Why are fish caught and eaten

Fishing in Europe

Fish is an important source of food for millions of people around the world. On the coasts of Africa and Asia, for example, it is often the most important foodstuff. In many places, fishing is also the most important or even the only source of income. Fishing is also an important industry in many European countries.

But fish stocks are limited, and many are exploited beyond what is tolerable in the long term. In the Mediterranean, for example, 93 percent of fish stocks are overfished, according to the European Commission. This means that stocks are threatened in the long term and there is an increased risk that they will collapse completely - if appropriate measures are not taken to counteract this. This means that not only the nutrition of millions of people is at stake, but also the biodiversity of the sea and an entire branch of the economy.

Fish as food

In the European Union in 2011 an average of 24.9 kilograms of fish was eaten per capita per year - most in Portugal (56.8 kilograms per capita), Lithuania (43.4 kilograms) and Spain (42.4 kilograms), least in Hungary (5.3 kilograms). Germany is in 20th place with 14.2 kilograms.

Three quarters of the fish consumed in the EU comes from wild fisheries and a quarter from aquaculture, which means from fish farming. Tuna, salmon and cod are among the most popular food fish in the European Union (2012). However, there are big differences in consumption from country to country. In Germany, salmon, Alaskan pollock, herring and tuna are mainly consumed (2015), while in Spain, for example, hake, salmon, cod, shrimp and sea bass (2015) are among the most popular food fish.

Fish plays an important role in a healthy diet. Among other things, it contains a lot of iron and vitamins, protein and iodine. Fish is easy to digest and many types of fish are very low in fat.

Fisheries: a major industry

In many countries in the European Union, fishing is an important industry. However, its importance differs greatly in the individual Member States.

In total, the EU fishermen are on the move with around 85,000 vessels (2015). The main fishing areas are in the Northeast Atlantic (74.4 percent of the total catches in the EU in 2013), the Mediterranean Sea (8.5 percent) and the Middle East Atlantic (7.8 percent). Herring, mackerel and sprat are caught most across the EU (2013).

Spain had the largest share of catches in the EU in 2013 with 18.7 percent, followed by Denmark (13.8 percent), the United Kingdom (12.8 percent) and France (10.9 percent).

In terms of jobs and the number of ships, Greece, Spain and Italy are among the leaders in the EU. Most fishing jobs are concentrated in a few countries in the EU. The four front runners Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal together have a share of 70 percent. In Germany around 40,000 people are employed in the fishing and fish processing industries.

In a global comparison, the EU only has a share of 3.2 percent of global fisheries and aquaculture production (2013). The world's largest producer is by far China (38.6 percent), followed by Indonesia (10.1 percent), India (4.8 percent) and Vietnam (3.2 percent). Much of the fish consumed in the European Union comes from imports. The main suppliers are Norway, China, Ecuador and Morocco.

EU marine areas are overfished

The intensive fishing in the EU is noticeable in the fish stocks in European waters. According to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, the stock situation in the North and Baltic Seas is "dramatically bad". Four out of seven stocks are overfished, in the Baltic Sea alone even three out of four stocks. According to EU data, in the Mediterranean it is even 93 percent (2015).

Overfishing means that the natural regeneration capacity of a fish stock is reduced to such an extent that the remaining fish have too few offspring to return to their original stock. Stock is understood to mean the occurrence of fish of a species in a specific region. As a result of overfishing, individual stocks or even entire fish species can become extinct.

Fishing companies that do not adhere to the existing legal rules are a major problem. Illegal, unregulated and unannounced fishing (IUU fishing) endangers efforts to manage the world's fish stocks sustainably, according to the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. In Europe, too, fishing trawlers are repeatedly discovered that fish without a license. The estimated value of catches from IUU fishing worldwide is up to ten billion euros.

Effects on the marine ecosystem

Industrial fishing is not only dangerous for the species it fishes. If individual stocks are severely depleted, this can also affect other animal and plant species and thus endanger the stability of the entire marine ecosystem. This happens when a source of food is lost in this way or when certain plants reproduce strongly because they no longer have "predators". (More on the topic of the marine ecosystem in the background text "Endangered Species: Rays and Sharks in German Seas".)

Some fishing methods also have a direct impact on other areas of the ecosystem. So-called bycatch can often amount to a multiple of the amount of fish actually desired. Bycatch includes those marine animals that end up undesirably in the net in addition to the species actually fished. In addition to these "non-target species", target species also count as by-catch, i.e. specimens of a specifically fished species that do not meet the requirements, for example because they are "undersized".

According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), bycatch accounts for around a quarter of the total. Usually it is thrown back into the sea, with at least half of the animals perishing. This happens either because the bycatch is not for sale or because the fishermen do not want to exceed existing catch quotas for the species caught. In addition, seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals can get caught in the nets and die.

