Fishing for food has always been a part of human history. We can date it back to at least 40,000 years. From the remains of modern humans found in Eastern Asia we can see that freshwater fish consumption was regular part of life. The ancient Egyptians would take fish from the River Nile, using it as a staple food to feed an empire.
Since the 16th century we have been able to cross the oceans on the hunt for fish to feed a growing population and since the 19th century we have been able to do this more efficiently using larger vessels to allow bigger catches and even allow the fish to be processed on board, discarding the waste over board to allow for more fish to be brought back to shore.
Let’s face it, we like to eat fish. There have even been 3 so called wars (the cod wars) between the United Kingdom and Iceland over disputes about what fishing ground belongs to who. Catching and eating fish has and will always be part of our lives.
In 1950 there were less than 3 billion people in the world, and in 2012 (although the UN says 2011) the world population hit 7 billion, with predictions of 8 billion people around 10 years from now. Couple rapid population growth with more and more advanced technology to pull fish out of the sea, then the world oceans are really in for troubles.
Not too long ago it was believed that the ocean was an infinite source of food, surely too large for us to make any real difference to fish stocks. Now we know different, however this knowledge has not changed our habits, with more and more species being put onto the endangered list every year. In the 1990’s the North Atlantic Cod stock was believed to have fallen to a mere 1% of its original population and as a result the fishing of cod was highly restricted. Haddock then replaced Cod as the catch of choice, which then drove their numbers down to a point where they were placed on the vulnerable list. There seems to be a pattern emerging.
Luckily many world governments have been watching the fish stocks drop lower and lower, and many have set up Marine Protected Areas, or MPA’s for short. These MPA’s fall under several categories, the strictest having full nature reserve status where the removal of any wildlife is strictly prohibited, with the exception of if local tribal communities who may need to take a small amount of sustainable fish for survival (This happens in Kenya and Belize) to the least strict where fishing is allowed but carefully monitored for sustainability. As of 2010 there were more than 5880 MPAs which encompasses 1.17% of the world oceans. And this number is rising all the time.
The other way to try and protect wild fish stocks is by farming fish. Fish farms date back to 3500 BC in China where Carp and other fish were kept in artificial ponds after rivers flooded. Back in the 1970s only 5% of the fish we ate came from fish farms, nowadays it is around 50% and predictions from some scientists have stated that by 2048 fish stocks will have collapsed so much that almost all our fish will have to come from farms.
So why do we not help save fish today and only eat farmed fish?
Farming fish like Salmon or Trout may sound better than eating wild caught fish, but this is far from the truth. These fish are usually kept in large numbers in small spaces, ensuring the fish generally have a miserable existence. And of course fish need to eat, so what do they get fed? Fish of course, but not farmed fish, all caught in the wild. Fish such as Menhaden and Shad, and turned into fish-meal, to feed the stocks. To produce a farmed fish such as Salmon it takes roughly 3 times the weight of the final product in fish meal, meaning we are pulling vast amounts of fish out of the oceans to feed these farmed fish which are more often than not kept in less than pleasant conditions. Also because of the densely packing of these fish disease spreads quickly between them, which also can infect the wild stocks, further depleting the wild population. So farming fish is no better than pulling them out of the sea.
So how can get still get fish to our plates without turning the oceans into a lifeless vast pool of water?
The answer is to eat sustainable seafood. The term sustainable means the seafood has been taken from the water in a way that will not have a negative effect on the stock of the fish, or other species in the same area. For instance there may be thousands of Salmon swimming upstream, and taking out many of them will not have an effect on the Salmon population in total, but it will have a negative effect on the bears that feed on those Salmon. Something sustainable should have little or no impact on the Eco system. This often means that a fish that is acceptable to eat one year may change the next year as the stock levels decrease, but stopping or slowing the fishing of that species will allow the species to regain its stock level.
There are many fish we should avoid eating as their numbers have gotten to a point where if we continue on the same path, they will almost become extinct. We need to put pressure on Supermarkets and fishmongers to stop stocking them, although the only way this can happen if we stop buying them. So it is up to us as consumers to cut the demand. Below are a list of fish we should be avoiding as their stock levels are getting depleted to a point where there may be no return.
- Atlantic Cod (Line caught Icelandic is OK)
- Haddock (Line caught Icelandic is OK)
- Monk fish
- Sharks of all species
- Atlantic Salmon (Farmed or Wild caught)
- Tuna of all species (Line caught Skip-jack is OK)
- European Hake
- Atlantic Halibut
- Skates and Rays
This list is far from complete, but you can find a full list of what you should and shouldn’t eat here at http://www.fishonline.org
So next time you are planning a fish supper or see a nice looking dish at a restaurant menu just take a minute to decide whether or not it is worth it. And the only way we can save the fish is by educating people. This is not just for the fish, but for future generations of humans, and for the oceans.
‘Plenty More Fish in the Sea?’ was written by Mike
Photo Credit: BBC