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Overfishing is a well-known problem. However, you can be part of the solution - even if you are not vegetarian. Please keep the following points in mind when buying fish

  • Pay attention to the MSC certificate (Marine Steward Council)! This logo stands for sustainable fishing.
  • msc marine steward council logo
  • If you buy a variety of fish, you decrease the pressure on one specific species!
  • Some species are more endangered than others. There are many guides that tell you which species should be avioded (for example for the United States: Monterey Bay Aquarium - Seafood watch)
  • Organic seafood products are an alternative!
  • Whenever you buy fish or order seafood at a restaurant, ask where the product comes from and how the fish was caught. Based on this information you can make a more educated choice!
  • Share your concerns! Even though the topic has got more media attention in the last couple of years, many people are still unaware of the ecological impact of unsustainable fisheries.

Attention! There is some erroneous belief concerning sustainable fishing.

  • Are breeding fish/fresh-water fish better than seafish?
  • Fresh-water fish are a good alternative unlike breeding fish. In order to breed carnivore fish, huge amounts of fish meal are expended and numberless anchovies are caught! That's also the reason why aquaculture is not a promising solution to solve the problem of overfishing, at least if the farmers continue breeding carnivore instead of herbivore fish.
  • There is a sign on my tuna tin that says "caught friendly to dolphins". Can I rely on that assurance?
  • As long as there is no certification by an independent organization, any company could claim that their fishing methods are dolphin-friendly. Before buying, please educate yourself about the company's sustainability policy. What's more, one can hardly do anything to stop dolphins from getting caught in the purse seine of the fishermen. In fact, there are nets which have indentations for dolphins so that they can escape since doplhins swim near the ocean surface. Unfortunately, these types of nets are rarely used, though. Furthermore, many kinds of tuna are on the Red List of the fish guide mentioned above. Therefore, it's not a good idea to buy tuna tins anyway.
  • There is the MSC certificate on my packet of codfish. Is it automatically a good choice then?
  • Despite the MSC certificate, the codfish is overfished. The logo just means that the fish was caught sustainably. Nevertheless, the cod is still endangered. Moreover, the MSC certificate is criticized by many environmental organizations such as Greenpeace because some MSC-certified fisheries still use destructive fishing methods.

Bycatch, trapping methods etc.

Unbelievable but true: For each kilo of shrimps 10 kilos of other marine life are thrown back into the sea dead or dying. Other sources estimate this number to be even higher. But what's the reason?

Bottom trawls which are used to catch shrimps are especially cruel and unselective. They extend all the way down to the seabed and runners affixed on the fishnet plow through the sea bottom. The nocturnal animals lose their homes and shortly after, they are caught by the trawls. That's the reason for the enormous bycatch, everything that's not nailed down is caught. As a result, the seabed remains barren forever and a trail of destruction is left behind.

As mentioned before, the tuna is often accompanied by dolphins. Hence, it's not surprising that the mammals are often caught in the trawls and drown for this reason. Porpoises, whales which are only about one meter long, often die as bycatch as well. That's one shocking consequence of extensive, unselective industrial fishing.

Example: Tuna

The consequences of industrial fishing can be explained on the basis of the tuna. Greenpeace published a report on this topic whicht can be read here (German). The most important points are summarized below: The bonito can reach a length of two metres and a weight of 700 kilos. It is a migratory fish, just like the salmon. Due to its enormous speed, it can cover the distance between Europe and the U.S. just within a few weeks. Every year, one bonito swims several thousands of sea miles.

The tuna belongs to the most wanted fish in the Mediterranean Sea. The result is: The population is going down rapidly.

  1. The Mediterranean Sea plays a decisive role for the bonito. Near the Balearic Islands there is an important spawning area. As a result, the industrial trawlers come there to catch the fish and many individuals don't have the chance to spawn. Entire schools are encircled and surrounded by the fishing net. If there is no possibility to spawn, there won't be any offspring.
  2. Tunas become sexually mature at the age of five to eight years. Many are caught before they reach this age meaning that they have never had the possibility to reproduce.
  3. Aquaculture is a big problem. Juvenile fish are caught and fattened with fish meal which is mostly extracted from anchovies. Furthermore, the excrements and the rests of the feed pollute the sea.
  4. If the situation goes on like that we will probably have to do without tuna in a few years.

32.000 tons - That's the fishing quota for the Eastern bonito. According to the research of Greenpeace, this quota has to be reduced by 20 per cent, otherwise there won't be any tuna left in the near future. Additionally, the area around the Balearic Islands needs to be protected in order to leave the tuna's spawning ground in peace.

For further information, please visit Greenpeace - Defending our Oceans

Learn about the environmental organization COBEC that is fighting against the destruction of the marine habitats along the coast of Kenya. Education might be the key to sustainable exploitation of the oceans. That's what COBEC is fighting for!

