Go Fish!

Courtesy: Melk Hagelslag

Studies estimate that globally as many as 2.7 trillion fish are caught each year.  In Canada, this equals more than one billion pounds of cod, haddock, halibut, and other fish caught along the Atlantic Ocean alone in both shore and deep-sea operations.  It is safe to say that fishing is a big business.

Globally, the market size is estimated at US 113.2 billion dollars and growing.  So, what’s the problem?  The problem is big – as vast as our oceans. This growing crisis is a direct result of human intervention and demand.  We are vastly overfishing to the point that some fish are now considered endangered. We are impacting entire ecosystems that affect the remaining fish.  We have created an imbalance that can lead to the loss of other marine life.  Are you concerned? I am.

What is the Issue?

Firstly, consumer demand has opened the door to this crisis.  On average, each person eats approximately 42 pounds of fish per year.  Studies have shown that from 1976 to 2012, consumption has gone from 60 million tons to 150 million tons – more than double the amount caught in just a few decades.

Increased demand requires an increase in supply. There are about four million fishing vessels of varying sizes on the oceans today.  Many of these vessels are more efficient and can store higher capacities of fish.  In many instances, they catch fish faster than the stock of fish can be replenished, something called overfishing.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), of all fish populations, one-third (33.1%) are overfished, and just 7 percent are underfished.  Overfishing has caused the Bluefin tuna population to decline by 96 percent in the last century.  Other endangered species include the Atlantic cod, haddock, Atlantic horse mackerel, and the bigeye tuna.  These fish account for 76 percent of the threatened species and 64 percent of the fish caught globally.  Other mammals and fish not commonly associated with the seafood industry are also at risk.  According to published studies, sharks, dolphins, stingrays, giant turtles, and whales may find themselves on the brink of extinction.  Since 1970 the population of many of these giants has declined by almost 90 percent.

Courtesy: Kerstin Riemer

A second issue is bycatch, the capture of unwanted sea life while fishing for a different species.  About 38.5 million tons of bycatch are caught each year – from marine life such as sea turtles and cetaceans to smaller fish. Much of this bycatch is either thrown back into the water dead, dying, or seriously injured. Other bycatch is thrown away on land.  To give you an example of how big this issue is, for every two pounds of shrimp caught, 11 to 44 pounds of bycatch is in the nets.

Another issue is illegal fishing for high-value species.  Experts estimate that this earns over USD 36 billion per year and constitutes 28 percent of the global fishing market.   Illegal fishing will include foreign vessels entering and fishing in the jurisdiction of another country without permission, harvesting a greater tonnage than quotas permit, fishing for highly migratory species, and fishing for certain species of shark.

Finally, we get to alternate fishing methods such as bottom trawling, dredging, or blast fishing.  For bottom trawling and dredging, a net is dragged across the bottom of the ocean to catch fish.  It is highly damaging to the ocean floor ecosystems, harming coral reefs that can take thousands of years to grow back.  It also produces the highest amount of bycatch.  Blast fishing is illegal, but some places where regulations are lax do perform this type of fishing. This technique uses explosives or poison to blast the fish.

Some argue that if we continue on this path, the world’s oceans will be virtually empty by 2048.  Without fish, the oceans will no longer have the ability to perform many of their essential functions, such as the production of phytoplankton, the foundation of the aquatic ecosystem.  Not only do all living things in the ocean depend on it for food or oxygen, but, more importantly, we do too. Phytoplankton and seaweed found in the earth’s oceans produce over 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe.

That’s it. No more seafood for me!

Catching and eating fish is not fundamentally bad for the ocean as long as it is in moderation.  Seafood is an important food source for billions of people globally.  It provides a livelihood for millions of people and is an economic commodity for many countries.  Simply put, fishing is not an industry that will stop.

Because of the rising interest in this issue, many fishing and seafood importing nations are taking steps.   They aim to curb overfishing, actively build a stock of those fish at risk, and reduce the levels of bycatch.  Some of the initiatives include limitations on commercial fishing, better catch or import documentation, and increased fish farming.  Although good in theory, the reality is much bleaker.

Many countries such as China have poor documentation practices and lax limitations.  In addition, wealthy countries like the United States import seafood from countries with less stringent regulations, yet they report very low reported catch levels.  There are only a small number of global corporations that do the fishing, processing, and trading. Data, however, is recorded at a country level.  In short, the numbers are not truly accurate.

