The post title of an image of a school of fish from National Geograhic

No Such Thing As ‘Sustainable Fishing’

Fishing has been a fact of life for millennia. We have relied on fishing for subsistence ever since we organised ourselves into communities. However, fishing has changed a lot since then (for the most part). Commercial fishing is highly mechanised and done on a massive scale. We have moved from the inefficient methods of the past and into the highly-efficient (but not very targeted) methods of the future. Each year 77 billion kg of aquatic life is removed from the sea each year. This has had an unimaginable impact on the fish, on which we rely so heavily. The oceans contribute $1.5 trillion dollars to the global economy annually and provides livelihoods for 10-12% of the population.

A fisherman holding a fish and a knife surrounded by seagulls. Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

So, such a valuable resource, needs protecting. Global fisheries (the fish in the oceans etc.) are controlled by catch quotas. Only so many tonnes of each fish species is allowed to be removed from the ocean each year. These quotas have proven very difficult to police, but have slowed the complete collapse of fish stocks. As it stands 90% of global fisheries are either fully exploited or overexploited.

What Is Sustainable Fishing?

To be sustainable a practice must meet the needs of the present without preventing future generations from meeting their needs. This is no different for fishing. Sustainable fishing is the practice that guarantees populations of fish, and other aquatic life, for the future. Sustainable fishing is based on the concept of sustainable yields, the Maximum Sustainable Yield is the maximum amount of fish that can be removed over an indefinite amount of time. How much fish that can be sustainably removed from the ocean depends on the fish species, a case by case basis, but it is a lot less than is currently being removed.

A person fishing on very quiet, still water just before dawn - using a fishing rod from a small row-boat. There is a duck swimming in the foreground. Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

‘Sustainable fishing’ is a voluntary practice where you fish under certain extra rules to become sustainably certified. These are certification such as the Marine Conservation Society Fisheries Standard and the Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Standard – companies apply to become a sustainable fishery and then the products can be sold at a premium.

Why Is It Bullsh*t?

On a whole, we are taking far more fish (and other seafood items) from the ocean than can be naturally replaced – this is unsustainable. It is estimated that if we continue as we are, there will be NO FISH LEFT by 2050. No fish!! The oceans will be empty (except for the plastic).

Yes, some fish are ‘sustainably caught’, but fisheries are so far beyond a partial, simple fix, that it is irrelevant. Only some fish are caught ‘sustainably’, the rest are still caught using very unsustainable methods (i.e. dredging). It’s like changing all your lightbulbs to energy saving ones and then operating an underground arcade out of your garage – you shouldn’t be shocked when your electricity bill is through the roof. We are so far beyond the point where some sustainably caught fish can save us. There is simply too much fishing happening for any fishing to be sustainable.

“I personally have stopped eating seafood … I know that every fish counts at this point”

Dr. Sylvia Earle, marine scientist.

Fishing Quotas:

Total Allowable Catches are set for each fish stock based on the Maximum Sustainable Yield data – these are then divided between countries that want access to the fish stock. Each country will then divide their quotas up into portions which can be leased. This system favours big companies with large vessels and highly mechanised (more destructive) methods. In England and Wales, 61% of the fishing quota is held by 3 companies – these multi-million pound companies out-compete small ventures and independent fishers.

A person wearing full waterproofs, looking out to sea from the back of fishing trawler. Photo by Lalo on Unsplash

sliiide to right

Unfortunately, globally, not all quotas come with the same restrictions – some may have restrictions on time of year, equipment permissible, or fishing methods allowed and some may not. It all depends on the fish in question, the value of the fishery, the ecological importance of the area, and who is setting the rules. Value of the fisheries play a large role in how they are policed, if the fish are of high value politicians may be reluctant to minimise the fishing effort (and damage done) in favour of money.

Most fishing takes place in waters controlled by the country it touches – these are called Exclusive Economic Zones and stretch for 200 nautical miles (370km) from a country’s coast. But outside of this zone, is international waters, which are much harder to police as no one technically owns them. International waters are managed by Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) these are a group of people from all the countries invested in having the international fishery in question managed appropriately. But despite these RFMOs, international waters are still largely unregulated and rules easily flouted – the area is so vast and fishing methods so efficient that it is impossible to effectively control these waters.