Pirate Fishing

Illegal fishing (pirate fishing) is unfortunately very common especially in regions where patrols are rare due to lacking financial means (for example in Western Africa) and corruption. The fishermen don't have licenses and therefore they don't stick to quotas and exploit the oceans ad libitum. That's one reason why social problems in communities that depend on their local fisheries occur. Seafood is a vital source of income and protein especially in developing countries! Nevertheless, industrial trawlers overfish the local stock to such a huge extent that the local fishermen are hardly able to catch anything. As a consequence, the difficult economic situation of the poor people even worsens while the American, European and Asian companies make huge profits. Experts estimate that about 30% of the fish on the market come from illegal fisheries. (also see: youtube - Pirate Fishing in West African waters by GreenpeaceVideo)

Consequences for the Ecosystem

Non-selective fishing methods do not only affect the species themselves but also the entire marine ecosystem, for example by destroying coral reefs. Another example is the occurrence of so-called "dead zones" (hypoxic areas). In some marine areas, the concentration of oxygen is so low that life is barely possible there. One reason for that is the intensive fishing of small schooling fish such as sardines which are mainly used for aquaculture. Those kinds of fish should actually filter algae but when the consumers are missing, the algae sink to the sea bottom and release hydrogen sulfide which causes a lower concentration of oxygen in the zone (source: Taras Grescoe - "Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on our Plates Is Killing the Planet").

Example: Prawn Farming in India

Prawns (scampi, shrimps...) have recently become very popular in industrial countries and therefore many fast food chains offer products made of these small crustaceans at knock-down prices. These mass products mostly have their origin in developing or newly industrializing countries of South and Southeast Asia (particularly in China, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Vietnam).

The huge farms where the prawns are bred have a devastating effect on both the ecosystems and the local communities. First of all, in order to construct the cages and buildings, Mangrove forests are cut down. These tropical trees are a unique habitat for plenty of species and they protect shorelines from tropical storms and flooding. For more information on mangrove forests, please visit: COBEC - The Importance of Mangroves. In 2004, for example, when the disastrous tsunami occurred in Southeast Asia, regions that were protected by mangroves were less affected by the flood waves than other areas.

What's more, breeding prawns requires huge quantities of fish meal. The nets of big industrial trawlers comb the oceans in order to catch fish (mainly anchovies) as nutrition for the crustaceans. Roughly 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of pulverized fish are necessary to produce 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of prawns. That's why aquaculture can neither be a solution to the problem of overfishing (at least, if we continue to breed carnivore sea animals to such an extent) nor to malnutrition. The prawns are exported to the industrial countries of Europe and North America, thus, breeding these animals will not help hungry people at all.

As a matter of fact, many farmers and local fishermen lose their livelihood because the farmers use chemicals which contaminate rivers, groundwater and soil. Beyond that, antibiotics, pesticides and piscicides (fish poison that shall wipe out invasive species) are used. Sewage and these toxic substances are dumped into the rivers unclarifiedly and consequently contaminate groundwater, soil and coastal areas where mangroves thrive. Due to corruption which is still very common in many countries, the farmers - or rather industrialists - may continue threatening the existence of local fishermen and farmers without hindrance by governmental agencies.

Consumers can ascertain if chemicals were used during the breeding time by means of unnatural or strange flavor, smell and color. You also have to be aware that there are hardly any exceptions to the described breeding methods since organic aquaculture is rare because it is more expensive.

Example: Salmon Farming

Salmon aquaculture is especially problematic in Chile. Although the Eastern Patagonian coastal areas are widely protected, farms may be constructed because the regulations do not apply to the adjoining ocean. Of course, those farms have a severe impact on the surroundings: Pesticides and antibiotics end up in the ecosystems, fish droppings contaminate the seabed and make life impossible there and diseases can spread quickly despite the polluting chemicals. Apart from that, unclarified sewage, feed and other waste are harmful to the environment and increase the pressure on endangered species. Indeed, there are similar problems in other countries but Chilean salmon aquaculture is particularly problematic because firstly there are hardly any patrols and secondly Chile is probably the most important exporter of farm-raised salmon in the world. Norway, the second largest exporter, managed to pass stricter environmental laws, thus, Norwegian salmon is slightly more expensive than Chilean but less problematic. Taras Grescoe describes the situation of salmon aquaculture in his book "Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on our Plates Is Killing the Planet". He compares the situation in Norway, Chile and Canada.

Example: Nile Perch

The nile perch was introduced to Lake Victoria in the 1960s. Since then, the species changes life in and around the lake dramatically. Since the nile perch is a carnivore fish, it has crowded out most native species. The sensitive ecological balance is disrupted. 210 different kinds of cichlids (tilapia) have disappeared - a development with devastating consequences. Cichlids feed upon algae. By eating them they prevent the oxygen level in the lake from decreasing. If they disappear, as it's the case in Lake Victoria, fishery is likely to collapse sooner or later.

However, the introduction of the Nile Perch hasn't only led to environmental but also to social problems: The fish is almost exclusively exported to Europe, North America and Asia. The local people don't benefit from their catch - although famines are common. Since the fishermen have to work for starvation wages, many women feel forced to prostitute themselves and, as a result, they don't rarely become victims of violent felony. As it is so often the case, it's the large enterprises that profit instead of the population which is so desperately in need of secure employment and income opportunities. Nonetheless, the fisheries at Lake Victoria are supported by the European Union and the World Bank. The movie "Darwin's Nightmare" even entertains suspicion that the planes which carry the fish to the North come back loaded with weapons. Due to lacking security measures, the airport of Mwanza, a fishing village in Tanzania, is said to be a hub of international arms trade.

You will find pictures of a protected coral reef in the gallery - Red Sea.