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‘Annihilation trawling’: Q&A with marine biologist Amanda Vincent

Undifferentiated catch at a landing site in Karaikal, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

Undifferentiated catch at a landing site in Karaikal, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

  • For years marine biologists have been raising concerns about bottom trawling, a fishing technique that unintentionally scoops up non-targeted creatures as bycatch and disrupts marine habitat.
  • While the technique is widely acknowledged to be destructive, seahorse expert Amanda Vincent is calling attention to a new problem: in Asia and elsewhere, bottom trawlers are no longer targeting particular species at all but going after any and all sea life for processing into chicken feed, fishmeal and other low-value products.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Vincent describes her observations in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Marine biologists have been raising concerns about bottom trawling for years. The fishing technique involves a boat dragging a weighted net along the seafloor, scooping up whatever marine life swims or sits in its way. In their pursuit of commercially valuable seafood, not only do bottom trawlers unintentionally kill or injure non-targeted creatures as bycatch, they can disrupt the marine habitat itself and kick up sediment plumes that smother nearby organisms.

While the technique is widely acknowledged to be destructive, seahorse expert Amanda Vincent is calling attention to a new problem. She and her colleagues are finding that in parts of Asia and elsewhere, bottom trawlers are no longer targeting particular species at all. Instead, she says, it’s any and all sea life they’re after, for processing into chicken feed, fishmeal and other low-value products.

She has coined an unsettling term for these catch-all fisheries: “annihilation trawling.”

Vincent is currently on a year’s sabbatical from her post at the University of British Columbia, traveling around the world with her family and contributing to marine ecology along the way. Mongabay spoke with her by Skype this fall while she was in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, where this kind of trawling is common.

Amanda Vincent at a fish landing site in Mandapam, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Tanvi Vaidyanathan/Project Seahorse.

Interview with Amanda Vincent

Mongabay: Tell us about what you’ve been seeing.

Vincent: I think we’ve reached a really interesting situation in trawl fisheries where we’ve transitioned from having target species with quite a bit of bycatch, the normal scenario which has worried us all for a long time, to a situation which I call annihilation trawling, where there really is no target anymore.

The trawl fisheries are going to sea for life, in whatever form they can find it. And that means that normal management protocols geared around species are suspended, don’t make any sense; they’re not guiding the fishery. So, what we’re finding in quite a number of parts of the world now is trawl fisheries that are literally just seeking carbon. In some places most of what comes up is being turned into fishmeal, fish oil, chicken feed or surimi, which is the white compressed stuff that creates fish cakes and fish balls and things like that.

There’s nothing that regulates those fisheries at all in terms of species limits, transitions in size, or any form of biological reference points, which are normal in fisheries management but are geared around [targeted] species. There’s really no logical endpoint to those fisheries. Those fisheries go until they’ve emptied the ocean, I presume.

In what parts of the world are you seeing this?

Thailand is well known for having bottom-trawl fisheries that are without target. What’s interesting in Thailand is that it’s supported by fuel subsidies but also by labor subsidies. You’ve probably heard that in Thai fisheries there have been a lot of slavery issues, and so obviously the labor is free in that case. It’s not usually recognized as a form of subsidy but of course free labor would be just that. And then the product goes into agriculture feed, animal feed, or it goes into surimi. And so there you have a convergence of human rights issues, ecological devastation, and seafood supply concerns.

In India, what we’re seeing now is extraordinary landings of undifferentiated marine life that is sold as chicken feed…for values as low as one cent, two cents U.S. per kilogram. Imagine capturing the bottom of the ocean and selling it off for one cent, two cent U.S. per kilogram! These boats are losing money persistently in many areas and continue to fish largely on indebtedness. Talking to people, this is becoming a fairly common practice around the world.

The scale and impact is what we’re working on at the moment, to try to understand just how prevalent this is and just what damage it’s doing.

Undifferentiated catch arrives ashore from a fleet of fishing boats in Mandapam, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

Are these fisheries legal or illegal?

