Frequently asked questions
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In this article, you will find answers to frequently asked questions on the topic of defining sustainable seafood.
1. Besides the actual fishing rules, what about all the rubbish chucked into the oceans by the fishing vessels and other vessels?
Many well-managed fisheries are held to strict laws on pollution and rubbish and any operators who are caught breaking these laws will be fined heavily for non-compliance. The accidental loss of nets, however (ghost nets) is a huge issue around the world that both fishers and innovators are working to solve.
2. Is it the large industrial fishers that are the biggest threat to sustainable fish stocks? What damage is being done to the ecosystem, and the food chain, by hoovering up vast quantities of fish for non-food products?
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Sustainable Seafood: Barriers and Opportunities in the Fishing Industry
There’s not a straightforward “one is better or worse” answer to this as both large and small-scale fisheries have their pros and cons. While industrial fishers haul enormous quantities of largely “non-food” fish, they are converting an abundant product from one that’s generally non-desirable into products that are. For example, smaller stronger-tasting fish species like anchovies or sardines are often targeted by industrial fishers to be used for non-direct consumption – like being turned into aquaculture feed or processed products.
Unlike many larger species, climate patterns drive much of the yearly or seasonal population fluctuations that we see in some of these smaller species – like sardines or anchovies. This is because they’re heavily reliant on other ocean processes that are impacted by climate, like upwelling areas, ocean nutrient cycling, and temperature changes. They tend to exist on natural “boom and bust” cycles – something climate change is having a large impact on. As these species have shorter life cycles driven largely by these processes, this makes their population booms fairly predictable and places them as an easy target for large vessels in open seas. Luckily, the short life cycle also means fishing pressure can have a proportionally lower impact on the stock health of these species, especially when compared to fishing pressure on larger fish that may take years to mature and reproduce.
3. I wonder if small-scale, local fishing operations are more careful guardians of their environment than the bigger industrial players. After all, a local fisherman who may have to stay local and lives locally, has much at stake from destroying the sustainability of where they fish, whereas the larger boats based perhaps hundreds of miles away can just move on to the next location.
It’s true that local, artisanal or subsistence small-scale fishers are generally more likely to feel bought into the consequences of their actions at sea. In fact, most successful small-scale fisheries management tends to be centred around creating community led fisheries management, which broadly involves empowering fishers themselves to manage their own fisheries. The main issue that has plagued small-scale fishers in the past is a lack of understanding around how their actions impact the ecosystem now that we have vastly different pressures on our seas. While self-managed fishing in certain areas would once have been relatively sustainable for a small community, the impacts of modern pollution, climate change, and offshore commercial fishing pressures have changed the equation and disrupted natural balance. As things have changed, their approach must too, and this is often something many small communities are not well equipped to handle on their own without sacrificing daily food and nutrition to do so.
4. Is herring a sustainable fish? I love herring and my doctor insists I eat sardines to get enough protein as I do not eat meat or chicken in any form.
Herring can be a sustainable choice as it’s a relatively small fish with a fast reproductive cycle – meaning it can regenerate populations quite fast (more sustainable to fish than slower-growing species). In saying that, it’s important to know that there are many different ‘stocks’ or separate populations of herring around the world, and not all of them are fished to sustainable limits in their respective regions!
As an easy way to recognise if the herring you buy is sourced sustainably, my first recommendation would be to look for the MSC logo when purchasing. That logo is currently the best way to immediately recognise whether the fish you’re buying has come from a sustainable source which has been audited by the world’s largest fisheries sustainability auditor (MSC). Noted, this doesn’t mean that an unlabelled seafood product is necessarily unsustainably sourced. Not all seafood producers can afford the MSC auditing process and thus not all can afford the label. The next thing you can do is to take a look on some seafood sustainability recommendation sites, like the Good Fish Guide. There are some great resources that rank the relative sustainability of certain species or even certain fish stocks based on where they’ve come from, how well the fish stock or species is doing at this time, and whether or not there are more sustainable substitutes you should go for instead. It’s worth noting that not all retail options highlight which herring stock your product has come from – which is also a potential red flag to make you think twice about that particular product.
5. I am rather shocked at the amount of fish removed on such a large scale. Does this give fish a chance to regenerate?
If fisheries are managed according to scientific recommendations, which not all of them are, then the amount of fish they target from each species or ‘stock’ should allow fish populations to regenerate and maintain a healthy level.
