Sustainable Seafood

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

You know that old saying which goes - There’s lots of fish in the sea … well…312 million kilograms of seafood is consumed in South Africa alone each year and 50% is locally caught. This isn’t including the rest of the world!! To be quite honest, I’ve never been a big fan of a slab of fish on my plate, even if it is drenched in garlic butter. However a large percentage of the human population depend on this source of protein.

It all started with a rod and line, now its catching for the masses

Evolution of Fishing

In its infancy, fishing by humans was conducted by a rod and line, bow and arrows, fishing spears as well as plunge baskets, made from woven grass and reeds. As time passed we started making enclosures where the fish would be trapped between low tide and high tide.

As fishing progressed and the humane population increased, we started using bigger boats, bigger nets and going out further into the ocean. Different types of nets and strategies for catching fish were introduced, these include seine nets, trek nets, long line fishing and gill nets. Due to different fish species having different behaviours and habitats, it means that these different nets catch different fish, in different areas, some nets catch fish on the surface waters of the ocean, others in the middle sections of the ocean and others scrape the bottom floor of the ocean.

In the modern era with the progression of technology and growing demand of food for the growing human population has meant only one thing. Highly sophisticated GPS satellite and tracking systems which can pinpoint exactly where a shoal of fish is. It’s not just one or two boats or trawlers that go out once or twice a week to get their quota, oh no we are talking about LARGE AMOUNTS of boats going out every day, for long hours trying to catch as much fish as possible.

Trawlers can catch millions of fish in one trip and this is exacerbated by high tech navigation and other satellite systems.

The depletion of fish stocks and wildlife

The amount of fish caught across the globe is staggering and fish stocks such as Bluefin tuna, White stumpnose and Geelbek have crashed dramatically. Along with this, the nets intended to catch a specific species of fish, will drag other marine life with it. This includes turtles, sharks, rays and dolphins. At the turn of the century, special dolphin friendly nets were made by some fisheries but not all of them. However many other marine species still suffer by being caught as bycatch as it is known. This bycatch is mostly just thrown back in the ocean as scraps. Nonetheless in more recent times some of this bycatch is used to make some seafood dishes like fish cakes or fish fingers.

Other species which suffer due to commercial fishing is firstly Albatrosses which get caught by long line fishing nets because they are attracted to the fish and fish bait on the long line hooks. These birds cover large areas of ocean to find food for not only themselves but for their chicks as well. As fish stocks become less and less and plastic pollution becomes more and more they start ingesting more plastic thinking it is food while also feeding it to their chicks. This is not just happening to Albatrosses but to all marine life which depends on the ocean for food. Secondly, trawling boats which have their nets on the bottom of the sea floor, destroy deep sea coral and sponge communities which have been around for centuries and will take many years to re-establish themselves.

When boats cast their nets out, often don't only get the species of fish they intended to catch. This is called bycatch.

Sustainable Fishing

After a while fisherman started noticing that they weren’t catching as much fish like in previous years. Conservationists did some research into the matter and found that a large number of fish populations had become depleted. Fisherman were having to go out in their boats for longer hours and catching less fish. Another interesting turn of events which happened over many years is that the size of fish individuals become smaller. In the early 1920’s and 1930’s, the size of fish in many different species were much larger than they are today. This occurrence happened because as fisherman started catching more and more there become less adult fish available, so they start catching the juvenile(young adults) which had not grown to their full adult size yet.

WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) stepped in to help. One of the initiatives that I am most familiar towards is the SASSI (South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) List. This list consisted of three categories, namely the red list, the orange list and the green list.

Large shoals of fish are being taken out of the ocean every day and becoming fewer and fewer.

The Red list Red list - Species are from unsustainable populations, have extreme environmental concerns, lack appropriate management or are illegal to buy or sell in SA. ‘No sale’ species are illegal to sell and are reserved for recreational fishers who require a valid fishing permit and must adhere to specific regulations. Abalone, West Coast Rock lobster and Blue fin Tuna.

The Orange list - There are reasons for concern about the fish on this list, either because the species is depleted as a result of overfishing and cannot sustain current fishing pressure or because the fishing or farming method poses harm to the environment and/or the biology of the species makes it vulnerable to high fishing pressure. European Pilchard, Cold Water Prawn and East Coast Sole.

The green list - These are the most sustainable choices from the healthiest and most well-managed fish populations. These species can handle current fishing pressure or are farmed in a manner that does not harm the environment. Anchovy, Angelfish and Atlantic Mackerel.

On a broader spectrum which encompasses the entire world there is the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative. Amongst other things they address illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) with the FAO by promoting the uptake and implementation of relevant FAO instruments and guidelines (by public and private sector). So the next time you buy fish from your local supermarket or go out to your favourite fish restaurant, check with your waiter or fishmonger to see if it is sustainably caught. In some cases however they may say yes it is sustainably caught when actually it’s not. It may be beneficial if we all took some time to read up about what fish species are sustainable in our area of the world.

Next time you order or buy fish, make sure it comes from a sustainable source.

It’s hard to think how this may affect us today as we go out and see the shelves stocked full of fish. However let’s turn our attention to the next generation, your grandchildren, nephews and nieces, what kind of a future will they have with an empty ocean.

To conclude let me leave you with this quote:

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. (Native American Proverb)

Bye for now.


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