Now you ‘seafood’, now you don’t… | JD Farrugia

Overfishing does not only threaten marine wildlife, but also the fishing industry itself. Conservation activist JD FARRUGIA, of the Fish4Tomorrow campaign, urges the local industry not to give in to greed

JD Farrugia
JD Farrugia

There is an old saying that goes something like: “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and…

“…he may eventually over-exploit the local food resources, with the result that both he and the rest of his community might starve.”

OK, perhaps the original saying was slightly different. Nonetheless, conservationists the world over have for some time been raising the alarm with regard to the ‘unsustainability’ of the global fishing industry. The issues are many and complex: sticking only to the Mediterranean, there are serious concerns regarding the size of the fishing fleet capacity, as well as recent technological improvements [for instance, purse-seine nets for tuna] which now permit much larger hauls than ever before.

Individual practices such as bottom-trawling, shark-finning and others have also contributed to an ongoing depletion of global fish stocks. But constant efforts to get the authorities to set more stringent limits on fisheries have to date been countered by an efficient and well-financed industry lobby, with the result that quotas (among other restrictions) have consistently been set at a higher level than recommended by scientists.

Malta may not be a ‘net contributor’ (excuse pun) to this state of affairs, given the modest size of our own fishing fleet and our almost negligible annual catch figures. Yet local fisheries also play an important role in the industry. Aquaculture is a growing business that thrives not only on breeding fish (mostly sea-bream and sea-bass) for local consumption, but also trading in the catch of other countries for re-export, especially with regard to the most prized fish of them all: Atlantic Bluefin tuna (tonn), which fetches phenomenal prices especially on the Japanese market.

Last year, a single specimen was sold for 155.4 million yen (€1.38 million). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bluefin tuna has been described as a fish that is “too valuable to save”.

There are, in fact, serious concerns regarding the sustainability of both this trade, and those involving other vulnerable species such as swordfish. Despite showing recent signs of recovery, the Bluefin tuna is still classed as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN red list. And to exacerbate matters, the Atlantic Bluefin tuna is known to spawn in the Mediterranean… precisely during the local fishing season. For all this, the international tuna trade regulator, known as ICCAT, has just taken the decision to raise international quotas by 20% over the next three years: a move described as ‘short-sighted’ and ’premature’ by conservation agencies such as the World Wildlife Fund.

Here in Malta, similar objections have been raised by Fish4Tomorrow: a local lobby group aimed at raising awareness on this issue.

JD Farrugia, an environment management planner and part of the group’s core team, echoes such misgivings with regard to the recent decision to raise quotas by 20%.

“Everything that has happened over the past few weeks – with people like [animal rights parliamentary secretary] Roderick Galdes calling for a substantial increase in quotas, and the actual quota increase announced a few days ago – it’s all based on a report by ICCAT’s standing committee on research and statistics,” he tells me when we meet for a coffee at the University, where he works within the Institute of Earth systems.

“According to the report, the stocks have shown signs of recovery. But there are significant gaps in the data. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of data on illegal and unreported fishing, for instance, although the situation is believed to have improved a lot since the recovery plan…”

Before proceeding, let us talk a little bit about why this issue is so important. For some years now we have been talking about the possibility of a tuna stocks collapse. What does this mean, and what would be the consequences if it actually happens?

“Well, let’s put it this way: I’m not a fan of doom and gloom campaigning, but the situation isn’t too great. About 80% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, and that number goes up to 90% in the Mediterranean. Species like Bluefin tuna, swordfish, and dusky grouper (cerna) are all on the IUCN red list. If fish stocks collapse, especially in the case of top predators like tuna, we’ll have created an imbalance in the food chain which will have ripple effects throughout. All fish and marine animals will be affected, as well as the ocean ecosystem as a whole. Some scientists argue that recent jellyfish blooms might be partly due to overfishing, for example…”

Tuna is particularly susceptible, he adds, in part because of the peculiarities of its life-cycle.

“Tuna is an apex predator, which means it takes long – about four to five years, depending on the area – to reach maturity. We’re catching it in the Mediterranean, where it comes to spawn. And we’re catching it using methods such as large purse-seine operations, which are not necessarily very selective.”

Taken together, these factors indicate that the species is being caught at a faster rate that it can actually reproduce: and projected in the long-term, the implications are that a point may one day be reached when the stocks will ‘collapse’: i.e., can no longer replenish themselves.

Paradoxically, the people who have most cause for concern at this prospect are also at the forefront of the demands to raise quotas.

“Unless the situation improves, it’s not just the environment that will suffer. The fishing industry is dependent on the health of the fish stocks, so this could be bad for the economy and the fishers... especially small scale ones. Last I checked, the exportation of bluefin tuna contributes 1% of Malta’s GDP, so I really can’t see how we’re not being more cautious about this limited resource. Food security comes into the picture as well. Fish are a big part of the global diet, and many communities depend on fish quite heavily. With the UN climate talks happening in Lima at the moment, scientists have reported that the meat industry is responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. Fishing, especially small scale and sustainable fishing, does not have this same problem.”

Yet to give both sides of the argument their due, when Roderick Galdes called for quotas to be set to their original levels, he cited a report – the same ICCAT report alluded to earlier – as proof that the conservation threat to Bluefin tuna had been allayed.

Farrugia has studied this report in quite extensive detail. Is there anything in it that might justify this claim? Is it true, for instance, that the ICCAT report confirms the success of the 2008 recovery plan… and therefore, that the crisis is over?

“I don’t think you can reach exactly that conclusion on the basis of the report, no. There are too many question marks. For instance, at one point it actually mentions that there are concerns about the size of the fishing fleet capacity; and that this, on its own, could be enough to take the species back to endangered status. The Mediterranean fishing capacity has remained the same, if not increased, since the 2008 recovery plan. Also, you have countries like Spain and Japan which are refusing to give certain types of information to ICCAT.”

