We are often encouraged to eat seafood because it’s good for us, but do we think about whether we eat the right kind? The oceans are teeming with variety and choice, yet when it comes to seafood consumption, we opt for a few favourites. This selectivity, at first glance nothing more than a food preference, in reality, has long-lasting ecological consequences. It acts as a driver for the overfishing of a limited and familiar amount of species, many of which are now endangered. In response, rebranding campaigns, citizen science projects, sustainable seafood guides and efforts to diversify seafood consumption away from the primary species we over-consume have emerged.
As it stands today, two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks have been depleted. In the UK, the most popular fish species are referred to as The Big Five and include cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns. These species are consistently chosen over locally available products and make up between 60-75% of all consumed seafood. This is bad news as ‘sustainable’ fish stocks for these species have been found to have decreased by 4% since the 1930s and maximum sustainable yield (the total amount of fish that can be taken via fishing without reducing the stock for the next year) has dropped by almost 35% in the UK’s North and Irish seas. Overfishing has been found to be coupled with warming oceans, representing “a one-two punch” for fish, as commented on by the lead author of the study. The average UK adult currently consumes 2% more seafood than they would have a generation ago and demand is only predicted to grow 17% further by 2030. This in itself isn’t bad news, but the seafood we consume has to be sustainable. With the world’s fish stocks already under so much pressure from a changing climate, pollution and growing demand, the issue of overfishing a few select species only exacerbates the negative effects.
Cod and haddock stocks around the UK have been significantly reduced and Southern bluefin tuna and Atlantic bluefin have been categorised as Critically Endangered and Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.) The preference for these five species is also disrupting the marine food chain and making other species more difficult to sell. Giving species outside of The Big Five a chance would allow them to recover and increase stocks.
So why do we like these five species so much? It can mainly be put down to the unadventurous tastes of the British public. With their flaky and delicate white meat, cod and haddock make the perfect bettered fish product and tinned salmon and tuna are proven cupboard staples, making it difficult to see the need for alternatives.
There also comes the issue of post-Brexit difficulties selling seafood to the EU. A recent BBC news report outlines the fact that many of the UK-caught species end up being exported to EU countries whose citizens are more open to these less familiar species. The Scottish Seafood Association has said new customs arrangements, border control and paperwork have been causing delays and the whole export experience has been described as “unpleasant”. This has left tons of unsold British catch which can neither be transported to other nations nor is being sold locally.
With new Brexit legislation making it hard to maintain export relationships, the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation (CFPO) have researched the issue with chefs and consumers alike. They concluded that it may be the names of local species which are causing British consumers to consider them bad alternatives. They found this to apply to megrim sole and spider crabs which are to be rebranded as Cornish sole and Cornish king crab. “There is something about the names that has negative connotations”, commented Paul Trebilcock from the CFPO. Out of the 1,000 tonnes of megrim sole brought into Newlyn, 98% is exported to various countries and almost 85% of spider crab catch is exported to Spain. The research conducted by the CFPO revealed that by simply changing the names of the species, the chances of people trying them increase. In doing so, the hope isn’t to catch more to sell more, but simply sell what is already being caught locally while exports remain at a low. It’s about getting British people to eat British seafood.
To combat the issues which stem from selective fishing, there are many ways in which we can contribute to the UK’s economy and protect the marine environment. We can choose locally caught species and source our seafood from certified and sustainable fisheries. This is made all the easier thanks to organisations such as The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) which assesses fish stocks, methods and management and awards a distinctive ‘blue fish logo’ to those who meet their standards. Look out for it when you next buy your fish from the supermarket or better yet, the local fishmonger!
Top 10 Sustainable MSC Fish and Seafood Choices:
- MSC Certified Cornish hake
- MSC Certified herring
- UK rope-grown mussel
- Brown crab from Devon
- Queen scallops from the Fal estuary
- Dover sole
For even more guidance, you can follow the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) Good Fish Guide which rates the sustainability of seafood from the most sustainable (Green rated) to the least (Red rated). By following these guides, there’s no reason to rely on The Big Five and enjoying seafood in a sustainable manner is made easy!
In the US, a citizen science project called Eat Like a Fish saw 86 seafood lovers embark on a data quest to answer why so many of the more rare species of seafood aren’t being sold. The goal of the project was to understand how New England’s marketplace mirrors the diversity of wild seafood in the local ocean ecosystems. The project was also set to draw on the lived experiences of the participants to explain why mismatches exist and what the possible solutions are. By journeying to seafood markets, supermarkets and fishing piers, the participants hunted for 52 New England seafood species and noted where they did and did not find them.
This citizen science project helped collect novel data to help seafood eaters, sellers and promoters achieve a greater balance between the wild and market species in New England. The project stressed the need to diversify seafood supply chains and to sync harvests with ecological rhythms to reduce marine food web distributions and adapt to climate change. The results showed that many local species were difficult to find at local markets including species common in local waters. The project highlighted the need for human interaction between fishmongers and consumers to inspire and facilitate the diversification of local seafood sales. It was suggested that this kind of social engagement should be paired with educational activities such as whole fish cooking and fishmonger training in seafood handling in order to expand the consumers’ comfort zones and promote the diversification of seafood. This diversity is key in the face of ecosystem changes and it has to be incorporated into the ways we consume and market seafood.
So what is eating like a fish?
Most fish tend to be generalist predators rather than specialists. Their diets are defined more by the availability and size of their prey than their identity. They’re not picky eaters! The result of this is that their diets truly reflect what’s locally and seasonally available. In contrast, we humans are highly selective eaters. We have cherry-picking habits when it comes to the ocean’s species and we pick those which suit our fishing patterns, processing and preservation technology and our cultural expectations about seafood. Many of us will refuse a meal from the sea if what’s on our plate looks too small, too unusual and tastes too strange or unfamiliar.
So eating like a fish means leaving behind our highly selective and destructive seafood habits and accepting what the ocean provides at a given place and time. It involves opening our minds to the abundance and diversity of ocean life and switching to a supply-based rather than demand-based philosophy. To eat like a fish, we must harmonise our consumption patterns with the ocean’s cycles and place ourselves within the ocean food web. For the sake of our oceans, let’s all eat like a fish!