Fish cakes, smoked haddock, battered and fried cod – yes, this is what we British love on our plates. Even non-Brits love the fine taste of sole, the lovely smell of smoked salmon or a grilled tuna steak.

Imagine opening your newspaper wrapping to tuck into a portion of fish and chips; amidst the vinegar smell wafting from your chips, you bite into your fish to find nothing inside the battered, crispy coating. There is no fish to fill it.

This scenario is not as farfetched as it seems. As the demand for seafood and sushi dishes has increased, more and more fish reservoirs face over-exploitation. Along with this, climate change and ocean acidification impose further pressures on the stress caused already caused by humanity.

Two years ago, over 145 million tonnes of fish were supplied by the fishing and aquaculture industry. The 2010 SOFIA report of the FOA points out that 32% of the world-wide marine fish stocks are over-exploited – if not depleted or in the process of recovery. In stark contrast to this, only 15% is underexploited. The rest is exploited to its total maximum yield and further exploitation would render those stocks fruitless.

Have you seen the bluefin tuna on your plate lately? In June 2010, large-scale fishing of the bluefin tuna was banned in the Mediterranean and East Atlantic. Yet tuna is just one of the ten species that account for about a third of the world’s marine capture fisheries production, most of which have already reached their maximum usage capacity.

Looking back in history, it seems that it is industrialisation that has led to the increasing exploitation of stocks. According to Reuter’s sources, British fish stocks have declined by over 94% over the past 118 years. In addition to ecological and sustainable repercussions, the depletion of our fish reservoirs has mainly long-term economical and political consequences. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy 2010 states that €23 billion are turned over by the processing sector, which employs over 126,000 people alone in Europe. Without these reservoirs, thousands of workers will be made unemployed.

In 1995, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation developed the voluntary Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, with the aim of minimising excess fishing and harmful methods, as well as controlling illegal fishing. A commentary article published in the scientific journal Nature in February 2009 investigated compliance with this code for the 53 countries. The shocking result was that only six countries, namely Norway, USA, Canada, Australia, Iceland and Namibia, were complying with the code to a confidence level within 60%. Even within these countries, there is room for improvement. All other countries were awarded overall ‘Fail’ grades, ranging from disappointing results in several to all categories. Britain had a code compliance score of just above 40%.

Albeit countries of the EU had some of the highest scores, some were still dissatisfying, enforcing the impression that improvement in fishery management is given low priority in some countries’ policies. Even if the compliance conditions were met by all European countries, the efforts of the developed world could easily lead to further exploitation in the developing world, particularly in regions in Africa.

Management and restrictions are essential to ensure availability of fish stocks for future generations. Apart from making restrictions to the total maximum fishing allowance, limits on fishing gear have to be made to ensure that young small fish can escape. More fishing areas should be closed to allow recovery. If the total allowable fishing quota was allocated in shares, to be traded and sold by fishermen, fishing limits could finally be set below the maximum sustainable allowance, without resulting in loss of employment and economical value.
Despite the measures taken by our policy makers, we, the population, can also directly help to force the fishery industry towards a sustainable approach, by altering our fish consumption and buying pattern. Aquaculture has huge potential for meeting the world’s food demand and is expanding rapidly, but not as fast as it could if it were to gain support from governments and the general public. Eating fish is not a crime, as long as you know where it comes from and are aware of the consequences. And to be honest, chips are just as delicious on their own.

Samantha Gordine

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