What Makes It So Unsustainable?

Fish are often captured at a very young age to supply increasing demand, so there is no time for them to replace the previous generation and reproduce. Multiple years of little replacement will mean that the populations of fish are decimated. Take the Beluga Sturgeon, for instance, sturgeon eggs are collected for the world caviar market – these fish are slow growing and take 20 years to reach maturity. At which point, they only release eggs every 3-4 years, the removal of the sturgeon’s eggs means that there is no replacement. The popularity of caviar on the international market has meant that there is a huge illegal trade in caviar and the population numbers of sturgeon are declining rapidly.

A small blue plastic dump truck scooping caviar off a slice of bread.

the fact that this pic even exists, proves how little we care about fish.

Natural populations fluctuate in size over time. Fishing quotas are based on an assumed size of the fishery, and as this changes continually we are likely to be overexploiting fisheries more often than we think. Maximum Sustainable Yield doesn’t take these fluctuations into account and it assumed that fish populations naturally produce ‘surplus’ fish, which isn’t strictly true. Any fish removed from the population reduces the probability that the next generation will be of sufficient size to maintain the population.

If the intensive legal fishing wasn’t enough pressure on the oceans there is also the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing to contend with. It is estimated that illegal fishing comes in at around 14-33% (11- 26 billion kg) of the world’s legal catch. That’s a whole lot of illegal fish. Authorities are spread thin and fishing quotas aren’t high on their list of priorities, this is where Sea Shepherd comes in! Sea Shepherd is a badass charity that is physically out on the seas ensuring people aren’t breaking the law. There are plenty of ways to get involved with them – from volunteering to do a tour on one of their ships (on the front-line!), to getting a tattoo in their new tattoo studio with all the profits going to the charity!

A man holding a small fish he's caught. He is in fishing gear and in a small boat on a body of water. He is smiling. Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

“put that thing back where it came from, or so help me” – Mike Wazoski

Quotas don’t actually stop you taking more than your allotted amount of fish out of the ocean, it only prevents the ships from bringing it (legally) back to port. Obviously, there is some unreported catch that is brought to shore illegally, but the majority of it will just be tossed overboard. These fish are often dead, or near enough, by the time they are thrown back – so they die for no reason. Fishing is not an exact science so there is a lot of excess.

Don’t even get me started on trying to figure out the carbon footprint of fish.

Ghost Nets:

Ghost nets are nets and cages that have been discarded into the ocean – these go on capturing animals without a hope of ever being released. These animals often die of starvation, injury, or, if they are air-breathing, drowning. I touched on this subject last week, in my Plastic Straws post. Ghost nets make up 46% of ocean plastic!! FORTY-SIX PERCENT! This is an incredible amount of netting, just drifting in the ocean. More than 650,000 kg of ghost gear is left in the ocean every single year – killing more than 130,000 seals, dolphins, whales, sharks, etc. On top of this, bit of the nets end up in the food chain and potentially on our plates – in the form of microplastics.

A disused metal cage washed up on a beach. Photo by James & Carol Lee on Unsplash

this would be art if it weren’t so deadly – or maybe that is what makes it art? #deep

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) have now taken steps to help prevent ghost nets. All fishing nets will now need to be fitted with special tags that will help them trace the nets and get them back to their owners if they go astray. Some nets come loose and get lost, yes, but for the most-part it is irresponsible fisherpeople – so a scheme such as this that holds the fishers accountable will be amazing! Net recycling schemes have also been popping up all over the world – like this one in the Phillippnes and a number in Europe. The (nylon) nets are recycled to be made into all sorts of things including carpets, socks, sunglasses, swimwear, underwear etc.!

Please sign this petition to try to take action against ghost gear and its catastrophic impact on sea life.

Non-Target Catch:

When fishing for fish, you don’t always catch what you intend to – sometimes you turn up a turtle, a shark, other species of fish, whales, or a seabird. This is called Bycatch. Bycatch is a serious problem with 7.4 billion kg of non-target marine life being caught each year. Around 200,000 loggerhead turtles and 50,000 leather back turtles are captured each year. Whales and dolphins are also caught as bycatch, around 300,000 a year are killed by fishing. These animals die and then are just tossed back as they fishers can’t/aren’t allowed to do anything with them.

