Fish Dependence: A wake-up call for overfishing in the EU

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We may be an island nation that prides itself on its fish and chips, but you might be surprised by where much of our cod is coming from.

Like many of our fellow EU countries, we are hugely reliant on fish from overseas – at least one-in-three eaten in the UK comes from outside the European Union. nef research shows that today (August 21) is the UK’s fish dependence day – the day we run out of our own domestic supply of fish.

How can a country surrounded by such rich and productive fishing grounds, with relatively moderate levels of fish consumption compared to the likes of Spain and Portugal, only provide for its own domestic demand for 233 days of the year?

The answer lies with decades of overfishing in UK and European waters. We used some of the results from our recent report on overfishing, Jobs Lost at Sea, to see how far rebuilding our fish stocks would go towards plugging the fish dependence gap: all the way, it turns out. If our stocks were properly managed we could be self-sufficient and even become a net exporter of fish. Restoring UK commercial fish stocks to their maximum sustainable yield (MSY) would increase their catch to 467,292 tonnes – 1.6 times the UK’s current fish import deficit. Additional landings from these rebuilt stocks would provide for the annual fish consumption of 23 million Britons and easily meet the country’s annual fish demand.

Instead, we are importing some of our most common native fish such as cod. Iceland is our number one cod exporter, with just under 27,000 tonnes. Next is China, with 14,000 tonnes (likely to be mostly re-exports) and Norway with 13,700 tonnes.

To put this into perspective, the UK’s current North Sea cod catch is about 16,000 tonnes, while a rebuilt stock could, according to ICES (the fisheries scientific body advising the European Union), produce 280,000 tonnes, of which the UK would likely catch 90,000 tonnes. Overfishing has driven down one the UK’s most important and productive fisheries to less than one-fifth of its potential.

Looking across all species, we also have a dependence on developing countries, taking 14,700 tonnes from the Seychelles, 18,600 tonnes from Ghana, and 28,800 tonnes from Mauritius. As has been pointed out, fish consumption rose in developed countries during the 1980-1990 decade, but fell in developing countries without being offset by increases in other sources of animal protein. Clearly, our taste for fish is impacting not only our own food security but that of others too.

With reform of the Common Fisheries Policy underway, we are at a crucial stage in the fight to end overfishing. UK consumers should choose sustainably sourced fish, politicians need to commit to MSY biomass targets by 2015 and subsidies should support fishing which boosts employment and cuts environmental impact by using the most selective gears.

Rupert Crilly

Environmental Economics Researcher, nef

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