Decades of mismanagement and over-fishing have left the seas around Ireland and Europe practically devoid of fish with familiar dinner plate specials such as Cod, Sole and Whiting practically extinct in Irish waters.
In fact up to 88% of our fish stocks are being fished unsustainably while 30% are ‘outside safe biological limits’. Unlike chicken and beef that are farmed fish are wild animals and they are a part of a marine ecosystem that is just as complex and interrelated as any on land.
It is estimated that by 2050 all commercially exploitable fish species will have been over-fished, depriving us not only of a tasty and nutritious source of protein but destroying livelihoods, communities and a part of our cultural heritage.
However this scenario is not inevitable and decisions that are made today can reverse the path to destruction and ensure a sustainable fishing resource for generations to come. You, the consumer, have a vital role to play in securing a positive outcome and avoiding environmental catastrophe.
All fishing in EU waters is currently managed from Brussels under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). This has been described as a “disaster” by a former European Fisheries Commissioner and has directly resulted in the unrelenting decline in fish stocks that have been witnessed.
All of this is happening because we love to eat fish. The IWT does not advocate an end to fishing. We believe that fish is an essential part of our diet, culture, society and economy. It is vital for the survival of coastal communities all around our island. However, the type of fish we eat, particularly by knowing where and how our fish has been caught, can send a strong signal to decision makers that change is urgently needed. Having said that, making choices at the fish counter is not easy and so much more needs to be done to inform the public about the impacts of these choices.
The Irish Wildlife Trust is therefore delighted to publish this first consumer’s guide to sustainable seafood.
Because the information is not always clear cut we have developed a traffic light system:
- Enjoy, confident in the knowledge that your seafood is being harvested sustainably.
- This may be OK to eat but we don’t know enough to be sure. Little is known about the state of the stock, the way it is fished causes damage to the marine ecosystem or there is enough evidence to suggests that stocks are declining.
- This fish is endangered with extinction, or the way it is fished is so damaging to the marine environment that it is threatening the future of other species.
The information used to make the assessments, unless otherwise stated comes from the Marine Institute's most recent independent annual review of Ireland's fish stocks known as The Stock Book Consumer’s guide to sustainable seafood.
The north Atlantic Cod is listed as ‘threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is practically extinct in Irish waters.. Most Cod that are caught today are juvenile fish that have not had a chance to breed. Cod is a top predator in the sea and its absence has resulted in an imbalance further down the food chain.
Added to this consumers are being duped since recent research has shown that a variety of other fish are being passed off as Cod in restaurants and fish and chip shops
Plaice is one of a number of flatfish that can be found around the Irish coast and its population appears to be stable. Because they live on the sandy bottom of the sea they are fished by beam trawling – a method that destroys corals, sea fans and anything else that is rooted on the sea floor.
Not only that but the level of by-catch when fishing from plaice is estimated to be up to 80%! This includes juvenile Cod, crabs, urchins, and any number of other fish species that are simply thrown overboard, dead.
Sole is also fished by beam trawling however it has been extensively over-fished to the point that quotas are not issued for this species.
These popular prawns are now a valuable fishery for Ireland and in the Irish Sea they are plentiful since their main predator, the Cod, has been removed. However there is evidence of over-fishing in the north Atlantic and indiscriminate fishing techniques result in large numbers of juvenile Cod, Haddock and Whiting being caught as ‘by catch’.
The Mackerel is the most important commercial fish to Irish fishermen, worth over €59 million in 2009. It is not only a tasty fish but is packed full of healthy omega3 fish oils. This fishery has recently been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council indicating that it is being harvested sustainably. Consumers should be rewarding the considerable efforts of the Irish fishing industry in winning this mark by heartily tucking in.
There is no information on the current status of this fish and so it has been recommended that fish effort not be increased until better data are at hand. There are declining trends in the size of fish that are landed and this is a cause for concern.
