The start of Fish Free February is just around the corner, so now is a great opportunity to talk about why I'm taking the pledge to eat no fish for the whole of February and my own experiences with some of the problems arising with fishing. I also want to talk about some of the complexities of this discussion, that you might be wondering about. I have also provided some actions at the bottom, to set you off on a good foot in your own fish free Feb!
Diving with seals on Barunguba, Australia. The ocean is space for personal regeneration for me
Whats the problem?
Fish consumption increased 122% between 1998 and 2018 (FAO 2020). As our global populations grow and so does the global middle class, we are eating more seafood.
The impacts of our growing seafood consumption is hugely varied. From collapsing fish stocks, the pollution created, slavery conditions for workers, species extinctions, by-catch and more, there are many reasons to reduce our fish consumption. There is more information on these problems on the Fish Free February website, I thoroughly recommend taking a read.
I'm going to explore a bit more specifically about one type of pollution associated with fishing- plastic. I write a lot about reducing plastic waste in our home, I run workshops and help you to buy plastic free when you can. I have spoken before about the "hidden" plastics we use and that reducing our waste goes beyond what we put in our own recycling bin. Seafood consumption is a fantastic opportunity to assess this a bit more, because unfortunately buying fish in your own Tupperware does not mean you have a plastic free dinner.
I think when we think about ocean waste, we mostly think about plastic bottles and plastic bags that Turtles mistakenly eat. Whilst this is a very important aspect of plastic pollution (plus they're normally easy to tackle) the biggest source of ocean plastic is increasingly commonly found to be fishing waste.
We all know the impacts of general plastic waste. But modern plastic fishing waste is particularly nefarious. Modern fishing gear has been developed to float, meaning it can drift huge distances. It's obviously also designed to entrap fish, which it continues doing long after it is "ghosted". These qualities make it efficient and cheap for fishing purposes, but if it becomes lost at sea, it makes it a dangerous ocean hazard. Lost/ abandoned fishing equipment is often referred to as ghost gear/ ghost nets.
There are many reasons fishing gear, which can be nets, lines, pots, floats or even bricks (used for weighing down pots) can be lost to the oceans. It can be genuine loss- if boats cannot find their nets, they need to be cut from the ship if they are tangled on the bottom (without cutting loose there is real risk to fisherfolk on board) or if nets contain illegal by-catch. Net loss is a huge expense for the fishing industry.
Cutting of nets that contain illegal bycatch is something I experienced myself in Malaysia, where fisherfolk would cut loose nets that had caught Turtles, for fear of being caught. They generally would not free the Turtle first, they would simply cut the net loose with the Turtle still entrapped, sometimes even weighting the line to sink the Turtle and netting. The fine plastic net is so cheap and the fines so high, they would rather cut huge pieces of netting to reduce risk of a fine, even if trying to free the alive Turtle is possible- the time to remove the turtle from the netting may risk getting caught. Interestingly, apparently Dolphins are a different story as they are seen as lucky, so Fisherfolk will quickly and carefully help Dolphins caught in netting, whether it's their net or not.
It's not just Turtles that are at risk of getting trapped in ghost nets (something unfortunately I have seen with my own eyes) but whales, dolphins and also less enigmatic species too, like fish and seabirds. These "ghost hauls" will continue for hundreds of years, due to the durability of the plastic netting that does not biodegrade. Whilst drifting in the oceans, they might also accumulate pollution or even help species spread, some of which could be invasive.
If the net or line sinks, they can also cause damage on the sea floor. If a net lands on a reef, it can physically cause breakages immediately and also over time. It also disrupts the delicate ecosystem, as it prevents the reef being "preened" of algae by reef fish, which leads to algae growth and can cause coral death. New research also suggests that corals can "sense" plastic pollution in proximity, and it can cause stress, of which can either cause mortality alone or can increase disease which can also lead to mortality.
Removing ghost nets and lines is time consuming and expensive. At a global scale, they're almost impossible to "find" in the worlds oceans, unless they wash up or are tagged for pick up later (something increasing being done by ocean vessels). Picking up heavy nets that might have heavy algae growth from their time in the ocean, requires specialist boats or tractors on the beach. In Malaysia, we regularly had huge ghost nets wash in. These were impossible to move by hand (although our colleague Bill, pictured, did try) and so require heavy machinery, hired especially at great cost. This in itself proved logistically difficult, as we didn't want to damage potential Turtle nests on the beach. The nets must then be disposed of, in landfill if there is no net recycling system in place.
My colleague Bill, in Malaysia attempting to remove a very heavy ghost net from the surf.
