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Spiralling fuel costs ease pressure on fish

Recent hikes in oil prices are hitting the fishing industry where it hurts most: on the profit margin. In the process, some fish stocks are getting a much needed respite from intensive exploitation. Fishers in Europe have blockaded ports in recent weeks to protest at rising fuel costs, claiming that they can no longer make a living. This could well be true, because modern industrial fishing is one of the most fuel hungry means of producing food.  A few years ago, Peter Tyedmers of Dalhousie University in Canada looked at how much fuel was used to catch the fish we eat. His research produced figures that should startle any seafood lover. If cod, haddock or flounder find their way onto you plate, the fuel cost of catching them was a third to a half of the weight of your fillet. If line caught swordfish or tuna are your favourites, the fuel burnt to catch them was roughly equal to the weight of your fish portion. Not all fisheries are this bad. Small open water fishes caught using purse seines, giant nets set around shoals of fish, are the least fuel intensive fisheries. If you enjoy herring or capelin for example, the fuel burnt to catch them is only one or two percent of the weight of fish landed. But most of these species are fed to pigs, chickens or pen-raised fish like salmon, and are not eaten directly by us. A more alarming finding of Tyedmers' research is that fisheries today burn more fuel to catch less fish than they did in the past. As fish stocks fall, fishers must travel further and fish for longer to land smaller catches. Over the period 1986 to 1999, the fuel cost of catching haddock off eastern Canada doubled, for example. While many industries are today reducing their carbon footprint to combat climate change, the fishing industry's thirst for petroleum grows. For many years, governments around the world have propped up unsustainable levels of fishing with generous tax breaks on fuel. In Britain, fishers are charged only half the price the public pay for fuel. For decades environmentalists have called for subsidies to be scrapped because they encourage overfishing. Most governments have resisted, perhaps because they know that withdrawal of subsidies could drive people out of business. Rising fuel prices have now exposed an industry hooked on oil whose profits are dependent on taxpayer handouts. According to the University of British Columbia economist Rashid Sumaila, profit margins in deep-sea trawl fisheries are wholly dependent on fuel subsidies. The same is true for many other fisheries. Protesting fishers in Europe want deeper tax breaks on fuel from their governments. But what they should really protest for is better management. In the North Atlantic, fish stocks are less than 10 percent of what they were a century ago and the fishing fleet is an estimated 40-50% larger than the remaining fish can support. As painful as spiralling fuel costs may be, it is perhaps the best medicine for an ailing industry. Fish may at last get a little breathing space to help them recover. ———-  Callum Roberts is Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York in England and the author of The Unnatural History of the Sea. Click here to visit his website.