Sustainable Seafood & Fishing Practices

Each year, in the UK alone, £5.7billion worth of fish and seafood is consumed. Globally, fish and seafood account for almost 20% of all animal proteins consumed by humans. Some fisheries around the world are monitored, and almost ⅓ of all monitored stocks show signs of overfishing – an unsurprising statistic when over 77 billion kilograms of sea life are removed from the oceans every year. 

Photo by Kate

However, to fish sustainably means to fish responsibly; enough fish must be left in the oceans to maintain wildlife populations and the livelihoods of others, particularly coastal communities. Sustainable practices often mean few fish are caught in one instance, attempting to prevent overfishing and large volumes of bycatch (accidentally caught non-target species).

It is important to practice and support sustainable fishing methods, as overfishing may threaten biodiversity conservation, food security, and peoples’ livelihoods – particularly in tropical developing nations. Therefore, to preserve the biodiversity of our oceans and to maintain the livelihoods of communities reliant on seafood, fisheries must be managed effectively to ensure that sustainable fishing takes place. 

Modern, commercial fishing has evolved to be very high-tech, allowing fisheries to increase their efficiency and capacity – to the point that the fishing capacity outweighs the number of fish available to catch. Common methods of fishing include purse seines and long-lining – the former, using large nets able to catch entire schools of fish, and the latter, using fishing lines that span up to 100km with smaller branch lines. Tuna, one of the world’s most commercially valuable fish, frequently uses purse seines and long-lining techniques – approximately 12% of the world’s tuna catch originates from longline vessels.

Photo by Mega Caesaria

Such large-scale industrial fishing creates unfair economic competition for small-scale artisanal fishers, who may struggle to make enough money using traditional fishing methods. Traditional methods are usually more sustainable methods of fishing, as they tend to cause less damage to the habitat and other non-target species. Some sustainable, traditional methods include (but aren’t limited to): pole-and-line, shellfish pots, hand-gathering shellfish, and spearfishing. As previously mentioned, the key to ensuring that seafood is caught sustainably is to use highly selective, slow methods, as these create little-to-no bycatch and do not dig up the seabed. It is important to set regulations and restrictions (e.g., yield quotas) around sustainably caught fish, as overfishing can still occur.

However, quotas and slow fishing methods may not be enough to improve fish populations around the world. Another way to support marine life is to support and create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that enforce a no-fishing rule. No-take MPAs can help to increase fish stocks and the availability of fish supply, particularly in poorly managed fishing areas. By designating just 5% of the world’s oceans as no-take MPAs, the future global catch of over 800 species could increase by over 20%. MPAs support and protect sea habitats, e.g. seagrass beds and coral reefs, as they prevent fishing gear from digging up the seafloor, in turn protecting the fish that use those habitats. 

Whilst MPAs are primarily designed to protect and recover marine biodiversity, they can also provide benefits to overfished fisheries by increasing the yield. Fisheries within close proximity to MPAs can rapidly recover from low stock, due to the (1) the spillover effect, and (2) the dispersal of larvae. The spillover effect occurs when adult fish migrate outside of protected areas and into fishing areas, potentially due to overcrowding. MPAs provide fish the opportunity to lay their eggs – the larvae that hatch from those eggs will then be carried out to other areas of the sea by ocean currents, where they will eventually grow and be fished. 

Photo by Francesco Ungaro

In regions where fisheries management is poor, highly protected no-take MPAs can improve fisheries and conservation, especially if food provisioning is used as a central focus in MPA design. However, many fishers are sceptical about increasing the coverage of highly protected MPAs, as they tend to oppose proposals for growing MPA designation. Therefore, it is important that the general public have a solid interest and understanding of the UK’s marine environment through education, as this is vital for achieving crucial conservation objectives. 

The success of biodiversity protection relies on social, cultural, economic, and political influence – therefore, MPAs will be more effective if local communities are engaged in marine conservation, alongside governance and proper enforcement. As consumers, we can educate ourselves to ensure we are making informed decisions on the seafood that we buy. The following resources are good places to start:

  1. Look for the MSC Blue Tick on wild-caught fish – this ensures that the fish are caught in sustainable fisheries, with little-to-no impact on other species and their habitats
  2. Consult the ‘Good Fish Guide’ by the Marine Conservation Society – this database can help you check the sustainability ratings of the fish you want to buy, by checking the species, location, and type of fishing gear used

Finally, if viable, reducing seafood consumption is one of the greatest ways to reduce your personal impact on marine life. 

About the Author: Aisyah is a recent graduate from the Uni of York, where she studied Environmental Science. She is currently on a gap year and has used this time to start a blog and an Instagram account to document her journey towards living a sustainable lifestyle and achieving a conservation career.

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