They are also very difficult to remove from the reef, again as I experienced in Malaysia. Entangled netting requires a diver (free diving is possible but extremely tiring and also risks greater damage to the reef) to carefully untangle the netting from the coral. Depending how long the net has been there, this can mean pulling away carefully or having to break off sections of coral that have grown over the net. Obviously, nobody wants to do that, so at times net has to be cut from sections that can't be removed, and left to grow into the coral (again, not ideal as this can cause long term stress on the coral). This process can take many hours, so may take many trips. The netting will often be heavy and may need a special boat to help it out of the water. This process is long, tiring and expensive. Removing netting from the open ocean and reef though, is vital to prevent damage.
Ghost gear also threatens the fishing industry itself. It can cause navigational hazards, to boating problems including propellor damage (this is seen in Australia with recreational fishing lines and boats, and can cause serious risk to life), damaging fish stocks, damaging fish nursery sites such as coral reefs, which in turn also damages future fish stocks. Lost fishing gear is also expensive to replace. It's also unsightly for everyone, from the fishermen to the tourists- which can actually dent tourism. Of course there are cultural problems associated with ghost gear too, with the global nature of oceans meaning ghost gear lost anywhere can wash up on any beach causing damage to developing regions or culturally sensitive sites.
There are some potential solutions to the ghost net problem.
Putting LED lights on nets. Turtles tend not to approach bright white lights, a huge problem with nesting beaches and tourist developments. So there is research being done at the moment, to see if LED lights on nets and lines reduces Turtle bycatches. Problems include the durability of the LED (in the case of ghost nets, after potentially decades in the ocean), what other species might be attracted to an LED light, how expensive will this be for fisherfolk- ie. will they do it?! Also, how do we tackle the problem of piracy, will an illegal fishing boat really put LED's on their nets?
Natural fishing materials. Now, I'm behind this idea for recreational fishing, where up to 1/3 of line is lost. This very fine line would then biodegrade or snap easily if caught in boat equipment. It may also caught less problems if ingested by animals. Whether this is practical, remains to be seen. However, for industrial fishing I can potentially (with no experience of industry fishing) see many problems. The heavier weight of natural fibres would mean upgrading current fleets (or downsizing catches...) much shorter life span, more expensive to purchase, huge production load for raw materials and even greater fuel usage for heavy lines. Also, a ghost natural net will still catch by catch for a considerable time and will also damage the reef physically and is actually probably more likely to sink. But these are just my thoughts on potential problems for natural fishing gear, and probably some of the reasons the fishing community moved to plastic.
Another solution for lost nets, is satellite tags. This would mean fishing boats could track and find their nets. This would reduce their loss rates/ costs for the industry and of course reduce the pollution. Lost nets could also be identified to fleets, allowing gear to be either reunited with owners or be able to attribute fines. However the satellite tags are fairly expensive (although would potentially save money compared to loss for larger operations) and they rely on legal fishing practice. Many nets can be attributed to illegal fishing activity, so this solution isn't perfect, as it is unlikely an illegal fishing boat will follow regulations that would allow their nets to be identified.
Fishing gear is a common find in our own beach cleans, this was a quick #take3forthesea (or a little more than 3) on a beach near Edinburgh, Scotland in 2020. In global beach cleans fishing gear is increasingly found to be the dominant plastic waste found.
Phew. If you're feeling like that's a lot to take in, I feel you.
But this is just one problem, of so many associated with the fishing industry. Again, head over the Fish Free February website to read about the many others.
So, over the years I have come to question, what can I do? Many other eco problems are so visual, that it's understandable that sometimes it feels hard to know where to start with fishing. I don't know anything about fishing, in fact fishing is a long way from my home. And although do I rarely eat fish and I eat a largely plant based diet, I'm not vegan. I've decided to pledge to Fish Free February, to take a month without eating fish to take action and to take some time to consider how to be more mindful with future fish eating.
So beyond February, which fish should we eat?
What is "sustainable" fish to eat, is a incredibly complex answer. It depends on many variables, of which we need to get a better understanding of. This might be the season, how they were caught, size, where they were caught from, conditions for workers on the boats, if they are wild or farmed and more. We all have life pressures and stresses and sometimes we just want to pick up our shop without having to research everything. But getting a few tricks up your sleeve and being more mindful about your fish consumption after February is one way to go about better seafood consumption (if you do choose to eat any). FFF is about starting that process, taking a month away to reassess your consumption habits. Whilst it's very hard to give a black and white answer, because it really depends on where you are and what time of year it is, you can get better at understanding why it's tricky. It's also good to regularly check sustainable seafood charts, especially those that are season specific.
