Humans have brought the marine world to its knees. With a rod in one hand and net in the other, we have managed to reduce fish in the ocean by half since the 1970s. For some people this has been a wake-up call. Where the f**k are all the fish? The search for an alternative was on. For a more involved, raw and… sustainable approach.
Spearfishing. The favoured pastime of moderate environmentalists (it’s almost a cliché). And, for good reason. Against the shadow of industrialised fishing there’s almost no contest for sustainability. From the size and species of your target to how many fish you bring home, every aspect of the hunt is under your control.
Spearfishing is in fact the most sustainable and ethical forms of fishing
– ADRENO, Spearfishing brand & advocate
But, spearfishing has been operating on a pretty slanted playing field. With monoliths like bottom trawling and Pa’aling in one corner, spearfishing has navigated the backfield relatively unseen. Indeed, it is hard to even consider the impact of the lonely spearfisherman when a single Trawler can bring in over 5,000 fish an hour. However, this evaluates spearfishing in relativity to larger issues, not of itself. This simply will not do.
[A review in the early 2000s of scientific literature] indicated there were 84,200 articles on fishing and only 145 of these had any reference to spearfishing – Dr Adam Smith & Dr Seiji Nakaya
Maybe spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing. Maybe that’s because it has only ever been considered by comparison. Or maybe it is an activity worthy of the ‘sustainable’ branding by its own merit. Who knows? So, what do 145 or so ‘references’ have to say on the matter?
A Fishing Paradigm
Bottom trawling is a near-indiscriminate pillage of the oceans floor. Gillnet fishing… ghost net fishing has problems. Even recreational line fishing has led to dead zones in the ocean. Everywhere you look fishing bequeaths its own failings. And no failing stands out more than its success.
Overall, 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks [are reported] as fully exploited or overexploited… [of which] nearly two-thirds of the stocks (64 per cent) are classified as overexploited, depleted or recovering – FAO
Perhaps, it is inappropriate to consider spearfishing in this light? (Collectively that is).
Ask any hard-breaded spearfisherman and he will surely tell you of the sports uniqueness against standard fishing techniques. Of bycatch-free hunts, snagless lines, no pollutants and minimal catch rates. And, of course, of conscious hunting. But, here’s where things go downhill. Any possible aspect of sustainability in spearfishing is down to the individual. What happens when the act is not of subsistence and with sustainability firmly in mind?
The Sport of Spearfishing
Spearfishing is a big game sport. No one pursues this sport with the intention of spending their days seeking out the plentiful and foul Butterflyfish or the meek Southern Garfish. Your offerings at dinner would be little more than a jar of chunky red ocean water. If you want an intact meal, you will have to hunt something more substantial.
Spearfishing mainly targets large individuals measuring more than 30 cm in length – Dr Josep Lloret et al.
It takes a lot of resources to produce big fish – big anything really. This is not just because they eat more. They eat more of things that eat more of other things. The larger something is the more moving parts involved in supporting it. Take, for example, an apex predator like Tuna. It feeds on intermediate predators like Mackerel, which in turn feed on smaller fish like Herring, which feed on microscopic Copepods, and so on.
If you work from the base of a food web upwards, you will find that at each level there are more and more ‘lower level’ creatures involved in supporting a single ‘upper level’ creature. A single Copepod will consume a hundred diatoms before it becomes food for a single Herring. The Herring will eat a hundred Copepods before it becomes food for a single Mackerel, which will eat a hundred Herring before it is food for a Tuna. That Tuna will eat a hundred Mackerel before it is food for a single human. In this example, there are millions of individuals involved in that single Tuna catch. This is the essence of a comprehensive life-style assessment.
You may not find this science lesson overly rousing. Nor should it be. This simply means that you need to be mindful of what kinds of fish you are taking. Catching a hundred Mackerel may have the same impact as that single tout-worthy Tuna.
Spearfishing in a Dwindled Ocean
Our oceans have found themselves in a fragile and precarious position. Now more than ever it is imperative that we find ways to condition ourselves to take fewer fish. Spearfishing often puts its hand-up to fill this void. The selectivity of the sport – being in the water and able to visualise the prey – allows the hunter to choose what they shoot. But, more importantly, what they don’t shoot. This paves the way for a sustainable harvest. Though, there’s a flipside.
The same characteristics that allow spearfishing to be selective also allow it to be efficient. Instead of using techniques that work on a chance mechanism, spearfishing puts you directly in control of what you target and in what numbers. In the hands of a proficient hunter, this opens the door for increasingly destructive harvests.
Spear fishing had a greater overall impact on reef fishes than shoreline pole & line fishing, accounting for 70% of the total reef fish harvest at Waikiki, despite accounting for only 25% of fishing activities observed – Dr. Carl Meyer
When managed incorrectly spearfishing can lead to greater amounts of biomass being removed from the ocean purely by the ease of doing so and the allure of seeing those ‘big ones’ pass right by your face.
Overall, spearfishers remove larger fish and more biomass per outing than fishers using other recreational modes. Although bycatch, gear loss (hence, increased debris), and removal of fish biomass as bait are higher with hook-and-line fishing than with spearfishing – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Recklessly pursuing spearfishing will accompany the decline of the sports image as a sustainable venture. Like everything, the best practices can be devastating in the worst hands: A spearfisherman could fill a boat. A great spearfisherman is complacent with an empty one.
For the concern of spearfisherman…
This sports image paints one of sustainability and coexistence. But the malpractice of some has aligned the sports damage, in some cases, with that of standard rod-and-line fishing, disrupting essential elements for a complete and balanced structured ecosystem. What has followed includes:
- Altering composition of local fish communities
- Lowered fish density and size between regions.
- Removal of large females with highest spawning output
- Population sperm limitation
- Behavioural shifts in fish
- Species migration
- A threefold increase in the discard rates of dead fish.
While the damage of spearfishing would be incomparable to industrialised methods like bottom trawling and long line fishing, it seems foolhardy to qualify the merits of spearfishing against the worst events befalling the ocean. In a world where fishing techniques and catch rates have devastated marine environments, there is a begging need to find a way to harvest in a sustainable manner. Of all the techniques out there, spearfishing has the most potential. If only its defining feature did not rely on the sustainable inclinations of humans.
Spearfishing could be sustainable. But, such a feat will only be achieved if those participating in the sport first recognise how fragile marine ecosystems are. People regurgitate the credo of ‘spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing’ without understanding it. It does not mean that caution can be thrown to the wind and you may ‘pillage and prosper’ to your hearts content. No. Spearfishing is sustainable only if individuals are sustainable. And, if individuals are not sustainable then the sport of spearfishing is not sustainable.
Do other fishing techniques have the potential to be more sustainable than spearfishing?