Well, it depends very much. Some of them are absolutely operating legally and many of them are violating one or more laws. In some cases the gear itself is violating laws. Trawling is banned within 3 to 5 kilometers (1.8 to 3.1 miles) of many Asian countries, but it persists nonetheless.

In the case of India, where I am right now, there are limits, for example, on the size of boats. But some of the boats I’ve been seeing are massively in excess of the size limits, massively in excess of the horsepower limits. In Tamil Nadu, the state we’re working in, there’s actually a lot of disagreement among the leading state authorities as to whether bottom trawling is banned or not. And we’re trying to decipher the code to figure out which one of these leading authorities is correct. But certainly pair trawling is banned — that means when two boats trawl together with a net between them — and yet pair trawling persists here. They may [also] be violating seasonal closures, they may be violating gear limits, they may be violating area exclusions. But many of them are actually operating within the law and simply the law hasn’t dealt with the challenge of these bottom trawls running amuck.

I’m working here with one of my Ph.D. students [Tanvi Vaidyanathan], who is Indian herself, and she’s been surveying the ports of India for the last couple of years, doing a phenomenal job: 850 interviews to date. When I first came out with her she was concerned as to how much our desire to see an end to bottom trawling here, which is indeed our desire, would somehow bring us into conflict with the special interest groups or government authorities here. And what’s been extraordinary to me is that before we could even complete an introductory conversation, every single person we’ve met here has insisted that bottom trawling has to end. We’ve met with some really significant senior figures in the state government on the civil service end, and representatives of fisherfolk associations. We’ve met with scientists, we’ve met with technical people, and there’s a deep and growing awareness that bottom trawling has to end.

The biggest challenge seems to be to develop the political will to actually force an implementation of existing laws, let alone move forward with further closures.

PhD student Tanvi Vaidyanathan aboard a trawl boat in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, India. Most trawlers in the area, including this one, are over the legal length and have engines over the legal power. The vessel did not target a particular species when it went fishing, and fishers are picking through the catch to find marketable sea life. What’s left will be sold en masse, commonly for chicken feed. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

If these countries are having such a hard time even agreeing on what their legal code says, let alone enforcing basic fisheries legislation, how can they grapple with something like this?

The difficulty in enforcement is not for technical reasons. It’s strictly for political will. And so frankly you’re part of that solution. Generating the political will has to be our focus. I’ve never had any trouble explaining to anybody why we consider it unreasonable to scrape the bottom of the ocean, dump it into an undifferentiated mass, and sell it for two cents U.S. per kilogram as chicken feed. Somehow that doesn’t seem to challenge most people’s understanding.

Obviously, what we should be doing is stopping bottom trawling, but beyond that the best way to manage these fisheries is going to be very much spatial closures. So, protected areas and restrictions like that, and perhaps to some extent seasonal closures. But the spatial closures are going to have to come into play pretty heavily until we can get these trawl fisheries under constraint.

What’s the perspective of the fishers you talk with?

Well, it depends which fishers we’re talking to. If you’re talking to trawl boat owners, they obviously have a vested interest in the fishery continuing. If you’re talking to the people in the region using selective gear or using targeted gear, [or] using passive gear like gill nets, or hook and line, or traps and pots, they obviously see trawl fishing as a major challenge to their way of life. So, fishers come in many shapes and sizes.

What you’ll often hear if you talk about ending bottom trawling is, ‘Well, a lot of people are employed in these fisheries.’ And that is, of course, correct. But many, many, many more are and could be employed in passive gear fisheries or in conventional gear fisheries. What we’re hearing from a significant number of people is [that they’re observing] declines in catches. Even allowing for the fact that they’ve expanded their willingness to extract from a couple of targeted species to now a wide array of fish and invertebrates.

And you’re hearing that from the bottom trawlers themselves?

Oh yeah.

Women sell fish in Karaikal, Tamil Nadu, India. Women are commonly charged with sorting and selling the catch, particularly the low-value species. Trawlers don’t target any particular species and their catch includes many forms of marine life. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

How did you discover that this is happening?

