Whilst not everyone who follows me may be plant-based, I think the vast majority of people who choose to follow my life are at least aware of the fact that we should all be cutting down red meat in our lives in a bid to save the planet. I was pescatarian for 18 years before I chose to move to a plant based diet, which I did for a number of reasons, not least because I studied marine Biology at university and it put me right off.
Before we get started, let me emphasise that I think whatever you are doing to help the environment is a good thing. Whether that means starting with meat-free Mondays or going cold turkey on meat (pun intended), you’re doing what you can and that’s great. My view is that education is always good though, so if I can teach you something new in this post that might encourage you to look at your food in a different way, that’s also worthwhile.
If everyone in the UK switched just one more red meat meal to a plant-based meal per week, it would cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 million tonnes – the equivalent of taking 16 million cars off the road. Every step you make is worthwhile.
Why eat fish?
Fish is generally assumed to be good for you – it’s even recommended in the dietary guidelines that we eat 1-2 portions of oily fish a week to lower risk of various diseases, such as heart disease and dementia, thanks in part to the high levels of omega 3s. Fish consumption could also replace meat consumption, which could have positive environmental impacts, especially if it is red meat that is being replaced. White fish is high in protein and low in fat, so what’s the catch?
The state of our oceans
It’s no secret that our oceans are struggling. From ocean acidification to over-fishing, we are all to quickly becoming aware that our actions on land do affect even the vast expanses of the ocean. Our oceans are struggling, and the delicate ecosystem is struggling with it.
Fishers remove 77 billion kilos of fish from the seas each year – continuing at this rate will lead to a point of no return for many species, and perhaps our entire ocean ecosystem. Whilst fishing quotas have been implemented in in many areas of the world, these have issues of their own, due to many fish already being dead at the time of being thrown back into the sea. So are there ways to enjoy fish sustainably, or is it an industry that has already taken things too far?
What about Sustainable Fishing?
Fisheries rely on a set turnover of fish per year. Each species of fish has a particular time it takes to breed, number of estimated young and total (estimated) population size. With these figures it should be possible to estimate the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) – the maximum number of fish that can be removed from the ocean without negatively impacting stocks and causing a collapse in any one species. Unfortunately, there are a number of issues with this method, which was calculated in the mid-20th century.
- MSY ignores food webs. If we have X number of fish we can remove rom the sea each year, this is removing X amount of prey for a number of predators. Unfortunately (for us and for the fish), a lot of fish we catch also rely on other fish we catch (e.g. tuna eats herring, both of which we eat). Removing too much herring means tuna can’t feed as much, which in turn means less tuna.
- MSY is under pressure from governments. If there is a 20% margin of error, fisheries will be inclined to take the maximum amount they can (because this is their livelihood, and profit is important). However, this could mean taking 20% more than the ecosystem can sustain. A continual 20% loss doesn’t leave much room for stock replenishment. Governments want to give their people more jobs, so there is little inclination to ‘play cautious’ when it comes to MSY.
- MSY doesn’t take into account the age of a fish. Older fish are more productive breeders, and yet as the largest fish, they are also the ones fished out first. This means that whilst healthy fish stocks may be able to produce X number of young per year, a heavily fished population may only produce half that, meaning stocks can never be replenished.
- Unknown and lesser known fish have not enough known about their biology. The orange roughy, a popular and hugely abundant deep-sea fish in the late 70s and 80s, was thought to breed at a rate equal to fish of a similar size. Unfortunately, only after stocks collapsed thanks to trawling almost entirely did scientists realise that the orange roughy can live up to 150 years, and don’t produce any young until around 20 years old.
Pressures from governments for more fishing jobs, high prices for rare meats and inaccurate methods of measuring fish populations, MSY is no longer a reliable indicator of how many fish we can remove from the oceans. The fate of the Orange roughy and, more recently salmon, tuna and cod are all examples of this.
Farmed fish are marketed as a more environmentally friendly way to eat fish, because they do not plunder wild stocks – the fish are bred specifically for eating, in a similar way to farm animals. However, due to the high density of fish (leading to disease and thus open water antibiotic use), high levels of waste escaping into the surrounding water and lack of regulation, fish farming using our current methods has a high number of issues too. See below for a summary, and watch this BBC Panorama documentary for more information on the UK salmon farming industry.
