EU Common Fisheries Policy Reform – Discards


As mentioned in the last Ask Deep Blue, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy touches on many elements. This week we would like to concentrate on ‘discards’, a topic receiving much publicity in the run-up to Reform finialisation. The practice of throwing dead or weakened fish back into the sea has become a very controversial subject – especially in the UK – with celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hosting a television programme/multimedia campaign expressing his outrage at the practice. But ‘discards’ are nothing new. They have existed pretty much since man began fishing.

The true term for the capture of non-targeted species, and one that gets more to the heart of the issue, is ‘bycatch’ – as these discarded fish must have been caught in the first place in order to be subsequently thrown back. In clarification of the term ‘bycatch’, certain fishing methods are more prone to the unintended capture of non-targeted species. Purse seining, the encircling of a tightly grouped single species school, allows fishers to precisely target the species and thus keeps bycatch to a minimum. Trawling (pulling a submerged net) is much less selective. This is not to say that trawlers blindly stumble about hoping to catch the particular fish they are after; historic knowledge and modern sonar devices help a great deal in aiding a trawler’s selectivity. Schooling patterns give fishers a pretty good idea of when bycatch will be light or heavy. Gear can be adjusted to lessen impact. New technologies, including things like GPS and towed cctv cameras can assist the skipper in minimising collateral capture.

Fearnley-Whittingstall makes the point that fishers dislike bycatch (he chooses to use ‘discards’) and this is ultimately true. Bycatch is in most instances problematic for the fisher in that sorting and disposal become troublesome. A ‘clean’ catch allows for quicker, more exacting processing and storage. Time is of the essence in getting fish out of the net and into the hold as quality begins to decline immediately upon boating. Labour costs increase as more deckhands are required in this sorting, or ‘culling’, process.

It seems like everyone is in agreement that bycatch is not only ethically questionable, but pragmatically and commercially troublesome. So what exactly is the problem?

The real issue in the UK is cod (and a couple of other high-value species). Bycatch of low-value species is termed ‘trash fish’ and the unwanted species are shoveled over without as much concern. But when the bycatch is composed of the highly sought after (and valuable) cod, interest is piqued. Cod are particularly important in the UK as they make up the standard Friday night ‘fish supper’ of fish and chips.

And here we find ‘the rub’ – cod are struggling. The EU has instituted a programme to help cod recover, with quotas set on the amount of cod allowed for capture. Our ‘discard’ problem arises when 1.) the quotas have been reached and cod are subsequently captured by fishers targeting other species, or 2.) cod are captured by fishers not authorised a cod quota. In either case the fishers are ‘forced’ to return the fish to the sea, either dead or weakened. Some fishers and Fearnley-Whittingstall blame faulty regulation, or just ‘Brussels’ in general.

Aside from finger pointing, what can be done? To be blunt, first and foremost bycatch should be reduced. And not just for cod. If we reduce the number of untargeted species being netted along with targeted species then ‘discards’ will be reduced. And it can be done. Improvements have been made in the above-mentioned technological areas and in applying pragmatic practices based on fisher knowledge. Historic data can be used to establish better management. Cod quotas should remain in place as collapse is a real possibility, and by no means should these untargeted cod be allowed as acceptable additions above and beyond the existing cod quotas. ‘We’ve already caught them, might as well keep them’ is no solution.

FAO fisheries have included quite a bit of verbiage on discards in its Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, including:

“States should require that fishing gear, methods and practices, to the extent practicable, are sufficiently selective so as to minimize waste, discards, catch of non-target species, both fish and non-fish species, and impacts on associated or dependent species and that the intent of related regulations is not circumvented by technical device.” [1]

[1] FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries


EU Common Fisheries Policy Reform


QUESTION: Wasn’t the European Commission set to update the Common Fisheries Policy? Is it because of declining stocks? – Laura from Hamburg

ANSWER: Yes Laura, and they are in the midst of it, with adoption tentatively scheduled for 2013. The process is terribly convoluted and is a political minefield, so it is taking quite a while to finalise. And yes, the reasoning behind the Commission’s decision to reform the CFP is that independent studies have shown many species found in European waters are harvested at levels exceeding sustainable limits. The Commission states in their Green Paper on Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy the situation arises from five key structural failings:

  • a deep-rooted problem of fleet overcapacity;
  • imprecise policy objectives resulting in insufficient guidance for decisions and implementation;
  • a decision-making system that encourages a short-term focus;
  • a framework that does not give sufficient responsibility to the industry;
  • lack of political will to ensure compliance and poor compliance by the industry. [1]

As you will notice, these are big-ticket, engrained issues requiring much more than a tweak in existing Regulation. And in a way you have to feel for the Commission (probably the only time that has ever been stated in print) in that given the complexity and contentiousness of the issues, no one will really ever be 100% happy with the outcome. Commercial fishermen and the communities whose economies are based on catching and processing will always resent Brussels-based control of something which seems so very local in nature. Environmental NGOs would like to see fishing effort reduced to very low levels – something given the realities of EU policy-making will probably not occur.

