A few hundred years ago the sea was viewed as an inexhaustible resource – stand on the shore of an oceanic beach and look out to the horizon and think of the thousands of miles until the next continent and you can see where this perception comes from. But mankind’s advances in technology and exponential population growth have extracted so much from marine waters that they have proved to be finite. We always like to fish for the big things first, we brought whales to the brink of extinction by the 1950s but fortunately that market declined and public sentiment turned against the trade so whales have had a reprieve. But fish are less visible and their pursuit to offer seafood for our dinner plates has been relentless. So here is why before you eat anymore fish you need to read this.

Where once fish were pulled out of the water by local fishermen using hook and line or nets, now fleets of trawlers drag all marine life from the depths destroying seabed in their wake, long liners pulling tens of thousands of hooks on hundreds of kilometres of fishing line traverse the open ocean and huge industrial fishing boats hundreds of meters long literally hoover thousands of tons of anchovies and krill directly from the water. This uncontrolled industrial plunder of marine wildlife has reduced the main fish populations that we eat by over 74% with over 85% of global fish stocks over exploited. Many fish stocks have completely collapsed.

This GREENPEACE infographic highlights some of the sinister practices of commercial fishing.

A dark and depressing trend but fortunately one that you can help do something about. A growing awareness of the plight of the oceans have mobilised many researchers and campaigners and solutions are available to halt and eventually reverse the damage we are doing. We are the ones driving the fishing trade because we like to eat fish. If you choose what you eat carefully you can support those who are managing their fish stocks well and avoid buying from those who exploit indiscriminately.

Here are some measures you can take to play your part in protecting our oceans:

Diversify what you eat – when you go to the supermarket you don’t order tiger or lion steaks as there very rapidly would be none left. Instead we order beef or lamb, herbivores are far more plentiful. Think of the millions of wildebeest and antelope that roam the plains of Africa supporting a population of a few thousand lions. Tuna, cod, marlin and other similar fish are apex predators like lions or tigers, there are relatively fewer of them in the sea. Go for herring or sardines instead – these herbivore/planktivores are more plentiful, the wildebeest or antelope of the sea.

Shop responsibly and check the label – even the good choices of fish, such as sardines and herring, can be badly overexploited by poor fishing practices. Fortunately, organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society keep a close eye on this and offer an easy to use guide on where and what to buy – view it here. Some large supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and M & S are far more responsible in their selection of fish suppliers. Marine Conservation Society also allow brands to certify their products with an MSC sustainably sourced logo to offer reassurance if you do not have your guide handy look for this logo.  You can also use the Good Fish Guide app – who ever goes anywhere without their mobile phone these days?! You can visit their site here to download it.

Be careful how the fish you do choose to buy is obtained – for instance, if you are going to buy tuna, line caught fish is far more sustainable than longline or purse seine fished tuna. Some types of fishing, such as trawling, is almost always destructive and a poor practice to support. Farmed fish are also one to be careful of. Organic fish farms are careful in how they raise their fish and manage their fish farms. Those farms that do not follow these practices can do a lot of damage to the marine environment and fish stocks in the waters around their farms.

This infographic by GREENPEACE shows more of the destructive aspects of longliner fishing boats.

Avoid eating Sharks and deep water fish – Sharks take many years to reach maturity and can live for decades while deep sea fish are incredibly slow growing, taking decades to reach maturity and, in the case of some species, living more than 150 years. With such a slow life cycle these species simply cannot support exploitation. In the case of sharks, they are apex predators and their breeding behaviour has not evolved to support predation like us fishing them. In the case of deep sea fish, the cold depths mean that lives move far more slowly than on the surface, but we catch and eat them at our pace and again, their population simply isn’t designed to keep up with our rapid (by comparison) appetites.

In addition to these measures you can also lend your support to the creation of Marine Protected Areas – These are places where fishing and other extractive activities are limited or prohibited allowing the marine life to thrive without interference. These reservoirs of rich sea life can then spill over into the places that we do exploit and fish and sustain them. Globally roughly 15% of the land area is set aside in protected areas whereas in the sea only about 3% is. Research indicates that to support our fishing practices about 30% of ocean areas should be protected. At only 3% we have a long way to go but when you consider that 5 years ago only a small fraction of 1% was protected we are on the right track. Around the UK you can support the Marine Conservation Society campaign for more protected areas – visit them by clicking here.

Here are some more useful links

For more information visit Goodfishguide.org

To find UK restaurants aligned with sustainable fishing visit Fish2Fork.com

For Marine Protected Areas visit IUCN

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