How to manage our fish and chips

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23 March 2010

‘Mind-withering stupidity’ is how UK writer George Monbiot characterised the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) decision not to protect bluefin tuna.

The ‘absence of a ban’, he went on to say, ‘ensures that, after one or two more seasons of fishing at current levels, all the jobs and the entire industry are finished forever, along with the magnificent species that supported them’.

What’s in a species?

At least since the collapse of the Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s, the sustainability of fish stocks has been an issue. A 2006 study argued that commercial fish stocks will have completely collapsed by 2050. Yet many in the developed world still see the ocean as this infinite grocery store that can supply human wants forever.

Fish and chips are iconic British food, and the frying will go on regardless of which fish is surrounded by the batter; as one fish becomes extinct another can take its place. However, what many fall to realise is that the extinction of the bluefin tuna is not just the extinction of one species.

According to the 2005 Ecosystem Assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 75 per cent of the world’s fisheries are overexploited. Failure in protection of bluefin tuna may set a precedent for an inability to internationally manage other fish.

There are currently only 66 certified sustainable fisheries by the Marine Stewardship Council, which is the only internationally recognised certification standardising body for the management of fisheries. Yet, many of these fisheries are in developed countries. Just 80 per cent of the world’s fish come from the developing world.

With weak international consensus and a lack of management in developing countries’ fisheries, the world may face another serious crisis in addition to the global recession.

Recession = less?

The recession should have been a good thing for the big fish: as with other natural resources, demand for fish dropped too. The Food and Agricultural Organization said it was slow in 2009 compared to 2008. According to the FAO, ’sales are sluggish in all major markets and prices’.

However, with the decrease in jobs and income, the question becomes who is living with less?

The developing world relies more heavily on fish as a major protein yet they lack the purchasing power to consume enough fish to fulfill their basic nutritional needs. In spite of that, the majority of people in the developed world are eating fish in excess of their dietary needs.

In the EU and US, people consume on average approximately 19 kilograms of fish a year, while people in South America and Africa consume on average 8kg per person, per year.

For many the financial crisis will have a significant impact on total food consumption and may lead to far higher numbers of people who lack sufficient protein in their diets, and are undernourished.

The potential extinction of the bluefin tuna, as with other species, will also mean the permanent job loss of the small’scale fishers who are unable to change locations in search for the next big fish.

What can you do?

Fortunately, all is not lost.

The IUCN encourages grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers to avoid bluefin tuna. And through the use of seafood guides you can make sustainable decisions in purchasing seafood: World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and SeaFood Watch seafood guide.

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