The fishing industry is one which has been in decline for a great many years. As demand for fish and seafood has grown from an increasingly numerous and prosperous human population, fishermen and all those associated with the industry have had to develop new practices for catching fish and venture ever further afield to secure their catch, through stock levels declining and even disappearing from the traditional fishing grounds. The knock on effect of these environmentally unfriendly fishing practices means that there are now many species of fish which - although once plentiful in the extreme in the seas and oceans - are on the verge of extinction.
It was once the case that fishermen merely had to lower their trawling nets in the right location to know that they would be retrieved bulging with the catch of choice. When this ceased to be the case, due to over-fishing and rapidly declining stocks, one of the techniques developed in inshore waters was that known as dredging, or bottom trawling. This is where the nets are heavily weighted and lowered to the bottom, where they are then quite literally dragged along the sea bed, scooping up anything and everything in their path. The fish species of choice may well be caught but so will many inedible bottom dwelling marine life forms and the plant life which is so essential to the fragile marine ecosystem. The sea bed where a dredger has passed is left the equivalent of an underwater desert, devoid of all but the most basic forms of life for an indeterminate period of time.
Bycatch is a word used to refer to those marine species which are caught in fishermen’s nets, over and above those targeted. Bycatch can refer to dolphins, sharks, porpoises, or even perfectly edible fish species which are considered insufficiently in demand to be sellable. The waste of life which this represents is beyond reproach but the process known as discard makes the concept even worse. Discard is where fishermen are compelled - due to catch landing quotas - to return those fish which they do not believe sellable to the sea, dead. Recent figures estimate discard in the North Sea alone to represent approximately one million metric tonnes of edible fish per calendar year.
The nets which fishing trawlers use are a major problem with regard to catching undersized fish, which can not be kept and are also returned dead to the sea. This practice has a major effect on future breeding stocks and thus the sustainability of the species. The problem is that the nets are made of a material which causes the mesh to close as the nets are retrieved, preventing the smaller fish from escaping through the gaps. There are a number of solutions already available to this issue, where the nets do allow smaller fish to escape; wider usage of these nets is, however, not yet common practice.
It is not only commercial fishing boats which practice destructive fishing techniques. Anyone and everyone who engages in fishing is responsible for conservation, sustainability and the effect which they personally can have on the future of fish and fishing. Rod and line fishermen should use barbless hooks, allowing undersized fish or fish which are not required for the pot to be returned, harmed as little as possible. They should know which fish types are endangered in their particular geographical locale, targeting and learning ways to enjoy eating those species which are deemed for the moment to be more plentiful.
The stock levels of one time plentiful species of fish such as Atlantic cod are now so low that their very futures are in significant jeopardy. A number of British celebrity chefs launched a campaign in January 2011, The Big Fish Fight, aimed specifically at ending the discard process. The publicity which they achieved led to the matter being taken on board by European authorities at the very highest level but this minor success is but the beginning if a great many popular species of fish are to be preserved beyond the very immediate future.