As you take a mouthful into the delicious piece of cod gently steaming on your plate, your taste buds come alive. Fish, as we are frequently reminded is good for you, it’s full of those omega 3 things the health food people tell us are good for our heart. When we think of fishing we think of brave fishermen, clambering over slippery decks amidst stormy seas. Fish is one the few truly wild foods many of us eat. It has an element of wildness and danger to it that agriculture and other forms of food production lack. But is eating fish as good for the environment as it is for your health?
Eating fish, can be an ethical minefield. There are so many different pieces of advice, which seem to change with the wind – one minute cod isn’t okay to eat, the next it is; this method of fishing is okay, but this one is not; it’s okay to fish this fish stock, but not this one. You get the gist. Misleading packaging and product labelling techniques only add to the confusion. Making an informed ethical choice is difficult. It takes time and effort – two commodities which busy people do not have. Most people would prefer to just pick up their fish and leave the guilt in the shop, and frankly I understand that. But, where our fish comes from, how it is fished and where it is caught is very, very important.
The journey of fish to fork is an age old one, for thousands of years fishing for food has been part of our culture, of our identity as a species. As time has progressed fishing methods have become increasingly successful, catching more fish for less effort. Whilst this is good for us, it is bad news for fish populations; the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) estimates that 85% of fisheries are exploited above sustainable levels. What this means is that more fish are being taken than are being replaced.
IUU: a bad fish
In order to look after fish populations, there needs to be good fisheries management. Governments and fishermen need to work together to come up with strategies which are good for fishermen and fish. This can be difficult enough on its own. Unfortunately, Illegal Unregulated and Unreported fishing (IUU) muddies the water further. IUU is a form of wildlife crime, where fisheries are targeted, with no regard for sustainable fisheries management or for the law. IUU threatens the health of marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of local communities which are reliant on the sustainable management of natural resources. IUU can involve fishing critically endangered species, like bluefin tuna, under reporting of catch, or simply fishing in a protected area. The fishing methods used can be heavily destructive and undermine years of conservation.
Like other types of wildlife crime there is big money in IUU, it is estimated to be worth 10-23 billion dollars a year. Organisations and vessels taking part in IUU operate on a large scale and have links to organised crime, mafias and even slavery. This is not a bloke taking a few fish he’s not supposed to this is criminality on a large and destructive scale.
Vessels are able to operate within loopholes in international law, changing flags on whim. Between 13-31% of all catch globally is estimated to have been fished illegally. The fish they catch is easily passed on, making its way onto the shelves, into our baskets and onto our plates. Better enforcement is urgently needed. Making sure that we know where our seafood comes from is also of paramount importance.
What you can do
When confronted with all of these issues it is easy to feel powerless. But there is so much you can do. As a consumer you have a lot of power; when consumers and ordinary people speak out companies and governments listen. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight was a great example of this. The law on discards was changed after thousands of people voiced their frustrations at the lunacy of having to throw half of what we catch back into the ocean.
You don’t have to stop eating fish either. The Marine Conservation Society has a fish guide app that tells you which fish you can eat sustainably. Take an interest in where your fish comes from, talk to your fishmonger, ask the restaurant where the fish came from – become more aware of the story behind your food. If we remove the market for IUU, there will be no drive for people to fish illegally. If you live near the coast marine foraging is an up and coming trend, which is incredibly selective and connects you directly to your food.
The health of our oceans is an issue of national and international importance, help put ocean conservation on the national agenda by writing to your MP, make them aware of the insidious threat posed by Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing, campaign for more marine protected areas and tell other people about these issues.
I don’t know about you but in thirty years’ time I want to still be able eat fish and chips. IUU is a fish we must catch!
Links for those fishing for more info: