How is the fishing industry tackling sustainability?

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

How is the fishing industry tackling sustainability? GettyImages/Monty Rakusen
How is the fishing industry tackling sustainability? GettyImages/Monty Rakusen

Related tags Sustainability regenerative agriculture Aquaculture Fish Fishing

The fishing industry has come under increasing criticism for its unsustainable practices. So how is the industry addressing this issue and is it enough?

The fishing industry has come under scrutiny for unsustainable practices that are damaging to wildlife and the environment. So why is it so damaging to wildlife and the environment, and what is the industry doing to tackle these problems?

Why is the fishing industry damaging to wildlife and the environment?

Though an essential part of food production and vital to many local economies, the fishing industry is responsible for significant global damage to wildlife and the environment.

“Fishing is the main driver of marine biodiversity loss and damages the health of the ocean,” said Anouk Puymartin, policy manager at BirdLife Europe. “Europe’s seas are among the busiest in the world and are currently in a dismal state. Over the past decades, destructive fishing practices have contributed to the loss of much of the marine biodiversity needed to maintain healthy marine ecosystems. This has jeopardised the resilience of marine wildlife to the effects of climate change and significantly reduced the capacity of the ocean to act as carbon regulator.”

Bottom trawler - GettyImages-lucato
Trawling of the seabed can cause damage to wildlife and fragile ecosystems. GettyImages/lucato

In addition to the obvious removal of fish from the seas and oceans, how is fishing so destructive to marine biodiversity?

“Fishing contributes to the destruction of biodiversity by trawling carbon-rich seabed habitats, disrupting ecosystem functions by overfishing practices and extraction of fish above sustainable levels, depleting fish and shellfish populations and killing wildlife such as elasmobranchs, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals,” explains Puymartin. “All of this adds to the already significant greenhouse gas emissions from this fossil fuel dependent, energy inefficient, and fuel-subsidised industry.”

In particular, bottom trawled fishing gear, which quite literally trawls the seabed, can place endangered species at higher risk.

“Fishing, like all human activities, has an impact on the environment,” said a spokesperson for the Marine Stewardship Council. “Ecosystems and habitats can be changed or damaged by fishing. For example, bottom trawled fishing gear can have an impact on vulnerable seafloor habitats – places where endangered or slow-growing species such as sea pens and sponges grow.”

And the importance of the fishing industry goes beyond the protection of wildlife and the environment.

"Sustainable fisheries management is vital to the future health of our oceans and the communities and industries that rely on them as a food source or for a livelihood,” said Helen McLachlan, programme manager for fisheries UK and EU advocacy, for the World Wildlife Fund.

So, what is the fishing industry doing to improve sustainability and reduce its environmental impact?

Aquaculture - GettyImages-ArtistGNDphotography
When managed responsibly, aquaculture is a sustainable form of fish production. GettyImages/ArtistGNDphotography

What is the fishing industry doing to improve sustainability?

The fishing industry across Europe has made significant progress to become more sustainable in recent years and many, though clearly not all, members of the fishing industry understand its importance.

“When we talk about fish, it’s impossible to not also talk about nature, and the food system as a whole,” said Paul Smyth, co-founder and creative director of Mission Kitchen, while speaking at the recent Future of Fish event in London. “The fishing industry touches every corner of the world, it is truly global, and in a really interesting way, we’re still catching and eating wild foods, so our interactions with nature, our discussions about re-wilding, about how we can actually shape a better healthier planet, is an absolutely essential part of the fish discussion.”

Despite Paul’s reference to ‘wild foods’, the most prominent form of sustainable fishing being adopted across the industry, is aquaculture​. Though it’s been around for over a hundred years, aquaculture has grown in popularity, in recent years, as a result of its sustainable credentials.

“We’re definitely at a point where aquaculture, in the last couple of years, has taken over from fishing,” said James Fox-Davies, founder of 360 Aquaculture. “We’ve got a lot of people to feed, by 2050 there will be over nine billion people, and globally we’re going to have to find other sources of good quality protein.”

What is aquaculture?

Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, is the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs, algae and other organisms of value, such as aquatic plants. It involves cultivating freshwater, brackish water, and saltwater populations under controlled conditions.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), aquaculture production is expected to increase to 106 million tonnes per year by 2030.

Aquaculture is also a practice used for restoring and rehabilitating marine and freshwater ecosystems.

It’s important to note that aquaculture is only sustainable when carried out responsibly​. The World Economic Forum has listed four ways in which companies can ensure aquaculture is sustainable​.

“Aquaculture is very distinct from fishing,” explains Fox-Davies. “We’re talking about stocking densities, we’re talking about seasons, harvesting to order, and working two or three seasons ahead.”

Perhaps most important, when it comes to the implementation of aquaculture is the fact it is becoming more affordable, as it is this affordability that will encourage greater adoption by the seafood industry.

“The technology to grow fish on land, so ponds or tanks for the fish, has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years,” says Fox-Davies. “That technology has been there in universities for twenty or thirty years, but having it so that it’s economically viable? That has really come on stream in the last couple of years.”

However, aquaculture has come under criticism, with critics claiming farmed fish are toxic, fed waste products, and the industry is polluting the oceans. And it’s for this reason that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has listed four ways in which companies can ensure aquaculture is sustainable​.

“Fish and other seafood are potentially a great renewable resource,” said a spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “But they need to be carefully managed to make sure fish stocks aren’t over-exploited and seafood farms don’t pollute the environment.”

Mussels - GettyImages-Emma Kim
Mussels are a sustainable form of seafood, which sequester carbon as they grow. GettyImages/Emma Kim

There’s also a move towards the fishing of sustainable seafood​, such as mussels.

“It is regenerative agriculture in its purest form​,” says Sarah Holmyard, head of sales and marketing for Offshore Shellfish/Kingfish Company. “Mussels require no input. We give them a home and they grow.”

And as they grow, they’re helping the environment.

“Mussels are a true superfood,” says Holmyard. “Whilst growing they absorb carbon from the atmosphere. The shells themselves are made of almost pure carbon, and this carbon is never released.”

Many sustainable farmed seafood companies, such as Offshore Shellfish/Kingfish Company, are also working to restore the health of the local environment.

“One of the main reasons that we do what we do, is not just because mussels are a sustainable product, but because of the ecosystem services it offers. We’ve been working with scientists to study the farm site, which was a heavily degraded, dredged seabed, that had become redundant. We now have a thriving marine environment.”

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