Should we stop eating fish?

By April 16, 2021

The documentary Seaspiracy unfurled onto Netflix in March and has the internet awash with  discussion on the unhappy state of our oceans. The resulting discussion buzz, in a world with limited attention spans and informational overload, is a much needed positive outcome from this documentary. Our burgeoning populations are leading to increased demand for animal protein that is contributing significantly to climate change, impoverishment of land, pollution and loss of wild species. Alarmingly, people consumed a per capita 20.5 kg of fish annually in 2020 (up from 9.9 kg in the 1960s) according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. There is no way to sugar coat it: our oceans and its wildlife are in deep trouble. The many people who have contacted us to exclaim their dismay at the state of our seas further confirms the need for far greater awareness, and actions are needed to reverse the dramatic declines recorded across many marine species, habitats and fisheries. 

However, you know a “but” is coming. 

As an organization that works with threatened marine wildlife and small-scale fishers in tropical developing countries, we are far from absolutists. We found the documentary presented a singular, blinkered, and simplistic perspective on fisheries, lumping all types and sizes of fisheries together, lacking in representation of coastal fishing communities and their needs, and what is a vastly more complex global framework. The film’s suggestion to stop all consumption of fish and marine species is “simply” not realistic for the majority of the estimated 3.2 billion people that truly rely on marine protein for their sustenance, and so it is not something that we do, or want to, promote. Fish are essential to coastal food security in so many sea-facing countries, and if fisheries are better managed, captures can become sustainable for generations to come. 

A natural question we get often asked is: how do you reconcile small scale fisheries with the mission to save sharks and rays? The answer is that it’s challenging: we are working in a shifting “sweet spot” to improve the status of threatened sharks and rays through a range of mostly locally mediated interventions, while working with small-scale fishers and fisheries to improve sustainability. Sustainable fisheries can exist and thrive with, amongst others, strong government will, forged by a need to visualize long term food security. Ending subsidies to the sector, correct pricing of fish to reflect their scarcity, and the creation of social support programs to help diversify income streams for the most disadvantaged (who so readily turn to fishing when other economic alternatives do not exist) are all powerful tools in the struggle for better fisheries. Many of the challenges that we face in wildlife conservation and in improving fishery sustainability are similar, and the measures we take to help sharks and rays to thrive (like area or time closures, banning of certain fishing gear, and MPAs) are often the same we need to ensure the long-term survival of fisheries.

So you might ask: what can I do to better educate myself, my family, and friends? Watch the documentary, but perhaps do so after reading the excellent thought piece on Seaspiracy penned by Dr. Daniel Pauly, one of the world’s best known fisheries scientists, who helps to fact-check and highlights priorities to tackle to reach healthier seas. Also take a moment to watch the documentary End of the Line, which adroitly tackles the complexities of fisheries and the state of fish populations. Begin to look at fish differently: we regularly forget these are often exceptionally long lived, late maturing animals (as many studies looking at the age and growth of groupers, snappers, sharks have demonstrated) and hence cannot be “harvested” like a plant crop (and this is exactly the wording used and approach large-scale fisheries are taking). Become a wiser consumer and abstain from eating threatened and highly predatory fish to focus on more rapidly reproducing fish lower on the food chain, such as small snappers and tilapia. For most species and countries, one can easily find online resources to help guide us in making better informed choices about the seafood we consume; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a helpful starting point for consumers living in North America. 

Fish conservation and fisheries management is complex. We recognize our limitations and know that no singular or simple solution will solve the many faceted aspects of fish and fisheries declines. Yet we can all do our part to reduce pressures on fish and fisheries and we recommend that those who can and have alternatives, become savvier consumers and reduce their consumption of animal protein across the board, including fish.