What is actually happening?
We are overfishing our seas and oceans, i.e. more fish are being removed from the ocean than the ocean is able to replace from remaining fish stocks, which is threatening fish stocks and a multitude of other marine creatures.
Overfishing has caused several important fisheries to decline to the point where their survival is threatened and unless we do something about this now, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048 (WWF reference, Worm et al. 2006)
Overfishing doesn’t just have devastating effects on the species of fish we remove from the ocean, the fishing methods used harm all sorts of other species including unwanted species of fish, dolphins, turtles, seabirds, sharks, and corals (WWF). Changes in the numbers and distributions of these species causes marine biodiversity loss on a bigger scale and in turn reduces the oceans capacity to produce food and recover from water quality variations such as might occur with increased pollution (Worm et al. 2006)
Which fish are unsustainable: a basic guide
Whilst trawling the internet I found a lot of different unsustainable/ sustainable fish guides, many of which stated the different ways in which the fish were caught and how that affected their sustainability. While this is useful if you have all the time in the world to ask your fishmonger how the fish was caught or to check the small print on the label, one does not normally like to spend all day reading packets in the fish aisle. SO I have written a quick “yes or no” which fish to avoid guide (from this list)
• Atlantic cod
• Tuna, including Albacore, Bigeye and Bluefin (Skipjack is the only sustainable tuna)
• Tropical prawns (wild and farmed)
• Haddock (except line-caught Icelandic)
• European Hake
• Atlantic Halibut
• Atlantic salmon (wild and farmed)
• Sharks (including dog fish and huss)
• Skates and rays.
For more information >this< is the most informative unsustainable fish guide I managed to find, it also tells you why there are concerns about that species being overfished.
What to swap to
It is better to steer completely clear of the unsustainable fish I stated above, even if it says they have been “sourced responsibly”, because a lot of the supermarkets don’t ask too many questions, and some of the fish packaging doesn’t say how it was sourced at all! So below I have listed good swaps for some of the unsustainable species, and where to find them.
Coley/ saithe – Good swap for haddock or cod – Sold in Sainsbury’s (fillets and marinated) on the counter and fillets in the frozen section
Pollock – instead of cod – Sold in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose
Organic prawns/ Scottish langoustines – instead of tropical prawns -check for organic/ MSC-certified – Sold in Sainsbury’s (langoustines on the counter), Waitrose and Marks & Spencer
Dab/ flounder/ lemon sole – instead of plaice and Dover sole – sold in M&S, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s
Scallops – farmed or diver caught – instead of skate – sold in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Morrison’s fish counter
Mackerel and herring – great small fish, full of essential oils, really good for your brain, cheap and sold in all supermarkets as smoked, fillets or marinated.
Look out for Freedom Food (RSPCA monitored) and Organic stamps on packaging, as well as line caught locally, and finally the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label, although the MSC approves of some kinds of fish that campaigns such as Fish Fight and WWF do not.
If in doubt try something new! They will be just as good for you, just as tasty and often they are a lot cheaper. Most big supermarkets have a fish counter so you can ask which fish are sustainable, Morrisons in particular has an excellent range of cheap, sustainable fish, or ask your local fishmonger. If you are lucky enough to live by the sea there will be a huge range of fresh, local and sustainable fish on offer – ask around!
Why farming salmon and other fish is contributing to overfishing
• Fish feed is made of wild caught fish such as sandeels which are hoovered out of the sea at an alarming rate. Sandeels are a keystone species and the RSPB have linked a population crash of sea birds such as puffins in the North Sea to declines in sandeel numbers (Ref: Wiki)
• High concentration of fish in farming areas leads to increased spread of disease. Antibiotics are freely given to the fish meaning that antibiotic resistant bacteria are present in high numbers near farmed fish.
• The farming industry releases chemicals such as anti-foulants to keep cages clean into the water.
• Farmed fish produce an enormous amount of waste into an area used by many other marine species. If the farms are located in sheltered areas, there is less water movement to flush away the waste leading to a toxic build up of sewage in areas often used by cetaceans (whales, dolphins, etc) and other sea mammals. If the farms are located in estuary heads then the waste, antibodies, pollutants, disease and escaped non-native fish are distributed far downstream.
• Farmers use acoustic harassment devices to deter seals, these could also have a negative effect on cetaceans meaning that they are unable to breed or feed (Ref: WWF, Greenpeace)
The Boring Bit: What is causing overfishing?
