Doing our homework on sustainable fishing and super trawlers

“There are many reasons to object to modern fishing practices, including the use of super trawlers, but it is up to us all to do our homework, and listen to a variety of actors. Let’s call it a new food ethics.”

A large trawler is looming – as is the predictable storm of protest – with the possible arrival of the super trawler FV Meridian 1 into Tasmanian waters.

While ‘food politics’ have been primarily focused on land food production, increasingly ENGOs, like WWF, are turning up the volume of protest against fishing practices. You’ll recall that two years ago the world’s second largest super trawler, Abel Tasman (the renamed FV Margiris) was banned from Australian waters under a hastily passed amendment to Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). The moratorium applies to trawlers over 130 metres long, so the Meridian 1 slips through by just 30 metres.

The arrival of the Abel Tasman was met with the full force of ENGO media campaigning, the Greens and a racket set up by recreational fishing association. Recreational fishers are now a powerful political force with Tony Abbott fully onboard (‘reeling in the votes’ plus great photo ops). The National Day of Action, flotillas of recreational fishing boats, a media storm, and fierce political lobbying lead to the ban on the super trawler. It was lauded as a great success for fishing conservation.

But was it? A team of University of Tasmania academics including leading fisheries management scientists argue that it was a blow to Australia’s reputation in fisheries management, which is highly regarded throughout the world. Indeed many fishers see the complex State, Territory and Commonwealth network as over-regulation. But they obey the rules.

Much of the shock/horror tactics deployed by the ENGOs replayed the idea that super trawlers are to blame for the world’s over-fishing. It’s a comforting illusion that allowed the victory against the Abel Tasman to be seen as a moral gain. However, the noise drowns out the much more complicated realities of modern day fishing industries.

For the last several decades, fisheries have been rendering themselves more ‘efficient’. What this means is that with the technology to go farther out to sea, for longer, you need fewer boats and fishers. It’s a twist on the technological fix that was applied to agriculture from the 1950s onward.

The introduction of the Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) system in Australia in the 1980s furthered the consolidation of the fishing industry into fewer hands. This is a formula whereby each fishery is given a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) each year set by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) based on scientific evaluations that include previous catch numbers as well as the measurement of spawning biomass. Fishery owners are allowed to catch the amount stipulated by their ITQ percentage. The idea behind the system is that it cuts direct competition or what was called ‘the race to fish’.

It has been critiqued by academics such as Gisli Pálsson as being a market-driven rationale that effectively privatises the oceans. The fish in Australian waters are ‘owned’ by our government, which at the end of the day is us, the public. There are obvious flaws to the system – and how could there not be considering the market-led framing of complicated environmental concerns?

I fully support ‘sustainable fishing’ but research from my ARC-funded project, Sustainable Fish, is revealing that what is ‘sustainable’ is mind-boggling complex.

There are, for a start, several certification systems that give a tick to the fish you buy – or don’t. Only five per cent of Australian consumers buy sustainable fish. There are some notable fisheries in Australia that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council – such as the Northern Prawn Fishery – but the process costs money, which the fishery has to pay.

Then there’s the fact that 75 per cent of the seafood we eat is imported sometimes from certified fisheries (like the Alaskan Pollack, coincidentally fished by super trawlers). But much isn’t. And some of our fish comes from New Zealand fisheries now facing allegations of using slave labour stemming from their policy of using foreign-flagged trawlers.

Of course one could just abstain from eating fish. However this is the choice of the privileged and ignores the vast numbers of fishers worldwide, including small-scale fisheries, which provide much of the protein in the developing world.

For me personally, sustainable fishing has to include the fishers who often bear the brunt of ENGO’s righteous anger. The problem with what David Little et al call mass-mediated risk governance – social media gone mad without the facts – is that it overlooks the complex web of actors involved. While I don’t think that the scientists have all the knowledge, (for instance, they rarely pretend to understand the human dimensions of fishing communities), they do have as good an idea as possible of the size of the biomass.

If we add fishers into the equation, they often have generations of hands-on knowledge. Unfortunately this is tacit knowledge and often too easily bypassed in our positivist world. Anthropologists, sociologists and even some gender studies scholars can provide more slivers of knowledge that helps deepen the overall picture.

These researchers have to back up their arguments in one way or another, whereas in Little’s summation ‘WWF lacks ultimate accountability for the consequences of its decisions and actions.’

There are many reasons to object to modern fishing practices, including the use of super trawlers, but it is up to us all to do our homework, and listen to a variety of actors. Let’s call it a new food ethics.

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender & Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She is the convener of the Maricultures Environmental Research (MER) node of the Sydney Environment Institute. The views in this blog are hers alone. Her latest project is The Sustainable Fish Lab and her publications on the more-than-human politics of sustainable fish can be found here.