The fishing industry is destroying the oceans and fish stocks are becoming scarce. Are we not allowed to eat fish anymore? An analysis.
The Netflix documentary Seaspiracy was among the ten most-watched films this spring. She must have shaken up a lot of people. In the pillory: overfished seas, mafia-like structures in the fishing industry and alleged sustainability seals that are not worth their paper.
Not all the facts in the film have been researched correctly, and it may also scandalize a little too much, as even marine conservationists accuse it of. But the basic message is correct: the situation is serious. Very seriously.
93 percent of fish stocks fished to their limits
The hunger for fish is far greater than what the oceans have to offer. The result is overfishing, and it affects the great oceans as well as the small Baltic Sea on our doorstep.
93 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fished to their limits, more than a third of them are already overfished, as the fisheries report of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found out last year. 90 percent of large predatory fish such as tuna, swordfish and cod have already disappeared from the oceans.
Fishing releases more CO₂ than aviation
Fishing not only has a destructive effect on the ecological balance in the sea, but also on climate change. Among other things, trawling, which catches around a quarter of the world’s fish, has been criticized. These kilometers of nets can be lowered very far into the deep sea and take in tens of thousands of kilos of marine life in one catch.
As bottom trawls, they are lowered down to the seabed, destroy huge seagrass meadows, coral reefs or mussel beds with their integrated metal plates and thus devastate valuable habitat for decades.
A recent study by 26 US climate scientists and economists calculates that bottom trawling in the oceans releases 1.5 gigatonnes of CO₂ annually, more than global aviation. As the? By opening up those underwater worlds that have swallowed large amounts of man-made CO₂ in the last 50 years: Huge seagrass meadows, for example, can store ten times as much CO₂ per square kilometer as our forest.
Eat less fish – is that the solution?
Should humanity stop eating fish? The film Seaspiracy suggests that. However, fish is a vital part of the diet of around three billion people worldwide, and it is difficult to replace as an affordable source of protein, especially in developing countries.
In its fish guide, the WWF has also recently suggested that reducing fish consumption is the best way to protect the world’s oceans. However, the WWF fishing expert Philipp Kanstinger is convinced: “We could design fishing in such a way that it is consistent with a healthy diet.” And unlike some countries in the Global South, we have a choice: We can consciously only buy certain types of fish. And yes: We can also eat less fish and cleverly replace its unique nutrients.
Which fish works and which doesn’t?
Unfortunately, it is not easy for consumers to keep track of things. Which fish can still end up in the shopping basket with a clear conscience depends primarily on three factors: How healthy are the stocks in the fishing area, only enough is taken from the sea for these stocks to be able to recover again and again, and which method is used to catch them caught. There are no longer many types of fish that experts can recommend without hesitation: the local carp is one of them.
dr Rainer Froese from the Geomar Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research also gives the go-ahead for wild salmon from Alaska and sprat from the North Sea. Also for Alaska pollock from certain healthy stocks in the North Pacific. In our test we examined frozen fish products. Many are recommended.
According to Froese, the coastal fish plaice, flounder and turbot are fine if they come from the Baltic Sea and have been caught with gillnets.
Consumers find it difficult to identify which fish to buy
The exact (sub-)fishing area and the fishing method are often declared on frozen fish in the supermarket or can be found out via a QR code. You have to ask for it in the restaurant or at the fishmonger’s. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, the respective stocks change again and again and with them the recommendations of the experts.
The WWF fish guide, which is updated several times a year and rates fish species using a traffic light system, offers a good overview.
Some popular fish species are green there, at least for individual fishing areas, and are therefore a “good choice” in the eyes of the WWF:
Redfish caught with pelagic otter trawls from the north-east Arctic or halibut from European aquaculture are currently among them.
According to the WWF, mussels are also okay if they come from aquaculture.
But there are also a number of endangered fish species that do not belong in the shopping basket, no matter how and where they were fished. This includes:
- Eel and Dogfish (Critically Endangered)
- Bluefin tuna
However, merchants and restaurants also offer such species as a matter of course.
More and more fisheries with the MSC seal are not sustainable
Let’s be honest: With this jungle of fishing methods and constantly changing stocks, responsible fish purchasing is quite a demanding matter. A good seal that makes sustainable wild fish recognizable at first glance is all the more urgently needed.
