Responding to Seaspiracy: 10 reasons to feel good about seafood in the UK
The new Seaspiracy film on Netflix targets the global fishing industry. It paints a challenging and, at times, extreme picture of an industry that is vital to feeding a growing global population. It would be easy to think that these practices are the norm and to tar the whole industry with the same brush. But films like this are designed to shock and it doesn’t always suit to highlight the good work that is happening (in the UK and beyond) to ensure our fisheries are managed sustainably.
At Seafish, we know seafood is a healthy and sustainable choice. We understand that some people think and choose differently but we want to make sure consumers have access to balanced information so they can make informed choices.
We also know the global seafood industry isn’t perfect and nobody could condone the horrendous activities highlighted in Seaspiracy. Fortunately, these activities are rare in the UK and there are plenty of reasons to have confidence in the industry that produces the seafood we eat.
We have previously talked about why we can keep eating fish. This latest film is another chance to highlight the ongoing work by our seafood industry to make sure the seafood on our plates is safe and sustainable.
Reasons to feel good about seafood
1. Our coastal communities depend on our marine environment, so they care deeply about preserving its future
Sustainable management of the marine environment is essential to the future of an economically vibrant seafood industry. Many of those whose livelihoods depend on producing seafood understand this. They champion the sustainable use of our marine resource so that there is plenty more fish in the sea for generations to come. From working with lobster hatcheries to release juvenile lobsters into the wild, to encouraging governments to take stronger measures to support better management of our mackerel and herring fisheries, to using special equipment when fishing to make sure seabirds don’t get caught in fishing gear – and there are many more examples of this good work happening.
2. Seafood can help to feed the world
Looking at the bigger picture, seafood has an important role to play in feeding a growing global population. In 2017, fish provided more than 3.3 billion people with 20 percent of their average intake of animal protein. Our global population is projected to rise to 9.8 billion people by 2050 - that’s an extra 2 billion people that we will need to feed. Sustainable seafood, both wild capture and farmed, has a key role to play in providing a solution to this problem and to ensuring food security for many.
Where there are issues then we must work collectively to address them. Campaigning against this vital food source is not the solution.
3. Seafood is good for you
The health benefits of eating seafood as part of a balanced diet are often glossed over. Seafood is the only animal protein we are encouraged to eat more of by Public Health England and the World Health Organisation. Seafood is high in protein, full of vitamins and minerals, and is rich in omega-3 fats (if you choose an oily fish like mackerel or sardines). This makes seafood an excellent addition to a healthy, balanced diet, as well as being tasty and convenient. So, there are plenty of reasons to eat at least two portions of seafood a week.
4. Fraudulent and criminal activity in the UK is very low
On a global scale Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing remains the biggest global threat to the sustainable management of fish stocks. The good news is that fishing is well controlled in UK waters, with strict regulations limiting who can catch fish, how it can be caught and how much can be taken.
The UK also has robust import controls, and traceability and labelling enforcement in place. There are regulations in place to help track seafood through the supply chain as it moves from a fishing boat or fish farm, to the processor, retailer and on to your plate. Reputable retailers also implement strict traceability protocols to ensure that all seafood stocked, whether sourced from the UK or beyond, meets sustainability and safety standards.
The UK also has the National Food Crime Unit, a dedicated division within the Food Standards Agency, which works to uncover and respond to food fraud issues.
5. Sustainable seafood is a high priority in the UK
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (2020), 78.7% of wild caught seafood comes from sustainably managed fisheries. Recent research by the University of Washington also highlights that ‘scientifically-assessed fish populations around the world are healthy or improving. And, for fish populations that are not doing well, there is a clear roadmap to sustainability.’
In the UK, since 2011, the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) has been working to ensure all seafood sold in our shops and restaurants comes from sustainable sources. The SSC brings together UK retailers, leading seafood suppliers, and food service outlets who follow agreed policies to ensure seafood is responsibly sourced.
We know that not every fishery is sustainably managed but time and time again we see the seafood industry, environmental groups and scientists working together to drive improvements in fisheries management through a global network of Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs). There are currently eight FIPs in the UK, covering a variety of species from scallops to cod.
