Seafood is great for human health and an important part of many cuisines. However, current seafood production is massively unsustainable and causes severe animal suffering. But a humaner and more sustainable seafood system is possible.

Asger Mindegaard and Celia Nyssens trawl for best practices in Spain that point to the future of seafood production.

Healthy oceans are crucial for us and for the planet. Apart from playing a central role in the earth’s climate regulation system, they are home to an incredible diversity and abundance of life and provide an important food source for humans and wildlife. But climate change, resource extraction and pollution from nutrients, plastic, chemicals and noise, not to mention global warming, put strong pressure on the countless and diverse ecosystems and animal species living in our seas and oceans.  

On top of this, decades of overfishing have pushed ecosystems, biodiversity, water quality and animal welfare to the limits, globally and in the EU. The quantities of seafood we eat and the methods we use to produce them are deeply unsustainable. But, as with other animal products, we do not need to ban seafood from our plates. We simply need to embrace the principle of ‘less but better’.

The void beneath

Overfishing is both an old and an urgent issue: since the 1980s, global fisheries have significantly exceeded sustainable limits and the UN estimates that at least 33% of the major commercial fish species are being fished at biologically unsustainable levels. In 2016, 94% of commercially exploited fish stocks in the Mediteranean Sea were overfished while the number for the Black Sea was 87%.The situation is also dire for sea mammals, birds and underwater ecosystems. Destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling, dredging and seining are wreaking havoc on the seafloor, endangering the marine ecosystems that depend on it. Other methods like pelagic trawling and gillnets result in unacceptable levels of bycatch of sensitive species, much of which is thrown back in the sea dead.

In parallel, global demand for seafood is soaring due to population growth, socioeconomic development and dietary recommendations. In the EU, seafood consumption has been rather stable at 24 to 25 kg per person per year over the past decade, well above the global average of approximately 20 kg. The consumption varies greatly amongst member states (the Portuguese consume an average of 56.8 kg/person while Hungarians consume 5.6 kg) and we have a clear preference for large wild-caught predatory species like tuna and cod. While sustainable seafood can be an important component of a ‘protein transition’ in the EU, shifting our sources of protein away from the current over-reliance on meat, we should be cautious about relying too much on seafood as a protein source. This, because of all the environmental, ecological and animal welfare-related issues laid out in the present article. A higher reliance on herbivorous farmed species and on smaller forage species in fisheries, instead of fish which sit high up in the food chain, would be important steps for seafood to play a sustainable role in what can be referred to as a ‘protein puzzle’

Harmful fishing practices such as trawling lead to high amounts of bycatch – non-target species – which are then thrown back, dead, into the sea. (Image: anemone / Adobe Stock)

“When we consider the drawbacks of commercial fishing, sustainability and biodiversity often come to mind. But it is crucial that we start talking about the way we treat the aquatic animals we catch for food or that end up in the nets by accident,” says Krzysztof Wojtas, Head of Fish Policy Compassion in World Farming (CiWF), an EEB member organisation. “Fish welfare is way too often ignored all together.”

Fish are sentient, clever and emotional beings who suffer and feel pain, but this is not considered in commercial fishing practices. When hundreds of thousands of fish are caught, in a purse seine net or trawling net for example, they are injured (abrasions, compression, bursting of internal organs from pressure changes) and stressed. A significant proportion will die crushed under the weight of other fish in the nets. Fish that survive capture and landing are left to die from oxygen deprivation or are even gutted alive. Bycatch (mammals, birds, fish and other marine animals) also die slow deaths, or are injured during capture and release. 

Subaquatic prisons

Aquaculture has increasingly been put forward as a sustainable way to alleviate pressure on wild fish stocks while satisfying the large demand for seafood. It is the fastest growing part of the food production sector and it supplies almost half of all the seafood consumed globally. In the EU, aquaculture accounted for 26% of total seafood production in 2017, of which almost a quarter was produced in Spain. Salmon, trout and mussels in the EU are almost exclusively from aquaculture and so are about half of the shrimps we consume. 

While aquaculture is often talked up as being  more sustainable, this is not necessarily the case. The reason is that consumers tend to prefer fish that are at the top of the food chain, which require a lot of feed to grow. This feed is often smaller wild-caught fish, devouring up to 20% of all the fish caught globally. A recent study of Scottish salmon farming (which annually yields around 166,000 tonnes of salmon) found that a shift in what fish we eat could reduce the capture of wild-caught fish by 77% without negative impact on our micronutrient intake. This could be achieved by redirecting a significant amount of the smaller fish currently used as salmon feed (such as herring and sardines) to direct human consumption while supplementing with mussels and a smaller proportion of sustainable salmon farming.

“Aquaculture has the potential to contribute to the recovery of wild fish stocks and can provide part of the answer to the increasing demand for protein and micronutrients for an ever-growing world population,” says Marc-Philip Buckhout, Aquaculture Policy Officer with EEB member Seas At Risk (SAR). However, he points out that “to be truly sustainable, crucial issues need to be resolved such as feed source, escapees and nutrient pollution of the surrounding environment”.

