ANALYSIS - There is much hype around sustainable fisheries, but this morning at the opening of the 6th World Fisheries Congress, Professor Ray Hilborn from the University of Washington asked why there was so much focus on this, when wild fish stocks are the world's only protein that can be produced at a very low environmental cost. Charlotte Johnston, TheFishSite Editor reports.
Acknowledging that fish stocks are depleting in some areas, recovering in other parts and remaining stable elsewhere, Professor Hilborn said that we know how to sustainably fish wild stocks.
Yet, there is increasing pressure from environmental groups and the public to stop capture fisheries.
But, Professor Hilborn asked, what are the environmental costs of precautionary marine conservation? If we do reduce the harvest of forage species, or close large areas of water, the fish lost from this, has to be replaced by another source of protein.
"There must a trade off somewhere, and so far I have seen no data produced about this."
The environmental impact of capture fisheries
"Capture fisheries are a protein that has a very little impact on the environment," he said, addressing over 1,000 delegates from more than 70 countries.
Yet, he said, when we walk into a supermarket we see sustainable fish for sale, but there is no concern about the sustainability of other foods in the supermarket.
Compared to other protein sources (pork, poultry, beef), capture fisheries have a minimal environmental cost. Hardly any fresh water is used, no fertiliser, pesticides or antibiotics are required and no soil erosion takes place.
"It's a no brainer. Fish systems are much more natural, which means that wild fisheries have a much smaller impact on biodiversity that agriculture or livestock production."
The environmental trade off of lost food production
Professor Hilborn said that the real net environmental cost of not capturing wild fisheries is that the lost food production would be no doubt made up by either clearing more land, or intense use of irrigation, fertiliser and pesticides.
Before policies go any further, there must be research undertaken to look at the cost of reducing world fish production compared to the cost of producing that protein elsewhere.
One example he gave is that to replace the 81.9 million tonnes of fish landed in 2006, an area 22.3 times the size of the current world rainforest would be required to produce the same amount of food.
To replace the Peruvian anchovy harvest with palm oil for fish feed could cost the habitat 4,604 orangutans a year, concluded Professor Hilborn.
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