#BeSmart – An insight to the seafood industry

A new study revealed that Hong Kong’s seafood consumption is three times the global average and ranks second in terms of per capita consumption of seafood in Asia. (Photo: Dickson Lee, SCMP)

Next blog post by IYOR intern, Talia Wong; her thoughts on overfishing and the seafood industry:

Hi everyone, can you believe it’s March already? February flew by in a blur! Hope everyone enjoyed themselves over the festive month.

In this leg of the BRASS series (#BeSmart), we’ll be talking about the global seafood industry – our overdependence and exploitation of it.

Our seafood demand

Seafood is the most highly traded food internationally. In 2014, global supply of fishes, crustaceans and molluscs from wild capture fisheries and aquaculture reached a record high of 20 kg per person. In Singapore, we consume 22 kg of seafood per person in 2017 and our main import comes from China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Tipping the balance

We have taken so much from the oceans that its ecological integrity has been severely damaged. And these are 5 main drivers that strip the ocean of its life:

  1. Poor governance
  2. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU)
  3. Consumer demand
  4. Lack of scientific knowledge
  5. Difficulty in regulating flags of convenience i.e. flag-hopping

These drivers are connected to each other and its effects are accumulative. Poor governance coupled with consumer demand are pushing stock levels beyond maximum sustainable yield. Poor governance comes in the form of weak fishing regulations and environmental enforcement laws. As a result, IUU is rampant, particularly in Southeast Asia where IUU is a billion-dollar thriving industry. It is especially pronounced in the Gulf of Thailand where the overall catch per unit effort had plummeted by 86% since 1966, making the Gulf of Thailand the most overfished region on the planet.

Furthermore, with a lack of research within the Southeast Asian region, it is difficult to estimate regional stock and thus, inform the development of sound exploitation management models and geographically specific policies against IUU.

Flag-hopping is commonly undertaken by illicit industrial trawlers. After vessel registration at countries with simple, inexpensive and weak fishing regulations, these ships have multiple flags which they regularly change so to circumvent scrutiny and tracking by the authorities.

What is IUU fishing?

IUU fishing includes any of the following actions:

  • Operating in another state’s territorial waters without an access agreement (poaching)
  • Falsifying catch documents
  • Using illegal methods or gear i.e. cyanide poisoning, trawling, blast/explosives
  • Harvesting protected species i.e. shark finning, whaling
  • Fishing in restricted zones
  • Contravening closed-area or closed-season stipulations
  • Transshipping at sea to avoid landing a haul in the same country where it was fished

IUU has led to overfishing, bycatch and subsequent environmental impacts that are squandering our natural resources. This is worrying since marine life, unlike terrestrial life, is harder to quantify due to the vast nature of the ocean and the mobility of marine life. Not much is known about the exact amount of seafood we have in our oceans or how much time we have before the next target specie goes extinct. IUU has also forced subsistence or artisanal fishermen into this industry as their daily catch is no longer enough to put food on the table for their families.

A new study revealed that Hong Kong’s seafood consumption is three times the global average and ranks second in terms of per capita consumption of seafood in Asia. (Photo: Dickson Lee, SCMP)
A new study revealed that Hong Kong’s seafood consumption is three times the global average and ranks second in terms of per capita consumption of seafood in Asia. (Photo: Dickson Lee, SCMP)

Consequences of IUU and Overfishing

A substantial reduction of target species population triggers a ripple effect that alters marine food webs, marine ecosystems and ultimately undermines the productive capacity of fisheries. This is especially so for marine life which are long-lived, experience slower maturity growth and have lower reproduction rates such as the bluefin tuna, the Atlantic sea scallop and more, making it hard for the population to recover.  

A symptom of our excessive fishing is shown through changing seafood consumption patterns whereby seafood that was once considered undesirable and unpalatable is now in high demand. Fish fillers and fish sticks originally made from cod has been replaced by haddock, redfish and now by the Pacific pollock as the fish population plummets beyond recovery every time. In a span of less than 20 years (1800-1830), the Atlantic halibut population (‘America’s favourite whitefish’) collapsed and has not recovered. Until 1930s, Atlantic bluefin tuna were discarded as trash fish; but today, they sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The demand and expansion of fishing fleets during the 1980s, particularly bottom-trawlers devastated benthic communities, removing predators and competitors of the jellyfish. The seafood market has adapted to this change and now harvests over 250,000 tonnes of jellyfish annually.

Bottom-trawling indiscriminately captures and wipes out everything in its path, leaving behind a barren and devastated seabed. (Photo: TheCompassionateRoad)
Bottom-trawling indiscriminately captures and wipes out everything in its path,
leaving behind a barren and devastated seabed. (Photo: TheCompassionateRoad)

As fisheries collapse, our taste buds adapt to these changes by shifting focus to another target species where we continue this trend of stock depletion.

Half of the world’s oceans are being fished industrially. (Photo: The Guardian)
Half of the world’s oceans are being fished industrially. (Photo: The Guardian)

Like plastics, with technological advancements, fishing fleets can travel further out to the most remote places like the high seas to fish for a depleting fish stock or to capture a new target specie. Satellite data can be used to detect fish hotspots. Consequently, marine life gradually has almost nowhere to hide.

Then, what are we doing about this bleak situation? All is not lost. There are ongoing efforts from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the support of the public, scientists and governments are working together to raise awareness and slow down the fishing rampage. However, whether these efforts are enough to reverse a longstanding industry is another matter.

Till next time.

P/S: The Dorsal Effect firmly believes in saying no to seafood consumption and have not served seafood on any of our boat trips. We do acknowledge that seafood is a valuable protein source especially for this region. As such, while we advocate on saying no seafood consumption (go vegetarian!), we understand that it is difficult to accomplish for the region’s poorer counterparts. However, urbanites have the capacity to decide to forego seafood and this is where our individual actions will make an impact on the global seafood industry.




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