While commercial fishing, in the grand scheme of things, is not a very large European industry it is by nature very regionalised, leading to a situation where commercial interests can strategically focus their influences. The political intrigue is magnified as the EU Parliament will now play a role in any final legislation owing to expanded powers under the Lisbon Treaty.

Additionally, there is a lot more to the CFP than just conservation of stocks. Market controls, external agreements and a few other choice items fall within its scope. Our (Deep Blue’s) pet peeve (not really a strong enough phrase) is the exploitation of foreign waters through international agreements, and the sometimes horrendous treatment of locally recruited crews aboard EU ships working these foreign waters. Awkward piecemeal conservation and enforcement efforts often result.  Huge EU ships move in and basically work unregulated. [2]

As you can see, the Reform is about much more than just quota setting. In the coming weeks we will be addressing CFP reform in-depth and even questioning Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s populist stance on discards. Is it a smokescreen?



Aquaculture III – GMOs


QUESTION: We continue our look at aquaculture, and specifically in this column the development of genetic engineering in seafood production.

Previously, Sinjan from Johannesburg asked:

A few years ago I read that aquaculture was the answer to the problems associated with commercial fishing, but lately I have been hearing differently. What has happened?

ANSWER: A hot topic today is the development of genetically engineered farmed fish. Specifically, salmon have been altered using DNA replacement technology which allows them to reach maturity much faster than the unaltered version. Quickly many benefits spring to mind, first and foremost that more fish can be produced, relieving pressure from wild stocks. Too, claims have been made (though Deep Blue is finding it hard to source the studies) that the genetically altered fish use 10 – 30% less feed to achieve this growth. This would theoretically reduce pressures on the wild stocks used in the production of aquacultural feeds. Proponents of GM fish are quick to extrapolate production out into a future where the protein requirements of the starving masses are met by GM salmon. That is an interesting proposition.

Of course there are concerns (aren’t there always?). Many are alarmed about food safety. Visions of science gone mad, of the genetic material transferring in some way to the human host are proposed along with claims that GM fish will increase allergic responses among consumers. Slightly unequivocal comparisons to the supposed ill effects of growth hormones are sometimes drawn. Additionally many worry about the environmental effects if, and perhaps when, escapes occur.

Stated plainly, food safety is of utmost concern. Before any policy implementation occurs it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that any new food item is rigorously studied and that health is placed above profit. The importance of the foods we eat, the air we breath and the water we consume is often pushed down our list of concerns by the pressing challenges of daily life. But we re certainly finding out more-and-more that they are of vital importance, and that they are in fact the foundation on which all of our other achievements are based.

From an environmental perspective we must be sure that solid systems are put into place to make sure that escapes are kept to an absolute minimum, and that promises regarding the non fertility of the GM fish are stringently kept. As with invasive species, much damage can be done when any new creature is introduced into an environment – they are often not subject to nature’s sublime scheme of checks and balances.

One of the trickiest facets of this discussion is whether or not it should be required that product labels state the presence of genetically altered fish. It is an intriguing question. On the one hand, if, as proponents of GM fish propose, these fish are identical to non GM fish – with just an altered growth switching mechanism – then it seems no explanation would necessarily be required. But from the perspective of the consumer, it would be nice to know. Many consumers incorporate ethical standards into their purchasing behavior and it seems fair to provide them with as much information as possible.

Reed McFarland – European Coordinator

Aquaculture II


QUESTION: This week will continue our look at aquaculture, and specifically the issue of the feeding of aquacultural species. Previously, Sinjan from Johannesburg asked:

“A few years ago I read that aquaculture was the answer to the problems associated with commercial fishing, but lately I have been hearing differently. What has happened?”