A turtle photographed from underwater - it is diving towards the sea bed. Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

she’s beauty and she’s grace

There are some simple fixes to these problems, but as with everything else they cost money. And there is an unwillingness, within the fishing community, to address the severity of the issue of bycatch. Fixes are fishery specific as different fish species require different techniques but include thing like putting little turtle flaps on nets to allow turtles out or scaring seabirds using flapping streamers.

Animal Welfare:

Each year an estimated 0.97 to 2.7 trillion fish are caught and removed from the wild oceans. That is a LOT of fish. This number is an estimate using average fish weights and the actual tonnage of catch. Fish are not counted when caught but rather just weighed, in tonnes, because they are so numerous. Fish that are caught are not killed, like animals that are killed for meat. Once caught, fish are just left to die (suffocate? or drown? in air).

Two orcas, a mother and calf, swimming between some forested mountains.

are we there yet?

Fish aren’t just for us! We seem to make this mistake often, thinking that as long as there’s enough for us, it’ll be fine. Animals rely on fish. Fish are also integral to ocean health, and ocean health is integral for planet health. Fish and other sea life play a key role in oceanic nutrient cycling and the ocean’s ability to be a carbon sink! If we eat too many fish, we might as well eat ourselves (we are the animals and it’s our welfare at stake).


Stop Eating Fish!

Different types of fish in large styrofoam boxes filled with ice, ready for sale. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash.

If this information wasn’t convincing enough for you, fish are incredibly polluted. You would be too, if you swam around in the chemical soup we continue to call an ocean. Studies have shown that top-of-the-food-chain fish (i.e. fish that eat other fish) contain incredibly high levels of mercury, as well as a number of other very harmful pollutants. If you eat these fish an excessive amount, more than 3-4 times a month, it can have an impact on your cognitive capabilities. And, for those anti-vaxxers, eating big fish once a week during pregnancy will result in a level of mercury, in your child’s body, that is the same as giving them 12 ‘mercury-containing’ vaccines (which are actually no-longer given to children).


Fishing Moratorium:

In my opinion, there needs to be a moratorium on fishing. A complete and total ban (with the exception of subsistence fishing) on fishing for a couple of years or so – to let fish stocks recover. A moratorium was placed on commercial whaling in 1986, which is still in place today, and has vastly slowed the decline of whale populations. Whaling is still allowed for aboriginal subsistence and scientific research. Unfortunately, a number of countries (Norway and Iceland) still hunt whales in protest of the moratorium and Japan still kills whales under the guise of ‘scientific research. The moratorium is marred by politics and nations fail to take head of the science – which wouldn’t bode well for a moratorium on fish (a more valuable ‘commodity’). It’s another difficult situation, much like the palm oil one, where a moratorium will harm the fishing communities the most.

A humpback whale jumping out of the water in front of some forested mountains.

hey, mum, look at me!

A simple answer to this problem would be to eat farmed fish! But, unfortunately, they are not any better for the environment. I will probably address this at some point, in another post.


MANY More Marine Protected Areas:

A school of tropical fish in very turquoise water. Photo by Sean Cotton on Unsplash

get my good side

The ocean needs a lot more protection in the form of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These can be expensive to implement and enforce, but no more so than having no fish in the ocean. They provide shelter for marine life from fishing and other damaging human activities. It is proven that fish stocks increase when they are protected areas near by, when these areas are well-enforced there is a noticeable increase in fish stocks in the surrounding areas. There are suggestions to turn all international waters (58% of the ocean) into one giant protected area – fishing will be banned in international waters in an effort to save global fisheries.

The pinterest pin for 'no such thing as sustainable fishing' - features the title and some fish

In my opinion, people who have access to other protein sources should not be eating fish. The ocean is on the border of collapse. Fishing rights should be reserved exclusively for those who require them for subsistence. So, my take-away message from this post would be – don’t eat fish. Unfortunately, I know most people will continue to eat fish despite how much evidence there is against it. But if you are going to eat fish, please ensure you do your research on the species of fish you plan to eat and always take sustainable certifications with a pinch of salt (and vinegar).


If you have anything to add, leave it in the comments! Don’t forget to subscribe to my mailing list for a monthly recap of my blog and some environmental articles I found interesting!

