By Our Fish Programme Director Rebecca Hubbard.
I grew up with parents who surfed and farmed on Australia’s south east coast. I spent my childhood surrounded by clean, beautiful beaches, eucalypt forests and farmland, not realising how blessed I was by having a spectacular playground full of nature. This unique and inspiring place was my launchpad into environmental science and campaigning to protect our environment.
Through my work, I began to learn more about the place where I loved to surf; the ocean – the thing that gives us every second breath, regulates the climate, is the largest carbon sink on Earth and has absorbed 90% of the excess heat we’ve generated. Bit by bit, after falling in love with the ocean, I became heartbroken.
For hundreds of years, we believed the ocean was too big for humans to harm, yet by the 19th century our impact was already becoming apparent. Fish populations became depleted and fishing boats had to go further away to catch fish – and for longer. After World War II, improved technical and mechanical capacity was used to wage war on the ocean, overfishing it even more. The marine ecosystems and wildlife that they co-existed with, were decimated with ruthless effectiveness.
Now I find myself living in Madrid, not far from the world’s most degraded sea – the Mediterranean – and working to end overfishing in the waters around Europe. I look at collapsing fish populations in the Baltic Sea, observe the bottom trawlers that have scraped thousands of kilometres of seafloor in the North Sea, and note the thousands of dolphins that are being killed in the Bay of Biscay by fishing each year. I wonder how did I – how did we – get here? And how can we fix this?
As programme director of the Our Fish campaign, people sometimes think I’m only a fish geek, but this story is about more than fish, or eating fish – it’s about the ocean. The beautiful body of water that covers 70% of the planet and is integral to our life support system. The ocean makes life livable, and worth living. Fish are the engines of our ocean, a keystone of the biodiversity that enriches our planet, and overfishing is putting that biodiversity under enormous pressure.
Experts estimate that around the world 34% of fish stocks are overfished – in the North East Atlantic that figure is almost 40%, and in the Mediterranean around 90%. Marine ecosystems are buckling under this strain. If we care about where our oxygen comes from, where carbon is stored, and how to protect our biggest protector against climate chaos, we should all be ocean lovers and fish geeks. In the words of former administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenko, “We can turn the ocean from victim to climate solution”.
The ocean can continue to support life on the planet, provide fish for food, support jobs, and continue to help protect us from the climate crisis, but this can only happen if we end the most destructive pressures we are forcing on it. Relatively simple, direct things can be done right now, some of which are set out in RISE UP – A Blue Call to Action (which Our Fish has signed onto). The good news is that many countries have committed to take some actions that would help restore the fish populations on which the fishing industry depends.
In the EU, national governments can restore fish populations by simply implementing the law that they created and follow scientific advice when setting annual fishing limits. They can prioritise quota access to low-impact fishing fleets, support investment for selective fishing gear to avoid netting unwanted catch, and put in place remote electronic monitoring systems to monitor catch data and enforce rules.
All of this can deliver benefits to both people and the marine ecosystem; the EU has put it into law, and recently re-committed to, in its Biodiversity Strategy. By restoring fish and marine wildlife populations and quit destroying habitats, we restore our own life support system. We now know the ocean is not too big to fail, but it is far too big to ignore.
The COVID-19 crisis has taught us many things. We can make huge societal changes very quickly, and we must, or else we will face worse crises in future. Governments around the world have committed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and SDG 14 is dedicated to a healthy ocean. In Europe this drive for change to a sustainable, just and equitable world, has been woven into the European Green Deal and EU Biodiversity Strategy. Globally and in Europe, the SDGs and Biodiversity Strategy need to be our guiding star for transforming our relationship with nature and restoring ocean health.
We know what needs to be done, we just need to do it. Our leaders need to be reminded of this truth and their promise which is why we are pleased to see so many organisations from around the world joining RISEUP. For the sake of our ocean, our climate, our fishing communities, and indeed, all of us living on this planet.