Scientists have warned that without drastic changes “this century is the last century of wild seafood.” The world’s current trajectory of falling catches and rising consumption is projected to end in 2050 with the collapse of nearly 100% of exploited seafood populations. But those are just abstract numbers. Now a new report tells us the precise day each year when we have eaten more fish than the planet can sustain. In Europe, that day has already passed. Every fish consumed now by Europeans is one that couldn’t come from their own fisheries.
In 2011, according to the study by the New Economics Foundation this “fish dependence day,” fell on July 2, the day when–theortetically–at least, the EU pulled all the fish it could from its waters (NEF extrapolates from the most recent FAO data of 2008). This dependence date has crept forward for more than a decade and is now a full month ahead of where it was in 2000. The reasons are well known. Since 1950, governments have deployed policies, loans, and subsidies to build up big industrial fishing operations that feed the world’s growing appetite for seafood. Escalating competition for a dwindling pool of fisheries has had predictable consequences: the world’s catch peaked at 90 million tons in the late 1980s, and declined ever since to 79.5 million tons in 2008 (the most recent year statistics are available).
The NEF’s study, while detailing which EU countries consume the most seafood (Portugal per capita), the most popular species (tuna, salmon, and cod primarily), and other trends, it also offers solutions it thinks can reverse the situation and prevent the collapse of marine species that, scientists say, may still be saved with proper management.
“The single greatest benefit to fish stocks would be, quite simply, a reduction in catches to help fish stocks rebuild,” NEF researcher Ruper Crilly says by email. “Because this has been so difficult to do directly, people have come up with indirect ways to do it: reducing consumption, reducing capacity, controlling effort (days spent fishing), and [other methods]. Which is most effective is contentious, but there is currently very little drive to reduce fish consumption. Without this, it is difficult to see how the pressure on stocks here or abroad can be alleviated.”
The NEF argues for a simple formula: eat less fish more responsibly and then better manage the remaining public resources of marine fisheries. “We believe an important issue is access to fish resources based on environmental and social criteria (which, in short, should help ensure sustainable use of the resource), and that this would help benefit the public, who own the resource and have a right to demand higher standards of exploitation,” writes Crilly.
While the NEF has no plans to release a similar report for the U.S., plenty of organizations on this side of the Atlantic from National Geographic to the Monterey Bay Aquarium offer seafood guides for your pocket and phone to help make sustainable seafood decisions.