Unsustainable Fishing: Should we be eating fish in 2016?

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The FAO’s most recent fisheries reportThe State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016, reported a record high in the global per capita fish consumption of 20kg per year. With global production fast approaching the sustainable limit, 90%of the world’s stocks now fully or overfished and  potential rise of nearly 17% increase in production forecast by 2025, the world is running out of options in order to provide for growing demand.

This latest concern is based on data collected by the United Nations. It highlights continued overconsumption of marine natural resources, with the average person now eating roughly double the amount of fish than in the 1960s.

Low and behold this new information has sparked many articles and discussions arguing the outcomes of the biennial report and the potential for future improvement. Many focus on the potential for fish farming to compensate for decline natural stocks, while others dismiss the ability to sustain current and proposed future consumption by our growing population (especially in the light of climate change), advocating a complete alteration in our global diet.

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On the other hand, as highlighted in the report, fish is important to our global diet.  Fish accounted for about 17 percent of the global population’s intake of animal protein in 2013 and 6.7 percent of all protein consumed, thus providing more than 3.1 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein. As a rich source of easily digested proteins fish products contain all essential amino acids, fish provides essential fats , vitamins D, A and B and minerals (including calcium, iodine, zinc, iron and selenium), especially if eaten whole. Studies have found that even small quantities of fish can have a significant positive nutritional impact on plant-based diets, and this is the case in many LIFDCs and least-developed countries particularly benefiting cardiovascular, renal and neural development and function.

So what’s the score?

Aquaculture, the farming of fish and crustaceans under controlled conditions, is now predicted to overtake wild-caught fish as the source of most fish consumption in 2021, for the first time. This has enhanced trade, boosted employment and greatly improved diets, especially in the developing world.

However as capture fishery gains have remained about the same since the late 1980s, we know that aquaculture has been responsible for the impressive growth in the supply of fish for human consumption. Therefore many argue that allowing aquaculture to continue to boom will only allow current problems to persist and increase reliance on a fish stock that has become unsustainable. Aquaculture also has negative local impacts which are often overlooked.  The intensity of growth and harvest of stocks can strip areas of nutrients, disrupt ecosystems and imbalance delicate processes leading to potentially irreparable damage. As The Guardian highlights, aquaculture can introduce invasive species which outcompete local species, and can establish parasites and disease to the native flora and fauna, potentially altering local ecosystems preventing normal function.

And this is only the tip of the piscivorous iceberg, there are also serious concerns to the environment, pollution and the disruption of food chains regarding fish meal harvest, the status of the fishing fleet, the inefficiencies of fish trade globalization and simple wastage through bycatch, discards and household waste.

Looking Ahead

Manuel Barange, the UN FAO’s fisheries director, has a positive outlook on the recent findings focussing on our ability to continue to meet global demand in light of the larger ‘Perfect Storm of Global Events’ scenario, in which we are predicted to reach a global population of 9 billion by 2015, straining water, energy and food resources simultaneously.

“My personal view is that it is quite momentous to have reached this level of production,” Barange said, “I personally think this (the rise of aquaculture) is a very good thing because it shows that over the past five decades, fisheries supply – which combines aquaculture, inland fisheries and marine fisheries – has outpaced human population growth very significantly,” he said.

“This is very significant because fisheries have a very much smaller footprint than other main sources of animal protein,” he told BBC News. “Fish is six times more efficient at converting feed than cattle, and four times more efficient than pork. Therefore increasing the consumption of fish is good for food security.”

On the other hand, should we continue to eat meat or fish at all if we truly fear the ‘Perfect Storm’? Surely Quorn and other mycoprotein based products are sufficient to supplement a vegetable based diet? I say this having eaten a bacon sandwich today.

What do you think of of our use of fisheries and the state of world fish stocks?

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