Jessica xx

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17 thoughts on “No Such Thing As ‘Sustainable Fishing’

  1. colettebytes says:

    Great Post Jessica.

    As a Vegan, I don’t eat seafood, but you make a lot of valid points to Non Vegans too.

    I have just read a National Geographic report on the tragic death, in Mexico, of 300 migrating sea turtles caught up in a ghost net. They were found dried up with in the net after being cast up on a beach.
    I have certainly signed your petition against the proliferation of ghost nets (nets just left in the sea to drift about) .

    If anyone is interested in this link…

    It will take you to an AVAAZ (Avaaz means ‘voice’) petition to stop the re-licencing of Whaling in Iceland, by its president (who also supports a pro-whaling lobby).
    I think this is an important chance to reverse the actions of a minority of people within a country who support such outdated and cruel fishing for no other reason than a tiny percentage of people like to eat Whale meat. Even the few restaurants in Reykjavik that stock Whale meat, only do so as a unique item for tourists. Their own population no longer support the practice.

    Great work. You really do add a voice to the debate on sustainability. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Caitlin says:

    You have written a great, thorough article here! I’m very impressed.

    I did not know about the state of our oceans and fish supply. I can now see why there is such a push for farmed fish. This makes it difficult for me, though, because wild-caught fish is actually more nutritious than farmed. I wrote about farmed salmon vs. wild-caught salmon on my blog under the section “WHAT IS THE HEALTHIEST SALMON TO EAT? AND DOESN’T IT HAVE A LOT OF MERCURY?” here:

    However, I want to caution you on the mercury. Fish that eat fish (i.e. sharks, swordfish, king mackerel) have really high levels of mercury, while other fish that don’t eat fish (i.e. salmon, tuna, tilapia, etc.) don’t have high levels of mercury. So, to just say “fish” when talking about mercury is misleading. Salmon, actually, is known to be a great source of many nutrients that we can’t get from other meats, or from dairy, vegetables, or fruits. One of those nutrients is omega-3 fats, which help fight inflammation. Inflammation may actually be linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autism, dementia, and more. (I talk about that here: Also, the Mediterranean diet is fish-based and those on that diet do not have the chronic diseases we battle today.

    So, since we need the great nutrients fish provide, the question is, then, how do we make catching fish sustainable without compromising the nutrients in the fish?

    The problem with farmed fish is that the fish are fed a meal that decreases the amount of omega-3 fats in the fish. Plus, the fish aren’t able to swim freely as wild-caught fish are, so farmed also has more fat than wild-caught. And we know that toxins like to hang out in fat, so farmed fish often have higher levels of toxins than wild-caught.

    Any decision that is made is going to have consequences, unfortunately. We have a growing population that has never been seen before. So, as a Dietitian, I am often left to figure out how to nourish people’s bodies without causing damage. Yet, to feed everyone, we are damaging our environment and manipulating what’s made in nature to be able to provide more food.

    I guess it comes down to what’s more important: feeding everyone or making sure everyone is healthy? Taking away fish completely from the market is not practical because people who eat fish would have to replace it with something. And it’s not like the meat, dairy, grain, vegetable, or fruit industries aren’t have sustainability issues either.

    It’s a tricky problem, but I think if we work together, we can find a balance between taking care of our environment (the ocean and land) and making sure everyone is nourished well.

    Thanks for informing me on so much!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • jessicaleecole says:

      Hi Caitlin!

      Unfortunately, fish farming isn’t really any better for the environment than wild caught fish. Quite often fish farms use wild-caught fish as fish meal. But, in my opinion, it’s probably better to eat something that has been raised for slaughter (fish or meat) rather than taking something from the wild. The state of our oceans is so dire that believe we should just have to cope without fish for a few years – otherwise, there will end being no fish at all.

      Fish get their omega 3 from the algae that they eat. There are some companies ( now that are isolating this from the algae and bypassing the fish stage! Basically vegan fish oil! So, it is possible to get high quality omega 3 from a non-fish source. I understand that this isn’t the only macronutirent fish bring to the table but there are always ways around it. 🙂 I feel that people that are able to make these choices and swaps should do so! Those that are more reliant on fish for subsistence should continue to eat what they require.

      Thank you – I will adjust the fish mercury part now!

      Thank you so much for reading! 😀


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