the criticism of management authorities that set quotas. “Quotas are also often badly set. Regulators and politicians pander too much to powerful fishing interests.”

CFoodUW has featured a number of perspectives on quota systems – they are controversial, but usually improve fish stocks.

Marine protected areas, specifically “no-take zones” were viewed as a more effective management tool. “Such zones provide breathing spaces, or breeding spaces, in which stocks can recover.” High seas closures in particular, “have been successful,” but, “the countries that dominate fishing in international waters would never stomach such a ban.”

CFoodUW has featured several scientific perspectives critical of MPAs, including a feature on closing the high seas.

The author also fails to differentiate between fish stocks and fish biomass, implying that if some percent of stocks are overfished, that percent of seafood is unsustainable. In reality, fish stocks vary dramatically in size, with the world’s largest stocks being generally more sustainable. Often more management and enforcement effort is concentrated on these larger stocks meaning more biomass is sustainable. For example, in the USA, 16% of fish stocks are considered overfished, however only a few percent of USA-caught fish biomass is “red” by Seafood Watch standards.

The Economist article is incredibly broad and attempted to tie together so many different aspects of fisheries sustainability that it may have missed the details necessary to accurately present some of its claims in regards to fishery policy. However, the concern over climate change and ocean acidification is good to see in a mainstream publication.

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