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Keep eating fish; it’s the best way to feed the world

The famous ocean explorer, Sylvia Earle, has long advocated that people stop eating fish. Recently, George Monbiot made a similar plea in The Guardian – there’s only one way to save the life in our oceans, stop eating fish – which, incidentally, would condemn several million people to starvation.

In both cases, it’s facile reasoning. The oceans may suffer from many things, but fishing isn’t the biggest. Earle and Monbiot’s sweeping pronouncements lack any thought for the consequences of rejecting fish and substituting fish protein for what? Steak? That delicious sizzler on your plate carries the most appallingly large environmental costs regarding fresh water, grain production, land use, erosion, loss of topsoil, transportation, you name it.

Luckily for our planet, not everyone eats steak. You’re vegan, you say, and your conscience is clean. An admirable choice – so long as there aren’t too many of you. For the sake of argument and numbers, let us assume that we can substitute plant protein in the form of tofu, made from soybeans, for fish protein. Soybeans need decent land; in fact it would take 2.58 times the land area of England to produce enough tofu to substitute for no longer available fish. That extra amount of decent arable land just isn’t available – unless we can persuade Brazil, Ecuador and Columbia to cut down more of the Amazon rainforest. We would also add 1.71 times the amount of greenhouse gases that it takes to catch the fish.

And, again for the sake of argument, were we to substitute beef for fish, we would need 192.43 Englands to raise all that cattle and greenhouse gases would rocket to 42.4 times what they are from fishing.

But aren’t there alternatives that we can eat with a clean conscience? It depends. First, we must accept the inescapable truth that everyone has to eat. You and I and another few billion humans right down to the single cell organisms. The second inescapable truth arises from the first but is often ignored, is that there is no free lunch. The big variable in this business of eating is deciding the appropriate price to the environment.

There are costs to each mouthful. By the time you swallow it, that mouthful has racked up a huge amount of unseen costs: production of greenhouse gases, pollution of air and waterways, soil erosion, use of freshwater, use of antibiotics, and impacts on terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity.

After extensive studies, it turns out that some fish have the lowest green house gas footprint per unit of protein.

However, it doesn’t have to be that costly. Ocean fisheries don’t cause soil erosion, don’t blow away the topsoil, don’t use any significant freshwater, don’t use antibiotics and don’t have anything to do with nutrient releases, that devastating form of pollution that causes algal blooms in freshwater and dead zones in the ocean. After extensive studies, it turns out that some fish have the lowest green house gas footprint per unit of protein. Better even than plants. Sardines, herring, mackerel, anchovies and farmed shellfish all have a lower GHG footprint than plants, and many other fisheries come close.

A ringing endorsement of fish over meat came in 2013, when Andy Sharpless, the CEO of the conservation group Oceana, pointed out that you can sustainably produce food from the sea at low environmental cost. In his book, The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans, Sharpless says, “What if there was a healthy, animal sourced protein, that both the fats and the thins could enjoy without draining the life from the soil, without drying up our rivers, without polluting the air and the water, without causing our planet to warm even more, without plaguing our communities with diabetes, heart disease and cancer?” His answer was to eat fish.

There has been plenty of criticism of commercial fisheries, mostly focused on the impacts on marine ecosystems – fishing certainly reduces the abundance of fish in the ocean, and also non-target species like marine birds, mammals and turtles. But consider the alternative.

Suspend, for a minute, your image of food from the land as it appears to most of us in grocery stores or farmers’ markets – beautifully arranged vegetables, tasty bread, pretty cuts of meat as well as pre-cooked, pre-packaged, eternally preserved fast food. Then cast your minds to how and from where it comes, the raw material from a field. The land as it once was has been totally transformed by farming, replacing original habitat by clearcutting every type of existing flora and replacing it with exotic species, that would be grains, vegetables and fruit trees. Farming, be it agrobusiness or subsistence, essentially eliminates the habitat for indigenous species, and thousands of them have gone extinct because of food production, whereas no marine fish is known to have gone extinct from fishing. The ocean will remain the ocean, though of course we have to manage fish stocks well. We should press our governments to manage fisheries sustainably and minimize the environmental impacts of fishing.

