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Can reduction fisheries be sustainable?

Pile of herring fish
Emily McGregor on March 22, 2017 - 2:42 pm in Environmental impact, Sustainable seafood
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Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Fisheries Assessment Manager, Emily McGregor explains what is required for a reduction fishery to be considered sustainable. 

A reduction fishery is one that uses, or ‘reduces’, its catch to produce fishmeal or fish oil rather than for direct human consumption. These fisheries typically target small pelagic (midwater) species like anchovies, herring and capelin. Other species lower down the food chain, like krill are also caught for reduction.

The fishmeal produced is used to supplement feed for livestock and fin fish in aquaculture. Fish oils are for human consumption, usually in the form of supplements.

It’s worth noting that trimmings of species caught for food, such as haddock, pollock, herring and mackerel, are also used to produce fishmeal and fish oil. These products, therefore, ensure effective use of a by-product that would otherwise be thrown away. However, these fisheries are not referred to as ‘reduction fisheries’.

Man feedinf fish at fish farm

Fish raised through aquaculture are fed fishmeal produced from reduction fisheries and by-products of seafood production. image: iStock.com/doybox

Do reduction fisheries impact ecosystems?

Reduction fisheries often target species at the bottom of the marine food chain, known as low trophic level species. These species play an important role in sustaining marine ecosystems: many predatory fish, seabirds and marine mammals rely on them as their main food source. Therefore, overfishing low trophic species can have significant impacts higher up the food chain. As such, the MSC Fisheries Standard has specific requirements that fisheries targeting low trophic species must meet to achieve certification.

MSC certified fisheries take an extremely cautious approach in setting catches for low trophic species, fishing at a much lower rate than is sustainable for other species. This ensures stocks remain abundant and can sustain healthy predator populations. These fisheries must provide evidence that their catches are not having detrimental impacts further up the food chain. They must also demonstrate that their catch is used as fully as possible, minimising waste.

Swirl of fish underwater

Healthy marine ecosystems rely on healthy populations of low trophic level species. image: iStock.com/lemga

Should fish be prioritised for human consumption?

Seafood is an essential source of protein for millions of people. Concerns have been raised about the use of fish in animal and fish feed instead of for human consumption. However, the reality is that market demand and consumer tastes mean that many of these small, less appetising fish never end up being consumed by people.

The MSC doesn’t seek to influence demand or consumption of any particular species of fish. We want all fishing activity, whatever its context, to be sustainable.

How much fishmeal and fish oil is MSC certified?

Just a small proportion of global raw materials used in fishmeal and fish oil production is certified to the MSC Fisheries Standard. In addition, most MSC certified fishmeal and fish oil is made from the trimmings and by-products of species caught for human consumption. There are also MSC certified reduction fisheries targeting krill, herring and sardine. All these fisheries have undergone rigorous, independent assessment.

Final thoughts…

While there are certainly legitimate concerns about the practises of some reduction fisheries, it’s important to recognise there is a market for fishmeal and oils. We should also remember that some fish species will never be sold for human consumption. To maintain healthy oceans and abundant fish stocks, we believe sustainable fisheries should be recognised for their efforts as this encourages more responsible fishing practices worldwide.

Find out more about sustainable fishing >

Emily McGregor

Emily is a marine scientist and MSC Fisheries Assessment Manager.

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