Freezing the footprint on fish

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“Shellfish and plankton eat the microbeads used in cosmetic products that get into our waters – which means that ultimately, so do diners. Fish are also known to eat the plastic which is dumped in the oceans, so that we are now in effect eating our own rubbish.”

One of the many joys of travel for many is feasting on beautifully cooked freshly caught fish, but in the name of sustainable travel, how can we ensure that we are not endangering an already dwindling supply when we tuck in – or even damaging ourselves in the process? Most people know the health benefits of eating fish, but are equally aware that this food crop is not fully sustainable. If we are to move beyond green hotels and eco friendly travel to an industry that truly embraces sustainable practices for both people and planet, it’s a situation we can no longer afford to ignore.

When it comes to the sustainability of fish, the biggest problem is overfishing in our seas, rivers and lakes, which has led to what scientists call eutrophication, or excessive plant growth. The fewer fish we have, the more plants that grow – the more plants that grow, the fewer fish we have – trapping us in a vicious cycle that gives us fewer fish to eat and upsets the delicate balance of the eco system our planet needs to survive and thrive. Overfishing can also lead to algal blooms, which disrupts the ecological make-up of the water and can be toxic to fish, thereby exacerbating the problem.

Destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling are also damaging the eco systems which support fish. Fish management systems and quotas vary throughout the world, and policing these systems is also fraught with difficulty. As the World Wildlife Fund puts it: “More than 85 per cent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits. Pollution, poorly planned development, and the effects of climate change have also contributed to the degradation of the underwater environment.”

More than 90 species of fish in European waters are threatened with extinction, according to a report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sharks, rays, and other cartilaginous fish are at greatest risk, with about 40% facing extinction. The report warns that the main threat is overfishing.

Fish and seafood can be nutritionally beneficial, of course – a low-fat protein, they are filled with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins such as D and B2 and are a great source of calcium, phosphorus and minerals such as iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium. There are, however, hidden dangers.

Shellfish and plankton eat the microbeads used in cosmetic products that get into our waters – which means that ultimately, so do diners. Fish are also known to eat the plastic which is dumped in the oceans, so that we are now in effect eating our own rubbish. A study by a Belgian University found humans who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year.

A recent report from the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested that fish are not just eating these plastics by accident – they are actually attracted to it. The report concluded: “These findings have considerable implications for aquatic food webs and possibly human health.”

In this context, the fact that almost half the seafood we eat comes from farms, where in theory the water quality could be controlled, could be seen as a positive. Farms used to be seen as the answer to the world’s fish stock supply, and they have many benefits. But they also come with a list of problems – the lack of diversity; the density of stock – which can create disease and pollution, and can require chemical intervention; and the fact that it’s factory farming, which can impact on the life and health of the fish and ultimately on their nutritional benefits as food.

Compassion in World Farming estimates the amount of farmed fish we eat has risen from 5% to 50% in the last 50 years – particularly salmon and trout, because they grow faster. However, 450 billion wild fish a year have to be caught just to feed farmed fish – which makes the situation rather nonsensical.

So, we must check that the products we use don’t contain microbeads before they end up in our food, and campaign against single-use plastic bottles, carrier bags and other plastic products which are all regularly discarded. Hoteliers have a big part to play in this through the bathroom products they offer, the cleaning materials they use, and their recycling procedures.

So what else can travellers and hoteliers do to clear our consciences and protect the planet and our health?

Hoteliers must ensure there are more interesting alternatives on the menu, including more vegan and veggie options, that they serve less fish, and that they ensure that the fish they do serve is sustainably sourced and certified. Even then, ‘sustainably sourced and certified’ only means that the fish come from suppliers with principled business practices, who do not overfish and who pay their staff decently – it does not mean it is free of plastic and toxic chemicals, and all seafood and fish that eat plankton or live in polluted seas or lake water are at risk. Which means hoteliers need to go that extra mile to ensure that the fish they buy is free of plastic and other toxic chemicals.

As travellers we have a choice too, and should be questioning the provenance of our fish when we choose it – at home as well as when we are on holiday. We can eat less of it, and look out for hotels certified by organisations such as EarthCheck, which helps hoteliers produce sustainable menus. Most EarthCheck members have stopped offering protected species.

We should also all be mindful of The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which the WWF helped found 20 years ago and is the world’s leading certification and eco-labelling organisation. The MSC rewards sustainable fishing, and harnesses consumer and retailer purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible practices. “We can prove the legal origin of our seafood by requiring catch documentation, using new technology to monitor fishing and implementing a traceability system that tracks seafood along the supply chain,” it says.

It’s clear that the issues surrounding the supply and consumption of fish and seafood are complex, and we need a concerted effort from consumers, suppliers, restaurants and hotels to ensure that the food we are eating is safe and that it is not detrimental to the environment. Let’s work together to freeze the footprint on fish.

Do you care about sustainability? Please leave a reply here or on NOW Forum.