Let’s give a final thought to the reality of boycotting fish and commercial fishing. The need for protein in this world is huge, and we certainly must not waste it. Fishing fleets are guided by quotas set by management and what Earle and Monbiot might boycott, will be shipped and gratefully eaten elsewhere.

Featured image: “Pile of Fish” by Oziel Gómez. Free for use via Pexels.


Recent Comments

  1. Mario

    Only 6% of soy production is for human food, the rest is for farm animals. What are you talking about? Without soy-based feed for animals, with the same amount of today CO2 production, we could have tofu for several billions people.

  2. Karl warr

    Some sound and irrefutable truth here.
    Im in seafood production here in New Zealand, in my neck of the woods I see disunity anger and despair at my local fishery management outcomes.
    History informs me there was much greater abundance in the past. The future of that abundance and ecosystem health coming back in tangeably obvious ways will inform me we are on the right track.
    Yes I beleive fish have a vital role to play in humanities future and we in the fishes. I think the pressure to stop eating fish is coming from people not seeing enough action on recovering abundance and ecosystem health. I personally would like to see fishing industries reach out for help to speed up ocean recovery, to be transparent about the difficulties being faced. To open up to public support too get it right. If not then the public rightfully will respond to what they experience when they interact with the oceans we all are a part of, and the current state they are in.

  3. James Wilson

    So Mario – you are talking about no meat as well as no fish then? As the article indicates harvesting marine protein at the lower ends of the food chain (such as through cultivated filter feeding bivalves) has not only amongst the lowest ecological footprints but also has +ve effects on provisioning of ecosystem goods and services, including the possibilities of bioremediation. With no external inputs required beyond growing medium

  4. Friend of many

    This reads like a paid advertising for the fishing industry. The author clearly has no grasp of The most basic economics of agriculture. Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 percent of all agricultural land. With as little as a 10% reduction in livestock consumption we would double the capacity of agricultural plants grown for human consumption.

    These facts exist outside of any facts about fishing. Some fishing can be sustainable, but we are clearly overfishing our oceans. That’s an empirical fact.

  5. Jesper Valgreen

    This kind of sensible, fact-based corrective to widely publicized sentiment, by those like Monbiot, who often seem more concerned with the supposed moral habitus of their audience than with actually doing anything about the underlying issues, is most welcome.
    The world does not need more preachers. It does need more fact-based, pragmatic sensibility.
    Thank you.

  6. Tom Barker

    Ray Hilborn sticks to facts, but he’s pretty selective with them. The problem is one of ecology. Any species, including commercial fish, needs habitat to breed and develop and resources to do that with. Then harvesting needs to avoid damage to those (nursery areas) and be done at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of replacement. Serious issues with sustainability and environmental damage, and social & economic problems are caused when these things don’t happen. Very large factory ships that wreck the environment and displace local fisheries are a major cause. Criticisms of activists such as Monbiot are misplaced. The problem is one of scale, and Hibron knows better than to write this naive stuff, unless that is, he’s merely trying to provoke debate.

  7. Scott

    Fishing is the most damaging single thing that we are doing to destroy the oceans. 86% of of sea plastics that are garbage are fishing nets. We are slaughtering mammals while fishing; there is no such thing as “dolphin free tuna.” The whaling and shark finning in Asia is doing awful things to all sea life. Fish farming is akin to putting a cattle feedlot in the ocean. It pollutes the ocean, creates contagious disease amongst the fish, and the food that is fed to the fish is actually thousands and thousands of OTHER FISH! I can only hope that I’m dead and gone by them time this over-populated planet is completely destroyed.

  8. joe

    Are you serious? The ocean is overfished to an alarming level.

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