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Ethical Fish

It was once thought that the sea was an inexhaustible source of fish, but over-exploitation has resulted in depleted stocks and damaged marine ecosystems. Overfishing is one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues and has severe social and economic repercussions. Billions of people depend upon fishing for food, and thousands more for employment. The prevention of overfishing is paramount to the survival of the industry, those who depend on it, and the natural marine environment.

The issue

A fishery is an area of the sea where the target fish species is caught by net, line or another fishing method. Fisheries that are ecologically balanced and are not depleted of natural resources are becoming increasingly rare. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, only one quarter of the world’s fish stocks are within safe environmental levels. The remaining stocks are either partly or fully overfished or in a serious stage of depletion. This means that the majority of the world’s fisheries are in need of management reviews if they are not to be lost forever.

The consequences of overfishing are already manifest. In 1992, one of the world’s richest natural resources, the cod stocks off the Canadian Grand Banks, Newfoundland, disappeared virtually overnight as a result of poor fisheries management. This had a devastating impact on the marine environment and the local community. About 40,000 jobs were lost and the fishery still remains closed today. 

There are numerous reasons for the collapse of fisheries and the depletion of fish stocks. Technological advances have enabled the fishing industry to target the resource more precisely and take more from our seas than is sustainable

Bigger boats, more powerful engines, developments in radar and sophisticated refrigeration systems mean that fishermen can stay out at sea for longer, travel further and locate fish more easily. Catching fish, therefore, is no longer a lottery and as a result more fish are being caught than ever before. Another reason for the collapse of fisheries is the marketplace, which sanctions overfishing by allowing the sale of endangered fish for profit. The problem is that the market is about today and tomorrow and maybe next week, but ce‍‍‍rtainly not about ten years’ time.

People and food

In the developed world, seafood is regularly enjoyed by billions of people for taste and health reasons. However, the current unsustainable fishing climate is more of a threat to developing countries, where over 3.5 billion people depend upon the ocean for their primary source of food (UNEP). If fish stocks continue to deplete, then demand for fish in these coastal areas may outstrip the supply.‍‍‍

Liveli‍‍‍hood and employment

As a major renewable resource, fisheries provide a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people around the world, sustaining coastal towns and villages and representing a valuable source of income for the global community. The role of fishermen is crucial in the lives of many communities that fish for local needs. 90 per cent operate on a small scale, but they account for over half of the global fish catch (UNEP). These are the fishermen who will be increasingly squeezed by the large operators who come in search of new stocks as they exhaust the old. It is the greed of the rich world that has produced the shortages and it will be the wealth of the rich world that buys what fish are left, even though they are essential to the very existence of the poor.

For the sake of their livelihoods, fishermen around the world need to be assured that the fishing industry has a secure future, whether they fish locally or on a much larger scale. Unsustainable fishing affects fishermen in both developed and developing countries alike.

Call to action

Raising awareness of overfishing is the first step towards tackling the problem.

Ethical shoppers can demand fish from sustainable and well-managed stocks to help safeguard the world’s seafood supply. This will put pressure on retailers to stock sustainably harvested seafood products. This in turn will help to provide incentives for the seafood industry to fish in a responsible way.

There is now a tinned fish brand called Fish4Ever which not only looks at sea sustainability by banning bad fishing methods, but also offers a fair trade premium for fish caught in the waters of developing countries. They support local fishermen and businesses and do not buy anything from the long distance foreign industrial boats that have done so much to destroy both fish stocks and the legitimate livelihood of coastal communities in the developing world.

Keep an eye out for their products, 70% of which are MSC certified (see below for further information about the MSC standards).

One solution: the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

In the mid 1990s, conservationists and in‍‍‍dustrialists alike saw that they had a common interest in changing the marketplace in terms of its operation. This led to the creation of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international charity dedicated to saving the world’s fish stocks. The MSC created an environmental standard to reward wellmanaged and sustainable fisheries. Fisheries of any size, scale, type or location can voluntarily apply to be assessed against the MSC Standard by independent certification bodies. 

The MSC Standard considers the condition of the fish stock, the impact of fishing on the marine ecosystem and the management of the fishery. If they pass, certified fisheries win the right to use the MSC blue eco-label on their products, harnessing people’s preference for sustainable seafood. It is possible to protect fish stocks and marine ecosystems whilst continuing to fish, if the fishing is conducted in a responsible manner.

Examples of responsible fishing include building escape hatches into lobster creel pots, as in the Western Australian Rock Lobster fishery, the first in the world to receive the MSC environmental standard. These hatches enable small lobsters to escape and reproduce while the adults remain within the creel. Another example from the Scottish Loch Torridon and Nephrops fishery, certified to the MSC Standard, is fisherman throwing juvenile fish back into the sea to allow them to reproduce, ensuring that the fish stock remains healthy. Measures to reduce by-catch are also being adopted in order to maintain healthy ecosystems. By-catch, such as fish, marine mammals and seabirds, can be caught accidentally by fishing gear and then thrown back into the ocean dead, disrupting the natural balance of the marine ecosystem. The New Zealand hoki fishery, certified to the MSC Standard, is implementing various measures at the fishery to reduce by-catch.

By the end of 2012, there were 188 fisheries certified to the MSC Standard and 106 more are at some stage of the fishery assessment process. The MSC provides a solution to the global problem of overfishing and is a market driven programme. There are now more than 13,500 MSC-labelled products available worldwide and new products are appearing every week. The individual is empowered to make the best environmental choice in seafood, which is needed to complete the circle of influence that uses market forces to ensure the future of sustainable fisheries

Hugh’s Fish Fight

In September 2010 food writer and environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall started a campaign to raise public awareness and lobby UK and EU policy makers on the issue of over fishing and the unnecessary and unethical waste of perfectly good fish.

Every day fishermen in the North Sea are throwing back into the water large quantities of good edible fish, the majority of which will die. In a mixed fishery fishermen cannot control the species they catch, therefore fish which cannot be sold because of lack of interest by people or because it is above the allowed quota ends up overboard. The EU estimates that in the North Sea, discards amount to between 40% and 60% of the total catch.

In February 2013, the European parliament voted to ban the wasteful practice of throwing away healthy fish at sea in a victory for campaigners and green groups after more than two years of procedural wrangling. After significant opposition to the changes from the powerful industrial fishing lobby, and multiple attempts to scupper the process, the final vote was won by an emphatic 502 votes to 137. “This is really excellent news,” said Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, “It was a nerve-racking morning – there was still a faction who wanted to derail the process – but well done to the MEPs, and well done to the Fish Fighters.” The vote makes it highly likely that the biggest shake-up of the common fisheries policy for decades will pass into law, perhaps in 2014. It is still not quite final, as there must be some further negotiations with member states, but campaigners said the reform proposals were now over the biggest hurdles to their adoption.

For up-to-date information and to find out what you can do to make a difference, go to 

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