I eat fish probably once a week. There are 1 billion people around the world who depend on fish as their main protein source, and over half the world’s population gets 15% of their protein from fish. But how much is that really? In 2012, total fish production from fisheries and aquaculture was 158 million tonnes. Nearly double the production of 20 years ago.
Even with this rising production, people still go hungry. The human population is increasing and with no indication of slowing, it’s expected to reach 9.3billion in 2050. With this comes increasing demand; it is estimated that global fisheries need to increase output by 35% by 2030.
These are all big numbers, but what does it really mean?
The majority of the fish we eat is categorised as vulnerable or endangered. And these aren’t just obscure species that you’ve never heard of. Bluefish tuna stocks are at 4% of historic levels. Predictions suggest the global oceans have lost 90% of large predatory fish, which includes cod, billfish, tuna and flatfish species. This image shows the decline, by plotting the number of fish caught per 100 hooks on a pelagic long line, from 1952 (a) through to 1980 (d).
The spread of the blue shows how the number of fish caught is decreasing all over the world.
Scientist Boris Worm has predicted that all currently fished species could have collapsed by 2048. That’s only 33 years away. Fish biomass is decreasing. The North Sea biomass of fish 16-66kg is 99% less than what it would be with no fishing. Fish are becoming smaller, as they are being caught younger, often before they have reached reproductive maturity. We are approaching what has been termed “The Slippery Slope to Slime,” with the capacity of recovery unknown.
You wouldn’t eat a Giant Panda if it was offered on a menu. You wouldn’t eat a tiger, an orang-utan or an elephant if it was on the shelf of a supermarket. So why is it okay to eat the bluefin tuna? All these animals have the same conservation status, given by the IUCN. They’re all endangered. The Atlantic Cod, your fish from the chippy, has the same conservation status as a lion.
So where are we going so wrong?
One of the major problems is that people just don’t realise. Even scientists didn’t realise quite how desperate the situation has become. The sea is somewhat of a mystery to us. It’s much more difficult to quantify the number of animals in it, it spans 71% of the globe, travels deeper than man has even been and contains many hidden secrets. Fishermen realised their catches were shrinking, but the consequences were never fully understood. Now we can no longer blame naivety. Now we know there is a problem.
Another problem is IUU fishing. Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing. Countries and fishermen are set quotas of the number of fish they are allowed to catch. Sometimes to avoid these, boats will not declare their catch, or they will declare it as a different fish for which they have quota left to fill. It is believed around 1/3 of fish produce sold in America is mislabelled. This means that you may not be eating the type of fish you thought you bought. Some boats don’t declare their catch if it is a particularly expensive species and rare species, that may have some protection. In Japan, whaling is allowed for scientific research, but after genetic tests done on fish in markets, scientists found whale meat being sold as food.
Bycatch is the accidental catch brought up alongside the target species. It is usually discarded over the side of the boat, dead.
Bycatch can be around 30% of an average catch, but for some fisheries, such as shrimp fishing, it can reach levels of 20:1. In the EU, a discard ban came into place in 2015 (until 2018). The aim is for fishermen to become more discriminate in their fishing methods, as all fish they catch must then be taken to shore and landed, whether they want it or not.
What Can You Do?
Knowledge is a powerful thing. A film documentary called ‘The End Of The Line‘ is a fantastic place to start.
With commentary from leading scientists, it brings to light the imp
acts of overfishing. It follows fishermen, policy makers and restaurateurs, confronting them about their apparent disregard for the oceans. Watch the trailer below:
Cut down the amount of fish you eat. Protein and omega 3 can be found in other places than oily fish. Increase the amount of nuts, leafy greens and red meat instead, and you won’t notice a difference.
Look at labelling! Fish are labelled when they are caught with a reduced environmental impact. Look out for these:
But beware, they may not always be completely sustainable.
Change which fish you eat. Move away from cod and haddock and try sardines, mackerel and herring. Coley is a great cod alternative. Be adventurous and try mussels, clams and cockles. If you’re not sure, have a look at this to find out which fish you should buy. Note that the sourcing area for many fish is really important.
Please buy your fish responsibly!