Enjoy cod’s revival, but the extent of our ruination of the sea remains unknown
I received the exciting news with a sense of dread. According to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which rates the sustainability of fish all over the world, North Sea cod is “back”. It says that the current stocks are such that it can now be fished without fear and purchased without guilt by eco-friendly consumers.
Since North Sea cod has been teetering on the verge of extinction since the 1970s, longer than the MSC has been rating fisheries, this seems startling and welcome news. After decades of reduced fishing quotas, fewer vessels, limited time at sea, wider-mesh nets, the periodic closing of some areas, cod has rebounded in the North Sea. Fishermen were promised that if they submitted to this draconian regime, in time stocks would be restored and they could return to a full-scale prosperous industry.
If this is all true, I am very happy for the fishermen. They have earned it. However, I have been following fisheries for many years and so often such good news is the prelude to disaster. What’s more, with ocean ecology being continually altered by climate change, anyone who thinks of overfishing as the central problem in fish survival is not living in the 21st century.
In terms of fish stocks, I remember the “good news” from the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland, in the early 1990s, just before the collapse in 1992. I remember early in this century when biologists discovered that flounder was abundant on Georges Bank, between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, and sent the fleet after it, only to discover that the stock was not quite that good and took a deep hit from which it took years to recover. I remember Iceland overestimating its cod stocks and allowing too many fish to be landed.
Such incidents are always labelled as “overfishing” and that is what overfishing mostly is these days. Yet in western Europe and North America, it is rare for fishermen to take more fish than they are allowed: most overfishing is caused by regulators telling fishermen to take too many fish. With Waitrose and the other big chains lined up to buy North Sea cod, if the biologists are wrong or misinterpreted by the regulators, who in their excitement allow too many fish to be taken, the results will again be blamed on the fishermen. It will be said that the North Sea was once again overfished.
How could this happen?
To begin with, the MSC is far from infallible, though its blue label on packaging is trusted by consumers, especially in Europe. MSC was founded in 1996 in London, the fruit of an odd coupling between the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Dutch multinational Unilever. I was an early backer and spoke at and attended meetings at high-profile venues.
The council’s ambitious idea was to rate every fishery in the world, to examine each one first hand and to tell consumers what fish was caught sustainably. Consumers of conscience want to know and so I thought this was a very worthwhile service, though I could not imagine how they could thoroughly examine every fishery, especially since they would have to be regularly revisited to make sure they were maintaining their standards.
But the MSC has done it. It has certified about 20,000 fish products internationally. It has done this by getting fisheries to hire independent auditors to report back to the council and they are willing to do this because an MSC certificate is commercially valuable.
However, not surprisingly, some of their conclusions are controversial and a few are highly disputed. For instance, MSC has certified six fisheries of Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as Chilean sea bass. Many biologists want to know how a fishery can be called sustainable when it targets a deep water fish about which little is known, that reaches sexual maturity after many years; the species is possibly being driven to extinction.
Those inclined to conspiracy theory have suggested that in getting the giants such as Whole Foods Market, Kroger, Walmart and Canada’s Loblaw to exclusively carry MSC-certified fish, the organisation has been under pressure to make a wide variety of fish available. But the job might also be too large for one nonprofit to handle. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which also rates fisheries, says its own lists are just guidelines and that the consumer needs to dig deeper. This would be a good suggestion for North Sea cod.
For one thing, the size of the spawning stock of North Sea cod, while much more plentiful than at any point in this young century, is still far smaller than historic North Sea stocks or even what it was in 1970. This is what biologists call “the problem of shifting baselines”; in short, we learn to accept lower standards, so that the stock of 2000 becomes a new reference point.
Even if numbers of spawning fish were higher, there are many ocean dynamics about which we know so little that it is not unreasonable to question whether sustainability in fisheries is a judgment that can now ever be made with certainty.
Accidental marine spills of oil-industry hydrocarbons, thoughtlessly discarded plastics that end up in the sea and industrial poisons such as heavy metals and PCBs are all thought to have impacts on fish reproduction. But how big these are is unknown.
Climate change is altering ocean ecology and changing habitats. The seas are getting warmer and fish are moving north. Oceans are also growing less salty because of melting ice. The impact of this is still not fully understood, but since salinity and temperature are important signals for spawning, it is feared we may have damaged the ability of some fish to reproduce.
Climate change is driven by carbon dioxide emissions, chiefly from the burning of fossil fuels. Huge quantities of carbon are going into the ocean and having an impact on the ability of shellfish and coral to grow. But more research needs to be done to understand the effect of such changes on fish.
For any fish, there is now this question: are they growing and are they reproducing as they once did? So when there is the good news of a somewhat improved fish stock, we should, naturally, rejoice. It probably means some of the problematic measures that have been enforced at the expense of fisherman have had a positive effect. Yet it is to be hoped that hard lessons have been learned and that the fishing world will now proceed with caution.Mark Kurlansky’s books include Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and World Without Fish