Indicator 5.4

Issue: sustainable fisheries

Indicator chosen: Wild and farmed fish[4] from sustainable sources

Why is this issue important?

Fisheries and aquaculture remain very important as a source of food, employment and revenue in many countries and communities. Europe is experiencing a general trend of increased fish consumption, reflecting a number of factors: people spending more on eating out, changing dietary habits, new food products and changing lifestyles.

It is now a legal requirement[5] that most fish products for sale must indicate:

Wild fisheries
Many of the world's (marine) fisheries are currently overexploited or have unacceptable impacts on the wider environment. The institutional framework of the fisheries industry, including common access and subsidised fleets, is being seriously questioned. Globally, more than sixty per cent of marine fisheries are fully or over-exploited (FAO, 2002). In 1992, one of the world’s richest cod fisheries, the Great Banks off the Newfoundland coast, was virtually wiped out by over-fishing. Not only was the marine environment severely damaged, but some 40,000 jobs were lost. In the North East Atlantic, forty of the sixty main commercial fish stocks, including all nine species listed for the North Sea, are believed to be "outside safe biological limits" (OSPAR Commission, 2000). This means that 67% of stocks are seriously depleted, or are in danger of becoming so. Current fishing practices are not only threatening the sustainability of fish stocks, but some also have a significant impact on other wildlife such as albatross, sea turtle and dolphin.

However, there are also many fisheries which are well managed and sustainable. Retailers currently source seafood products from all over the world and it is a major challenge to establish whether the species they are sourcing and the fisheries which supply these species are sustainable and well managed. Considerable resources and expertise would be required to ensure that every species sourced met community expectations for sustainability. One approach is to focus in the short term on some urgent issues for which there are well known solutions. This would help ascertain the practicality of the system being developed and enable retailers to provide some feedback to help design a more comprehensive system in the future. The focus for 2002 will be on fish stocks in the North East Atlantic and the issue of long-lining and seabird bycatch.

Background to longlining and seabird bycatch
Longlining is an increasingly common fishing method used around the world to target a wide variety of species. As the name suggests it involves setting a long fishing line (sometimes up to several tens of kilometres) which has attached to it hundreds to thousands of hooks. Sometimes the line is set on the seabed (demersal longlining) and sometimes it is set to float either at depth or near the surface (pelagic longlining). Obviously the species taken will vary according to depth and where in the world the fishing activity is taking place. Tunas and marlins are common targets for pelagic longlines whilst cod and halibut are common targets for demersal longlines.

Longlining is a relatively selective fishing method for the target species. The species taken can be influenced by depth fished, bait used and hook size/type, amongst other factors. Due to the fact that the fish taken are handled individually the fishing vessel can focus on quality - hence the reason why sashimi grade (i.e. high value) fish are more commonly take by longline.

Like all fishing methods longlining may take species that are of either no economic value or may be of conservation significance. Various species of seabirds take the longline hooks while attempting to snatch bait and some, such as albatrosses, are globally threatened (according to IUCN criteria). The number and species of seabirds taken varies from fishery to fishery and place to place. However, albatrosses, especially those at risk, are more common in the colder waters of the world's oceans.

Technically speaking, reducing or even eliminating seabird bycatch is relatively easy. Mechanisms for doing this include closed areas (seasonal, area based), on board fish handling practices (better disposal of waste products) and technical solutions (underwater setting devices, bird scaring devices), amongst others. In recent years not only has the plight of certain seabirds become well known but there has been a considerable amount of effort devoted to finding solutions. Moreover, some industries and governments have been very proactive in putting into place measures to reduce seabird bycatch. Unfortunately, those that fish outside the law do not respect bird protection measures. Ensuring that retailers source products from fisheries that are doing the right thing will ensure that the products available from longlining are available without some of the unacceptable impacts.

In a study carried out by the Royal Agricultural College on behalf of the RSPB and IIED, the authors found that in terms of sourcing from the wild, multiple retailers considered sourcing fish to be an important issue. All of those reviewed supported the Marine Stewardship Council but only Sainsbury's and Tesco currently sell any Marine Stewardship Council certified fish products (see Case Study 3). Most claimed they do not sell certified products as they were not yet widely available. To overcome this many rely on warranties from their suppliers in relation to legal fishing practices and assurances that fisheries are at least working towards sustainable management practices.

