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Catching the Ethical Fish: No Strings Attached

by the Fish Site Editor
02 February 2009, at 12:00am

The idea of ethical food is promoted in almost every modern supermarket, but when it comes to producing, catching and eating fish, deciding what ethical means isn't as easy as it seems, writes Adam Anson, reporting for TheFishSite.

There is much worldwide discrepancy over the definition of ethical food, different labels and different issues often contradicting and disregarding one an another. This is especially evident in fish. Not only do consumers have to choose between all the usual mainstream labels, but they also have to contend with a whole host of complex, specific issues leaving the average consumer way out of their depth.

For most food products a label will give a fairly accurate account of how it was produced, in turn this gives the consumer the insight to choose those that are sourced in an ethically appropriate manner. Aquaculture had a delayed introduction to this race. Only recently has the idea of organic aquaculture been taken seriously on a global scale. Organic fish labels such as The Soil Association and the Organic Food Federation have created their own set of standards, including reduced stocking densities, restrictions on medicines, sustainable feed source and the elimination of toxic contaminants, but for all the organic labels on the market, there is still no globally recognised organic model.

Similarly fish have been neglected on welfare grounds and practically ignored as the livestock producers began to take account of their actions. However, things are now set to change after a torrent of research concluded that fish have the same feelings of pain and suffering as birds and animals do.

Environmental and sustainable labels have also become a high priority amongst the ethical consumers of today. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report that nearly 70 per cent of the world's fish stocks are now fully fished, over-fished, or depleted, whilst OSPAR reports that 40 of the 60 main commercial fish stocks in the Northeast Atlantic are outside safe biological limits, or heavily overfished. In the North Sea many once common species such as cod, skate and plaice are now overfished and in the case of cod, stocks are on the verge of commercial collapse, whilst common skate is virtually extinct. Ocean mammals also suffer in the event of trawler fishing operations, so dolphin and turtle friendly labels have been applied to fish caught with advanced nets.


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"Carnivorous farmed species, including salmon, cod and prawns, require animal derived protein-rich feed. Capturing wild fish to create this feed can add pressure to wild marine fish."
Marine Conservation Society

In response to ocean problems, some consumers have turned to fish produced by farming, but there are still large and often misunderstood repercussions for fish farms both inland and offshore. Local ecosystems can be badly damaged to the pollution that these farms create, whilst harboured disease can severely inflict passing wildstock. Sea lice in farmed salmon has been shown to have a hugely detrimental affects, whilst escaped farmed fish can cause damage by tarnishing the genetic pools of their wild counterparts. Many Asian rivers, such as Chinese Yangtze (Yellow River), are highly polluted due to aquaculture operations resulting in a lack of clean drinking water for rural families downstream.

Sometimes it is the less direct products of farming that cause the mst environmental damage, packaging, processing and air miles all contribute to green house gas emissions, whilst the feed that is used for aquaculture operations are often unsustainable, especially considering the huge amount of ocean caught fish that is then fed back to farmed fish.

In response to the difficulties involved with fish labelling and traceability, marine bodies have sprung up to try and guide the companies on to a better path. One such organisation is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) which runs an ambitious programme, working with partners to transform the world's seafood markets to a sustainable basis.

"Throughout the world fisheries are using good management practices to safeguard jobs, secure fish stocks for the future and help to protect the marine environment", says the MSC. "The MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing offers fisheries a way to confirm sustainability, using a credible, independent, third-party assessment process". Programmes like this mean that sustainable fisheries can be recognised and rewarded in the marketplace, and gives an assurance to buyers and consumers that their seafood comes from a well managed and sustainable source.

Realising the difficulty that fish consumers are also up against the Marine Conservation Society has set out to provide information to help them make the right choice. The first step is to ask the right questions, such as is the species threatened or endangered? Where was the fish caught? How was the fish caught? And is it the right time of the year to buy this fish?

"The sustainability of individual fisheries varies, not just between species, but also between different locations and their associated different management regimes", says the MCS. "Capture method can make a big difference to sustainability. Some methods have a low impact, such as hand-diving and pole and line fishing, where as others can be notably more damaging to the environment." Avoiding buying fish during their spawning season allows species to breed and replenish their populations. "Seasonality can also affect the availability, quality and price of seafood", says the MCS.

Alternatively, if the fish has been farmed we should ask what the fish eats is it farmed organically and by what method is it farmed?

"The diet of a farmed species influences its sustainability. Carnivorous farmed species, including salmon, cod and prawns, require animal derived protein-rich feed. Capturing wild fish to create this feed can add pressure to wild marine fish. Herbivorous species, such as basa and tilapia, do not impact on wild fish populations in this way as they eat plant based feeds. Filter feeders, such as oysters, need no feed inputs and can have a positive effect on the marine environment if their filtering improves water quality", explains the MCS.

"The farming method can affect seafood's sustainability. Some methods are low impact, such as growing mussels on suspended ropes, whereas others, such as certain types of prawn or salmon farming, can be notably more damaging to the environment."

It is not only consumers, who have a growing interest in these issues, but bodies such as the MCS say that there is also an increasing interest in retailers to provide these products and information also. As fish mongers and local shops are relaced with supermarkets, the importance of reaching this market is evermore substantial. The MCS has since created a supermarket league in the UK to praise those supermarkets that do the most to support ethical fish companies and add pressure on those that don't.

Campaign group, Greenpeace, sums up the importance of the supermarket by saying that the days of buying your fish from a local fishmonger are over.

Speaking on the issue Greenpeace said: "Today, supermarkets sell the most fish - and it's a massive amount. In the UK, the total retail market for seafood is worth £1.8billion a year, with nearly 90 per cent of seafood sales made through supermarkets. Supermarkets have a massive of amount of power and influence on how the products they sell are caught or produced."

If big supermarkets start to demand only sustainably caught fish, the fishing industry and politicians will rapidly act to ensure that fishing practices are improved.

But for all the effort of organisations and supermarkets, the farmers and the trawlers at the end of the day it is the consumer, who has the real power to change. By being aware of the issues involved and knowing what the labels means, choosing which supermarkets to shop at and what products to buy.

Greenpeace says that consumers can also choose to buy less fish.

"Academics around the world now agree that we are taking too many fish from our oceans and that this is having a detrimental impact on our marine life. Not only are some stocks of fish collapsing (not able to support their own populations anymore) but other species are suffering as their food sources are depleted", it says.

The British Food Standards Agency recommends that "people should consume at least two portions of fish a week, of which one should be oily".

However, to increase fish consumption by this amount for 49 million adults in the UK would require an extra 33 million portions of oily fish per week. This implies an increase in present levels of total fish consumption of over 40 per cent, and of oily fish by 200 per cent, claims Greenpeace.

When it comes to eating finding the ethical fish, a lot of different issues must be taken into account and balanced out. Going it alone, the consumer must be extremely well educated. However, there is an easier way. The Marine Conservation Society has published its latest advice to consumers on fish sustainability, including those it recommends to "eat", and those to "avoid". The website fishonline (www.fishonline.org) gives advice for almost every variety of fish to be found on sale in the UK, whilst a handy "MCS Pocket Good Fish Guide" is also available.

Further Reading

- You can view the MCS Pocket Good Fish Guide by clicking here.

February 2009

the Fish Site Editor

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