The Ludicrous Food Chain That Drags In The Super Trawlers
By Paul GreenbergSeptember 15, 2012
Tony Burke’s reaction to a super trawler scooping our waters may have been seen as too knee-jerk and as having come a bit late. But banning the F/V Abel Tasman has bought us some time to consider the issue and what lies beneath.
When the second biggest fishing boat in the world plans to steam in to your home port with the intention of extracting almost 40 million pounds (or 18 milllion kilos) of wildlife from your waters, as a politician you might get the feeling that a global eco-moment is at hand. So, when Australia's environment minister Tony Burke announced this week that he would introduce legislation into parliament to ban the Dutch-owned "Super Trawler" F/V Abel Tasman (formerly Margiris) from Australian waters, one could hear the faint buzzing of Greenpeace zodiac engines revving in the background. But in the media clatter of the 2010s it is sometimes difficult to grasp the important ecological signal above the noise, and to discern the right course of action that signal should trigger.
It's worth our while to take a moment to disassemble what is going on with the super-trawler issue and ask what it represents for the future of our oceans.
What brought the Abel Tasman to the southern hemisphere? If the vessel had actually been allowed to fish and we'd been able to peer into its nets we would have been most unimpressed. The Abel Tasman was in Australia in pursuit of jack mackerel and another little creature called "redbait" — two of the cheapest fish in the world. Neither of these fish is eaten with any regularity by Australians. Indeed, neither of these fish is really eaten by people at all, at least not in the developed world.
The main use for jack mackerel is "industrial". That is, the majority of the catch is ground up into fish meal or boiled down into oil. These products are then used as pet food and chicken and pig feed, as "nutriceutical" omega-3 supplements and, most commonly, as feed for the surging global fish-farming industry. The aquaculture sector is in desperate need of a source of clean protein and essential oils to feed salmon, tuna, shrimp and other marine species, which are grown for human consumption.
Aquaculture now accounts for around half of the global seafood supply. Since the global south is considerably less industrialised than the north, fish meal and oil derived from southern hemisphere sources tend to be lower in pollutants such as PCBs, which is one reason hunting down jack mackerel in Australian waters makes some kind of sense.
Redbait has an equally humble end use. As its name indicates, this fish (which, by the way, is perfectly edible) is most commonly used as bait on pelagic long-lining vessels. These boats bait up many hundreds, if not thousands, of hooks spread out over what can be several kilometres. Redbait may also end up as the lure in lobster traps.
The practice of using good food to catch other, more prized, food — with the inevitable attendant waste and expense — has become all too common in the fishing industry. In the United States, too, for example, a very large chunk of the state of Maine's perfectly edible herring catch goes to catching the much more iconic Maine lobster.
So if mackerel and redbait are so cheap, why would a multi-million dollar vessel be employed to travel thousands of nautical miles from its home port in the Netherlands to catch them? Because it is in such instances that the very cheapness of these fish compels "economies of scale" worthy of a Abel Tasman. As fuel and labor costs have risen, fishing has become ever more expensive, and at a certain point a diverse fleet of boats of varying size pursuing a fish that fetches pennies on the pound (or kilo) becomes economically unsustainable. And, it must be said, there are also some interesting environmental benefits in deploying a big Abel Tasman-type boat instead of a lot of little ones.
Ray Hilborn a fisheries scientist at the University of Washington, who has done considerable fieldwork in New Zealand and Australia, noted to me in an email that a few larger boats can be preferable to a fleet of small ones in that:
"They can be better monitored, by-catch recorded etcetera, because they almost always have 100 per cent observer coverage, something hard to achieve in small boat fleets" and "they are much more fuel efficient — lower greenhouse gas output per ton caught."
