Sustain Sustainable Food

The problem

Empty seas

Our appetite for fish has increased so rapidly over the past 50 years, matched by the increasing industrialisation of the fishing industry, that we are seriously at risk of losing some species from our seas for ever. Almost 90% of the world’s fisheries are currently either fully or over exploited. As marine fisheries directly employ over 34 million people, and some 500 million people in the world’s poorest countries depend on fish as their main source of nutritious food, this is having dire social as well as ecological consequences.

Shockingly, nearly one third – 30% of the world’s fisheries are now over-fished, and other problems associated with fishing include:

  • Bycatch of endangered, threatened and vulnerable species, such as sharks, marine mammals and seabirds, alongside young fish that have not yet had a chance to breed.
  • Discarding fish caught unintentionally, often thrown back dead or dying, just because they cannot be sold commercially.
  • Damaging marine habitats caused by certain types of fishing gear (such as bottom trawling), and a lack of management to control fishing in sensitive areas.
  • Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The rules governing the way in, and rate at which fish are caught in the European Union are set out in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). These polices are being reviewed but the reforms may not be tough enough, or quick enough, to stop the damage being caused.

Globally, efforts to address overfishing and destructive fishing are being undermined by illegal, unreported and unregulated or ‘pirate’ fishing often targeting oceans providing food for some of the world’s poorest communities. Some of this illegally caught fish is believed to end up in the European market. The Environmental Justice Foundation has been working to ensure existing laws to stop this are enforced, and is also calling for new laws for a global register of fishing boats, with bans for those caught operating illegally.

Fish farming, or aquaculture, can seem like a solution to many of these problems, and the aquaculture industry has boomed in recent years, with farmed species including salmon, trout, sea bass and prawns. However, unless managed carefully, intensive aquaculture can be linked with a host of social and environmental problems:

  • Many farmed species are carnivorous (they need to be fed on other fish), and the fish used for feed is often not caught in a sustainable way;
  • Diseases and parasites, such as sea lice, can result from the high concentration of fish in each pen, and can also infect wild fish;
  • Pollution can include fish faecal matter, antibiotics and toxic chemicals such as ‘anti-foulants’ used to keep cages and netting free of seaweed and barnacles;
  • Animal welfare problems may be a particular issue with fish that would usually migrate, such as salmon;
  • The destruction of sensitive and ecologically important habitats is a problem in parts of Asia and Latin America, where huge tracts of mangrove forests have been cut down to develop prawn farming;
  • Poor employment conditions, the loss of livelihoods, and driving coastal people away from their homes are also associated with prawn farming in poorer countries.

Organic fish farming aims to reduce many of these problems, but opinions vary as to the extent to which it does so. Soil Association organic standards have started to address some of the most challenging issues by, for example, requiring carnivorous farmed fish – like salmon - to be fed on scraps from fish processing, not from wild fish caught to be made into fish feed.

Fish and health

Oily fish such as herring and sardines can be a valuable source of omega-3 fats, which are believed to have important benefits for heart health and mental development. However, there is clearly a problem with encouraging people to eat more fish for their health when fish are so under threat. More and more organisations are promoting sustainable fishing, to ensure that health benefits of fish consumption can be enjoyed not only by future generations, but also by people who are children now, who face the prospect of losing plentiful fish stocks in their lifetimes.

There are also some health risks associated with increasing the amount of oily fish we eat. The same fatty tissues in fish that provide valuable omega-3 fats can have high levels of pollutants such as mercury and synthetic chemicals called PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). PCBs accumulate in the body and can damage the development of foetuses; for this reason, pregnant women are advised to limit the amount of fish they eat and avoid certain types of oily fish altogether.

What we can do

We are already changing our habits and we spent some £207m in 2010 on more sustainable fish, with the figure predicted to grow. To play your part in conserving our marine environment we can buy less fish and seafood and, if we do buy it, follow these guidelines:

Given the controversy about some farmed fish and shellfish, you might want to consider whether to avoid the problem and not eat them. However, not all farmed seafood is problematic; tilapia, for example, is a non-carnivorous fish (i.e. it eats mainly plant food, not other fish) that can be farmed sustainably, and shellfish such as farmed mussels are tasty, sustainable and available from local sources.

Ask businesses and policy makers to take action

  • Ask your local retailer, fishmonger or restaurant for assurances that the fish they supply has been legally and sustainably caught (and for evidence if you are not convinced by the answer). Most importantly, ask:
    • Where the fish was caught – as the sustainability of some species varies according to location (again, see the ‘fish to avoid’ list). Don’t be fobbed off with "it’s from Billingsgate"!
    • How it was caught – bottom trawling is generally considered to be one of the most environmentally damaging fishing methods, but driftnets and longlines are also associated with high levels of wasteful bycatch. More sustainable methods to look out for include handline (e.g. wild seabass), diver caught (e.g. scallops), jigs (e.g. squid) and pots or creels (e.g. lobsters or crabs). Phrases such as ‘traditional methods’ are meaningless.
    • How the fish was handled after being caught. Commercially-caught wild fish often suffer slow and distressing deaths. This website aims to raise awareness of and promote humane solutions to the suffering of fish in commercial fishing and fish farming.
  • Join the Sustainable Fish City campaign. London is trying to become the world’s first Sustainable Fish City, but your village, town or city can join the wave of change too.

FishStay informed

As well as the information above, you might also want to look at the following:


Sustainable Food: What you can do - and ask others to do - to help make our food and farming system fit for the future.

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