Why we can keep eating fish
There has been a flurry of media activity over the past week on whether it is acceptable to eat seafood. A recent, and let’s face it, highly emotive and headline-grabbing article from George Monbiot in the Guardian, claimed that we should stop eating seafood because it’s the only way to save the life in our seas. There has already been plenty written that provides evidence to refute claims made in this article (see Further Info section for some suggested links), so rather than addressing each individual claim again here, I want to explain why it’s absolutely fine to eat responsibly harvested seafood.
Commercial fishing is not an unmanaged or unrestricted activity but rather fishing is subject to intense regulatory control. Fish from UK or EU waters comes from fish populations and fishing fleets that are highly regulated and, by and large, well-managed under either the Common Fisheries Policy or national management arrangements. Regulations are in place to restrict the amount of fish that can be caught, the type of fishing gear that can be used, and the areas where fishing can take place. These measures are designed to ensure the long term sustainability of fish stocks, but also to protect the wider marine environment. The suggestion that UK and European fish stocks are in decline is also misleading - recent research from the EU Commission’s independent committee of fisheries scientists shows that the opposite is true and that the majority of fish populations in the EU waters are in fact increasing, although not as fast as we would like.
We know that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing occurs on the high seas (not within any one nation’s control or supervision) and this continues to be an acknowledged area of concern. However, there is a clear focus on trying to address this through international governance arrangements (such as Regional Fisheries Management Organisations) and good practice initiatives developed by the FAO.
The majority of the seafood we eat in the UK is imported, and is therefore subject to EU import restrictions requiring government-issued catch certificates as evidence of the fish being caught under regulated fishing activities. But regardless of its origin, the processing and retail sectors have highly sophisticated supply chains. Businesses rely on credible suppliers they’ve built an effective and robust trading relationship with, and UK firms undertake their own checks and audits to ensure their suppliers have the right systems in place and can verify their products and any claims associated with them. Initiatives such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Best Aquaculture Practices Standards, and Seafish’s Responsible Fishing Scheme and Responsible Fishing Ports Scheme also help in this regard.
Every element of how we live and feed ourselves can impact on the natural world and that’s something we need to address globally. Like other industries, the seafood industry recognises that it needs to take action to reduce its carbon footprint, to address plastic pollution, and to continue to avoid, remedy or mitigate its impacts on the natural environment. I’m pleased to see that this work is already underway and includes initiatives by the seafood supply chain to reduce unnecessary packaging, steps taken by the fishing industry to better manage how it disposes of unwanted fishing gear (Global Ghost Gear Initiative and Fishing for Litter) and the work across the supply chain to minimise the sector’s carbon footprint.
It would be naïve to think that by not eating seafood we’re ‘saving the planet’. Every form of primary food production, either on land or at sea, has an impact on the environment, but pushing people to eat more plant-based proteins simply shifts us from a tightly regulated sector with a relatively low carbon footprint and a strong environmental focus to other forms of production which may not be as well managed. Research, focused on life cycle assessments, also suggests a diet that includes seafood can have a lower environmental impact than a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet.
We know that harvesting seafood can provide a range of benefits for society. These include providing us with a heathy food source, addressing food security concerns at a national level, and helping to maintain sustainable coastal communities. We know that shellfish production has been shown to have restorative effects on degraded habitats by improving water quality, providing habitats for other species and reducing excess nutrients from their immediate environment.
Media coverage such as the recent Guardian article acts as a distraction to the real issues that need addressing; the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss as detailed in the recently released report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It’s clear that plastic pollution, climate change and declining biodiversity are having an impact on our marine environment, but to lay blame for all of those at the door of the seafood industry is wilfully misleading and negligent.
You don’t have to take our word for it. There have already been many responses to the Monbiot article on social media which address the specific issues and errors contained in article; one of the best is a recent blog by Sustainable Fisheries which uses research, science and evidence to dismantle the many and varied claims made.
And of course if we don‘t eat seafood ourselves we’re missing out on one of the most beneficial, naturally occurring protein sources. Seafood is good for brainpower, it’s good for our hearts, and it’s good for our wellbeing.
Please, don’t feel you need to stop eating responsibly sourced seafood.
Download the latest STECF report on the performance of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) here
Download the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Summary here
Read the fact checking blog by Sustainable Fisheries here
Read the MSC blog here
N.B. This blog was updated on 28 May.