ANSWER: As we stated in the last issue of Ask Deep Blue, aquacultural development faces a few tough challenges. But it is important to remember that fish farming is really still very much in its infancy. And even if we look at something like say sheep domestication – which has been around since 11000 BC or so – we see things never do really reach a “finished state” (any biological system resists stasis).

According to professor Carlos M. Duarte, about 430 (97%) of the aquatic species presently in culture have been domesticated only since the start of the 20th century, with an estimated 106 of those species having been domesticated only in the past decade [1]. This is actually a bit exciting as we all can take part in improving processes, if by no other means than by staying informed and using our purchasing power to support good systems.

But one particular concern regarding aquaculture, one which has seen a great deal of publicity, is that some species naturally consume other fish – usually in processed form – in their feed. In general, industrial fish, a term loosely denoting species targeted specifically for use in feed preparation, are caught and processed into fishmeal and fish oil. The extruded oils and solids are mixed in with other substances, like plant matter, to formulate aquacultural feeds. So while eating a farm-raised, carnivorous fish does mean you are taking pressure off of wild stocks in one regard, a wild fish somewhere was caught and centrifuged to feed it.

One must remember that ratios of the fishmeal and oil used in a particular feed vary. Some fish grow better with a higher proportion of fishmeal and oil. Too, the life cycle period of the farmed species affects these ratios. The simplistic language here belies the complexity of the process. Much effort goes into examining these processes and adjusting them for maximum benefit at best price.

And here is an important point; feed producers and fish farmers actually want to use the absolute minimum amounts of fishmeal and oil in their feeds. Why? Because the stuff is not cheap, not at all. There is a point where the growth-related benefits of the proportion of fishmeal and fish oil in feeds begins to trail off. It doesn’t hurt the fish to have an excess of fish-derived protein in its feed, but no extra benefit, or a proportionally lessened benefit, is realized. It’s the old Law of Diminishing Returns scenario. So the object is to find the “sweet spot” (and it changes all the time) where maximum benefit is derived from least resource.

Additionally, great effort is being made by scientific institutes and feed manufacturers to find a suitable replacement for meals and oils derived from marine species. The person (or company) who figures it out will be immediately filthy rich, and can give up mucking about with fish and lay in the sun with a cold margarita.

But what we are finding out is that marine-derived sources hold qualities that replacement sources cannot match. For instance, the type of Omega 3 fatty acid produced from the oily fishes normally targeted as industrial fishes is head and shoulders above plant derived sources. (Keep that in mind, because these Omega 3’s are also the best for human consumption too!) But again, the financial prize is considerable, so we will keep trying. In all likelihood – and this is our opinion – there probably never will be a completely suitable replacement. However, what probably will happen is that some sort of replacement will be developed that when used in concert with marine-derived proteins and oils can give very similar developmental benefits.

We must also note that these same issues apply in a similar way to feeds used for land-based animals which utilize fishmeals and oils. The benefits again are well documented, but as with aquacultural feeds, they do put pressure on the stocks of fishes used to derive the proteins and oils.

But here might be a good place to tout the extraordinary nature of industrial fish species. They are not like sharks or tunas or other top-of-the-food-chain species; they reproduce rapidly, respond readily to corrective measures and are almost unilaterally harvested in ways that are not harmful to the physical marine environment or other marine species.

But what are we to do? If aquaculture continues to expand – and it will – what can we do to make sure industrial fish are not over-harvested? And here are your “simple answers to complex questions”. We must first give greater support to those trying to find suitable replacements. Again it may very well be that a complete replacement will never be found, but a partial substitution will work wonders. Secondly, we can all adopt lower carbon lifestyles and pressure policy makers at all levels to provide the kinds of systems that will allow us to adopt these lifestyles with greatest ease. Industrial fish are affected by water temperature changes and to shifts in established currents, both of which arise from Global Warming.

Another suggestion is that we can begin to augment our seafood consumption with species not as reliant on industrial fish for feed. Mussels, for instance, are just about nature’s perfect marine protein source. If you haven’t tried mussels over linguine (with a bit of white wine, garlic and olive oil) you are missing one of life’s great pleasures. Sardines are very good grilled, and anchovies can add an extremely nice robustness to any sauce. We can still eat more fish, but by just expanding our culinary repertoire, we can relieve pressure from industrial stocks – and get the Omega 3 benefit directly from the source.

Again, the feed question is not by any means the only challenges facing aquacultural development. We will be focusing our next few Ask Deep Blues on some of the other concerns including; how the physical environment is affected by aquacultural establishments, genetic modification of farmed species, the ethics of fish farming (animal rights), and disease outbreaks in the population of farmed species (and surrounding wild stocks). Check back soon!


