Sustainable Seafood – A Sea Change?

sleclue —  February 24, 2011 — Leave a comment

The following blog post was written by Sophie Le Clue, director of ADMCF’s environment program:

Two weeks ago I attended Seaweb’s annual seafood summit in Vancouver. Aptly named ‘Responsibility without Borders’, it was attended by more than 700 industry representatives, NGOs and academics, from 30 countries.

These constituents gathered to discuss the different aspects and perspectives of the world’s fisheries.   In a previous blog (Catch it if you Can) I focused on the worrying situation facing our oceans as a result of intense and industrialised overfishing. 

A fairly bleak picture was painted, with huge environmental impacts and fisheries’ collapse imminent if we carry on business as usual. Not to mention the more immediate demise of certain fish species such as sharks, blue fin tuna, orange roughy and chilean sea bass.

However, with both a heavy industry and NGO presence, the summit showcased the progress that is being made in fisheries management, including improved traceability, the reported recovery of some stocks and on a slightly alternative note, the sustainability of eating seafood when compared to livestock – more on that later.

Ray Hillborn pointed out that not all capture fisheries are unsustainable – and that fish stocks in aggregate are stable rather than declining, based on data from N America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Partnerships with NGOs and constructive engagement appeared to be a driving force behind the sustainable seafood ‘movement’ and the improvements that are emerging.

There was however a notable gap – which as you may have guessed, is the implication of seafood production, consumption and fisheries management in Asia and in particular, China.

A question raised at the summit hit the nail on the head, :– how can you keep growing sustainable seafood production/consumption without engaging the world’s largest seafood producer and market – the answer posed was simply – you can’t.

According to FAO, China is by far the largest fish-producing country, with production at 47.5 million tonnes in 2008.  This represents 17% of the world’s capture fisheries and 62% of world aquaculture production of fish, an impressive figure considering that aquaculture represents 46% of the total fish food supply globally.

Already the world’s largest seafood market, China is touted to become the world’s largest seafood importer by the end of the decade.

Annual per capita fish consumption globally is on the rise – 12.6kg/capita in the eighties has risen to 17.2kg/capita by 2009. China accounts for most of the global increase in per capita consumption and its consumption is 55% higher than the world average at 26.7kg/capita. Interestingly, Hong Kong with its relatively small population of nearly 7 million, appears to have a voracious appetite for seafood with per capita consumption estimated at over 64kg/year.

Unfortunately FAO statistics indicate that room for optimism is limited.  Of global fish stocks it estimates that : 32% are over exploited, 53% are fully exploited,  12% moderately exploited and  just 3% underexploited – not leaving much room to satiate the world’s expanding population and appetite for seafood.

It’s all the more fitting then and indeed a sign of the times, that for the summit’s tenth anniversary, Seaweb has elected for the first time to host the event in Asia – with China’s neighbour, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, as the selected venue. 

Food glorious food : land versus the sea

Returning to the livestock issue and the comparative impacts of land versus sea-based food production, Ray Hillborn hypothesised that the comparative environmental cost of fish is lower than land-based livestock.

Whilst this is not a reason to take an eye off the sustainability issues facing our oceans, – it warrants some thought, especially for the voracious meat eaters among us.

Mr Hillborn presented the findings of a review he undertook recently of existing research and it makes for interesting reading.  As he points out, the actual numbers he unearthed are not so important in terms of accuracy, but the scale is significant – there are clearly significant environmental costs associated with meat production (Box 1).

On energy efficiency, a paper by Peter Tyedmers (albeit ten years old) was presented, also showing quite clearly the inefficiency in food production on a sliding scale, with meat production being the worst (Box 2) – queue obvious implications for climate change. Hilbourn was nevertheless at pains to keep reminding us that fisheries do have environmental impacts.

Annual production Box 1. The environmental cost of food production
Water use (km3) / yr Fertilisermillions of tonnes / yr Pesticides  thousands of tonnes /yr AntibioticsTonnes / yr Soil loss millions of tonnes /yr Greenhouse gases/yr tons CO2 per tonne live weight
Beef 619 12 76 1998 307 11.3-18.3
Chicken 178 13 79 5085 318 1.4
Pork 598 20 121 4994 487 2.3-4
Capture fisheries ? 0 0 0 0  
Atlantic cod trawl and gill net 0.9-3.8
Atlantic herring purse seine 0.07-0.36

 

Box 2. Energy efficiency and food production
Production method Energy efficiency (%)
Mussel farming (Scandanavia) 10*
29 North Atlantic fisheries 9.5
Carp farming (Israel) 8.4
Turkey farming (US) 7.7
Tilapia pond culture (Zimbabwe) 6.0
Swine (US) 5.6
Eggs (US) 3.8
Chicken (US) 2.9
Lamb (US) 2.0
Beef (US feedlot) 1.9
 * as an example this means for every 1000 cals of energy put in, you get just  10 cals out

On aquaculture, although there are justified concerns over environmental impacts and   feeding fish with fish (a common practice for many farmed species such as salmon),   it was useful to be reminded that the alternative for using fishmeal for aquaculture is to use it for chicken, beef and pork.

The problem with this is the efficiency of conversion to protein – significantly less protein is produced per unit of input compared to fish. Better then to use fishmeal for fish?

The takeaway for me, is not to eat more fish (unless it is sustainably sourced) given the state of our seas and fisheries.  

But, considering the highly industrialised methods of land-based food production and the associated environmental degradation, energy inefficiency, climate change and biodiversity impacts – then vegetarianism or at least consuming significantly less meat is an option that more of us should seriously consider, and one that we should educate our children about.

Health and safety issues in livestock production, for both workers and consumers, as well as ethical concerns given the inhumane nature of industrialized animal husbandry are another story and provide yet further justification for us to ponder the ‘less meat’ route.

And of the meat we eat? – as consumers we can vote  as we buy – by purchasing organically farmed and locally grown organic food  – for those who need persuading,  I recommend watching the documentary ‘Food Inc.’

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