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Can eating seafood ever be sustainable?

Making environmentally responsible seafood choices can be an important way to help the ocean.

If you've enjoyed watching the wonderful spectacles and intricate lives of fish in their natural environment on Blue Planet II, it may seem strange to say "eat them", but fish have played a key role in the human diet for millennia. People around the world rely on fish for food and depend on fishing and fish farming for their livelihoods.

However, we’re moving into dangerous waters when it comes to fish of the future with 90% of world fish stocks fully or over-exploited from fishing. Destructive fishing practices are damaging sensitive habitats and accidently catching other marine wildlife such as seabirds and turtles.

Globally fish farming (also known as aquaculture) is rapidly expanding to fulfil our increasing demand, but if fish farming is done badly it can also damage the environment in which it operates.

Given these issues, you may wonder whether it’s okay to eat fish. Choosing not to eat fish is an option that some people choose to take to reduce demand for the resource and any associated environmental impacts or other reasons. However, there are ways to catch and farm fish that are environmentally responsible and many fish stocks and habitats can recover if they are managed sustainably and given time to recover.

In the last year 97% of the British public bought fish, so making environmentally responsible seafood choices can be an important way to help protect the ocean and the livelihoods of the communities that support it.

By choosing seafood from the most sustainable sources you encourage supermarkets and restaurants to demand it from their suppliers and in turn help support the market for seafood that is caught or farmed in the most environmentally responsible way. You are likewise reducing demand for the most unsustainable seafood, like those that are red rated on the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide. You can therefore play a key role in securing the future of our seas and marine wildlife.

Here are some tips for making the right choices for those of us that are seafood eaters and concerned conservationists.

1. Ask where your seafood is caught and farmed

Where seafood has been caught or farmed can make a huge difference. Different regions have different fish stocks and can have different farming practices and approaches to management. Did you know there are 14 different cod stocks in the northeast Atlantic alone, and some are doing much better than others?

Over half the seafood we eat is farmed and this figure is growing. Responsible fish farming, particularly fish that don't require much food such as shellfish, can help to take the pressure of wild capture fisheries and in some cases can be a more environmentally responsible choice. Ask where your seafood is caught and farmed, if you can't get the information you need give it a miss!

2. Choose fish caught using methods with lower environmental impact

Capture method or fish farming types differ hugely and can mean the difference between a very low impact and very high impact on other marine life.

Choose fish caught using methods with lower environmental impacts such as hand-lining or potting. When buying tuna, skipjack tuna (which is primarily canned) caught with the most selective gear such as pole & line, hand-line or troll is the best choice.

3. Look for eco labels

Many certifications will not only tell you about the sustainability of the fishery or farm, but also help ensure the traceability of the product. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo for wild capture fisheries and for farmed fish look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) logo or Organic certification

4. Variety is the spice of life

Did you know that 6,500 fishing boats in the UK catch up to 150 different species, but most people in the UK only eat five? We are too reliant on the "Big Five": cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and warm-water prawns. One of the easiest ways to help us achieve sustainable seafood being the only choice in the future is to choose alternative species that have been caught and farmed responsibly. Try hake or coley instead of cod, rainbow trout (farmed in ponds) instead of salmon and swap tuna for MSC certified mackerel which is a great source of omega-3!

Give warm-water king and tiger prawns a rest and choose rope grown mussels which are a very sustainable choice. If you want to buy prawns, small cold-water MSC certified Northern prawns (which are usually in prawn cocktails or sandwiches) are a better choice than warm-water prawns.

5.** Avoid eating threatened species**

Did you know, some species like the European eel are more endangered than the snow leopard? By choosing threatened species, you could inadvertently contribute to their extinction so avoid buying these fish! Avoid buying other red rated fish which are heavily overfished such as Mediterranean swordfish, spurdog, wild seabass and wild Atlantic halibut.

6. Use the Good Fish Guide

Check out the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide which is a great guide to sustainable seafood and helps you make better seafood choices. It's available online, as a free app as well as a pocket PDF guide which summarises fish to eat and avoid. The Good Fish Guide has a handy traffic light system which tells you which sustainable green fish to choose, which unsustainable red rated fish to avoid and yellow/amber rated fish to choose occasionally to limit pressure on fish stocks.

The Good Fish Guide app also features sustainable seafood recipes from celebrity chefs including Raymond Blanc, Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall and Tom Aikens, as well as Fish2Fork restaurant ratings so you can see how restaurants near you perform on their sustainable seafood efforts.

By choosing sustainable seafood, you can help ensure our oceans are full of fish for years to come! For more information go to www.goodfishguide.org.

^Seafish, Seafood Industry Factsheet, March 2017 seafish.org/media/publications/SIF_March_2017_AW_download.pdf

Rajina Gurung is a seafood sustainability advocate at Marine Conservation Society, her work at MCS involves engaging with businesses and consumers to influence responsible seafood buying practices through the Good Fish Guide. Rajina has been in love with the ocean since watching Blue Planet at an early age and first got into ocean conservation after volunteering with Coral Cay Conservation where she worked on a project to implement the first large scale marine protected area in Cambodia. This led her to undertaking a masters in Conservation Science at Imperial College London where she developed a passion for fisheries. Rajina is an avid diver, snorkeler and ocean optimist.

By Rajina Gurung