What’s the Catch?

By Lucy Stitzer October 17, 2016 | 10 MIN READ

The Dirt:

The fish on our plate often comes from all over the world, but we really have no knowledge of exactly where the fish spawned, swam, and was processed. Has the fish on your plate been caught or farmed sustainably? Was it fed a healthy diet before it was harvested? Let’s explore the aquaculture industry and find out what you should look for when buying fish.

Global Food

Sustainable Agriculture

What’s the Catch?

Food Regulations & Policy


By Lucy Stitzer October 17, 2016 | 10 MIN READ

The Dirt:

The fish on our plate often comes from all over the world, but we really have no knowledge of exactly where the fish spawned, swam, and was processed. Has the fish on your plate been caught or farmed sustainably? Was it fed a healthy diet before it was harvested? Let’s explore the aquaculture industry and find out what you should look for when buying fish.

Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are the last “farmable” frontiers. While we may not consider ourselves “hunters and gathers” anymore, we are still hunting the waters for 55% of the fish we consume and farming the remaining 45%.

Whether it is sushi or sautéed snapper, roughly 6.2 billion people— 84% of the global population— incorporate fish into their weekly diet.  In just 14 years, it is anticipated that there will be an additional one billion people on this planet— who will certainly continue to eat fish as well! But can the oceans provide enough sustainable fish for everyone?

The massive amount of fish (167 million metric tonnes) that are caught (55%) and farmed (45%) each year provides each person in the world with approximately 44 pounds of available fish per year.  To put this into perspective, the average American consumes about 16 pounds of fish and shellfish per year, compared to those in Iceland, who consume 90 pounds per year and those in Japan, who consume 53 pounds per person per year.

, What’s the Catch?

Fishing in fresh and salt waters has remained consistent at roughly 92 million metric tonnes of catch per year since 2009. Out of the 81 million metric tonnes of just wild ocean fish (versus wild freshwater fish), China is responsible for catching the largest quantity weighting in at 18% of the world total, followed by Indonesia (7%) and the United States (6%).

If we keep up this pace, how can we feed an additional 1 billion people by 2030?  If the fish consumption pattern holds, the world would need 32.2 million metric tonnes of more fish— without depleting our oceans.

Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are overfished….

For 40,000 years—beginning with our hunting and gathering ancestors— fishing has been both a sport and a primary food source for the human race. In fact, over-fishing the oceans first began in the era of Moby Dick when the schooners searched the global oceans for whale oil. And while it is nearly impossible to count the exact amount of fish in our oceans, it is clear that they have been overfished.

, What’s the Catch?
Adapted from an infographic produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Sea Around Us.

Factors which contribute to overfishing in our oceans are aggressive fishing, lack of regulations, by-catch, and illegal fishing. Illegal fishing accounts for 15% of total captured fish. This pirating can take many forms such as fishing in protected areas, not reporting the full catch, or claiming a different country of origin. Boats registered to Africa, for example, are exempt from any regulatory approval.

Our waters at a glance

The FAO reports that 30 percent of our oceans are overexploited.

The World Wildlife Fund agrees that “more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them”.

SNAPP (Science for Nature and People Partnerships) says that over the last 40 years, marine life has been slashed in half and 90% of the swordfish and tuna have disappeared since the 1950s.

, What’s the Catch?
Source: The State of World Fisheries, http://www.fao.org/

Overfishing in the world’s rivers and lakes has quadrupled since 1950 to 8.7 million metric tonnes, particularly in China where there are 12 million fishermen.

, What’s the Catch?

The technology behind large commercial fishing boats

According to the FAO, there are approximately 4.6 million fishing boats cruising the oceans to catch for dinner or sell commercially. Asia controls 75% of these boats while Africa controls 15%. But these boats are incredibly diverse. It is amazing to think that of the world’s fishing boats, only 64% operate with an engine! Obviously, the ones that have engines are far more efficient. The larger factory ships, for example, have huge freezers and new fishing technology that helps to locate and catch previously undetected fish. As a result, they are capable of hauling a tremendous amount of fish and bycatch. The bycatch ultimately gets wasted.

Nowadays, fishing vessels must be equipped with electronic devices, or “blue boxes”, which form part of the satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS). The blue box regularly sends data about the location of the vessel to the fisheries monitoring center (FMC). Vessels are also equipped with GPS transmitters which track the ship’s speed and position.

By-catch and the ocean habitat

Whether a vessel is trolling nets along the seabed floor to catch bottom feeders (like shellfish) or casting huge nets in the water, there is an unintended by-catch. Fish such as cod, haddock, shrimps, lobsters, and scallops get tangled in the nets dragged along the ocean floor.  The nets that are thrown in the water to catch the larger fish often result in other species, such as baby whales, dolphin, and sharks to get caught and killed in the process.

For every pound of fish purposefully caught, there are 5-10 pounds of wild fish killed during the process. Furthermore, the by-catch is not eaten— it is either ground up for fish feed or simply thrown overboard. Finally, these bottom draggers break up coral and disturb the ocean’s habitat. This can be visible, for instance, when there is an overabundance of seaweed on your favorite beach.

