The Elephant in the Room: Why Are We Ignoring the Industrial Fishing Industry’s Carbon Footprint?

Date: 3rd February 2022

Author: Hannah Rudd

Another year, another meeting of world leaders to discuss the most pressing problem ever to face our global community. After a brief hiatus in 2020, the world came together in Glasgow, UK, in November 2021 to identify long-overdue solutions to the climate crisis. And yet, whilst it is now thankfully firmly rooted within climate negotiations, there was relatively little mention of the importance of ocean recovery in the bid to reverse climate catastrophe through resilience. Great strides were made for the world’s green lungs with the landmark Glasgow COP26 Declaration on Forest and Land Use, but what about its blue lungs?  

Absorbing roughly a quarter of atmospheric carbon, the global ocean is integral to the climate system. The blue heart of our planet remains virtually unexplored, yet its biodiversity bears the brunt of human activity. By providing vital regulating services which operate in a delicate dance between the ocean and the atmosphere, the very entity that keeps our planet’s heart pumping is being destroyed by a single species.

Having a conversation about climate change without making the ocean central to that dialogue seems futile. Perhaps this occurs because the ocean is out of sight out of mind for many of us. The boundless blue that wraps around over two-thirds of our planet’s surface area is often only viewed by those privileged enough to peer out of an aeroplane window. Even then, it rarely grabs attention. You may be surprised to learn that some studies now estimate that the industrial fishing industry generates more carbon emissions than the aviation sector. Many high seas fisheries are also only viable through public subsidies and human-rights abuses of poorly paid and treated crew from developing countries. 

Our seas have produced at least 50% of the world’s oxygen, and they are one of the largest carbon sinks on Earth, locking away vast stores of carbon in their seabed for millions of years. This same carbon source is now being released due to industrial fishing as heavy fishing gear is dragged across the seabed via a practice known as bottom trawling. As enormous nets scoop up sea life and scour the seabed, they release carbon that has been locked away for millennia. 

Accelerating climate change is not the only threat industrial-scale bottom trawling poses to our ocean. It continues to transform our once thriving ocean into a desolate shadow of its former self by hauling out life and destroying everything in its path. Fragile ecosystems like kelp forests and seagrass meadows with their incredible carbon-absorbing abilities, are commonly destroyed in their wake, reducing the oceans capacity to draw in carbon from the atmosphere.

Seafood is big business. It is one of the most valuable and heavily traded food commodities globally and, in many cultures, is a signifier of wealth. By 2050 the global population is estimated to reach 10 billion people. Pressure on our global food system could reach a breaking point as there are ever more mouths to feed and increasingly hostile conditions to produce nutritionally valuable food. As fish stocks sink to new lows, demand will be sky-high, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Food harvested from our ocean – termed ‘blue foods’ – can meet the nutritional requirements of a growing population on carbon neutrality if managed sustainably. Indeed, the 2021 Blue Food Assessment identified that worldwide, 800 million people depend on blue food systems for their livelihoods, and 3 billion people obtain their essential nutrients from blue food sources. It is estimated that small-scale fisheries and aquaculture produce two-thirds of these foods. Industrial-scale fishing is the minority, yet it generates the majority of the damage. 

As seafood is a crucial component for many diets and livelihoods worldwide, removing consumption altogether is unrealistic. 2021 marked the beginning of the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and with it our focus must shift to collaboratively identifying innovative solutions that meet the increased demand for nutritionally valuable seafood whilst simultaneously curtailing the overfishing of our ocean, sustaining fisher livelihoods, and combating the climate crisis. For marine life to thrive again, innovation in fishing gear and removing the most harmful practices will be indispensable.

Paramount to delivering ocean recovery will be a robust High Seas Treaty (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ)) that will enable the global community to establish marine protected areas in the high seas and safeguard fish stocks and build ocean resilience. At its core, marine protected areas should prohibit the most damaging forms of commercial fishing, at the very least, to protect the seabed from their heavy gear. The commercial fishing industry, of which industrial-scale fishing is one type, is complex. Not all fisheries are created equally socially and environmentally, so sweeping generalisations are often unhelpful. That said, industrial fishing practices and overfishing are two of the leading drivers behind the devastating state of our global ocean today. If we are to have thriving seas again, we must be bold and ambitious in addressing fishing activity.

Thanks to the Glasgow Climate Pact, the ocean is now recognised under the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), and in 2022, we have even more opportunities to take decisive action for our global ocean at the BBNJ negotiations, the UN Ocean Conference,  30×30, the COP15 in Kunming, and COP27 in Sharm-El Sheik. We must capitalise on these opportunities to reverse our past mistakes and safeguard our blue heart. Frankly, we have no more time to lose. 

The ocean is one of our greatest allies in the fight against the climate crisis. In order to give the once bountiful blue a chance to assist us in this battle, we must address the elephant in the room and get tough on the industrial fishing industry. 

In 2022, will we ensure that climate action also means ocean action?

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