Atlantic, sockeye and pink wild salmon populations crashed in the late 2000s (and for multiple subsequent years), thanks primarily to local fish farms. These farms had over 80% prevalence of parasitic sea-lice, a common infection in farmed fish, which infect local wild populations, leading to a 99% reduction in susceptible fish. In addition, due to the release, or escape, of some farmed fish, native populations are interbreeding or being outcompeted, reducing genetic diversity (and thus resilience to threats such as climate change and disease) of native wild salmon populations. The exact same things has happened this year on our own coastline, in Scotland, in part due to sea lice from fish farms.
Essentially, the growth of fish farms to protect wild salmon populations may end up leading to their extinction.
So what seafood can I eat?
It took me 18 years to become vegan after turning pescatarian – I realise that changing to veganism or even vegetarianism immediately is not feasible for everyone, for a number of reasons, but it is possible to always be conscious about what we eat. Here are my top tips for eating seafood as sustainably as possible, but it is important to bear in mind that eating less fish is always better for the ecosystem, especially where it is currently so vulnerable.
- The Good Fish Guide tracks stocks of fish globally, and gives advice for fish to avoid, down to the location it is caught and the catching method. Use this to check whether certain fish are abundant or struggling.
- Avoid any fish without the ‘sustainably sourced’ blue tick on their packaging (see image below). Currently Anchovies, Seabass (farmed and wild), Bream, Cod, Eel, Lobster, Marlin, Mullet, Plaice, Pollock, any rays and skates, Salmon (esp wild caught), Swordfish and Sardines (baby pilchards) should all be avoided.
- Avoid anything that has been caught by trawling, drift nets or purse-seine and instead go for hook-lining (not long-lining) or spear caught. Trawling (especially bottom trawling) is incredibly damaging to the ecosystem and catches large amounts of ‘bycatch’ – animals that are not intended to be caught, but often end up dying before being thrown back in the sea. This includes turtles, sharks, dolphins, seals and other fish species.
- If you are able, avoid unnamed ‘white fish‘, any smoked fish and fish fingers. On average, 30% of fish is mis-labelled, increasing to 82.4% for smoked fish, meaning making sustainable choices becomes considerably more difficult. Terms such as ‘rock salmon’ hide the fact that you are, in fact, eating shark (this is another name for the endangered dogfish, a type of shark), and ‘white fish’ could be any number of endangered species. Buy whole fishes where possible to avoid this.
“People should know where their fish was caught, how and when, and what species it is. If you don’t know those things, you can’t make informed choices on whether you can eat a fish with a clear conscience”.
- Save fish consumption to times when you are by the sea and can see the fish you are eating whole at a restaurant, or consume fish you’ve caught yourself. The chances are it’ll be local, potentially sustainably caught (although this is not a definite) and you are supporting local fishers, who struggle to compete with the huge commercial trawlers.
Fishing is not intrinsically bad for the environment, especially where fish consumption can replace/reduce red meat consumption, which ultimately has the most negative impact on the environment. Ethics notwithstanding, fishing is an industry that supplies over 3 billion people with a major source of protein, and over 90% of fisheries are small scale, with around 50% of workers being women.
However, the methods in which we fish on an industrial scale are undoubtedly failing in their job to preserve the world’s largest ecosystem. There are ways in which we can help, primarily by avoiding all fish that are unsustainably sourced, and cutting down on our overall fish consumption. Avoid smoked fish, processed fish and unspecified ‘white fish’. Buy whole fish where possible and know where it has come from.
To be clear, the majority of people in the West are eating too many animal products and I believe that the best way to counteract that is to go vegetarian or vegan. It is possible, I believe, to fish and farm sustainably, but as it stands we are so far from this becoming a reality. It doesn’t seem fair that some people should have to go vegan to make up for the people who won’t make small changes, but this is the world we live in, and I think that’s the way it has to be.
“So long as we largely consume protein from animal sources, our obsession with protein is also likely to be bad for the planet.”
To find out other ways in which you can reduce your environmental impact, watch this vlog – ‘Top Tips to Save the World‘.
If you’re looking to learn more about the issues of the illegal shark fin trade and by-catch, the documentary Sharkwater Extinction is both excellently filmed and eye opening.
If you’re interested in learning more about fish farming, and why it perhaps isn’t the ‘eco friendly’ version of fishing it purports to be, watch this BBC Panorama documentary (UK only I believe).