There are however two issues here. Firstly, we only have solid data for around half of the world’s fisheries, which means at best, half are being managed and fished according to scientific advice based on semi-accurate data. The rest may be fished unsustainably with more fish being taken than a population can handle, or size limits are ignored, and fish are taken before maturity. The second issue is that even with data, fisheries advice is never ‘perfect’. All of the quotas we set each year for fisheries are based on advanced modelling which uses catch data and past data on fish populations to make estimates of current populations. But these aren’t perfect, and the data we use isn’t perfect, so there is always a buffer of uncertainty (even if we use scientific advice). This buffer is potentially enough to cause issues and we simply won’t know until potentially years later. It’s definitely not a perfect system, but thankfully there are many working to improve both the data we use and the models that help us predict how our fish stocks are doing!
6. We know that we always need protein, and it is healthy and natural, not for excessive obesity, but for illegal sea fishing in a logic that is not defined globally. Is there protection for this issue so that marine life does not end in a frightening manner, for example, and does not deprive us of food by specifying
Illegal Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is still a very real issue and one that is incredibly tough to solve. With around 4 million vessels roaming our seas, it is near impossible to manage the exact location and real-time practices of every ship – something that’s even harder for poorer regions without the resources or maritime authorities to enforce fisheries rules and regulations.
The best we can do as consumers to avoid supporting any illegal fisheries is to ensure that we know the origin of our seafood before buying it. Check the origin labels, ask your fishmonger, and see if you can find some answers. In saying this, it’s not always easy to do as many countries don’t force seafood companies to state product origin locations, the seafood source, or even the practices used to catch it. From an industry perspective, some are in favour of onboard vessel tracking systems that allow authorities to monitor all fishing vessels more closely. If common laws forced all commercial vessels to use these, we would have a much clearer picture of where our seafood is caught. Noted, this may not stop smaller local vessels from fishing illegally, but it’d be a step in the right direction.
7. I used to live very close to the sea and had eaten quite a lot of seafood throughout my childhood. I wonder how the fishing practices could be sustainable to serve the growing population’s need.
It’s a big question you’ve asked and one without a clear-cut answer. There are however a few key avenues that look particularly promising as a way to improve the sustainability of our fisheries.
Firstly, we need to know what we’re working with. The functioning ecosystems of the underwater world and how our fishing operations impact them is still not well understood. Collecting as much data as possible (through global surveys, technology advancements, and even citizen science) is one of the best ways we can improve our management. After all, it’s impossible to manage an issue you don’t understand! The second beacon of promise comes through increased globalised agreements on acceptable fishing practices for different areas and species. It’s not going to be easy, but as scientists gain an understanding of the ways our fishing gear can impact marine ecosystems, we can narrow our approach over time to only permit practices or technological tools deemed most sustainable.
The third is being more selective about which types of seafood we eat. Minimising our demand on single-pressured species as consumers and supporting markets for more sustainable seafoods (like seaweeds or bycatch) holds huge potential in reducing fisheries impacts.
8. I often wonder how much fish in supermarkets pre-packed or counter is wasted?
In short, supermarkets and counters waste a huge amount.
According to the The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates, around 35% of all fish, crustaceans and molluscs harvested from oceans, lakes and fish farms are wasted or lost before they ever reach a plate. While a significant amount of this wastage and loss occurs at sea or during processing, waste at the retailer level also plays a substantial role. At the retail level, consumers tend to prefer fresh or unfrozen ‘counter’ options which results in a greater level of waste as these options generally have shorter shelf life than frozen. While it’s hard to find solid statistics on retail waste, a few studies in the US have placed fresh retail seafood waste at around 20-25%, with seafood counters not far behind. Again taking the US as an example, this means around 220 million meal portions of seafood are being thrown into landfills in a single year.
What can we do to minimise it? Supporting frozen seafood options is one way that many believe could reduce retail waste. Frozen options have a longer shelf life, are less likely to be thrown away once bought and at home, and can even be fresher than some ‘fresh’ options which may be frozen prior to being unfrozen for display.
9. I wonder how farmed fish compares to beef in environmental terms? I would imagine that farmed fish would be much less harmful to the environment per nutritional output, but is this always the case?
It’s difficult to narrow down a comparison between farmed fish and beef given the number of factors involved that would impact the result – from the species farmed, right down to how they’re farmed, where, and the specific practices used. But the general consensus is that on average, farmed fish is a far less environmentally impactful choice than beef. According to the World Resources Institute, beef production costs significantly more than farmed fish in terms of land use, freshwater use, and GHG emissions produced.
Author: Oliver Fredriksson
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Sustainable Seafood: Barriers and Opportunities in the Fishing Industry
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