The lowdown on UN's SOFIA report: 89.5% of fish are now fully or overfished

Posted by Fiona Nicholls — 23 September 2016 at 4:39pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

The SOFIA report is a biennial publication that outlines the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture of the previous two years, hence the name. Commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (‘for a world without hunger,’ is their tagline), the report is a big deal in the world of fish. It’s considered a check up on the state of the world’s fish stocks and our consumption.

Well, the report for 2016 is out and it’s full of impressive statements like ‘for the first time ever’- but it’s not great news for fish. The world’s population is consuming too much fish, and too quickly- the textbook definition of unsustainable. The latest report details that 89.5% of fish are now either ‘fully fished’ or overfished, which is bleak news, considering this number was 62-68% just 15 years ago.

What is ‘fully fished’, anyway? 

Fully fished is an industry term used for a species that is caught to the ‘optimum’ amount, it’s often passed off as sustainable, but in reality often means the species is caught right up to the breaking point, but not beyond (that’s when it becomes ‘overfished’).

The report describes the current state of fishing in the Mediterranean and Black Sea as ‘alarming’, with 59% of fish caught there currently fished at biologically unsustainable levels - ‘overfished’. The species most affected are mullet, hake, sole and sea breams.

Another standout conclusion the #SOFIA16 report makes is that in 2014, for the first time ever, the world’s population consumed more farmed fish (from ‘aquaculture’), than fish caught in the wild. In 2014, the aquaculture industry’s global production rose to 73.8 million tonnes, a third of which comprised of molluscs (squid, mussels), crustaceans (lobster, crab) and other non-fish animals. It’s easy to think, perhaps aquaculture is a fix for the overfishing of wild species?…But as the report shows us, demand on both sides is increasing, with wild fish still coming out as a serious casualty.

China remains the leading nation for the most aquaculture, with Norway and Vietnam coming in second and third. And this industry is expanding even faster elsewhere - Nigeria’s aquaculture output has increased almost 20-fold over the past two decades!

It’s clear that this growing industry is also heavily influencing what ends up on our plates. For years, shrimp has been the reigning champ as the largest single commodity of aquaculture, but now salmon and trout take that crown. Greenpeace can’t - and won’t - endorse farmed salmon, for a multitude of reasons, including disease, parasites, and the effects on natural predators, like seals.

To be a fish right now seems a bleak prospect. So what can we do?

Of course, you can eat less fish or none at all. But another good start is to buy fish that you know is sustainably sourced. This includes locally caught fish from your expert, if perhaps pungent, local fishmongers.

As a lunchtime favourite among many, choosing your tuna wisely could have one of the biggest impacts. Tuna caught using the pole and line method gives the species a chance to thrive rather than just survive, because fishermen can throw back any undesired juveniles there and then. Among others, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Tesco's own brand tuna is currently pole and line caught - take a look at our Tuna Guide for more on this.

Another option is fish box subscription style scheme like London’s Fair Catch. These schemes cut out all the middlemen of traditional supermarket bought fish, enabling you to eat fish fresh from the boat of a UK small-scale fishermen, ‘catch of the day’ style.

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