1. Poor management of fisheries- there are minimal, non-enforced rules and fishing capacity isn’t restricted to sustainable levels. Retailers and customs agencies do not ensure that the fish being sold and the fish entering the country has been sourced sustainably.
2. IUU fishing – Some of the biggest fishing fleets such as those in the EU, Japan, Korea and Taiwan are allowing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing to occur.
3. Harmful fisheries subsidies – subsidies that give an advantage to the consumers or the fishermen in order to enhance their income or lower their costs. However some of these subsidies encourage overcapacity and excess fishing (Ref: WWF)
4. Fisheries Partnership Agreements between developed and developing countries can contribute to overfishing when not properly designed. The developing country can be paid a minimum sum for rich fishing grounds whilst threatening the food security of the host country, preventing local fishing communities from becoming established and allowing illegal fishing to occur.
5. Environmentally hazardous fishing practises (explained below)
6. Huge bycatch – The equipment used to fish scoops up everything in its path meaning that not only are the target species caught in huge numbers, but all other species in that area are also caught.
• This bycatch can also include endangered, rare and keystone species (a species integral to the environment that it lives in), such as turtles and porpoises. This bycatch is discarded as due to some management systems fishing boats cannot land more than their daily quota of fish, irrespective of how many fish they have to discard to meet this quota. So they dump the less valuable, and now dead, fish and other animals over the side of the boat. What is the point in putting dead fish back into the sea? What a waste.
• Example: In Canada cod fishing has been banned for over a decade but cod populations are unable to recover due to the large numbers of cod juveniles that are caught whilst fishing for other species and then discarded (Ref: WWF).
Fishing practises that cause environmental damage
• Bottom trawlers – boats drag huge nets fitted with rubber rollers or tyres that prevent the net from snagging on coral or rocks. The net is held open by huge metal doors.
• Dynamite fishing- explosives are set off under water causing the fish to die and float to the surface, these dead fish are then scooped up. Explosives obliterate the underwater environment turning it into rubble.
• Ghost fishing- occurs when fishing gear is lost or left at sea, it can continue to catch fish and other marine life as it drifts through the water or becomes snagged on rocks until it is removed or breaks down over hundreds of years. One survey estimated that a quarter of the rubbish on the bottom of the North Sea is fishing nets. This equipment is likely to contribute heavily to bycatch numbers.
• Cyanide fishing – fishermen pour sodium cyanide into the water to stun the fish allowing them to be easily caught. These live fish are used in aquariums or in restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China.
• A study done on one species of coral showed that cyanide has devastating effects; high doses cause coral death, medium doses causes the death of their symbiotic algae causing bleaching of the coral, and a low dose causes a loss of symbiotic algae but not enough for bleaching to occur. Jones and Steven (1997) also noticed that the respiratory rates of the coral were reduced by 10-90% for up to two hours after cyanide exposure (Ref: Jones & Steven 1997
What will happen if this continues?
“A study of catch data published in 2006 in the journal Science grimly predicted that if fishing rates continue apace, all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by the year 2048.” (Ref)
What is being done to help?
Only 0.6% of the worlds oceans are Marine Protection Areas (MPAs), part of looking after our oceans for future generations should include creating more MPAs.
The four types of MPA:
• Marine Reserve: No Fishing is allowed in these areas
• Marine Conservation Area: Limits commercial and recreational fishing to protect a specific habitat or resource.
• Marine Park: Prohibits commercial fishing but allows most recreational fishing.
• Marine Recreational Management Area: Limits commercial and recreational fishing to protect a specific habitat or resource.
WWF is helping to maintain these MPAs, click here to see how they are doing this.
Projects such as the Zoological Society of London’s project, called Net-Works, directly targets one problematic section of the overfishing crisis: that of ghost fishing. Their project involves local people collecting the abandoned fishing nets and selling them in order to create carpet tiles (learn more about the project here). This project offers people in undeveloped countries a chance to earn money as well as cleaning out the oceans at the same time.
Campaigns such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight (what a babe), and FishLove are getting the plight of the oceans into the public eye, thereby increasing awareness of unsustainable fishing practises. These campaigns are however useless if the public continue to buy unsustainable fish like those I listed above. There are plenty of sustainable fish that taste just as good, if not better, and are actually cheaper than a lot of the unsustainable varieties of fish.
Keep spreading the word about unsustainable fishing and tell your pals to switch to eating sustainable fish. That’s all my nagging done for now, wouldn’t want to make you eel… I will leave you with this picture of a naked lady and a fish.