Aquaculture I


QUESTION: A few years ago I read that aquaculture was the answer to the problems associated with commercial fishing, but lately I have been hearing differently. What has happened? Sinjan from Johannesburg.

ANSWER: Sinjan, when it comes to modern food production, there are no magic bullets. It could be said that when mankind was roaming about gathering nuts and berries and killing the occasional antelope that we were truly living in an organic, sustainable manner. But quite frankly, it was probably no panacea. If the hunt was unsuccessful the tribe could starve. Without ownership, resources went to the strongest group, which in a clinical sense might be good for evolution – survival of the fittest – but to those who were driven into less fertile regions it meant a grim existence, and perhaps a slow violent demise.

As stationary agricultural and domesticated animal-based civilizations formed, and rules of ownership began to be developed, mankind was able to be fruitful and multiply, so to speak. And with the removal of fear and wandering, time was made available to improve systems. But immediately this began to affect the environment. Burning was used to clear land. Water sources were diverted and things like fertilizer application began to be used to increase returns. Stationary stock animals produced waste that after a good rain ended up in the same creek where people bathed and drank. Things have never been the same.

Aquacultural seafood production in many ways is just now entering this stage, which is quite amazing really considering we are now mapping DNA and peering into the reaches and beginnings of the universe. So it is a work in progress. But unlike those early tribes we now can implement systems with science as our guide. But aquacultural development, being based around the aquatic realm, faces philosophical and political questions as much as empirical. We are still squabbling over who owns what waters; and issues referred to in theories such as the tragedy of the commons, issues that for land-based food production have pretty much been solved, are still tangent to aquacultural development.

But aside from philosophical meanderings there are a few facts guiding us. First and foremost we are harvesting pretty much all we can from the seas, and actually in many cases too much. No matter what else happens we can’t dramatically up the volume of catches. Aquacultural development will continue. Secondly, aquaculture does give us a great degree of hands-on control. We can tinker with feeds and enclosures, the amounts of light fish receive, the water temperature and a lot more. This is not quite as possible in the wild. And as with modern agriculture, there is a greater level of certainty about harvests and investments (though nothing is 100%). So it seems aquaculture is the answer to the needs of the hungry masses seeking that great source of Omega 3’s we talk about all the time.

But what of the challenges? Where’s the down side? And why keep fishing in the wild at all? As Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park says, “Nature finds a way”. It resists control. Fish who should be quite happy swimming in the safe confines of a netted enclosure, feeding on tasty easy-to-find morsels, have the damnedest tendency to plot escape. As stocks are confined, disease and parasites are able to become firmly established and transmitted easily, even perhaps to wild fish swimming by. These fish must be fed and many are carnivorous, which puts pressures on wild industrial fish stocks. Too the facilities are in many cases placed in the natural environments.

We will over the next few weeks be addressing particular concerns, starting next week with the feeding of aquacultural species. In particular we will look at the use of wild stocks in feed production for farmed carnivorous fish species. We will also reference the use of fishmeals and fish oils in the production of feed for land based animals, as the two topics are intricately linked. A lot has happened in these areas and exciting developments are occurring very rapidly so please pop back in and read next week’s Ask Deep Blue.



QUESTION: I’m confused…just exactly what does ‘sustainability’ mean? – Katherine from Hyannis Port

ANSWER: Well we like to bill Ask Deep Blue as simple answers to complex questions, so here we go.

When a fishery product is harvested at less than depletion level, meaning the stock will reproduce fast enough to replenish itself, it is deemed sustainable. In other words, the stock will not decline at the levels it is being fished.

Here we are referencing fishery products, but the same applies to any of the Earth’s resources. Fossil fuels, for instance, can never be harvested in a sustainable manner. Nor can copper or coal. What we have now is pretty much all there will ever be.

Seafood, like wheat or apples, can reproduce; so it is possible to determine the rate of reproduction (fecundity) and harvest below this rate. Quite simple really. But perhaps not.

The term “sustainability”, much like “organic”, has gone through a quite natural etymological evolution err, it means a little more to some people and in some instances. And too it is used to market products, a situation which automatically raises eyebrows amongst the cynical.