Another problem concerns the data collection methods.

“This emerges from the report itself: all the data was collected from the fisheries themselves… it even states that there is need for data from other sources, because the information is based on catch figures which have decreased drastically since the management plan was put into effect in 2008. Until that point, IUU [illegal and unreported] fishing was believed to account for around double the legal quotas. This means that if the quotas were set at 28,000 tonnes in 2007, in reality something like 50,000 tonnes would have been caught…”

All this raises the question of why the local fisheries industry (and the government which represents its interests) is so hell-bent on increasing tuna quotas, when so much of its own livelihood depends on the sustainability of the species. At the risk of asking the obvious: is it really all just about money? Could it really be that we are so short-sighted that we would exhaust a resource for the short-term gain of a few individual companies?

“I would say financial considerations are most likely behind this decision. But this report gives them a certain level of scientific justification: albeit not entirely convincing for many people, including ourselves and other NGOs such as WWF. At the end of the section on Bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the committee suggests that the current quota levels are either maintained, or increased moderately and gradually. ICCAT has obviously latched onto the ‘moderate and gradual’ part, and gone for a 20% annual increase over the next three years. So we’re going up from 13,500 tonnes to 19,500 in 2016.”

Another problem with the report is that it does not represent consensus on the issue. Internally, the committee that drew it up was divided on a number of points.

“There was disagreement in the committee about whether the quota should be maintained, or moderately raised: in fact the committee recommended a choice between either. Also, they couldn’t reach a conclusion regarding the upper limit the quotas should be increased by. Uncertainty and lack of agreement permeates the entire report, which makes it very unreliable.”

Meanwhile there are other environmental concerns surrounding both the tuna trade and aquaculture in general. Some of these are visible to the naked eye… or at least, to the goggled eyes of scuba divers who report that the seabed beneath and around fish farms tend to be barren and lifeless. Yet ironically, the whole idea behind aquaculture is to alleviate the strain of overfishing on the marine environment. So how does an NGO like Fish4Tomorrow rate the aquaculture industry on an environmental level?

“Aquaculture in itself can be beneficial. Some practices are extremely forward thinking and environmentally sustainable. Unfortunately, however, aquaculture in Malta tends to have a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. With tuna, the fact is that you’re still catching them from the wild, and it is a species that remains, as far as we know, endangered. But there are a lot of other question marks. There is pollution from the feed which is quite damaging to the seabed; there is also a problem with the ratio of feed: 25 kilos of fish-food produces one kilo of tuna. This in turn places strain on other fish stocks: tuna are usually fed on mackerel, and the quantity required also means that tuna farming indirectly impacts the stocks of mackerel and other fish. I believe they are trying to improve the ratio, but at the present that’s how it works out.

The same problem affects other branches of aquaculture also. “If you look at sea bream and sea bass, I believe the ratio is 10kg to 1 kg. Unlike tuna, these are usually fed pellets: but the pellets consist of fish caught in other parts of the world, such as South America. Ten kilogrammes of anchovies, for instance, is required to produce just one kilogramme of sea-bass or sea-bream.”

Farrugia implies that there may be sustainability issues even when it comes to fish which are not endangered. And the issues do not end there.

“Other problems include chemicals such as anti-fouling agents used on fish-farm nets. These have been known to have effects on surrounding areas, including Poseidonia (seaweed) beds. In addition, escapee fish may induce spread of disease among wild populations. So there are a lot of ifs and buts...”

While these ifs and buts go on being debated, the demand for fish and seafood seems to be steadily increasing. Consumers may be unaware that they are part of the driving force behind all the problems alluded to above; and this is where NGOs like Fish4Tomorrow, which aim to raise awareness of the impact of fishing and aquaculture, come into the picture. In what ways (if any) can the ordinary consumer also make a difference?

“The idea behind our organisation is primarily to promote sustainable fishing, and generally that means promoting small-scale, artisanal fishing operations. And also, to a certain extent, diversifying what we eat. If we constantly consume the same fish, it is inevitable that the stocks of that fish will be placed under strain. In fact, the most endangered species are also the most consumed… which makes sense. This can be avoided by varying one’s consumption. In a way, it’s going back to eating fish we may once have fished traditionally, but no longer. Like msella (garfish), which is very sustainable…I have yet to see garfish on the menu of a local restaurant, for instance…”

Restaurant menus may tend to feature roughly the same selections, but if the demand for variety takes hold, this may one day change. Fish4Tomorrow also aims to facilitate the process by providing consumer advice for fish and seafood.

“A few weeks ago we launched a pocket guide – a list of 45 different fish and seafood found in Malta, rated according to status. We did some research on the sustainability of those fish – the health of the stock, the fishing techniques used to catch them, and whether there are any other environmental concerns involved in their consumption. The idea is to give people an indication of the environmental impact of choosing certain species over others.”

A glance at this booklet seems to confirm fears of a global depletion of fish stocks. Out of 45 species listed, 28 have been given one-star rating: signifying endangered status. These include the expected: Bluefin tuna, swordfish and grouper – but also the unexpected and much-consumed, such as red mullet (trill), sea urchins (rizzi), and transparent goby (makku).

The good news is that there is still plenty of seafood that one can eat without misgivings about the environment: not least, the emblematic lampuka (Dolphin fish), which enjoys a healthy three-star (recommended) rating along with sardines, saddled seabream (kahli) and Atlantic Bonito… which incidentally also provides a healthy alternative to the vulnerable Bluefin.

So seeing as I started with a popular expression, I may as well end with another: “There are always other fish in the sea...”