Greenpeace USA’s Ocean Director John Hocevar discusses the success of an intense two-year campaign to reform Thai Union’s fishing practices, and what the big victory means for oceans on the brink of collapse
D. LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. The ocean is considered the world’s biggest ecosystem, covering over two-thirds of the planet. Fish are one of the most heavily traded food commodities in the world according to the World Trade Organization. Yet scientists warn that oceans are on the brink of collapse. Fish stocks, which are the primary protein source to one billion people, including many of the world’s poorest who live in coastal areas, are rapidly dwindling. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, fish made up 15%-20% of the diet for over 4.3 billion people and consumption has been intensifying even as fish stocks decline, with some species near extinction levels. This week, however, ocean advocates are celebrating a victory. After almost two years of intense campaigning, Greenpeace and their allies have been successful in getting the world’s largest tuna company, Thai Union, which owns Chicken of the Sea, to commit to major fishing reforms. To discuss the victory and the state of the oceans and fish, we are joined from Washington D.C. by marine biologist John Hocevar, who is Greenpeace USA’s Ocean Director. Thanks for joining us, John. J. HOCEVAR: Thanks for having me. D. LASCARIS: First, congratulations from The Real News on your victory. I understand you yourself worked extensively on the Thai Union campaign. Please tell us what Thai Union has committed to and how that will make their fishing practices more environmentally sustainable. J. HOCEVAR: It’s a big day for the ocean. Thai Union has committed to a series of agreements that will improve their fisheries in a way that will make it better for fish, for sea turtles, for sharks, seabirds, but also for the fishermen that catch their fish. The tuna fisheries have been really in bad need to reform for a long time, and so this is a very big step. Tuna fisheries alone were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and millions of sharks a year. As has been reported quite a bit over the past few years, tuna fisheries have also been implicated in human rights abuses, even slavery at sea. This is a pretty big deal. Among the specifics, Thai Union has agreed to ensure that their workers no longer have to pay recruitment fees, so no one has to pay to get a job anymore, which led to indentured servitude, a modern day form of slavery. They’ve taken big steps to clean up trans-shipment at sea, which is, your average person would assume that a boat goes out, catches fish, fills up their hold, goes back to port and sells it. Instead, many of these boats are fishing so far offshore, they, instead of going back to [inaudible 00:03:03] and they handover their fish to another boat. That means that workers can be trapped on these boats for months or even years at a time. It’s a real problem for overcapacity, for over-fishing because they really never have to stop fishing. They can just stay out and fish and fish and fish. It’s also a pretty big agreement for the types of ways that they fish. They’ve agreed to cut in half the amount of fish that’s caught with a particularly destructive means called fish aggregating devices. They basically put things in the water, leave them there, attract fish, and then they scoop up everything that’s attracted. It’s a whole new mini ecosystem. You can imagine there’s all kinds of by-catches associated with that. There’s a lot more to it, but these are just some of the examples. D. LASCARIS: Scientists have been saying for quite some time that the oceans are on the brink of collapse. To what extent is this potential collapse from overfishing and to what extent is it a result of climate change? J. HOCEVAR: Climate change is a huge issue for everything on the planet. There’s no question about it. It’s putting our coral reefs at risk of extinction. It’s melting the polar ice caps. It’s really affecting everything that lives in the ocean and everything on land as well. Those impacts are just going to grow over time. For now, though, in the ocean, the biggest impacts are due to extractive industry, especially fishing. We have literally eaten most of the fish in the ocean. That has, as you might imagine, had ripple effects that stretch pretty far across marine ecosystems. D. LASCARIS: Now this agreement concerns the tuna populations. What are some of the other fish species that are currently most at risk? Particularly let’s focus on the species upon which the people around the world depend the most for their diet and their consumption and nutritional needs. J. HOCEVAR: For most of human history, we lived in smaller communities and ate the fish that lived near us. As we ate those fish and as we grew in numbers, we moved farther north and farther south and farther offshore. We started fishing deeper with bigger boats and more powerful engines and bigger nets. At this point, there’s literally nowhere left in the world for fish to hide. We’re fishing in the Arctic. We’re fishing off Antarctica. We’re fishing in the middle of the Atlantic and the Pacific, in many cases over a mile deep. At this point, there are impacts of overfishing anywhere you’d look. This is particularly difficult for communities that really depend on the ocean for survival and for their livelihoods. For example, the communities- D. LASCARIS: Are there particular species- Sorry. Are there particular species aside from the tuna that we should be most focused on rehabilitating? J. HOCEVAR: It’s always important to look at the ones that are closest to the brink, like bluefin tuna, which we’ve eaten over 96% of the bluefin tuna and they’re really in danger. But I think it’s also important to look at species like cod or pollack that feed large numbers of people. We really depend on them for protein, for food security. In many cases, we’re fishing those populations really close to the edge of what can be sustainable. It wouldn’t take much, especially with the added uncertainty of climate change, to tip the balance. D. LASCARIS: Now the ocean, as we mentioned at the onset, is considered the world’s biggest ecosystem, covering over two-thirds of the planet. What does it mean if that ecosystem collapses? What kind of effect, understanding that of course trying to foresee the consequences of so dramatic a change in the state of our planet, but taking into account that uncertainty, what do you think we can anticipate in terms of the effects worldwide if the ocean collapses as an ecosystem? J. HOCEVAR: Well we live on the water planet, so the health of the ocean really isn’t an option for us. We have to have healthy oceans or we are going to be in real trouble. Every other breath that we take, the oxygen is generated by the ocean. Food for an enormous number of people, jobs for enormous number of peoples comes from the ocean. So many of us live along the coast. We really, it’s not an option. I think though it’s not so much a question of total collapse of the ecosystem as maybe a death by a million cuts. We lose one population of fish at a time to overfishing. We damage or degrade one habitat at a time through destructive fishing gear like bottom trawling. Those are the kinds of things that we’re doing so far. Climate change and ocean acidification are two problems that are going to trump all of that eventually, but for now, it’s really one painful step at a time. D. LASCARIS: Given that many of the world’s poorest people rely on fish to survive, obviously the health of the ocean ecosystem is of tremendous importance to us all. What are the principal reforms that Greenpeace recommends in order to avoid such a collapse and all of the other calamitous consequences that that would entail? J. HOCEVAR: We would need a more ecosystem-based approach to how we manage fisheries, for one. We can’t just look at each species in isolation and pretend that we can manage that without it being affected by or affecting anything else. Part of the way that we do that is through creating a network of fully protected parks in the ocean, sanctuaries or reserves. Those help maintain the biodiversity of our oceans. They can also help rebuild depleted fish stocks. They’re a really important piece of the puzzle. I think another overarching problem is that we have allowed the fishing industry to have too much control over the regulation of fisheries. Self-regulation didn’t really work very well for real estate or banks, and it hasn’t worked very well for fisheries either. D. LASCARIS: Well, this has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to marine biologist John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA’s oceans director about a new important victory in the fight to preserve the ocean ecosystem. Thank you very much for talking to us today, John. J. HOCEVAR: My pleasure. D. LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.