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Edouard Le Bart: “World Oceans Day: what if overfishing was not a fatality…”

More than a third of the world’s assessed wild fish stocks are overexploited according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). That’s three times more than 40 years ago (1). Faced with this observation, a few days before June 8, the date of World Oceans Day, it is more urgent than ever to act to fight against overfishing. At a time when IPCC reports are alerting us to the impacts of global warming, the consequences are already serious for our oceans. German researchers estimate that in 80 years, up to 60% of fish will not be able to survive where they are today (2). The migration of marine species to colder waters will accentuate the challenge of international cooperation that States must face in order to reasonably manage the exploitation of these resources.

Yet we have proof that it is possible to reverse the trend. In France, for example, Ifremer’s figures lead to optimism: in 2021, 56% of the volumes of fish caught came from sustainably exploited populations compared to only 15% 20 years ago. (3). If the game is not yet won, these figures show us that overfishing is not inevitable, and that management efforts are paying off. The light of science and the mobilization of the entire French fishing industry, including citizens, are and will be decisive in accelerating the transition to sustainable fishing.

Science is an essential prerequisite for the sustainability of fisheries. Without it, we can easily imagine the difficulty in counting the fish! Fortunately, fisheries science is progressing. The improvement of models for assessing fish populations and marine ecosystems, as well as the increasing number of collaborations between fishermen and researchers, are helping to better understand the marine environment and its interactions with fishing. For governments and fishers alike, these contributions are essential to moving towards sustainability, setting precautionary catch limits and minimizing the impact of fishing activities on fish stocks and ecosystems. This imperative is all the more pressing since the sustainable management of all fish stocks would produce an additional 16 million tonnes per year, enough to feed 72 million people. (4). This would also make it possible to maintain employment for the 39 million people who live from fishing in the world – including nearly 50,000 in France. (5).

“There are many misconceptions about fishing, starting with those that associate environmental sustainability with the size of the boats or the gear used”

Although scientific assessments of fish populations are increasingly numerous, the means granted to scientific research remain, however, too limited to allow an exhaustive understanding of the marine environment and its rapid changes. The issue of research funding is all the more crucial as global warming reshuffles many cards in our oceans. It is essential for the industry, managers and States to be able to understand and anticipate upheavals in order to adapt fishing activity.

Scientists make assumptions about our oceans and fisheries about a changing environment subject to multiple influences. Their work feeds on complex data, not easy to popularize. At a time when, on the slightest subject, simplistic discourse and radical positions are spreading at high speed, this is another major challenge. Misconceptions about fishing are legion, starting with those that associate environmental sustainability with the size of the boats or the gear used. The reality is more nuanced: the impact of fishing depends above all on the management measures applied and the type of environment in which it is practiced.

Let’s be clear: any fishing method has an impact on the environment. To meet the challenge of overfishing, everyone must work to minimize it, regardless of the size of the boat or the method. Because each progress brings us a little closer to the objective that we share: to ensure the sustainability of marine resources and the communities that depend on them. The improvements implemented on the ground by the fishermen and all the players in the sector are numerous. Between the closure of areas to fishing, the design of more selective gear or the setting of strict catch limits, for example, more than 1,958 improvements in practices have been identified in 20 years in fisheries committed to sustainability initiatives in the world — including more than 90 in France (6).

“Ensuring food security for the ten billion human beings that we will be by 2050 will not be achieved without accelerating the ecological transition of global food production systems”

Of course, there is still a long way to go. But if we are to effectively incite action, warnings must avoid the trap of caricature and rely instead on examples of concrete positive results. They exist and are powerful engines of mobilization and inspiration.

The entire fishing industry must collectively take up the challenge of informing the general public. And each link is part of the solution to solve this equation. For fishermen and their representatives, this means sharing their vision of the profession, explaining the steps taken and showing the reality on the ground. For marketers, it means meeting the growing expectations of consumers with sustainable and accessible products, taking responsibility for providing reliable information and, of course, supporting the fisheries that supply them in their progress towards sustainability. For the citizen, become aware of the importance of his act of purchase and thus make an informed choice in store. For governments: base their fisheries management decisions on scientific advice and play the game of international collaboration to safeguard shared marine resources. Finally, for all actors concerned with sustainable fishing, including NGOs and the media, encourage improvements in the sector and base alerts on rigorous scientific bases so as not to convey caricatural and counterproductive ideas. We all have a duty nuance.

Eco-labelling is a way to promote the collective commitment of a sector and to recognize sustainability efforts. It is also a tool that makes it possible to provide a clear guarantee to the consumer, without drowning him in a mass of information. Solutions for sustainable fishing will only be effective if they are based on a demanding scientific approach, a solid collective and ambitious international cooperation.

Ensuring food security for the ten billion human beings that we will be by 2050 will not be achieved without accelerating the ecological transition of global food production systems. By providing accessible animal proteins with a low carbon impact, sustainable fishing is an essential lever for the food of tomorrow. Stopping eating fish is not the solution. Not everyone has the luxury of having a choice: three billion people depend on seafood to survive. (7). Those who have the choice, on the other hand, have the responsibility to use it wisely: our purchasing actions shape the society of tomorrow because they are so many strong signals sent to the entire production chain. Choosing a seafood product from sustainable fishing is a militant act for the future of our planet and for that of future generations of fishermen and citizens.

(1) and (7) FAO report: the state of world fisheries and aquaculture 2020; (2) Dahlke et al. : Thermal bottlenecks in the life cycle define climate vulnerability of fish; (3)State of fish populations in France Ifremer 2021; (4) Costello et al: Global fishery prospects under contrasting management regimes; (5) FranceAgriMer; (6) MSC Annual Report 2021-2022, pages 14-15.

Committed to sustainable fishing

Edouard LeBart is responsible in France for the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) eco-label, which certifies that the fish consumed come from sustainable fishing, and aims to change the way the oceans are exploited by helping to reverse the decline of stocks , safeguarding the livelihoods of fishers and improving the conservation of marine areas around the world.

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