So how can we rebuild our fish stocks?

The international community which includes the U.N., FAO, OECD, World Bank, and the EU are all working on separate programs to help rebuild wild fish stocks. Satellites are being utilized to track the fishing vessels and monitor the ships to the port of origin. But it is difficult to control.  For more information, the WWF gives more detail on protecting our oceans in the film ‘From Bait to Plate’ as well as their traceability principles.

Sustainably Farmed Fish

China was farming fish as early as 3500 BCE and the ancient Egyptians and Romans grew fish for an easy varied diet.  Today, aquaculture is the fastest growing protein industry, with a growth rate of roughly 5% annually. In 2015, global aquaculture was valued at $156.27 billion and is expected to reach $209.42 billion in 2021. A 34% increase in just six years! To put this in perspective – in 2014 the U.S. meat and poultry industry sales totaled $186 billion. 

China produces over one-half (62%) of global aquaculture production. Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh are the top five producers after China. The United States aquaculture industry is still small, contributing only about 5%.

But both saltwater and freshwater fish farms have a bad reputation. It is a fragmented industry with some excellent players and some not-so-excellent participants. The issue is the lack of accountability and global regulatory standards. According to SNAPP, 65% of aquaculture is responsible for polluting the oceans, feeding inappropriate food to the fish, adding unnecessary chemicals, and inappropriate worker welfare.

We must start using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about – farming replacing hunting

-Jacques Cousteau

But not all fish farms are the same.  We have discussed some of these issues and differences in our previous posts: A Shrimp’s Tail and Farmed or Wild Salmon.  In the United States, regulations are being examined to allow for more fish farming along the California and Eastern coasts. Consumer demand is forcing more transparency in the industry, and in response, there are a growing number of small and large indoor fish farms in states like North Dakota, South Carolina, Mississippi, and New Hampshire. These fish farms are employing safe and regulated business practices. Blue Ridge Aquaculture, for example, is the largest producer of tilapia and is located in Virginia.

Around the world, there are indoor and outdoor farms that are also focused on transparency and quality.  Cooke Aquaculture, which has farms located in Canada, the U.S., Scotland, Spain, and Chile, is fully integrated with salmon, sea bass, and sea bream. Cermaq is one of the largest salmon farmers in Norway, Chile, and Canada.  Nireus Aquaculture, partnering with the WWF, is the largest Mediterranean Aquaculture company in the world.  Madagascar shrimp producer Unima is the first shrimp producer in Africa to receive the ASC certification.  Finally, the Chinese government is recognizing that they must ensure their farms do not pollute the environment.  In response to this, they are working with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to grow sustainable and certified fish. But until we see valid third-party certifications from imported fish – you don’t know exactly what is on your dinner plate.

Fish can be vegetarians!

Feeding fish with other fish is not sustainable. The total amount of fish caught and farmed is 167 million metric tons. Of this amount, 146 million metric tons are needed to feed humans and roughly 21 millionmetric tons are used to feed farmed fish or in human supplements. But, this practice is actually pretty unnecessary.

There are two nonexclusive, more sustainable, solutions to this problem. A fish food company, EWOS, is currently partaking in both.

Fish Farm of the Future Goes Vegetarian

1. When fish are processed, depending on the type of fish, about 40-70% is wasted. This is particularly bad if they are being fileted on the fishing boat, as the discarded portion of fish is often tossed overboard. These trimmings can be fully utilized for fish feed.

2. It is possible to turn fish into vegetarians. All fish require is a diet that is still high in omega-3s and DHA in order to ensure sufficient nutritional value. For instance, replacing fish oil with alternatives such as algal oil, canola, flax, soy, pistachios, or even insects would help keep our oceans full of fish. Additionally, including vitamins, phospholipids, essential fatty acids, trace minerals, and even probiotics will help produce healthy fish for us to eat.  Partners in Europe have introduced an innovative cloud tool called AquaSmart which will help fish farmers manage their profitability, feed, and production to ensure a strong profit and sustainable practices protect the environment. 

How do you find sustainable fish?

Sustainably farmed fish is the future of aquaculture. We want full transparency into where the fish on our plate comes from. This means we want to know that the fish was fed a healthy diet, that it was raised in an environmentally responsible farm, and that the employees in the fish industry were not exploited in the process. Here are some organizations that are trying to reshape the industry:

Google  supports two organizations that bring fresh, transparent seafood to the restaurant within 24 hours through Dock to Dish and Thimble Island Oyster Farm.

Grocery stores, like Target and Whole foods, are only buying fish that is sustainable and traceable.


, What’s the Catch?
Marine Stewardship Council
, What’s the Catch?
Aquaculture Stewardship Council
, What’s the Catch?
, What’s the Catch?
Whole Foods Responsibly Farmed

The Bottom Line:

Let’s face it, do we really know where the fish on your plate comes from and what it ate before it ended up there? As a healthy consumer, you need to look for third-party certifications and make sure you have a clear answer to your questions before making a purchase or eating fish at a restaurant. The industry is growing along with the need for increased transparency in the fish supply chain. This is certainly an industry to watch!