6. Buying responsibly sourced seafood in the UK is easy
Seafood certification and labelling make it easy for people to identify and choose sustainable seafood. In the UK, the best-known scheme is the Marine Stewardship Council ‘blue fish label’ which is applied to seafood from fisheries that have been rigorously assessed against a set of stringent science-based criteria, before being certified as sustainable. Similar schemes operate for farmed species too, such as Best Aquaculture Practices.
7. The UK is leading the way on the welfare of workers in the seafood supply chain
The UK seafood sector is a global leader in human rights and ethical responsibility across the supply chain. When ‘The Guardian’ newspaper shone a light on terrible working conditions in Thailand’s prawn industry, the UK supply chain was quick to react. The Seafood Ethics Action Alliance was established by seafood processing and retail businesses to share information on emerging global issues and to agree best practice solutions so that the welfare of fishing industry workers is protected.
A similar UK initiative is focused on improving the welfare of fishermen working in the UK. The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance was set up by fishermen for fishermen to address issues impacting on their health and wellbeing.
8. Clear commitment to reducing the impact of fishing on the marine environment
There are plenty of examples across the UK of initiatives designed to limit the impact of fishing on the environment. This includes a growing network of marine protected areas around the UK coastline.
Other initiatives, led by industry, include developing and trialling new fishing gear designs that can limit the accidental capture of seabirds and marine mammals. The UK has committed to bring cetacean (dolphins and porpoises) bycatch to as close to zero as possible and to reduce seabird bycatch. Through the UK Protected Species Bycatch Monitoring Programme, the UK has also been recognised as having one of the best approaches to bycatch monitoring and mitigation in Europe.
Research is also underway to modify gear designs to limit their impact on the seabed, particularly in dredge fisheries, so that important benthic habitats are protected.
9. The industry is actively tackling its contribution to marine plastic pollution
Marine litter and lost or discarded fishing gear in our oceans creates a challenging problem, but it is a problem that the fishing industry is helping to fix. Participation in the global Fishing for Litter initiative means that crew on UK fishing vessels voluntarily collect litter at sea and bring it back to shore for recycling.
Losing fishing gear is costly but the environmental implications are even greater, as this gear can directly impact marine life. The UK fishing industry is proactively engaged in finding ways to limit gear loss and to recycle it once it is no longer needed. It is working with the research community to find ways to reuse and recycle fishing gear, such as turning it into kayaks or fashionable clothing.
At a bigger scale the Global Ghost Gear Initiative is working internationally to solve the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear worldwide. Many UK companies are partners in this important initiative.
On land, fish processors are actively working with researchers to find more sustainable packaging options to minimise the use of oil-based plastics. This includes using alternative materials produced from prawn shells and pineapples.
10. There are plenty of low carbon footprint seafood options.
We know that seafood has a smaller carbon footprint than other animal proteins, such as beef or pork. Research also indicates that a diet that includes seafood can have a lower environmental impact than a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet.
Certain aquaculture species, such as mussels and oysters, are a naturally low carbon food which is good news. But they also help deliver wider environmental improvements such as improving water quality and providing habitats for other species.
There is more to be done though and the seafood industry and research community are working together to better understand the carbon footprint of seafood, and to find ways to reduce it. We expect this to become a priority for the seafood industry and for consumers over the coming years.
So what does this all mean?
When criticism comes our way, it’s important to take a balanced look at issues and respond – and that’s exactly what we are doing.
We know that there are issues to fix and some of those issues are happening here in the UK but we also know that there are many people committed to doing things better. These individuals and businesses work to ensure that the seafood on our plates is environmentally, ethically and economically sustainable. We have the will and vision in the UK seafood industry to make our own positive change. Much has been done but there is always more to do and our seafood industry is up for the challenge.
Find out more
- Will fish be part of future healthy and sustainable diets (2019) the Lancet Planetary Health
- The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (2020) Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
- The future of food from the sea (2020) Nature
- A closer look at the environmental costs of food (2018) Sustainable Fisheries
- Hilborn et al. 2020, Effective fisheries management instrumental in improving fish stock status