Case Study 3 The Marine Stewardship Council

MSC is an independent, global, non-profit organisation based in London. In a bid to reverse the continued decline in the world's fisheries, the MSC is seeking to harness consumer purchasing power to generate change and promote environmentally responsible stewardship of one of the world's most important renewable food source. Accordingly, its aims are:

  • increase the overall sustainability of the world’s seafood supply;
  • increase the percentage of the global seafood market certified to the MSC Standard;
  • increase awareness of the MSC eco-label.
The MSC has developed an environmental standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. It uses a product label to reward environmentally responsible fishery management and practices. Consumers, concerned about overfishing and its environmental and social consequences will increasingly be able to choose seafood products which have been independently assessed against the MSC standard and labelled to prove it. This will assure them that the product has not contributed to the environmental problem of overfishing. Though operating independently since 1999, the MSC was first established by Unilever, the world's largest buyer of seafood and WWF, the international conservation organisation in 1997.

Farmed fisheries
As marine fisheries have begun to plateau, and in some cases crash, in terms of production, aquaculture production has shown the opposite tendency. Between 1994-99 alone, aquaculture grew from 18.5% to 26.2% of total fisheries production (FAO, 2002). In the UK, fish farming represents the second largest livestock sector after broiler chickens. The vast majority of the 70 million farmed fish produced annually in the UK are reared intensively, with serious welfare implications (Lymbery, 2001). This situation is replicated across Europe. The sheer scale and intensity of fish farming, including shellfisheries, not only causes serious welfare problems but has environmental implications too (SWCL, 1997)[6]. These range from smothering of the seabed under fish pens by organic matter (faeces and uneaten food), the indirect effects of the use of various chemicals and medicines, illegal control (by some) of wild predators such as fish-eating birds and otters, physical disturbance from harvesting shellfish and ‘genetic pollution’ from escapees breeding with wild salmon having a detrimental effect on the survival of wild populations. Fish farming is also inherently inefficient in terms of food production -- over 3 tonnes of wild-caught fish are needed (as food) to produce one tonne of farmed salmon (Lymbery, 2001). The environmental sustainability of the industrial fisheries that harvest wild fish to supply fish meal to fish farms has yet to be determined.

More positively, aquaculture could reduce the strain on some species of wild fish -- for example, in 2-3 years time wild cod stocks should benefit as supplies of farmed cod become more available. UK retailers have a role to play in sourcing UK farmed fish from fish farms that have audited and where necessary reduced their environmental impacts, particularly in relation to the siting and design of fish farms, pest & disease control, fish farm escapes, nutrient enrichment and the origins and sustainability of the fish meal used. Some steps are already being taken to reduce food wastage (thereby helping to address the issue of seabed fouling), whilst non-lethal measures to control seals are now in wide use. There are now signs that the industry is taking a more strategic approach towards dealing with the environmental issues.


What should retailers do about this issue?

It is clear that many of the world's marine fisheries are overexploited or have unacceptable impacts on the wider environment. However, there are also many fisheries which are well managed and sustainable, some driven by market-based initiatives (e.g. Marine Stewardship Council). Retailers currently source seafood products from all over the world, and it is recognized that it is a major challenge to even ascertain whether the species they are sourcing and the fisheries that supply these species are sustainable and well managed. The focus for 2002 will be on fish stocks in the North East Atlantic and the issue of long-lining and seabird bycatch.

Aquaculture is also an important issue. The UK salmon farming industry is predicted to expand rapidly over the next 5-10 years. At the same time, there is likely to be significant growth of new farmed species (e.g. cod, haddock). This future development must be sustainable. To be sustainable it must be guided by a strategic approach to location, design and pollution control. Retailers have a role to play in sourcing UK farmed fish from fish farms that have audited their environmental impacts, particularly in relation to the siting and design of fish farms, pest & disease control, fish farm escapes and nutrient enrichment.


How will the indicator be measured?

Retailers will be asked to respond to a series of questions on wild and farmed fisheries:

Wild fisheries
Farmed fisheries


Limitations of this indicator

The root cause of overfishing of wild species is the lack of incentive to manage this wild resource sustainably. This must be tackled by national and international policy rather than pinning all hopes on market solutions. On the other side of the coin, fish farming can be extremely intensive and have negative impacts on both environment and welfare issues. Retailers have a role to play in changing the perceptions of suppliers and customers, and in helping their suppliers to shift to more sustainable practices. Until adequate sources of independently certified sustainable fish products are available, retailers will need to carry out their own supplier audits. Retailers will therefore need to collaborate with conservation organisations to ensure that audits are appropriate and that targets are realistic.


[4]All questions apply to all wild and farmed (organic and non-organic) fresh, chilled, canned, frozen & smoked fish or fillets and shellfish sold (own label and branded).
[5]Specific origin labeling for all fresh, chilled, frozen and smoked fish or filets and shellfish sold at retail came into force on 1 January 2002. These requirements are set out in Regulations (EC) No. 104/2000 and (EC) No. 2065/2001.
[6] Scottish Wildlife & Countryside Link (1997) Leaping In The Dark: A review of the environmental impacts of marine salmon farming and proposals for change.

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