Consuming less fish (even if it is sustainable) is actually a great way to support sustainable fisheries, as it protects the future livelihoods of the fishing community. In your fish free month, can you research what is sustainable, in which season for you later in the year? Maybe that means not eating seafood until that season and buying only from a trusted source. Could you make eating fish a special meal, if you do choose to continue eating fish, rather than a regular occurrence? Fish Free February is about mindfulness with our fish and seafood consumption. If you don't have time to check the sustainability of fish, can you pick up a fish alternative instead, and save eating fish for when you've got time to research it further?
What about people that rely on fish for substinence?
Being able to choose what we eat is a privilege and the Fish Free February challenge is for those of us globally who do have a choice- those who can switch their fish fingers for vegan fish fingers or even just have a bean burger. Being mindful over our food choices supports communities who don't have choice. Reducing our fish consumption reduces the global impact of fishing and supports healthy stocks for those reliant on seafood.
What about fish swaps that aren't local?
Banana blossom, palm hearts and jackfruit are popular switches that give a great fish texture, but for the UK for example, they're not local. Imported foods have a footprint and also have social implications. However Fish Free February is a global charity and so you might see recipes shared that aren't seasonal/ local for you, but will be for others in the global community. Can you use your month to learn a bit more about local food solutions for you? Can you have imported foods as a treat instead of a regular swap? What can you find that is a good fit for you? Share your fish free finds on social media, they might just inspire someone else too.
Should you eat fish if it's on menu when travelling?
I've written a number of foods on freeganism (flexible environmental eating dependant on location) where/ when you're travelling. Opening up the dialogue about why it's not black and white is really important. If you are planning a trip, check the sustainable fish options beforehand if you're considering eating seafood, just like you might check out what delicious local fruits are available or check reviews for sites you want to visit. Check to see if local conservation organisations (this is common in tropical locations, especially islands) have any recommendations.
Fish Free February recommends two books in particular, The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina and The End Of The Line by Charles Clover. I also found the fish chapter in The Ethical Carnivore by Louise Gray a great introduction.
How I'm approaching February (in 2021..)
At the moment, in The UK we're in lockdown and so it's the perfect opportunity to have a month away from fish and explore something new!! The Fish Free February Pinterest board has lots of inspiring plant based recipes to dive into and try, give it a follow.
This year especially, me and Lee are seeing it as an opportunity to explore exciting food and using it to have fun with new plant based recipes, support businesses changing the industry and take action just through our dinners. It's also exciting coming together with a community to do a challenge, even if this years it's mostly via connecting online.
If you're a lover of fish products and you're wanting to switch out to something that tastes/ resembles much loved fish products, there are so many awesome products that are easy to access in The UK. I've checked the big supermarkets and most have alternatives available, here's some inspiration...
(Hot tip- I recommend the Aldi vegan piri piri mayonnaise that tastes just like thousand island/ marie rose/ seafood sauce. It would be perfect to have alongside your vegan alternatives. It certainly doesn't taste like mayo but would be a hit with fish alternatives.)
The topic of fishing is absolutely huge and this blog could certainly be longer. But I hope it's given you some of the reasons I have decided to pledge from what I've seen in my career, and I hope it inspires you too. I will continue to write on Fish Free February over the next little while and keep an eye on our social media where I'll be updating over the course of the month. I've tried to answer some of the questions I think will pop up, if you've got anymore, let me know. Whilst it's also important to acknowledge sustainable fisheries, we'll do that in the future and celebrate them, but Feb really is about consumer change that we can all partake in.
On last thing for now, my deeply personal connection to the oceans & why I'm passionate about ocean conservation/ regeneration..
I’m going fish free for the Dolphins! I know it’s cliche, but my love of Dolpins started when I was a little girl, my mum bought me a David Shephard painting of dolphins, and they were my token of happiness and freedom, if I ever woke up in the night after a bad dream, I'd look at the painting and feel safe again. Since then I’ve had some of the best times of my life spotting Dolphins! Every boat trip I've ever taken, I give myself a headache searching the horizon and waiting for the elusive fin pop. They represent freedom and joy.
Now I’m a bit older, I want to do something to help a species that are extremely close to my heart. I really hate seeing images of Dolphins on beaches that have been killed by fishing activity, something that has become common on local beaches in the South of England.
By taking the Fish Free February pledge, I am doing something to prevent the unnecessary death of Dolphins in fishing equipment. The oceans are also the reason I met my partner, where we spend lots of our time and where I feel so happy. So as well as the research and data into the impact of fishing, I thought I'd share my own deeply personal reasons for taking the fish free pledge.
Happy place, enjoying the calm silence of diving and hoping for a world with healthy oceans
You can take your own pledge here, it's also where you can also find lots of resources and a handy digital media toolkit if you want to share more about Fish Free February. I also recommend following them on Instagram and Facebook.