Twelve myths about fishing by Quentin Bates

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I’ve been involved in the fishing business in one way or another since leaving school a very long time ago. I’ve seen a lot of arguments, some of them justified, many of them ridiculous, over the years and for a change I thought I’d sidestep from crime to fishing for a change this week.

There are endless myths about fishing propagated by the press and organisations that have agendas of their own to push. I’m naming no names here, but you don’t have far to look to find them.



Trawling is like clear-cutting the ocean floor

No, aggregate dredging is like clear-cutting the ocean floor, but without following it up with any replanting afterwards. Trawling is more akin to ploughing a field. Fishermen want to (and do) come back to the same grounds every year and don’t want to spend time and money looking for new areas to fish. Do you have any idea how time-consuming that is and how much diesel costs these days?

There are some very good reasons why aggregate dredging, which removes layers of marine habitat a metre deep from the sea bed, receives absolutely zero adverse publicity, yet fishermen in 30-foot boats are cast as the villains of the piece.



They just want to catch all the fish right now and move on

Come on, be serious. No fisherman wants to slaughter any golden geese. What business wants to put itself out of business after a season or two? You can say what you like about even the most hard-headed fishing operators, but one thing these people aren’t is stupid. Fishing is a business. It’s about catching the same thing year after year and selling it to the same people year after year.

Take a good look at the sugar business, and then come back and tell me if you still think fishing is evil personified.



A bunch of rich trawler barons runs the whole industry

Not so. There are a few biggish fishing companies and there’s a handful of names that spring to mind. But none of these are big on the scale of the world’s really big food and agriculture concerns. Fishing has no equivalent of Coca-Cola or Monsanto. Even the fishing giants are midgets by comparison. Something like 90% of the world’s fishing businesses are owner/operators – you know, Mom & Pop outfits.



These nets are as big as a Jumbo jet

Fair enough. There are a few nets big enough to hold several jumbo jets, but they are very few, very expensive to build and use, and are employed for specific fisheries. While there are very big nets, there are also very big trucks, churches, hospitals, farms, computers, trains and aircraft for good reasons, not least for the economies of scale that big equipment makes possible.



Aquaculture is the way forward

You may well think so, but there’s aquaculture and there’s aquaculture. Farming carnivores such as salmon or sea bass requires fish as feed – which calls for wild-caught fish to make that feed, which in turn is where all that Omega 3 and whatnot comes from. Personally, I’d rather eat unfashionable fish like herring that’s used to make meal to feed salmon.

As for stuff such as pangasius that’s fed on soya and has practically zero nutritional value, and farmed shrimp that are closely linked to the wholesale destruction of tropical mangroves and arable land, let’s not even go there.



Fishing is dying

Not so. The world catch has been largely stable for the last decade and more. Fishing is certainly changing, but it’s not dying.



Trawling is BAD

It can be. It doesn’t have to be. There are no fishing gears that entirely good and none that are entirely bad. OK, maybe fishing with dynamite isn’t such a great idea.

There are some fish species that can’t be caught by any other method, and there are static gears so beloved of the green movement that can also be seriously damaging if used wrongly.



We can save the oceans by banning fishing

You think so? OK, so what about aggregate dredging, vast wind farms, plastic pollution, oil & gas extraction and all those other activities, not to mention all the stuff the military does that we never, ever hear about? Doesn’t all that have an effect as well? Is someone going to apologise when fishing has been wiped out and there’s still (supposedly) no fish in the sea?



Cod are practically extinct

Excuse me while I piss myself laughing. The North Atlantic is bursting with cod. Like any species, cod has seasonal cycles and is now at the peak of that cycle in many areas (not everywhere). Do you think you could get cod & chips for less than a fiver if they were genuinely endangered? Do some homework and then come back, will you?



Some fish species have been wiped out and most are overexploited

In fact, the FAO figures are that 20% of stocks are over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. Around 50% are fully exploited. But it’s more headline-friendly to lump the 20% and the 50% together and say that 70% of stocks are fully- or over-exploited.

But there are certainly stocks that are over-exploited and the fishing business has things it needs to address – just like any other food industry.

No species of fish has ever been fished to extinction, although it can be argued that bluefin tuna may have been fished so hard that it could be approaching a state of genetic starvation as its gene pool becomes impoverished.



We need no-take zones to stop fish being wiped out

There are no silver bullets and there’s no hard evidence to support the idea that closed areas are the solution. (See no 8). Closing areas means displacing fishing effort elsewhere, and when taken to its extreme it means relatively well-managed local fisheries made unviable so the demand for seafood is met by producers in parts of the world where things aren’t run as responsibly as they are in Europe, Australia, NZ and North America.

If you really want to save the oceans and what lives in them, try doing something practical like not buying water in plastic bottles (yes, really), don’t buy stuff packaged in reams of plastic or leave the car at home and catch a bus to work a few times a week.



It’s simple. We just need to ban…

There are no one-size-fits all solutions and every issue deserves to be weighed on its own merits, not simply signed at the stroke of an ill-informed bureaucrat’s pen. Let’s also not forget that there are few food industries that are scrutinised as closely and regulated as tightly as fishing is.

It’s not simple, and it’s nowhere near as simple as fishing’s detractors would like you to think it is. Let’s not forget that this business is about high-quality protein, most of it eaten by the world’s poorest people, as well as about people’s jobs in areas where there isn’t much else. Fishing isn’t just about fish – it’s about people, livelihoods, pride, traditions, skills and all the rest of it, as well as fish.

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