Fish farming has some benefits but just as many concerns.  It allows us to replenish the food supply at a much faster rate than the oceans –  a good thing.  These farms produce a variety of species: salmon, shrimp, catfish, carp, Atlantic char, trout, tilapia, eels, tuna, crabs, crayfish, mussels, oysters, and seaweed.  They easily meet the increasing demand of today’s global market.

On a negative note, most fish farms are overcrowded, artificial environments that lead to lice and bacteria.   Some of these bacterial diseases have even spread to native fish populations.   Efforts to treat these pests and diseases include pesticides and drugs that the fish you eat have absorbed.  In addition, to accommodate these fish farms, many ecosystems have been irreparably damaged, even though they could virtually be a large tank or artificial pond anywhere. The Mangrove forests that line the coasts of Thailand, Vietnam, and China, for example, have been destroyed to create shrimp and fish farms.  Even with this in mind, the farming industry supplies nearly 40 percent of the seafood we eat – a USD 78 billion annual industry.

Let’s not forget that the fish in captivity must be fed, some of which eat other fish. Ten pounds of ocean fish is required to create two pounds of fishmeal to feed the farmed fish.  For example, a fully mature Bluefin tuna can weigh up to 551 pounds, and 26 pounds of feed is required to reach each pound. That equals 14,326 pounds of feed for a fully mature Bluefin tuna.   Globally, approximately 37 percent of the fish caught today is ground into fishmeal. 

Courtesy: Tookapic

Poor Dory

Do you remember Dory getting caught in the net in Finding Nemo?  She was the bycatch of the story – a fish that was not the intended catch caught in the fishing net. The underlying message was that we most certainly do not want to cause the destruction of all the fish in our oceans.  So, what can we do?

Firstly, purchase fish from sustainable fisheries.  Since 2005, large retailers and supermarkets must indicate the country of origin and whether the fish is farmed or from the ocean on the label.  The most famous of these is the dolphin-safe tuna label from the 1990s.  When purchasing seafood, look for a “sustainable” marking and check the websites listed below for more information on where your fish originates.  Doing this simple act will ensure that you are not buying endangered fish or fish from a country with little regard for this crisis.

Secondly, plan your fish-eating adventure.  It is no secret that we throw away a lot of food. Buy what you need, what you will use, and what you will eat.  Cut down on waste.  Perhaps you would consider lab-made fish?  Companies like BlueNalu, Finless Foods, and Wild Type are actively working to produce fish grown from cells grown in a lab.  Their goal is to develop at-risk and high-demand species, fish like bluefin tuna and salmon, in addition to many other varieties that are difficult to farm.   Using a needle full of muscle cells drawn from a single ocean fish along with vitamins, sugars, and amino acids, they create broadsheets of muscle tissue. They then manufacture these sheets so they can be used in a variety of ways, from fresh filets to frozen bites. 

Finally, push governments to adhere to stricter fishing regulations.  Even though close monitoring of certain threatened fish is in place, the enforcement is different from other wild endangered animals.  In many cases, industrial fisheries catch at-risk fish without penalty. In addition, push for better catch and trade data to accurately understand the status of each species and better control the population of at-risk species.

The way we treat our oceans and the lives within them is an important issue.  That is abundantly clear.  We must all work towards ensuring our oceans remain healthy.  Caring about the oceans ultimately means we are caring for ourselves. Caring for our fish means we will continue to enjoy it as a meal for decades to come.

Learn More

Visit these websites for more information on purchasing sustainable fish.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) Download a spreadsheet with all the pending and certified manufacturers found worldwide.

Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) This website features a search tool with a list of certified producers.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) This website includes great learning tools for teachers and parents.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch This website has a great search tool and app that you can download on your mobile phone to get great buying tips for environmentally sustainable fish.

4 thoughts on “Go Fish!

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    1. Thank you so much for your positive comments! I really enjoy writing blogs that are both informative and interesting. Food isn’t just about eating (although that’s a very good part). In our fast-paced economy, we really take a lot for granted and assume that nature’s bounty will be ours for the taking forever. Unfortunately, this is so not true.

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