‘There could be far more fish in the sea if we just stopped fishing so hard’

Wild Geese: Norway-based marine ecologist Mark Costello says the West is slow to appreciate the need for sustainability

A world expert in marine ecology, Prof Mark Costello knows a thing or two about fish.

“They are far more sophisticated than you think. They have been on the planet longer than us, so it’s not that surprising.”

Fish have feelings, he says. They make friends, they have enemies and they feel pain, but if we continue to fish as we are doing, the phrase “plenty of fish in the sea” will become extinct.

In a career spanning Ireland, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand and now Norway, Costello has observed how different cultures regard fish. In Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, he noticed that locals use protection strategies as a common sense way to sustain resources.

“The more Western point of view is, use everything first and then maybe realise we shouldn’t have hammered it so hard.”

Costello's journey started inland, in the biology lab of his Newbridge secondary school.

“I was always fascinated by nature and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to make a living studying it?’”

After a science degree at NUI Galway, a PhD in Cork and a stint in Edinburgh where he met his Scottish Canadian wife, Costello landed an academic post at Trinity.

Adept at securing European research grants, his unit grew and the university urged him to found a campus company. An environmental impact assessment for the Irish sea wind park at Arklow Bank was one of its projects.

“The local fishermen were up in arms that it was going to destroy their fisheries so we said, ‘Fine, we are just the middleman, let’s sit down and calculate how much that is’. But nobody turned up to the next meeting because, of course, they weren’t exactly fishing on exactly the same spot as the wind farm.”

He doesn't see a detriment to marine life from wind farms.

With two Dublin-born daughters in tow, the next stop for Costello was Canada, closer to his wife's family, and a role running the not-for-profit Huntsman Marine Science Center at St Andrews by the Sea. The centre earned revenue from teaching as well as with halibut, sturgeon and salmon farming.

"It was very exciting dealing with the industry directly and thinking about, what is the price of fish in Boston. That's what really made the whole thing viable."

The centre also had transgenic salmon with a gene making them grow five times faster, a breed now commercialised and sold in the US.

Though Costello didn’t know it, the centre was technically bankrupt when he took over.

“The lady who did the payroll came to me one day and said, we can’t pay salaries next week . . . I immediately started chasing creditors.”

He sorted things out.

World database

“Within a couple of years, we had our first surplus. Some of the academics there were so clueless about finances, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Looking for somewhere to put their children through school, Costello and his family moved to New Zealand in 2004 where he taught at the University of Auckland.

After over a decade there, the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society recognised him for his research on patterns of extinction, conservation and biodiversity. Costello also pioneered the field of ocean biodiversity informatics, establishing a free, open access world database of fish species.

“Sometimes academia doesn’t reward people for doing useful things,” he says of the databases, now a core resource in marine biology study. He says “managerialism” in some universities is rife – “if what you do is not based on a KPI [key performance indicator] , it’s not counted”. Analysing the databases with his students led to important discoveries.

“It’s very dangerous going out and collecting a lot of information because it might challenge your preconceptions of the world,” he says. The first duty of academia is to society not industry, Costello believes.

“When all this industrial money comes into a university and some people are promoted because of bringing in all this money, why isn’t that research being done in the industrial sector? Why does it have to be done in a university?”

A university doesn’t necessarily do better research, he says.

“R&D is essential, but if [academics] are being paid by the taxpayer, we should be looking at what’s good for society, what’s good for public health.”

The pandemic showed that public health research was hugely underfunded because it doesn’t make money, he says.

“Maybe academia should be doing the work [in areas] where industry doesn’t invest because they are not going to make a profit.”

Costello took up his current role as professor of marine ecology at Nord University, in Bodo, Norway in 2020. The academic hiring process there is "frighteningly transparent". Independent committees evaluate applicants who each get a report on how each is ranked. Would it work in Ireland?

“It would work anywhere. It would certainly stop the nimbyism and the silly reasons why you didn’t get a role. Sometimes the reasons are just so daft.”

The Norwegian way is formal, but not bureaucratic.

“They like to be strictly honest and ethical and they are highly embarrassed if anything is not quite done by the rules. At the same time, they don’t have too many silly rules.”

They love fishing, even allowing it in marine protected areas.

“Legislation in Norway doesn’t embrace the concept of not fishing. It’s a sort of God-given right.”

They still hunt whales, but there are conversations about change, he says.

Fish have feelings and their treatment in commercial production has become quite a big issue in the past five years, he says.

“In Norway, they take these things very seriously and are very worried about being ethically correct,” he says. In Ireland, Scotland and Canada by contrast, they completely avoid the question. “In Norway, they sit down and say, okay, this could be a problem.”

For the environment and to meet consumer demand, fish farming is better than fishing, he says.

“The footprint is very small, whereas fishing has by far the biggest impact on life in the oceans for well over a century.”

The quality of farmed fish is better too.

Common sense

“There is a little bit more fat and flavour in farmed salmon than in wild ones.” Farmed fish eat a controlled diet which has less contaminants and is more plant-based which is also less impactful on wild fish stocks, he says.

Creating marine reserves where there is no fishing would enable us to understand what is natural, he says.

“The misconception somehow is that if you stop fishing, you are reducing fish catch, but actually the population gets bigger and you have a much more stable catch afterwards.”

For Pacific Islands nations, protection strategies are part of their tradition.

“These are people who live with the sea. It is their whole history so they really understand it. If the fishery goes down, you stop fishing. It’s common sense. But in Europe we just can’t get our heads around it. They just keep on fishing and we subsidise the fishing.”

The taxpayer pays many times over for fish, he says.

“The politicians keep saying, you can fish more fish, you can keep depleting stock and subsidising this with loans to boats. There could be far more fish in the sea if we just stopped fishing so hard. It would be more profitable as well.”

Neither Ireland nor Norway has a full marine reserve. There has been one in New Zealand for over 50 years.

“You can walk in the water and the fish will swim between your legs. They know they are not being hunted. You see nature as it really should be.”