The blue label Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) started out with this idea a good 20 years ago. But in recent years criticism of the seal has increased, and recently the WWF, which co-founded the MSC over 20 years ago, has also distanced itself.
“In our view, a growing number of fisheries in the MSC are not sustainable,” explains Philipp Kanstinger. The allegations: the independence of the MSC is at risk because the certifiers are selected and paid for by the fisheries themselves; the standard has been softened more and more in recent years, making it easier to obtain a seal for fish caught with trawls or decoy buoys.
Fish-Siegel: Often no more than a minimum standard
Our test of frozen fish confirms exactly that. In its current fish guide, the WWF no longer gives a general recommendation for MSC-certified fish, but only recommends the label as “a quick decision-making aid when there is not enough time for the fish guide”.
The label used to be the gold standard, says Kanstinger, “today it’s just a minimum standard.”
But certified is better than not certified, because the label guarantees two points:
First, that the fish is not from an illegal source.
And secondly, that the supply chain can be reliably traced back from the catching ship to the processor – an important basis for determining the sustainability of a catch and for being able to remedy grievances.
The Naturland fish seal is the strictest for fish from aquaculture
The Naturland wild fish seal, awarded by the international association for organic farming, is less common. With this label, fishing operations not only have to meet ecological, but also social standards along the entire value chain. But even here consumers cannot be completely sure that no fish has been smuggled in from insufficient stocks or problematic fishing methods.
The situation is different with the seal that Naturland awards specifically for fish from aquaculture: it is currently the strictest in Germany. Because the huge breeding facilities cause completely different problems than fishing in the sea: factory farming with too little space, use of pesticides and antibiotics or massive feeding of wild fish and soy.
This is what the Naturland seal stipulates:
Stocking densities that are even below those of organic products.
Forbids feeding wild fish
Regulates social standards for workers in the fisheries
What alternative is there to fish?
Of course, the best solution of all would be to eat less fish. Because if we now buy fish from healthy stocks without restraint, these too will inevitably come under pressure.
However, for the sake of health, the German Society for Nutrition has always recommended eating fish once or twice a week. Among other things, because of the valuable omega-3 fatty acids, with the two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in particular being said to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
But they are also the most difficult to replace. Linseed, rapeseed or walnut oil can contribute to the omega-3 supply, but the alpha-linolenic acid they contain can only be partially converted into EPA and DHA.
The Federal Center for Nutrition recommends that anyone who decides to give up fish more often can best replace it with microalgae and algae oils. There are also vegetable oils on the market that are enriched with DHA from microalgae, such as DHA linseed oil.
The European Food Safety Authority EFSA recommends a daily dose of 250 mg DHA for adults. Incidentally, algae also provide a fishy taste and provide other important nutrients. However, the environmental costs of algae production are not much lower than with fish, as a 2020 study by the University of Halle-Wittenberg showed.
Fish substitutes have different nutrients than fish
On the other hand, if you only miss the taste of fish: there is now an extensive range of vegan fish substitute products on the market, from plant-based fish fingers to imitation shrimp. This fish substitute is often made with a tofu or wheat protein base, sometimes with a vegetable or jackfruit base.
As far as nutrients are concerned, however, these products usually cannot keep up with the animal originals, as a study by the Hesse consumer advice center shows. The body uses vegetable proteins differently than animal proteins. In addition, some of the fish substitute products are highly processed and there is often no omega-3 additive at all.
Fishing: what politics must do
The environmental organization Greenpeace is demanding that the United Nations designate a network of maritime protected areas that covers at least 30 percent of the oceans. Currently, less than 3 percent is where fishing is effectively banned or regulated.
Second demand from marine conservationists to politicians: The EU fisheries policy must be more closely based on the scientific recommendations for sustainable fishing in its annually determined catch quotas. That would mean: Only so much is fished that a basic stock remains and the stocks can recover well again. “Unfortunately, these recommendations are often not followed,” complains Philipp Kanstinger.
The third item on the political to-do list would be to get a grip on illegal fishing. In addition to the 90 million tons of fish that are caught every year, another 30 percent disappear illegally from the seas – on boats that don’t care at all about fishing rules or protected areas.