The seas around Antarctica are among the least exploited on earth, but that doesn’t mean they are safe forever. Fishing boats are working here in increasing numbers catching things like toothfish (which you might have seen on a menu as ‘Chilean sea bass’).
In this series, Hugh goes onboard a state-of-the-art Norwegian trawler catching thousands of tonnes of krill, the small crustaceans that sit at the base of the Antarctic food chain. Almost every creature in the Antarctic – penguins, seals, whales and albatrosses – rely ultimately on krill.
The boat Hugh visits is using krill to make health food supplements that we can buy on our high streets, as well as feed additives for pet food or salmon farms. The company operating the ship – Aker Biomarine - catches within the limits set by scientists and has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. But as more nations and more boats look to catch krill, do these seas have enough protection in place to ensure their safety?
Even this far from home, we in Britain have a big role to play in protecting the seas around Antarctica. We govern the remote islands of South Georgia: home to millions of penguins and seals, and endangered albatrosses. The waters around the islands are also one of the chief fishing locations for the krill and toothfish fisheries. The Government is putting in place a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the islands, but Hugh wants to make sure it makes a real difference to the long-term protection of krill and fish stocks, and all the wildlife that depends on them.
The Philippines is a country made up of thousands of islands and has a huge coastline. Fish is the main source of animal protein for its growing population. But several decades ago, destructive fishing methods – including using dynamite to kill whole shoals of fish – started having a terrible impact on fish stocks, and the coral reefs they live amongst.
One response by the government was an ambitious target for marine protected areas around the Philippines, to give reefs and fish a break from fishing pressure, and repopulate surrounding areas. There are now hundreds of MPAs all around the country, many of them with areas closed to all fishing (‘no take zones’). Within the reserves, the coral and the fish are coming back to health, and fishermen are catching more fish around the reserves, when the fish ‘spillover’ into surrounding areas.
In the Philippines, Hugh visited a community that still practices illegal dynamite fishing, and met fishermen benefitting from better catches in the waters around a marine reserve. Marine Protected Areas in the Philippines were a response to a desperate situation – but they hold a lesson for the UK: we need to manage destructive fishing techniques carefully, and put marine protected areas in place before it’s too late.
If you ever buy King Prawns at the supermarket, or order them at a restaurant, then it’s more than likely that they come from a prawn farm in Asia. Most of the King Prawns we eat come from farms rather than being caught at sea.
Prawn farms are large ponds, into which the farmer puts thousands of young larval prawns. Because of the density of prawns in most intensive farms, there is not enough natural food to go round. So the farmer adds factory-made pellets of feed several times of day. Growing prawns need protein, and that usually means ‘fishmeal’ – a kind of fishy flour made by cooking and grinding other fish.
Hugh travelled to Thailand – the biggest exporter of farmed prawns in the world, and the biggest supplier to the UK. We spend a staggering £300 million on importing prawns every year, and they are one of our big seafood favourites. He wanted to know more about the fish that is being used to make fishmeal, and is then fed to prawns.
The fish that goes into fishmeal can come from several sources: boats that trawl the seabed, boats that catch shoals of fish like mackerel and sardines futher out at sea, and from the byproducts of fish processing factories. All in all 55% of what is taken out of the sea in Thailand ends up in fishmeal. And that fishmeal is used for prawns, but also in feeds for chickens, pigs, and fish.
They call the fish caught at sea ‘trashfish’ – it’s either too small, too bony, or too un-tasty to sell for human food. A lot of those small fish are the juveniles of species that could grow up to be much bigger, more valuable fish. And importantly, they’d have the chance to breed the next generation before they were caught.
Thailand has a huge fishing fleet, and its waters have been overfished for decades. The result is that many of the bigger, slow-growing species have been all but fished out, allowing smaller, less valuable species to increase in number. But the demand for ‘trashfish’ that is fed by prawn farming and other agriculture is not going to help Thailand’s seas recover. And especially not when Marine Protected Areas designed to protect the seas are widely ignored by fishermen.
There is a responsibility on all the players in the King Prawn chain – British supermarkets, their suppliers in Thailand, prawn farmers, feed companies and fishmeal plants to work with fishermen and the government to improve Thailand’s fisheries and work towards sustainability. Do our supermarkets really know what their prawns have been eating?
The Isle of Man – out in the Irish Sea between England and Northern Ireland – has its own government and makes it own laws. It has about 30 boats that fish for scallops, and scallops are the main catch around the island. They catch both the bigger King Scallops, and smaller Queen Scallops (‘queenies’). Kings are caught with metal-toothed dredges, queenies can be caught with a trawl net.
Around 15 years ago the scallop stocks and the fishery were in a poor state. Today, stocks are up and there are several Marine Protected Areas around the island: some permanent, some temporary ‘ranching’ areas to allow scallop stocks to recover. There are other measures such as seasonal closures, daily curfews, and limits on the number of scallop dredges a boat can use.
In the Fish Fight series, Hugh dives inside Port Erin Closed Area, where scallop fishing has been banned for 24 years. He saw the rich and diverse marine life that could thrive in the absence of scallop dredging, not least high densities of big scallops. Studies inside the area have shown it to have 7 times the density of adult scallops than areas outside.
That density of scallops inside the MPA is good news for the scallop fishery. Scallops don’t move much and their reproduction is a lot easier if there’s more scallops nearby. And their offspring then drift away on currents before they settle on the seabed. Modelling of the sea currents has shown that scallop larvae released inside the Port Erin MPA are most likely to settle and grow on the richest fishing grounds, to the north-west of the Isle of Man [http://pages.bangor.ac.uk/~oss801/welcome_files/webreports/3.pdf].
The Isle of Man shows how MPAs – alongside other management measures – have a really important role to play in healthy fisheries, protecting the seabed and enhancing marine life.
In 2012, the Australian Government announced that it was adding 40 large new MPAs in its waters, expanding the area protected to 3.1 million square kilometres: more than a third of its waters. This makes it the largest system of MPAs in the world.
Different parts of the MPA network will have different types of protection, and the management of the new MPAs is still being worked out and consulted on by the government.
The Cook Islands are tiny Pacific Islands with a huge expanse of ocean around them. This part of the Pacific provides approximately a third of the world’s catches of tuna and related species, and contains the world’s most pristine remaining coral reef ecosystems.
In 2012 they announced that over half of their waters would form the Cook Islands Marine Park. This MPA will include a core area where all fishing is banned, as well as special zones where tourism and carefully monitored fishing were permitted, allowing commercially valuable species such as tuna to regenerate.
California has just completed a network of MPAs stretching all the way along its long coastline. They have protected 16% of state waters, including 9% that are off-limits to fishing or gathering of any kind.