Wild Atlantic salmon are a protected species under the EU Habitats Directive and the sale of this once abundant fish is now prohibited. The end of drift netting for Salmon will hopefully bring some relief to this remarkable species that completes its life cycle in both fresh and salt water. Most Salmon in supermarkets and restaurants is now farmed and on the surface this seems like a perfect solution to addressing problems of over-fishing. However, fish farms bring their own environmental problems including pollution with fish faeces and introducing parasites, particularly Sea lice, to wild fish. There may also be problems with genetic contamination when farmed fish cross with their wild relatives. Added to that environmental assessments required under EU law have never been carried out for fish farm operations across the west of Ireland.
The Monkfish, or Anglerfish, is a ferocious looking predator that has a mouth about twice as big as its body. What is presented to consumers is the fish’s tail which contains the firm, tasty flesh. The state of this stock is unknown and the scientists’ advice is currently not to increase fishing effort.
These fish were once dinnertime favourites but have now been over-fished to the point where recovery in the short to medium term in the Irish sea is highly unlikely. In other regions there is a lack of data but even if stocks in the Celtic sea and North Atlantic are in better shape the consumer has no way of knowing where the fish has originated from.
The Scallop stock was not assessed by the Marine Institute. These distinctive shellfish are considered plentiful in Irish waters but unfortunately the method of harvesting, using beam trawling, is indiscriminate and can be damaging to marine habitats depending on the nature of the sea bed.
Mussels are now farmed but have not been associated with the environmental problems of salmon farms. In fact Irish mussels are labelled with An Bord Bia’s sustainability mark meaning they can be eaten with a clear conscious. Mussels are exceptionally good value, tasty and easy to cook.
In 2001 an emergency recovery plan was introduced to rebuild stocks of Hake. To-date it appears that this plan is being effective with numbers increasing. Hake, like Cod, is a predator that feeds on other fish, so its decline has been linked to changes in the ecosystem that have seen increases in the populations of species further down the food chain.
In the early 1990’s a scheme was started in Galway Bay to mark the tails of young female Lobsters with a notch. They were thrown back so they could continue to breed until the notch grew out. This has been remarkable successful and has resulted in bigger and more lobsters in the pot.
There is currently a moratorium on the fishing of Sea bass by Irish fishermen and it is prohibited to sell wild Sea bass in Irish shops or restaurants. The sea bass that is sold in supermarkets is imported wild stock but it is no harm to ask just to be sure.
This issue of fish farming adds another dimension as huge quantities of fish needs to be caught as feed for captive fish. Imported fish from distant locations also add ‘food miles’ and is therefore contributing to climate change.
The plight of the Blue-fin tuna has been given a lot of publicity in recent years. Its population has plummeted as a result of mismanagement and a flagrant disregard for scientific advice. This situation continues and so Blue-fin should not be eaten for the time being. IWT research has shown that most fillet tuna in Irish supermarkets is of the Yellow-fin variety however this is difficult to tell since labels frequently only refer to a generic ‘tuna’. The tuna in cans is predominantly Skipjack tuna (although again the species of tuna is not always identified) and it is accepted that there are still plenty of these to go around. There are problems with how Tuna are fished. This is done using a method known as ‘long-lining’ where by huge lengths of fishing line, perhaps tens of kilometres long, are baited and trawled through the sea. The hooks routinely catch not only tuna but Sharks, Turtles and a variety of other sea creatures. Up to 90% of the world’s Sharks and marine predators have been lost in the past 50 years resulting in a dramatic man-induced alteration of the food chain. Recently tuna have started to be caught using rod and line and this virtually eliminates the by-catch. Unfortunately consumers are not told how their Tuna is caught.
Swordfish in the Mediterranean are threatened with extinction although the north Atlantic population is considered stable. However the problems of long-line fishing are also associated with this fishery.
These prawns predominantly arrive on our shores frozen after a long journey, probably from south-east Asia. There they have been farmed in intensive fisheries that are clearing valuable coastal Mangrove forests, causing marine pollution, and damaging off-shore coral reefs. They are high in ‘carbon miles’ and taste of little.