You see, again like organic (a topic in the Ask Deep Blue queue) the designation as sustainable adds value to a product; meaning that producers can charge more for it. So perhaps it can be said that unscrupulous producers may be tempted to stamp the phrase on their products just to make more money. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has stepped in and provided criteria to clarify the issue. Too they provide assessments of stock levels and groups like the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas ( ICES), as well as fishery departments of governments, also monitor levels and issue advice on the amounts of products that can be harvested at sustainable levels. Some feel that governmental involvement opens up the door to political intrigue – lobbying and such – and producers and associations do get involved in the process of actually setting Total Allowable Catches (TACs). As their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their workers and the communities depend on the industry it makes sense to keep them at the bargaining table.

Additionally, the term sustainable in some instances addresses issues that have nothing really to do with the health of the targeted stock. For instance a stock can be harvested sustainably – below the level of replenishment – but the fishing process may capture other fishes swimming along with the targeted stock, a situation known as by-catch. Or the gear can cause havoc with the actual physical environment – picture a heavy chain being raked across a slow-growing coral formation.

It can be even more confusing if one considers aquaculture, the farming of commercial species. Aquaculture is by nature sustainable, at least when defined in the simplest terms (Aquaculture will also soon be addressed by Ask Deep Blue).

So what is a shopper to do when standing in front of a counter ready to buy a fish for supper?

Well of course the first thing is to stay informed, which can be hard as we are all it seems staying informed on a myriad of topics. Good advice is to seek out a trusted seafood specialist (fishmonger, etc.) who can advise you on your purchase (“trusted” is the key word here). Reputable dealers are well trained, regulated by applicable governing bodies, receive a great deal of information about issues affecting the industry, and keep abreast of seafood related news.

Over the last few years independent groups have been established to do the monitoring for you. Friend of the Sea (FOS) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are the two leading independent sustainability certification bodies world-wide. Deep Blue officially endorses and works with FOS, but we will be unbiased here. These groups study stock levels and the collateral issues mentioned above and place their logo on products which have been examined by independent auditors and found to be in compliance with sustainability criteria. If you see the logo then you know that experts have looked into it for you and found everything to be ok. More and more products are coming onboard, and more and more producers are seeing the benefits of signing on to these programs. Again ask your seafood specialist about buying certified products. The more folk who ask, the more they will respond.

Mercury in Seafood


QUESTION: Should I be concerned about mercury in the seafood I eat? – Paul from Budapest

ANSWER: Your main concern should be that you are not eating enough seafood. The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends that “people eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. Oily fish provide known health benefits for example, it contains nutrients that protect against heart disease.”

Eating seafood is good for your health – aside from the benefits of eating a wholesome, lean source of protein (as compared to say a greasy burger) it’s the effects of EPA and DHA Omega 3 long-chain fatty acids which bring about many of the benefits of seafood consumption. And it’s hard to list all the studies showing these benefits. And it’s not just fish, shellfish are just as good a source of Omega 3’s. Oysters, clams, crab and mussels all have high levels of EPA and DHA.

But there is another angle to be considered. Our move from seafood to grains has hurt human health. Grain-based foods, in addition to having high levels of carbohydrates, provide us with Omega 6 fatty acids (not as good), which compete against health-giving Omega 3’s.

Read the label – make sure any Omega 3 supplements you take are from marine derived sources. Some products touted as “high in Omega 3” come from sources like linseed. These plant-based sources provide short chained Omega 3 (ALA), which is not processed by the body as efficiently as marine-derived long chain EPA and DHA. Put simply it’s much better to get your Omega 3’s from oily fish and shellfish.

Happy cows, pigs, sheep and chickens – Farm animals see a great benefit from consumption of marine derived feeds, just like humans – and healthier cows means better beef.

But what about mercury? It is not good for you, and that is a fact. Some species of fish have been shown to hold higher levels of mercury in their flesh. The FSA recommends that children and pregnant women, or women who are thinking of conceiving in the near future not eat shark, marlin or swordfish. The US EPA suggests the same, with the addition of tilefish. Check their sites listed below for full recommendations. As far as tuna, the UK FSA states that “if you are pregnant or intending to become pregnant, you shouldn�t eat more than four medium-sized cans or two fresh tuna steaks per week.”

The big questions, though, are often overlooked: just where is the mercury coming from and why don’t we get rid of it?An estimated two-thirds of human-generated mercury comes from stationary combustion, mostly of coal; a process also known for being one of the world’s biggest producers of carbon. Perhaps it is time we focused our energies most on assuring that our energy needs are met by more Earth-friendly means.

Eat more seafood Paul!