Behind the label: sourcing your seafood

So far on the Ecotarian, there has been a focus on the huge environmental impacts of land-based farming and agriculture – we even hosted a panel discussion on it.

But what about seafood? In this blog post, we'll talk about where your fish comes from, the real cost of providing it and why we don't need to head out to sea to find seafood.

In 2016, fish stories made the mainstream news for some weird and worrying reasons. First, there was the realisation that there is a crazy amount of plastic rubbish in our oceans -  and that it might be in our seafood. Then, beer-drinking became a non-vegetarian activity when we found out that chemicals from fish guts were used to make beer looker clearer

Also last year, the United Nations' "foody" people (The Food and Agriculture Organisation - FAO) produced their yearly report on global seafood production. 204 pages about fish. It is not a thrilling read but they showed that seafood provides around half the world's population "with almost 20 percent of their average ... intake of animal protein". They followed up with the big questions:How do we provide this much food, considering the practical difficulties of sourcing food from the seas? What are the negative consequences of eating all this fish?

In the UK, we are advised to eat between 50-60 g of protein per day (that's about two chicken breasts and an egg). On average, in the UK, less than 10g comes from seafood. Well then, why should you care about seafood?

It's already been 6 years since we realised that the amount we eat is more than the amount the UK waters can provide. So we import a lot from other countries supplies. Can this continue?

Fish farming

Let's start with a not-so-simple question: how do we even get our seafood? If the first image that comes to mind involves a big boat, nets and some grizzly old fishermen/women: think again. As of 2012, wild-catch fishing is no longer the main method of producing seafood. Aquaculture - the farming of finfish, crustaceans and seaweed in controlled environments - has taken over on a global scale.

Old MacDonald had a farm...: ..and on that farm the fish can be tended in many ways. Aquaculture can take place in lakes, paddy fields, bays or nets out at sea.

Old MacDonald had a farm...: ..and on that farm the fish can be tended in many ways. Aquaculture can take place in lakes, paddy fields, bays or nets out at sea.

Seafood farming can be split into two types. "Extensive" farms have the space to allow fish to swim freely in a naturally-enclosed space. On the other end of the spectrum, "intensive" farming uses tanks and controlled diets to ensure that production rates are big, supermarket shelves are filled and money is made.

Instead of farmed fish sustaining themselves naturally on small fish, "fishfeed" is introduced into the fishes diets. Fishfeed contains land-grown crop (like soy and corn), agricultural livestock waste (bones and cartilage) and fishing "by-catch" (unwanted fish which are caught and killed by accident) ([Naylor et al, 2016]). This is better for making fish big and healthy, at a faster-than-normal rate. Antibiotics can also be added.

As well as sounding like an unnatural diet for marine critters, these ingredients have can have a dirty history of negative impacts on the environment: from pesticide leakage during crop growth, to fishing by-catch (accidentally fishing too many fish). On top of this, seafood contains a high omega-3 content if the fish eat... other fish. This fatty oil reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, there is evidence to suggest a reduction in the amount of omega-3 in farmed fish because of the poor nutritional value of fishfeed [Fry et al, 2016].

It can get worse. There is a great risk from "monoculture farming" - harvesting one species at a time. If a disease, which only affects that particular species, enters a farm, spread is rapid and a whole harvest can be rendered inedible. China, the land of big aquaculture, is doing well in this respect, promoting multi-species farms which produce several fish species as well as seaweed [see Cottier-Cook et al, 2016].

Wild fishes & wilder fishing

Meanwhile, the fishing industry (nets and boats) is plagued by destructive practices. By-catch (again!) is an inevitable result of "efficient", widespread big-net fishing. All sorts of marine species - from dolphins to turtles - are caught alongside with the desired fish, killed by entanglement or re-released with injuries [WWF].

This is technically not illegal at the moment. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) practices include using TNT to kill whole schools in one go, or fishing in government-designated protected areas. It is no small task to track and stop this. There may be many reasons why fisherman choose this path: increased competition, lack of awareness or desperation. Either way, IUU practices most probably contribute to ecosystem destruction, and, ironically, reduced fish stocks. 11-26 million tonnes of seafood each year, is estimated to come from these harmful practices [World Ocean Review report] - this makes up a scary 10% of the global production amount.

One of the "next big things" in environmental concerns is the amount of waste in our oceans - particularly plastic waste. To put it bluntly, an insane amount of plastic reaches our waters, from whole plastic bags to clothing fibres. These fragment into microscopic pieces and have been found to contaminate the whole food chain, from the plankton to the albatross. The effects on seafood, and indeed humans, are still to be tested.

There is also the risk of contamination from chemicals leaked by factories, but I'm running out of words...

The UK's position

With the dire consequences and hazards of wild-fish production, it's no surprise that aquaculture has taken over, despite its shortcomings too. Developing countries are the trend-setters when it comes to aquaculture. The UK farms considerably less than it catches yet. Assuming we eat more and more each year (because population grows and grows), is it alarming to see our total production at a standstill?

The origin of seafood isn't always listed, even on "responsibly sourced" packaging, but the production figures [check the graph] imply that we rely more and more on imports. So, we - the consumers and shoppers - cannot always know where our seafood comes from and what has happened to it along the way.

50:50 – From humble beginnings 50 years ago, aquaculture (fish-farming) now provides over half of seafood globally. In the UK, there has been a long trend of decreasing fishing activity, while our farming growth has stalled. Is the country eating less fish? Or are we relying on imports?  

50:50 – From humble beginnings 50 years ago, aquaculture (fish-farming) now provides over half of seafood globally. In the UK, there has been a long trend of decreasing fishing activity, while our farming growth has stalled. Is the country eating less fish? Or are we relying on imports?

 

A special mention goes out to Scotland (woop woop), where there are only slightly more fin-fish sites than the rest of the UK (415 compared to 384) but they produce a whopping 94% of our farmed fish [HM Government Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science: CEFAS]. Now that's efficient.

What the future holds

That's enough bad news, I think. Let's talk about hope...

...sustainability. The word is thrown around so much that it risks losing its importance. Let's be clear, sustainable fishing means all of the following: catching/farming enough fish now and in the future to feed a growing population, making money, splashing out on technological advances, creating secure jobs while protecting the quantity and diversity of wildlife.

The United Nations place great importance on food, fish and the marine environment - many of their aims for the next few decades [see the pretty chart below] can be partly achieved by sorting out the problems in this article. Go check them out.

Big goals, big list: the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) do what they say on the tin. Sustainable seafood can contribute to #2, #6, #14 ... and more?

Big goals, big list: the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) do what they say on the tin. Sustainable seafood can contribute to #2, #6, #14 ... and more?

Both fish-farming and fishing can provide so-called "responsibly-sourced" food. To help us distinguish the good from the bad, we have the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and the ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council). These are independent organisations; fish sold by their certified producers are identified by the MSC or ASC logos and, fortunately, these products can be found in all major supermarkets. The MSC and ASC both revisit suppliers - their work continues into the future.

The labelling system is not the final answer to the problems mentioned. Yet it shows that there is a willingness to change to responsibly-sourced seafood. To protect our oceans, food supply and future jobs - fulfilling those sustainable development goals - the consumer has to meet the industries half-way. That begins with your weekly shop.

Hungry after that? Dive straight into our recipe page for our head-chef's classic "Coconut and Fish curry". Sustainable and sustaining.

The Marine Conservation Society's app provides information and a funky traffic-light system to help choose what fish to eat and buy - check out the site.