Fish Facts: Cost of food
SHOULD everyone stop catching and eating fish? Those are the sorts of questions that are guaranteed to start arguments, and these sorts of arguments have become increasingly popular in some circles in recent years as human populations and global warming continue to increase. For some time now we have seen how certain environmental groups would like to see the end of fishing in vast tracts of the ocean, while lately it seems various animal rights groups would like to see the end of all fishing. However, today we also have new emerging enviro-warrior groups, particularly those advocating vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, that appear to be fixated on lecturing everyone else about the environmental and ethical costs of the food they eat. For me, these arguments quickly become tiring as in virtually all cases, when you stop to listen to these people and their philosophical arguments against eating fish and shellfish, they are ill-advised, and/or ill-informed.
This becomes particularly evident when you investigate further, because the reality is, wild fish and shellfish taken from well managed fisheries have the lowest environmental impact of virtually ANY food production sector, period. This usually comes as a shock to vegans who believe their lifestyle (which involves not eating any animals or products derived from animals) will cure all the worlds ills, however as Professor Ray Hilborn from the University of Washington points out in his paper on mice, fishermen and food, environmental impacts take on many forms. For example, Prof Hilborn uses an example of his wife's organic vegetable farm, where he helps set up the irrigation, tills the soil for planting, and applies "approved organic" fertilisers and pesticides. Based on Prof Hilborn's professional experience with capture fisheries, it was immediately obvious to him that capture fisheries have a much smaller environmental impact than organic vegetables. Capture fisheries need no freshwater, no antibiotics, no pesticides, no fertiliser, and do not erode the productive potential of the land (and downstream estuaries and reefs) through soil erosion. Furthermore, the land which was used to farm the organic vegetables on Prof Hilborn's farm was once a temperate rain forest. So the process of organic vegetable farming must cause huge destruction of biodiversity because firstly the native vegetation and ecosystems must be completely destroyed, forests are cut, and grasslands are plowed, all to create farmers’ fields that are then seeded with exotic species of plants.
The fact is, fisheries worldwide are being held to a double standard. This is highlighted by the fact that to achieve the popular Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) environmental certification for sustainability, a fishery needs to meet various certification guidelines, one of which states that "the fishery shall not transform the structure and function of the ecosystem". Prof Hilborn found this interesting because he observed that no form of industrial agriculture worldwide meets that standard - each spring he completely transformed the structure and function of his wife’s 5 acres of organic vegetables by rototilling every bit of biota in preparation for planting a wide range of exotic species. Using the MSC criteria, Prof Hilborn points out, farming organic vegetables is clearly not sustainable. If your criteria of environmental concern include minimising damage to biodiversity, reducing water use and greenhouse gas production, and reducing water pollution from fertilisers or pesticides, it’s clear that properly managed harvest of wild fisheries wins hands down against any and all terrestrial food sources, except perhaps controlled hunting of native species like kangaroos.
Prof Hilborn observed that of course, poorly managed fisheries, whether by severe overfishing or use of poisons or dynamite, will also considerably transform ecosystems, but rarely so totally as would be the case even for an environmentally conscientious organic farmer. Other studies have shown that farmed shellfish (oysters, mussels) and fisheries for small pelagic fish are the most environmentally friendly forms of animal protein production on the planet, with lowest greenhouse gas emissions and energy input per portion of protein, while oysters and mussels actually clean up pollution and improve water quality, all while providing valuable habitat for fish (every hectare of living shellfish reef produces around 2.5 tonnes of harvestable fish each year). Recreational fishers who take a few fish to eat therefore represent amongst the most efficient, environmentally friendly methods of food production there is, especially if those fish are taken by someone who walks or kayaks to their fishing spot under their own steam. The only way you can improve on this is to contribute directly to improving fish habitat, such as by undertaking restoration of shellfish reefs. By doing so you would not only minimise your environmental impact, you are most likely producing food with a net positive environmental gain!
It’s true that the various seafood labelling schemes such as the MSC certification were originally devised in the 1990's mainly over concerns about fisheries sustainability. But today in Australia, the majority of fisheries are very tightly managed, so these sorts of consumer labelling schemes have moved far beyond sustainability, shifting the goalposts into various other criteria including biodiversity impacts, ethical issues, animal welfare certifications, and so on. Unfortunately, in most cases the need to generate a marketing advantage via a product point of difference is the main driver for today's various food labelling schemes, and consumers who do not look further and ask questions are being made aware of only part of the story. A classic case in point actually comes from terrestrial food production. Today, many consumers appear to be happy to pay a price premium for "free range eggs" due to presumed welfare advantages for chickens in free range environments. However, research in the USA (the "Laying Hen Housing Research Project") found that the usual welfare and ethical claims for the superiority of free range chicken farming compared to conventional cage farming simply do not exist. Instead, scientific investigations found there were pluses and minuses. Independent researchers found that chickens held in conventional cages had better food conversion, better biosecurity, cleaner feathers, but worse feather cover than those in aviaries, with no significant difference in egg laying rates, egg quality, food consumption, stress levels, immune function or other welfare metrics. In contrast, the free range chickens in an aviary system had improved bone density, but more than double the mortality rate, increased rates of injuries (from pecking by other birds), as well as reduced occupational health of aviary workers who had to collect free range eggs by hand. Cost of eggs produced via the free range aviary systems were 36% higher compared to eggs produced from chickens in conventional cages. These extra costs for free range eggs are, of course, passed onto consumers. For more, click HERE.
The moral of this story, therefore, is your choices as a consumer are seldom black and white; the claims of these various certification bodies and interest groups should not be blindly believed. Be skeptical, do your own investigations, make your own choices, and keep these facts in mind the next time a vegan brings it upon themselves to lecture you on your food choices.