As someone who has been interested in reduction fisheries for the past eight years it was a great pleasure to see the results of the latest SFP report on the sustainability of these fisheries that supply fishmeal and fish oil. The results of the review show a marked improvement and a clear trend for the better—more than three quarters (81 percent) of the total catch comes from stocks that are reasonably well managed or better. And it wasn’t just a question of improvements over the last year; these fisheries have been progressively getting better over almost a decade.
The fishmeal and fish oil industry often gets bad press, particularly from those pushing alternatives to fishmeal in aquaculture who seem to think there’s marketing value in arguing that feeding fish to fish is fundamentally unsustainable. But the science often tells a different story; fisheries can be an excellent source of raw materials for fish feed and perfectly sustainable if managed properly. The SFP report demonstrates that reduction fisheries, at least in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific, are heading in the right direction, even if they haven’t gotten there yet.
Unfortunately, the terrific progress in Latin America and the Atlantic has not been matched everywhere. In Asia, multi-species trawl fisheries are having a significant impact on the marine environment. Some of these fisheries use fine mesh trawls to catch a very wide variety of species and then separate them out on ship or ashore—the larger edible species go to direct human consumption and the smaller, less palatable species go to fishmeal. This sounds quite efficient—there’s no such thing as bycatch in these fisheries—but the reality is catastrophic. Marine ecosystems have been substantially altered in favor of small, faster growing species and populations of larger (and more valuable) fish have been substantially reduced. These fisheries have also attracted bad labor practices as well, and investigations have revealed extreme human rights abuses on some boats.
But it’s not all bad news in these regions. There are already efforts underway to improve fisheries in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam, and at last count I could identify at least five separate fishery improvement projects (FIPs). These FIPs follow a similar model to successful examples in Europe and Latin America and given enough support from the feed industry they could make a real difference in the region.
So a global assessment of reduction fisheries gives a bit of a mixed picture—good in some places and poor (but trying to get better) in others—but the trend is evident; concerns about fishery management are driving positive change. Perhaps the most heartening factor in all this is the active involvement of the industry in pushing improvements. Both the fishmeal and fish oil producers and some important users, such as the aquafeed industry, have taken significant steps to move things forward—check out the European Sustainable Fishmeal Roundtable or the Peruvian anchovy FIP. The road to sustainable reduction fisheries may be long, steep and circuitous, but make no mistake that we are on that journey and somebody just stepped on the gas.