Sustainable fishing is a matter of choice

That gives you, the shopper, a great deal of power and the ability to bring about change. By choosing the right food to serve, you can change the world and, in the world of fish, this is critical.

This is the argument of John Duncan, the manager of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s seafood transformation programme.

“Consumers often forget that they drive the whole seafood market demand and instead blame fishers and retailers,” he said.

His big project is the Southern Africa Sustainable Seafood Initiative, which is behind the colour-coding of fish on supermarket shelves so consumers know how sustainable they are. Green, such as hake, means eat away with abandon, as the stocks are plentiful and well managed. Yellow, such as kob, means use sparingly. In the case of red, such as rock cod, say several Hail Marys after you eat and pray for forgiveness – you are helping to wipe out the species.

The coding also reflects how the fish is caught. So, if you have caught kob with a fishing rod, you can eat as much of it as you like, but it would be classified as yellow if caught with a long line trailed from a ship.

Duncan said that, by giving consumers the choice, the project had changed consumption patterns. By creating a demand for green-label fish, suppliers responded accordingly, and, at the end of the line, fishermen stopped hooking the red species because they could not sell them easily.

Government’s involvement
“The more fishermen start to be rewarded by the market for responsible behaviour, the easier it is for them to implement the necessary changes.”

Duncan said the government’s involvement was critical. It had to create and enforce the regulations that governed fishing.

South Africa has to manage more than 1000 000km2 of sea, which makes management difficult. Although groups such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development agency, Stop Illegal Fishing, say the country is lucky because it has the technology and ships to fend off most illegal fishermen, they still cause immense damage. But the problem is so bad in the rest of Africa that many people have lost their livelihoods and, in extreme cases, have turned to piracy.

Last year’s assessment by the South African National Biodiversity Institute found serious problems in the industry. Foremost was the lack of information. Of the 630 species of fish that were caught off South Africa’s coastline, only 41 were counted and included in any database, and, of these, two-thirds were exploited.

The damage to coastal and marine habitats was also found to be severe, which has led to 17% of species being listed as critically threatened and 30% threatened.

Fully exploited
The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has recognised that current stocks are fully exploited and there is little space for any growth in the industry. Therefore, the minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, has said it must look at rehabilitation and sustainable management.

Although fishing contributes only 0.5% to gross domestic product, 600 000 tonnes of fish are caught a year and the industry employs 27 000 people, which sustains communities along the entire coastline. A total of 1 800 vessels are licensed to fish in the 21 designated areas off the coast, and between 500 000 and 900 000 people are licensed to fish recreationally.

If South Africa does not move towards ethical and sustainable fishing, it will lose out heavily in its attempts to export internationally,  the destination of most local fish.

Martin Purves, the programme manager of the South African Marine Stewardship Council, recently said that several countries – Japan, the United States and those in the European Union – would stop buying South African fish if it lost the certification of the council.

The fifth edition of the Global Environment Outlook, compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme, also warns about the dangers of overfishing. Released this week, it states that countries must tighten up their regulations and governance to bring fish stocks back from the brink.

So, the next time you are at the supermarket fridge, think about your choices and the power you wield.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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