Fishing is sustainable if it leaves enough fish in the oceans and minimises impacts on habitats and ecosystems. For this to happen, fisheries must be managed effectively.
Why is sustainable fishing important?
Communities worldwide rely on fishing for their livelihoods and as a vital source of food and nutrition. More than a third of the global population relies on seafood as a source of protein and 38 million people are employed in wild capture fisheries.
If we fish sustainably, we can secure food for the future and help eradicate poverty and hunger.
More than a third of global fisheries have been fished beyond sustainable limits and world demand for seafood continues to grow. Sustainable fishing can reverse this decline and ensure that there are enough fish left in the sea so that fishing can take place indefinitely into the future. The long-term health of fish stocks is also vital to secure a source of nutrient-rich food to feed a growing population. 16 million more tonnes of seafood could be produced every year if fisheries are managed sustainably, providing enough protein to meet the needs of 72 million people worldwide.
Certified sustainable wild-capture fishing can also reduce the pressure on land-based agriculture as a source of protein. Seafood also has, on average, a lower carbon footprint than land-based animal proteins.
How can fishing be sustainable?
Scientists work out how many fish can be safely caught without impacting the future health of the stock. This involves collecting data on the size of the stock, when and where the species spawns and how many juveniles are likely to survive into adulthood. They also assess environmental factors that may affect the stock, such as predation from other species.
Different management measures can also be implemented to protect stocks from overfishing, such as prohibiting fishing during spawning seasons and setting size limits to protect juveniles.
A key aspect of sustainable fishing also involves adopting precautionary measures known as harvest control rules, which require catches to be reduced if the stock population declines. This is particularly important when stocks are shared by several different countries and a collective effort is needed to prevent overfishing.
Fish stocks are also more abundant when targeted by fisheries operating sustainably than those which do not.
“We need to manage fish stocks, globally, on a sustainable basis so they can continue to provide renewable, healthy, affordable and low-carbon protein for humanity.”MSC Chief Executive Officer
How does sustainable fishing protect the oceans?
All species have a unique role within ocean ecosystems and are part of a balanced food web of predators and prey. The loss of a single species due to overfishing or excessive bycatch can have a knock-on effect across the entire food web.
It’s not just fish stocks that benefit from a healthy ecosystem, it can also help the ocean regulate the climate. Carbon dioxide from the air dissolves into seawater and is trapped within different elements of the ocean ecosystem, such as seagrass, the shells of molluscs, and plant-like plankton.
Climate change is already having a significant impact on our oceans and the health of fish stocks, making sustainable fishing more important than ever.
How can sustainable fishing minimise impacts on the environment?
Fishing can impact more than just the species being targeted. If practices are not sustainable, the marine environment can be threatened by issues such as habitat destruction, lost fishing gear and unwanted catch.
Fisheries should have measures in place to reduce bycatch – this includes non-target fish and shellfish as well as marine mammals, reptiles, amphibians and seabirds. This might involve modifying gear, avoiding fishing in areas where unwanted or endangered species are known to live or migrate through, and adapting practices to minimise the risk of interactions.
For example, seabird entanglements can be reduced by setting lines and nets deeper in the ocean and fishing at night instead of during the day. Gear can also be modified to allow non-target species to escape or deter them from getting too close to nets. This includes adding exclusionary devices to allow large marine animals to escape from nets and devices such as bird-scaring lines, or acoustic 'pingers' that repel marine mammals.
Fishing methods that interact with the seabed, such as bottom trawling and dredging, are considered controversial, due to the risk of damage to seafloor habitats. However, these methods can be sustainable if well-managed. Research into seafloor habitats can identify vulnerable areas which should be avoided, including those with sensitive slow-growing species, such as corals. Fishers can also use lighter gear to reduce the impact of contact with the seabed and, in some cases, set nets at a depth that avoids contact altogether.
Steps can also be taken to prevent fishing gear from being lost or discarded at sea, and to reduce the impact of any gear that does become lost. This can include monitoring and retrieving lost gear and using biodegradable panels or locks on gear such as lobster pots, to allow species to escape.
What is the MSC’s approach to certified sustainable fishing?
The Marine Stewardship Council recognises and rewards fisheries operating sustainably through our fisheries certification program and label.
Our Standard is the leading measure of sustainable fishing and is rooted in global best practice in fisheries management and widely accepted fisheries science.
Fisheries volunteer to be assessed against our Standard by an independent third-party and must meet the three principles of our Standard:
- Sustainable fish stocks
- Minimising environmental impacts
- Effective fisheries management
Fisheries that achieve certification are audited every year and may be required to make further improvements to their practices to support the protection of marine resources for future generations.