I’m a professor at the University of British Columbia and also have a number of international roles, primarily with the IUCN and CITES. And I am particularly an expert in seahorses and their relatives. I was the first person to work on seahorses underwater and the first person to reveal the huge trade in seahorses. In my work to try to ensure a future for seahorses I involved myself in everything from marine protected areas to fisheries management to global trade policy and so on. And we’ve been for a long time trying to find ways to restrict the [seahorse] trade to sustainable levels.

But it’s become very apparent to us, frankly, that you can restrict trade all you like, but as long as these nonselective gears are operating with impunity, then those animals are still being extracted and whether they’re traded or not is almost incidental on some levels. So that’s then driven us to begin to pay a lot of attention to trawl fisheries and how they’re operating, and revealed that the seahorses are among the many, many things at the bottom of the net that are being caught heedlessly.

Gradually over time we’ve realized, hang on, it’s most species that are being caught heedlessly, it isn’t that the seahorses are unusual. It’s that that’s the way that trawl fisheries are operating these days.

What was your reaction when you first saw a load of this stuff on the docks?

It was extraordinary. To give you an example, we were in [the city of] Tuticorin last week. Tuticorin has 240 bottom trawlers landing each night at around 9 or 10 p.m. And I went to visit this harbor. An area of about 200 yards by 100 yards was literally carpeted with increasing piles of this dismissive catch. And small trucks [were] drawing up to it, men shoveling it, and I mean shoveling it, at a fast rate into these little trucks. The truck [were] driving away, and more loads coming off the fishing boats, and more little trucks coming up in an endless convoy of little yellow trucks and men with shovels. Just heaving the bottom of the ocean into these trucks for chicken feed. It was stunning. And accompanying all this on the side [were] little piles of sorted catch being sold off in various small auctions.

[What struck me] was the complete apparent disconnect between the fact that this was life and food security and the juveniles of commercially important species, quite apart from threatened species, that were just being heaved off to feed chickens. So, I was both appalled and enthralled.

A trawler, returning from a day-long fishing trip for whatever marine life it could catch, offloads the portion that can be sold by species in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.
Undifferentiated catch arrives from the trawl boats in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, India. Workers shovel it onto trucks and take it away, often to be processed into chicken feed. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.
Part of the offloading area for undifferentiated catches in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

Has anybody been down to see what the seafloor looks like where these trawls have been operating?

No, I don’t think so. But what we’re hearing is of course of habitat transitions and change. It depends which part of the world we’re talking about, but some [trawl boats] go out for a day and some go out for up to 10-, 20-day trips. And the sorting that happens at sea includes the discard of a lot of habitat-forming organisms: sponges, and seagrass, and corals, and so on.

Is anybody else keeping an eye on this?

Well, I think there’s a lot of people who have a partial understanding of this. There’s certainly been some considerable reports emerging about the increasing direction of trawl extraction to fishmeal, fish oil, agriculture feed, animal feed and surimi. But I don’t think that we’ve been hearing any sort of clarity as to just how dangerous this is, just how limitless this is.

I’ve read some FAO [U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization] reports and talked to FAO colleagues about excellent analyses showing an increase in the use of trawl catches for fishmeal, fish oil, et cetera. But they seem to think in large measure this is a good thing because you’re getting less waste and much more efficient — I hate that word — use of the world’s ocean resources. And to try to discuss with them exactly where this is heading is extraordinarily difficult. It seems to me obvious that this is heading us towards oblivion, eventually.

I am absolutely not against fisheries; God knows we need fisheries. But it’s got to be done in a rational way that sets us up for a long-term future. And wholesale extraction for chicken feed just ain’t the way to go. Especially with damaging the habitats as you do it.

We’re hearing [a similar story] from our colleagues. But nobody I have talked to and nothing I have read has actually brought it into this perspective: this is crazy that we aren’t even targeting anything anymore. And so every time we talk to people about it they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that here,” or “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that there.” But this hasn’t been brought together into compilation. And that’s where I think we need to go with it, to start to document the global dimension of this.

A mixed catch at a landing site in Karaikal, Tamil Nadu, India, where trawlers target any and all marine life. It will probably be sold for chicken feed. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

Banner image: Undifferentiated catch at a landing site in Karaikal, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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