How the world’s oceans are running out of fish

Ninety years of overfishing has brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe and deprived millions of their livelihoods. Scientific guidelines are ignored and catches grow ever larger. Alex Renton explains why the international community has failed to act.

It is early morning in Barcelona’s La Boqueria market and the fish stallholders are setting out their wares. Mounds of pink and grey glisten down the dim alleys, as shoppers and tourists peer at the fins and tentacles. It is not like any fish shop in Britain. Some stalls sell five different species of squid and cuttlefish, half a dozen types of shrimp and prawn, 10 different cuts of salt cod. It is a fish eater’s haven in the heart of a city that eats and sells more fish than anywhere else in Europe.

Anyone who cares about where their fish come from — and this should mean anyone who wants to go on eating them — should take two tools when they visit the fishmonger. One is the handy guidance provided by Britain’s Marine Conservation Society (MCS), “Fish to Avoid” and “Fish to Eat” (the latter is still the longer); the other is a ruler. My ruler is the type handed out to commercial fishermen by the international advisory body Incofish, and has pictures of key species with marks indicating when they can be considered mature (and, thus, OK to catch).

So I set about lining up my ruler against the La Boqueria fish, starting with the mackerel (should be 34 centimetres), the plaice (39 centimetres) and the redfish (45 centimetres). All turn out to be mere babies. The mackerel is half the designated length. A glance around the stalls shows 10 or more species on the MCS’s “Avoid” list, including hake, swordfish, monkfish, bluefin tuna and, of course, cod.

I don’t spend much time doing this because the Catalan fishmongers don’t like my ruler — or me. They don’t want to talk about why they are selling tiny hake (one of Europe’s most endangered species) and why not a single fish in the market has any “sustainable” labelling.

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