Bottom trawling is sustainable – when it is well managed

Bottom trawling is sustainable – when it is well managed

Well-managed bottom trawl fisheries produce food with a much lower environmental impact than any animal protein, including chicken, pork and beef. This is one of the findings of a paper published in July in the respected ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Titled Evaluating the sustainability and environmental impacts of trawling compared to other food production systems, the paper summarizes existing knowledge about the environmental impacts of bottom trawling. It is authored by 11 scientists from Europe, the United States, Australia, South America and Scandinavia and finds that where bottom trawl fisheries are well managed, stocks are increasing.

This is consistent with the experience of the South African trawl fishery which fishes for hake in deep water off the west and south coasts. The fishery is tightly managed according to scientific recommendations and recent stock assessments demonstrate that hake stocks are “above maximum sustainable yield”. This means the growth of the stocks is in balance with fishing activity and current catch levels are sustainable over time.

Read an analysis of the ICES paper here.

The authors of the ICES article challenge some commonly held beliefs about bottom trawling, an efficient method of food production that is used to catch approximately 19 million tons of fish per year – about a quarter of all the fish caught in the world. They reviewed dozens of scientific papers about the impacts of bottom trawling and found that where fishing pressure is well managed and vulnerable ecosystems and species of concern are protected, seabed habitats remain in good condition. The carbon footprint of bottom trawling is on average higher than for producing chicken or pork, but much less than for beef. In certain instances, the carbon footprint of bottom-trawling can be much lower than it is to produce chicken or pork.

“Overall, the concerns about trawling impacts can be significantly mitigated when existing technical gear and management measures (e.g. gear design changes and spatial controls) are adopted by industry and regulatory bodies and the race-to-fish eliminated,” reads the paper.

“When these management measures are implemented, it appears that bottom trawling would have a lower environmental impact than livestock or fed aquaculture, which would likely replace trawl-caught fish if trawling was banned.”

The authors note that a total of 83 bottom trawl fisheries are currently certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the “most widely accepted measure of overall sustainability”. South Africa’s trawl fishery for hake is one of the 83 bottom trawl fisheries certified by the MSC. It was first certified in 2004 and has retained the certification ever since, even though the MSC Fishery Standard has evolved and adopted far more stringent prescripts in the intervening years, especially with regard to endangered, threatened and protected species, impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems and other potential environmental impacts of fisheries.  

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