In addition, bottom trawls, for example, destroy the seabed or coral reefs. These nets are used to catch the fish species or crabs that live on the seabed. Crabs, starfish, mussels and juvenile fish then unintentionally end up in the net.

Sustainable fisheries: the EU's common fisheries policy

The European Union has developed a Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to protect species stocks in the EU's marine areas and marine ecosystems, and to support fisheries as an economic sector. The first CFP was agreed in the 1970s. A comprehensive reform was decided in 2013.

This EU reform is made up of various building blocks. In order to ensure sustainable management, it contains provisions on how much can be fished ("maximum catches and quotas"), how many days certain fishing vessels can spend at sea ("fishing effort") and how and where can be fished ("technical Activities"). There are controls to enforce the rules.

On the one hand, the catch quotas for certain endangered fish stocks were deliberately reduced. This means that the fishing fleets are given guidelines on how much fish of certain species may be fished in certain areas in a certain year. This is to ensure that the fish stocks maintain their ability to reproduce and thus their size in the long term.

The official term for this optimal catch is "Maximum Sustainable Yield", or MSY for short. The CFP plans to set the highest possible sustainable yields for all fish stocks in the various marine areas by 2020. In addition, the total capacity of the fishing fleets in the EU must no longer increase and protected areas are designated. However, critics complain that the EU's catch quotas are currently too high.

Another important component of the reform is a so-called discard ban, which is to be introduced gradually by 2019. The discard ban applies to bycatch. This is to be brought ashore in the future and counted towards the catch quotas, even if it has no commercial value for the fishermen concerned. This is intended to encourage fishermen to use more selective fishing gear to avoid bycatch through technical measures, in particular bycatch of juvenile fish.

Technical possibilities: alternative fishing methods

The common fisheries policy of the European Union also includes rules for the use of environmentally friendly fishing methods. For example, bottom trawls cannot be used in sensitive areas; Safety nets must have a minimum mesh size.

In addition to compliance with catch quotas and discard bans, technical measures to avoid bycatch are particularly important in order to conserve fish stocks. Acoustic signals can ensure that whales and dolphins, for example, are kept away from the fishing nets.

There are also "smart nets" that are equipped with hatches, emergency exits and escape locks or are so large-meshed that unwanted species can swim out of the net again. The mesh openings should also be large enough to avoid catching fish that are too young.

Fish stocks are partially recovering

In some marine areas, the number of overfished fish stocks has declined since the adjustment of catch quotas - in the north-east Atlantic, for example, from 94 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2013. There, more fish stocks are within safe biological limits than they have been since the early 1980s was more the case. More than half of the stocks are now in line with the highest possible sustainable yield (MSY).

Targeted countermeasures required securing the cod stocks in the North Sea. From the 1970s to 2006, this has decreased almost continuously. Constant overfishing and adverse environmental conditions have led to the collapse of the cod stock. As a countermeasure, among other things, the catch quota was sharply reduced over several years. Since its historic low in 2006, the stock has gradually recovered and in 2016 is just above the reference value of the highest possible sustainable yield (MSY). The production of youngsters has been weak since 1998. The protective measures taken so far have led to a slight increase in the cod stock and have had positive effects on other fish species.

Cod in the Baltic Sea, known as cod, is currently doing much worse. There, the catch quotas in the eastern and western parts of the Baltic Sea had to be reduced for 2017. Cod is an important commercial fish species in the Baltic Sea. While environmental organizations rate the new catch quota as too high, some fishermen fear for their livelihood.

Which fish is safe to eat?

The behavior of consumers also plays a role in maintaining global fish stocks. Environmental protection organizations recommend paying attention to where the fish comes from when buying. Greenpeace and the WWF offer advice on their websites: They list which species from which fishing areas can be safely consumed - and which fish consumers should avoid because the stocks are overfished or the catch causes environmental damage. The environmental protection organizations also advise you to look out for the MSC seal and to buy fish from farms with organic certification.

The MSC seal comes from the organization "Marine Stewardship Council" (MSC). This has developed a seal for sustainable fishing that defines certain criteria. This includes that individual stocks must not be overfished and that the entire ecosystem is taken into account. This means, among other things, that spawning areas must be spared or that nets and hooks are used, which lead to less bycatch. Fishing companies that adhere to the MSC criteria can advertise with the MSC seal.

Related Links

Federal Agency for Nature Conservation: Effects of fishing on commercial fish stocks

Thünen Institute (Federal Research Institute for Rural Areas, Forests and Fisheries): Fish stocks online - fishing areas, fish species, fishing gear

Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture: The fisheries policy of the federal government and the EU: For sustainable fishing

European Commission: The common fisheries policy in figures (PDF)

Federal Environment Agency: Environmental tips for everyday life: Eating and drinking: Fish

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