Catch 22 to Catch None: Why saving our sea life relies on releasing our seafood

By: Food Focus on 20 November 2023

Catch 22 to Catch None: Why saving our sea life relies on releasing our seafood

On World Fisheries Day we reflect on our seafood dependency and its entanglement with our reliance on healthy oceans. 

World Fisheries Day is celebrated every year on 21 November throughout the globe. While fishing communities and aquatic consumers salute their delight for maritime produce; climate and plant-based advocates highlight the vital importance of preserving our sea life and environments. 

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 90 percent of the global fish population is fully fished, overfished, or in crisis with these stocks in sharp decline and already maximally exploited. 

Fish is the most widely consumed source of protein in many regions of the world, particularly Asia, and demand is increasing due to population growth, however these resources are in decline, unsustainable, and a net detriment to environmental health. 

A United Nations study reported that more than two-thirds of the world's fisheries have been overfished or are fully harvested and more than one-third are in a state of decline because of factors such as the loss of essential fish habitats, pollution, chemical and waste contamination, and global warming.

Each year, around 96 million tonnes of these marine creatures are taken from the sea and subsequently die in pain and distress: 2.3 trillion of these sentient creatures perish each year - and this does not even include the numbers killed by the rampant practice of illegal fishing.

The global demand for fish is rising. Figures released by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicate that fish consumption per capita was about 20 kg in 2017. Among the main reasons for this steady increase in fish consumption are technological developments, but also rising incomes, and increasing demand for fish products as a cost-effective protein source. 

World Fisheries Day helps highlight the critical importance of the lifeforms that our oceans sustain, which we are methodically ruining. Water forms an unbreakable continuum with terrestrial life, whether contained in rivers, lakes, and in the ocean. The major misconception to address here is that oceanic life and land-borne life are separate. 

Scientists around the world have been raising alarm bells about the rate at which fish are currently being harvested, suggesting that the populations will not be able to replenish themselves. Equally worrying are the protected species that are often the victims of bycatch - when other marine creatures such as turtles, dolphins, and sharks are trapped by commercial nets during fishing for different species such as tuna or sardines. Rare and protected species are on the verge of extinction due to commercial fishing. 

The ocean produces half of the oxygen we breathe and damage to this life-sustaining ecology, exacted throughout by commercial fishing processes and pollution is a primary existential threat to human civilisation. As life in the oceans goes - so does life on land. Since we dwell on terra firma we rarely tend to think about the fact that most life and most territory in the world is oceanic and influential to the global climate and ecology.

The inevitable proximity of human settlements to bodies of water has also led to severe oceanic and coastal pollution from run-off and from domestic and industrial endeavours. This has led to the depletion of fish stocks in the immediate vicinity of close coastal waters, requiring fishermen to venture farther away from their traditional grounds.

Unless we address these issues collectively, the crisis will deepen. World Fisheries Day helps to highlight these problems and moves towards finding solutions to the increasingly interconnected problems we are facing, and in the longer term, to sustainable means of maintaining the plethora of oceanic life on which we so heavily rely, not just for dietary needs but also for the maintenance of our environment. 

Fish consumption is often promoted as a good source of omega-3 fats, which are unsaturated and anti-inflammatory, making them beneficial for heart and brain health. Fish is also regularly touted as a cleaner and healthier protein source compared to red meat, when in fact fish consumption is a leading dietary source of dangerous contaminants.

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal and a concern related to fish consumption. A study by the  Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine found that as much as 84 percent of the world’s fish contain unsafe levels of this deleterious element.

The ocean is literally the sewer of human civilization, and various other pollutants also accumulate in fish and shellfish. These pollutants have been linked to poor brain development, liver and immune system damage, and cancer. The toxic substances consumed via fish are highly problematic because they are not readily expelled from the body and even short-term exposure can carry lifetime consequences. Minamata Disease, a form of mercury poisoning that caused severe nervous system damage in large Japanese populations between the 1930s and 1960s was only recognized and compensated for years later by their government and remains a landmark case for the devastating effects of industrial contaminants released into our oceans, which remain not well regulated or monitored. 

Fish farming has been touted as a more sustainable way to meet the global demand for seafood, but it comes with a host of issues such as illnesses that can infect surrounding populations. This issue is dealt with by administering large quantities of antibiotics – which is another health concern that continues to worry medical professionals around the world. Fish are packed together in small areas and densely concentrated which can result in rapid water pollution. Fish farms ironically also contribute to the overfishing of wild species since many farmed species of fish are predatory, meaning they must be fed other fish to survive - further perpetuating the cycle.

Given that the nutrients offered by eating fish can be obtained from other food sources, it might be time to question whether fish should be considered a healthy food source at all.  The research seems clear that it’s time for consumers who have other options to examine whether eating fish is worth the inevitable perils.

High levels of fat, and cholesterol along with a lack of fibre make fish a poor dietary choice for health reasons alone. Obtaining omega-3 from algae or seaweed (which is where the fish get it in the first place) might be a healthier option, and so too eating chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts, among other examples. Omega-3 can also be taken in supplement form.

The food industry has been working on healthier, more sustainable and ethical options, and improvements in taste and texture in recent years mean that seafood lovers can now enjoy the same culinary experience, now made with plant-based sources.

In 2020 Nestlé made its first move into plant-based seafood with an alternative to tuna, and later shrimp. Companies in the U.S. with similar products include Good Catch and New Wave FoodsHook Foods is available in Europe and Hong Kong-based OmniFoods serves the Asian market. In South Africa, fish-analogue alternatives include vegan calamari by Dear Vegan, fish-style fillets by the Fry family Food Co., and crumbed soya ocean portions by Woolworths. Restaurant chain John Dory’s has a vegan sushi platter, with similar options available at Simply Asia.


ProVeg supports the availability of plant-based fish alternatives

ProVeg does not only point out healthy, cruelty-free alternatives but also makes them more readily available. ProVeg supports and facilitates a range of vegan events throughout the year, from annual happenings such as VeggieWorld and VegMed to important one-off events such as CEVA training and legal and political symposiums. Furthermore, the ProVeg Incubator advises and supports innovative companies that want to enrich the veggie market with their products. This ranges from mentoring early-stage start-ups to consulting for major international supermarket brands and administering the V-Label, which guarantees that a product is either vegan or vegetarian. 

Fish consumption is clearly demonstrated as being long longer sustainable and detrimental to both human health and the environment.