Martin Exel, who currently chairs the Australian-based Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO), notes, also in an email, that the image of a huge super trawler tends to overwhelm the scientific actuality of the situation. "I think," Exel writes, "it's come down to the reality for industry that simple messaging and media grabs (e.g. super trawler is bad) are much easier to get across to the public than science and facts (e.g. super trawler fishing within conservative total allowable catches, monitored by observers and cameras, with rules, regulations and controls from Australia would be OK)".
The process of converting a fleet of many small boats into a few big ones has been further aided by the culmination of a global process over many decades, known as "fisheries rationalisation". Once upon a time, fisheries were often managed (if they were managed at all) according to a prescribed number of "days at sea" or by defining open seasons during which vessels were permitted to fish, whereby vessels were only allowed to fish during a prescribed period. Time spent at sea was the principle limiting factor in fishing, not tonnage caught. And this often resulted in egregious over-fishing. Today, more and more, fisheries are being converted into "Individual Transferable Quotas". Using this system, the fish in the sea are in effect sold before they are caught, and the quota sold off to the highest bidder.
And herein lies the great consolidator. Increasingly, smaller operators are not able to pay for quota in advance and end up selling out to larger corporations. Such is the case not only in Australia but also in my native New England (in the United States), where fishermen from families which have fished cod in the region for generations are now being forced out because they can't pony up the cash to buy quota. If enough people sell out their quota, you are going to end up with a super trawler or two. Add to that the fact that big fishing companies are better than family-run businesses at lobbying for and accessing large government subsidies (fishing interests in the European Union are the biggest offender in this regard) and you have an even greater fulcrum on speeding the consolidation of fishing into a few powerful hands.
The dilemma here is that you can end up with a situation that is markedly better for fish but notably worse for humans. A few large vessels fishing rationally and with trained observation onboard can indeed produce better yields and greater sustainability in terms of numbers of fish. Alaska pollock, the largest white-fish fishery in the world and the source of much of the planet's McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, is fished in this manner and it appears to be working, at least environmentally. Meanwhile fewer, larger vessels employ fewer people than a diverse fleet and have the potential to lead to a degree of political cosiness between fishing companies and government.
Meri Ratzel, a Massachusetts-based fisheries researcher and advocate for family-run fishing firms noted that since the quota system went into effect in New England, an air of secrecy has started to permeate the trading of fishing rights. "Why," she asked me in a Facebook message, did the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that governs fisheries here in the US "publicise the quota transfers on a public website the first year, go curiously silent in the second, and now proposes a federal rule regarding the confidentiality of quota transfers?"
Herein lies the potential long-term problem of a super-trawler-dominated world. Short term, these boats may work well in satisfying the criteria of objective science and meeting market demand. But at what point does an intimate and perhaps opaque relationship between government and corporate fishing become too cosy and secretive? Will continued consolidation of the fishing industry eventually give the fishing industry the muscle and the will to increase quota beyond what is scientifically acceptable? The industry would say definitely not, that this would be cutting its own knees out from under it. The Greenpeacers would no doubt argue to the contrary.
So the super-trawler issue is complicated and hard to appropriately fit into a sound bite. And the citizen's path forward in all of this is equally complicated. But in conclusion I would argue that it isn't so much the super trawler we should be fighting as the premises that underpin the deployment of super trawlers for supplying the world's fish. Should we really be catching millions of kilos of jack mackerel to feed to salmon, tuna and shrimp? What's wrong with just eating mackerel?
And should we really be designing a quota system that is so rigid it can't figure out a way to sustainably include small-scale artisan fisherman in the ocean-harvesting mix? Such a system can be achieved, as has been shown by the hugely diverse and profitable salmon fisheries of Alaska.
Above all, what the super-trawler issue teaches us is to keep a more active eye on the ocean and not sit ignorantly on our hands until a headline-grabbing moment comes along. "Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?" the Roman poet Juvenal asked a couple of thousand years ago. "Who watches the watchers?" We, the citizens do. So let's watch and learn, consistently, and work together towards a better ocean.
Paul Greenberg is the bestselling author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, and the winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Writing and Literature.
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