Sustainability for Dummies

A word that has been thrown about the press lately, especially in the light of the conference on the Common Fisheries Policy Reform in Belgium last week, is ‘Sustainability’. But what does ‘Sustainability’ actually mean? Does it indicate that the product is organic and has been used with our health and the environment at its best interest? Does it signify that active management has been imposed to prevent over exploitation of the product? Does it promise that the stakeholder’s profitability, fairness and futures have been considered and that the future of the resource is protected? In reality it means all of these things and more. The Oxford dictionary defines the term ‘Sustainable’ as ‘the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level’ and ‘the ability to be upheld’. ‘Sustainability’ is the capacity to ‘Endure’, to ‘Survive’, to ‘Tolerate’ current exploitation without sacrificing the future existence. However it’s really not that simple!

The world is a complex place and ecosystems are infinitely connected from the elements, to the plants, animals, microbes and almost everything that exists on earth. These connections exist throughout the different life cycles and stages and may cross paths a number of times. As a Marine Biologist, when I think of the word ‘Sustainability’ I think of the habitat, the species, the species that depend on those species and then the species that depend on those species, then the people that depend on all of those species and the habitats, its really a very long paper trail! However we can attempt to draw boundaries around particular issues, or we would be continuing indefinitely.

So where do we begin to draw the lines around sustainability? First we pick a target, either one particular species such as a fish, or a particular habitat such as a coral reef. Then we must define all the impacts on our target, such as exploitation, predation, climate, pollution anything that affects the existence of the target. We must then define the stakeholders; these are all those that rely on the target for its existence, maybe a service it provides, a cultural aspect, and existence value. We can then begin to understand the importance and the economic worth of ensuring a future for the target. Those with knowledge about the target such as scientists then need to understand the recovery and replenishment rates of the target so we can define a proportion which can be allocated to stakeholders each year, which falls well within the ability of the target to recover. Then we can educate the stakeholders about this and regulate the implementation of the strategy, and voilà you have the perfect sustainable fishery plan. However it’s all simple in context, but when you try to change a habit of a life time, of those who have invested heavily with livelihoods and financially, then it’s a lot more difficult.

Let’s use recent events as a case example; EU environmental policy ministers are currently trying to tackle the issue of our fisheries, in particular in the North Sea. This is a complicated issue as Europe consists of large economic countries in a relatively small space leaving the sea as an area of free for all where it is difficult to enforce strict fishing regulations. Currently EU Fisheries policy consists of catch restrictions, quotas and net mesh size restrictions. However there is nothing stopping boats from landing their ideal net haul from the best of 20 other net hauls. This has led to over exploitation without the exploited stock ever reaching the dinner table, which is the equivalent of burning coal in a power station without ever hooking it up to the national grid, a waste of a resource without gaining any benefits.

Let’s take a fish, for example the dreaded C word. Cod can live up to 25 years and grow to over 90kg in weight. Once they reach a size of approximately 0.5 meters at around 3-4 years they become reproductively viable. Cod employ a K selected reproductive strategy, this means they lay hundreds of eggs but only a few survive to adulthood. Spawning occurs in the spring and eggs hatch within a month, Cod larvae then have a long planktonic stage of around 3 months. In these early four months of live, young Cod make good food for a vast number of other organisms in the sea, from fish, crabs, sharks, jellyfish, to great whales, you name it most underwater life is dependent on plankton at the bottom of the food chain. Those that are lucky to survive hang about the bottom of the seabed, eating and growing until they reach maturity. So now think carefully, when was the last time you saw cod in your local chippy over 0.5 meters long? So it seams already where we are going wrong is fishing Cod that have not yet become mature. So its all fine and dandy, we will just use nets that only catch fish that are 0.7 meters long, however there are very few cod over this size, so instead of catching 100 fish, you only catch 10, so how so we compensate the fisherman for his loss of income. We then have the issue of conflicting fisheries, scallops and prawns also hangout on the bottom of the seabed where the juvenile Cod live. Prawns and Scallops are much smaller; the minimum landing size for scallops is 10cm where prawns have nets with a 8-12cm mesh. So what happens it these nets accidently catch juvenile Cod? Well as they can’t land it, it gets thrown back in dead. Well there can’t be that much accidentally caught can there? Well temperate prawn fisheries catch an estimated 10kg of bycatch for every 1kg of prawns, so yes there really can be a lot accidentally caught and wasted. So before you know it we are catching those which are not reproductively mature left right and centre and significantly reducing the breeding population. The situation is made worse due to the repeated effort to catch a perfect haul. As fisherman can only land a certain number of fish, they want to land the biggest fish that will earn them the most money. But as we have already established less fish are reaching the large size due to high juvenile mortality. So if we say the quota is 100 fish, and in each net there are ten big fish and 90 small fish, its more economic for the fisherman to throw 90 back and pull in another nine nets to end up with 100 big fish, however he has wasted 900 small fish in the process. This is how the issue has escalated to barbaric proportions and left our fish stocks in crisis, the exact opposite of ‘Sustainable’.

The fishery is then subjected to further ‘Unsustainability’ in regards to the stakeholders via unequal distribution of benefits. For example Fisherman A works in a local fishery; he owns his own boat, has one deck hand and comes home each day to his family. Fisherman B has a very large boat, five deckhands and can fish for several weeks at a time, he also has 4 times the number of nets as fisherman A. Fisherman B therefore has a far greater effort level, turns over a much higher number of fish, and a much greater profitability. Fisherman B can fish where ever the fish are at that particular time without restriction. Fisherman A wants to protect his local fishery but feels like even if he fishes less then fisherman B will just come and fish more, so why should he make the fishery better for others when he himself is not benefiting and the fishery ends up being fished to the same level regardless of how much he fishes. Is this fair? How do we ensure a fair fishery for all with an equal distribution of fishing ability for all? First we can introduce a daily time restriction and a gear restriction, if everyone can only use the same number of nets for the same amount of time then surely it now becomes fair? But now say fisherman B sells his big boat and buys four smaller boats, now he has extra over heads as he has to hire a few more staff, however he can now get around the laws whilst still being able to fish four times the amount of fisherman A. We can now see why the fisheries policy directors are having such a difficult task.

So what is the answer? Well that is what we are paying scientists, policy directors and politicians o figure out for us. But who really holds all the cards, who is the whole reason the fisherman exist in the first place? Well its us, the consumer, we hold all the power, we can influence the market by our actions, our needs and our demands. So what can we do to make a difference? Well we can be less obsessed with the labels on our food, we are stuck in our ways and obsessed with a certain three lettered fish, however white fish is white fish cod, whiting, haddock, hake, pollock, coley, plaice and many others, are all similar species of ground fish found in our waters. They all have similar flesh and nutritional content and it is very difficult to spot the difference in taste! So why are we so preoccupied with our three lettered friend? If we had a fishery led market, rather then a market driven fishery we would all be in a better position and a sustainable future for our fisheries would be much closer in sight. So next time you go to the supermarket or fishmonger, think about the dish you want to prepare, do you require white fish, oily fish, smoked fish, whole fish and instead of choosing the obvious species ask for what’s fresh and abundant off the market that day. If we stop forcing the market to forfill our demand for one species, then bycatch and discards will be less of an issue as the fishermen will be able to land what they catch and know it will sell, rather than throwing away 90% of their catch to choose just the most profitable species.


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