As is the case with fisheries, animal welfare is also a big issue in aquaculture. In most cases, fish are kept in confined and barren cages, with high stocking densities being the norm. This often leads to high stress, aggression and results in injuries and increased risk of disease transmission. Fish are often exposed to extremely stressful handling procedures, involving taking fish out of water (when handled for grading, vaccination or transport and when stripping females of eggs) which can lead to significant suffering and mass deaths. Most farmed fish are killed using inhumane slaughter practices: most commonly by oxygen deprivation in air or ice slurry or during the process of gutting and processing. These methods prolong suffering and can only be described as cruel. 

Farming ecosystems

In the Spanish region of Andalusia, just 1.5 hours drive from Seville, we find an atypical aquaculture production facility that shows us a glimpse of how seafood could be produced in a better future. Veta La Palma is a 113km2 estate located in the heart of the Doñana Nature Reserve where the company PIMSA has been running an extensive aquaculture project on 32km2 since the 1990s. Veta La Palma produces fish and shrimp in large naturally flooded ponds in the coastal wetlands, in close integration with dry agriculture, rice production and untouched original wetlands. The aquaculture project is attracting up to 250 different bird species, of which half are threatened in the area, and Veta La Palma has a positive impact on the water quality in the rest of the Doñana Reserve as well.

Some of the diverse bird life of Veta La Palma (photo: Buenasenda for Veta la Palma)

“Veta La Palma constitutes a good example of extensive fish farming which is not only compatible with but actively contributing to the conservation of Doñana,” explains Leandro del Moral who is professor in geography at the University of Seville and member of the Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua, which is part of the EEB network. “The initiative has restored previously desiccated marshlands, which are now again water ecosystems, and this has allowed the recovery of the associated biodiversity, the ecosystem services and to some extent the landscape of this valuable protected site.” 

Veta La Palma produces 800-1,000 tonnes of seafood yearly (seabass, bream, gray mullet and shrimp) and they maintain a very low density (maximum 4kg live animal per m3) to reduce the pressure on the surrounding environment and to guarantee high animal welfare. This has the extraordinary side-effect that the farmed fish hardly suffer any problems with diseases, meaning that no antimicrobials are required, which is highly unusual for an aquaculture operation. 

Sustainable fishing practices of Veta La Palma (photo: Buenasenda for Veta la Palma)

Prioritising the environment and animal welfare by keeping a low density has a cost; with less fish to sell, prices are higher. Yet, and despite the multiple public goods they deliver, Veta La Palma’s production is completely independent from subsidies. They make it work by selling most of their production to restaurants who are willing to pay a higher price for the premium quality and the good story behind it. On the retail market, flooded with cheap low-quality seafood, demand for products like these is limited.

“Veta La Palma is driven by a deep dedication to the environment, animal welfare and quality,” explains Miguel Medialdea, who is a trained ecologist and responsible for quality and environment at Veta La Palma. ”It is imperative to have a bigger perspective combining the priorities of ecosystem conservation and resilient food production, not least in this part of Europe where the climate is already very unstable.”

Fishing for a better future

In Andalusia, Veta La Palma has managed to establish an impressive integrated system, favouring diverse interests such as animal welfare, environmental sustainability, economic viability and good-quality food production. However, very little of the EU’s seafood comes from sustainable operations like this. Decisive and ambitious policymaking is needed to set in motion a sea change in European fishing practices.

In January of this year, SAR, CiWF and the EEB published a detailed navigational chart to steer Europe towards healthier seas and oceans by 2030 together with 100 other civil society organisations. Amongst the most urgent areas for action are harnessing the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy to end overfishing, properly protecting all marine Natura 2000 sites, and ensuring proper implementation of the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

The European Commission’s recent Farm to Fork Strategy “for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system” was unfortunately very vague in the area of fisheries and aquaculture. “The transition to low-impact fisheries should have been at the core of the Farm to Fork strategy’s seafood commitments,” says Andrea Ripol, Policy Officer for Fisheries at SAR. “It is a missed opportunity compared to the ambition in the Biodiversity Strategy and to what is needed.” 

The call for low-impact fisheries, such as Veta la Palma, is too vague in the Farm to Fork Strategy. (photo: Buenasenda for Veta la Palma)

It is also clear that we need a shift in how aquatic animals are conceptualised in EU policymaking. Most often they are referred to in terms of weight, not even numbers, as if they were grains of wheat. Fish, octopuses and other animals caught or farmed for human consumption are sentient beings. As is the case with land-based livestock, EU policy must do more to protect the animals we eat from unnecessary suffering. 

“Aquaculture has developed without proper consideration of the welfare needs of the fish species farmed,” CiWF’s Wojtas points out. “Given the huge number of individuals involved, the introduction of new species-specific legislation for farmed fish during rearing, transport, and slaughter is urgently needed.”

Inspiration for an agroecological Europe

As Europe battles COVID-19 the EEB is committed to continuing our work towards a better future where people and nature thrive together. Getting the future of our food and farming system right is a crucial part of it.

This article is the sixth in a series telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe. We hope to show what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path. 

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