Sustainable fishing: Is it as fishy as it sounds?

The phrase "sustainable fishing" has been thrown around when it comes to fish consumption. I decided to do my own research to understand what this term really means.

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Ever since Seaspiracy came out last year, I’ve noticed the word “sustainable fishing” being thrown around quite a bit. I hear people say, “I don’t support commercial fishing, but sustainable fishing does not put fish populations at risk.”

The documentary has been called out for entirely misrepresenting the science and data behind fishing by international fishery organizations, seafood suppliers, distributors, and fishery experts.

For example, The Marine Stewardship Council, a non-profit focused on sustainable fishing, wrote, “One of the amazing things about our oceans is that fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term”.

Although this sounds logical on the face of it, I decided to do my own research to understand what this new term of “sustainable seafood” really means. I wondered, why, if “sustainable fishing” is possible, isn’t everyone talking about banning “non-sustainable” fishing in the same way as we now reject plastic straws?

Some of the beauty that lies beneath our oceans. Source: Sealegacy

We go to grocery stores and see rows and rows of fish – fresh, frozen, canned, fatty, whole, fillets – and think nothing of it. But 90% of our fish stocks are overfished or overexploited. With these numbers, how do these fish even have time to recover and replenish to make it to grocery store shelves?

For all of the rows of seafood lined up in stores and markets that you see, there is 40% that you don’t see – called bycatch. Bycatch are all the accidentally caught dolphins, sharks, turtles, whales, birds, and fish that get caught in the nets and end up discarded at sea.

Dead fish float in the Bay of Biscay, off La Rochelle, western France on Thursday Feb.3, 2022.
Source: Sea Shepherd via AP

In the world of farmed fish, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, around 35% of fish is also thrown away during whether at the initial or retail/consumer level.

With bycatch amounting to 63 billion pounds a year of discarded animals (I don’t even know how to compare that to anything we can imagine), how can we even consider that fishing of any kind can be regarded as sustainable?

90% of our fish stocks are overfished or overexploited. Source: Shutterstock

The University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center echoes my concern, stating that with the current rate of overfishing, large fish such as tuna, shark, and cod could be gone by 2050. Not only that, but with the extinction of these large marine species, this leaves smaller fish at risk for diseases, as well as creating mass algae blooms and deoxygenated water, which will lead to dead zones and a further crisis. I don’t want to live in a world without tuna – do you? In the world of farmed fish and aquaculture, wild fish is used to feed farmed fish, so seafood production is just increasing with no end in sight for allowing our oceans time to replenish.

In reality, all of this can happen, and most likely will happen because we are taking fish out of the oceans so fast that they don’t even have time to reproduce.

It seems to me, that “sustainable fishing,” is a misnomer and is a bait and switch for discussion of the real problem. Let’s call a spade a spade, and state that sustainable fishing is, in fact, unsustainable.

Commercial fishing vessel. Nearly a third of commercial fishing lines are dumped at sea. Source: iStock

Of course, this is just a small glimpse into the effects of overfishing – I have not touched too much on farm fishing, on the environmental impacts of commercial fishing, the threat on humanity and our health, and climate change. But my point still remains – that overfishing, being branded by big organizations as “sustainable”, is literally destroying our future. 

When looking forward, we must think how to ethically (if possible) source seafood, and consider other alternatives, such as plant-based solutions. When one of the world’s most important food sources is at stake, we must work together to seek solutions.

People used to say give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime – but that is no longer true when there are no more fish to be caught in our oceans.

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