Marine biologist Silvio Greco, president of the Slow Fish scientific committee and head of research at ICRAM (Italy's Central Institute for Applied Marine Research), answers our questions on the latest FAO report on fishing and aquaculture (SOFIA 2010), published last week.
According to the FAO report, aquaculture is a fast-growing sector and will soon produce more fish than wild fisheries. According to common wisdom, fish farming is an excellent alternative to fishing, preventing the extinction of many species. Is this really the case? Is there a good and a bad aquaculture?
Farmed fish might exceed wild-caught fish in terms of numbers and tons, but without ever equaling the variety of species. In fact the number of farmed species is very small, with about six fish, two crustaceans and a few mollusks out of a total of around 500 commercial edible fish species. Therefore it is clear that such an overtaking will only be possible in terms of production. Fish farms normally raise fish by feeding them on meal made from other wild fish, and we therefore have to ask if it is ethical and sustainable to kill 22 kilos of wild fish to obtain 1 kilo of farmed fish.
Fishing quotas. Can you explain briefly what they are, and if they are truly effective in protecting marine ecosystems?
This system sets out the quantity of each fish species that every individual country can fish. Obviously the calculation is made in such a way that the total amount taken maintains the existence of the species. This quota system, much used in northern seas, has proved disastrous for some species, such as cod. At the moment the scientific community is asking if the quota system is meaningful. For example, in northern seas there are a few fish stocks, like herring and five or six other species, and a large number of individual fish. Therefore it's clear that quotas could in some way make sense. But in a Mediterranean environment, in which there is multispecific fishing, in other words in which there are a small number of individuals caught from many different species, it's clear that the quota system has gaps. The international scientific community is looking for new management models that are sustainable, in other words that are concerned with the reproductive biology of species as well as quotas.
The report emphasizes the serious problem of illegal fishing. The growing demand for fish and seafood products will only increase this phenomenon. Are there are effective plans to combat it? The FAO states the need to set up a "Global Record," a worldwide register of boats used for fishing. Will it help?
The problem of illegal fishing is global, and covers fishing that is illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU). Fish consumption around the world has grown from a per capita average of 9 kilos to the current 24 kilos. Such demand triggers a mechanism of illegality. By the way, this illegality is of a varied nature because illegal fishing can refer for example to undersized fish caught by regular boats, as well as people fishing in environments where fishing is banned, such as along the coast or in protected areas. There is a widespread problem of illegality that currently represents over 60% of the products on the market, as reported by the FAO's Committee on Fisheries (COFI). It is clear that illegality can be reduced by introducing tools of control such as the global register of boats and catches, which would create a mechanism of traceability for the products that end up on our plates and which could be used to combat illegality. But it is clear that this would necessitate a loss of national sovereignty; all countries need to realize that they have to collaborate.
The FAO also points a finger at the enormous of waste of bycatch. What is it? And how can it be prevented?
Bycatch refers to other species that are caught accidentally when trying to fish a specific species. The problem of bycatch has over the years affected whales and other marine mammals like dolphins. In some areas the nets for fishing swordfish have particular holes that block and kill dolphins The problem of bycatch can be resolved by using increasingly selective fishing techniques like longlines and boulters, designed to catch only the target species. This is the only way to reduce bycatch.
The report recognizes that small-scale fishing plays a primary role in terms of sustainability and ecosystem protection. Can fishing communities really be the guardians of the marine and coastal environment?
Absolutely, because it's obvious that small-scale fishermen are the ones who live every day with the coastal marine ecosystem; they have full knowledge of what species are present and of their numbers. However, it's clear that intervention must also come from the government. For example, let's take the European Union's ban on fishing whitebait. Clearly the fishermen alone can't take on the protection of these species; to make ecosystem protection effective, direct intervention must come from the authorities.
The FAO highlights the nutritional benefits of fish, but at the same time talks about the pollutants present in many species. Does this mean that we should limit their consumption?
And what fish can we eat without harming the ecosystem and our health?
We have a problem of contaminated ecosystems which has become a problem of contaminated organisms. For example, an animal that lives for many decades, like tuna or swordfish, can accumulate pollutants through a process called biomagnification. Therefore it is clear that one should in some way favor the consumption of fish with a short life cycle, like anchovies, sardines and mackerel, fish that don't have time to become contaminated. We have to demand a better quality of ecosystems and the preservation of natural ecosystems. There are a whole series of fish whose consumption means a reduced environmental impact. On Italian plates we find only five or six species, ten at the most among really attentive families, and always the so-called "steak fish" like swordfish and tuna, out of the 300 edible species present in Italy. Therefore it is clear that through our consumption we can have an influence on ecosystems.
Last question. "Oceans' fish could disappear in 40 years" is the warning issued some time ago by Pavan Sukhdev of the United Nations Environmental Programme. What do you think? Can we save our seas, and who should be acting?
It's a great worry because resource removal and pollution can cause if not the extinction of all species, certainly the disappearance of some. Who should intervene? We all must. The FAO has this huge responsibility; it is one of the few international bodies that has a Fisheries Committee where almost all the countries on the planet participate. It is clear that intervention can only come through a loss of popular sovereignty. We must bring in the concept that the renewable resources of the sea belong to everyone and therefore as a common good they must be protected by everyone. Every country must lose a little popular sovereignty to a third-party organization, which could be the FAO. An effort must be made by everyone, by governments but also consumers, who should not always ask for the same fish but pay greater attention to what they buy.
By Alessia Pautasso