The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Scientists Respond to Mark Kurlansky’s Doom & Gloom


Mark Kurlansky, author of the seminal fishery history book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, recently contributed to The Guardian with this article, Enjoy Cod’s Revival, but the Extent of our Ruination of the Sea Remains Unknown.

In it, Kurlansky celebrates the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifying North Sea Cod as a sustainable fishery, but questions the idea of sustainable seafood itself, given the environmental challenges the ocean faces—namely climate change and plastic pollution. Kurlansky also undermines MSC’s credibility, citing some “controversial” certifications, like Patagonian toothfish—more commonly known as Chilean sea bass.

Kurlansky is correct in claiming that climate change and other environmental issues threaten the ocean more than overfishing, but his conclusions about seafood and sustainability miss the mark. Replacing red meat with seafood is one of the easiest ways to significantly reduce an individual’s carbon footprint. Indeed, pescatarians have nearly the same dietary carbon footprint as vegetarians.

Below are comments from various fishery experts responding to Kurlansky, originally taken from an email thread:

Comment by Coby Needle, Marine Scotland

In those parts of the world with well-monitored and efficient industrial fisheries, such as north-western Europe, fish stocks have in general increased significantly over the last 10-15 years (since internationally-agreed management plans and measures became the norm).  North Sea cod is a good example of this.  It has never been true to say that cod has been “teetering on the verge of extinction” (this brings to mind sensationalist headlines talking about less than 100 adult cod being left): the lowest estimate for spawning stock biomass was in 2006, and that was around 44,000 tonnes.  Since then, effective management has led to a steady increase to around 168,000 tonnes in 2017.  The story is similar for other key stocks: North Sea plaice now has the largest biomass at any time since the assessment began in the early 1950s.  These are not sudden increases, but steady stock developments about which there can be a good degree of confidence.

This does not mean that we can be complacent.  It is also obviously true that fisheries are prone to the vagaries of the environment, and we can do little about this directly.  For many stocks now, natural mortality is greater than fishing mortality, and in these cases the impact of fisheries management is necessarily lessened.  But the fact remains that North Sea cod abundance is increasing, in the face of environmental warming that most ecologists would argue should not be very beneficial for cod, and this has to indicate that fisheries management is having a positive effect.

 Coby Needle is a Fishery Scientist at Marine Scotland, the regulatory body responsible for fishery management in Scotland.

Comment by Tara Marshall, University of Aberdeen

It is a very tired narrative (doom and gloom) that needs to be reset to accurately reflect the current and future states.

So what are the basic components of a new narrative? Certainly, the new era of cooperation between science, fishing industry, eNGOs, retailers and the public needs to improve. People should know that the basic concept of the precautionary approach has been embedded in fishery management. Also, that wild capture fish are a climate smart source of food production, particularly pelagic fish.

I loved Kurlansky’s book – I have a copy on my shelf and direct students to it regularly. The book played a big role in raising awareness of overfishing as well as the development in literature of “narrative non-fiction.” Maybe his next book should examine what science and society has learned from the collapse of the Northern cod stock. The answer is a lot.

Tara Marshall is a fishery scientist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen.

If you’d like to learn more about the current status of Atlantic Cod, check out our feature on them here.

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One Response

  1. To be clear I was never saying that there could be no sustainable fishery, simply that we have to be careful what we call sustainable . If you follow the precepts of Darwin any species that looses a large part of its population is teetering on the edge of extinction. Sorry if that is boring doom and gloom. I think it is also solid science. Difficult to say where that edge of extinction is. When I look at the numbers for North Sea cod today it is still a long way from its historic numbers, as I said, a case of a shifting baseline, so this and many other “recoveries” are really only partial recoveries and we ought to be very careful.

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