Ethical considerations of sustainable fishing in Europe

The United Nations (UN) estimate that 200 million people are directly or indirectly employed by the fishing industry and around 1 billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein. The UN also reports that one quarter of the world’s fish stocks are over exploited and half the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited (UN, 2010). To try and counter this problem the concept of sustainable fishing has been proposed.

Sustainable fishing is a “combination of biological, economic and social constraints which need to be met for a viable fishery to exist” (Martinet et al., 2007). Sustainable fishing aims to preserve fish species whilst allowing fishers to use the resource and consumers to buy fish from the fishers. In Europe strict quotas prevent fishers from taking more than their allocated amount of fish. However, as the world population continues to grow there is a pressure on every division of agriculture, including the fishing industry to provide sources of protein. Furthermore, as quotas are reduced there is mounting pressure on fishers to source alternative sources of income for their families. Here I will consider the points of view of both consumers and the fishers themselves. This will lead to an overall appreciation of the factors that affect sustainable fishing.

The UK dietary recommendations advise the consumption of at least two portions of fish a week (Clonan et al., 2012). This is the case because of the beneficial proteins, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids found in fish. Eating fish has also been linked to a decreased risk in developing health conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. But, if every person in the UK were to meet these dietary requirements demand for fish would greatly increase while supply (fish stocks and quotas) would decrease, leading to an almost certain increase in the cost of fish. Why should consumers have to pay more for healthier products? In the current economic climate how can consumers be expected to pay more for healthy food, and more again for that food to be sustainable? Furthermore should consumers be deprived of healthy products simply because they can’t afford them? It seems unfair to deprive an individual of healthy food, simply because unhealthy food is cheaper and more accessible (Jacoby, 2004).

As well as depriving a consumer of the choice to eat healthy food, it is also unfair to deprive a customer of sustainable food, if that is what they desire. This is the consumers right to make an informed choice about the quality and sustainability of the food they eat. To ensure this choice is easy to make, public awareness campaigns have been used, as well as promotions in the certification of sustainable fish and ecolabeling of products on the market. This has led to success stories such as dolphin-friendly tuna, which is now widely available and clearly labelled in supermarkets and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fish in McDonald’s stores (MSC., 2011). However, there are still many popular species of fish being sold to the consumer that are not clearly labelled (Jacquet and Pauly, 2007, Cooke et al., 2011). In this case, the consumer does not know how sustainable the fish they are buying is. Consumers should have a right to make an informed decision and discriminate between products that are and are not harmful to the environment, but they are unable to do so because so few products carry ecolabels.

The fishing profession is often kept within families and the trade is passed on from one generation to the next. Throughout these generations fishers have been able to catch what they want. Now strict species-specific fishing quotas have been enforced by many European governments to try and reduce over-fishing. This can be seen as the removal of a fisher’s right to choose what species of fish they catch. Their relatives have been catching whichever species they want for generations, why should they behave differently; they are only supplying consumer demand.
In a recent survey more than half the fishers polled were in favour of these quotas in theory, but many were concerned with the implications they would have for their livelihood. The quotas limit the quantity of fish any vessel can catch and any excess fish caught must be returned to the oceans. If quotas are exceeded then severe fines and other penalties are enforced. Many fishers are concerned that quotas are either too small currently, or will be too small in the future to earn enough money to support their families. Is it ethical to enforce this restriction onto someone’s livelihood? The fishers themselves are not at fault, but if they are unable to live off the money they earn because of these quotas, they may be forced to either exceed quotas while trying not to be caught or look for an alternative income, perhaps even a different profession. Is this a case of depriving someone’s right to provide for their family? Arguably it is. Is the cost to farmers greater than the benefit to the fish in question? Again this depends on where priorities lie between the sufferings of your own species against that of another species. The fishers could get another job, in another industry, but why should they have to? As discussed previously, all they are doing is supplying demand and providing an income to support their families. Should they be punished for that? Should they be punished for that over the well-being of a fish (Hatcher et al., 2002).

As well as a fisher’s right to choice and their well-being, the fairness in which fishers are treated must also be dealt with. Firstly, what fair trade laws and practices are in place, ensuring everyone abides by the quotas? There are regular inspections, as well as fines in place to ensure that all fishers follow the quotas. In February 2012 17 fishermen and a former fish processing factory were fined £960,000 for not following their fishing quotas. In total, almost £3,000,000 was seized as part of a confiscation order against the 17 fishermen. Clearly these fishers thought that the risk was worth the benefits. In actual fact, they were fined less than a third of the value of fish they took from the oceans. Is this an adequate penalty for not abiding to the quotas? These quotas will not work without the support and commitment of all fishers involved. If a minority of individuals do not comply then it is not fair to the majority of fishers who follow the laws in place. However, if quotas are so low that fishers are unable to live off their income, is it worth the risk? Will more fishers be dishonest about the amount of fish they catch? If this were to happen the management plan would be pointless. Is it worth driving fishers to such levels of desperation over fish? This situation should be avoided at all costs but the reality is that fish stocks and therefore quotas will probably decline before they increase, and as such this criminality may become more common (BBC., 2012).

Finally, European fishing quotas have resulted in a decrease in supply, this means there will be an increase in demand and as a result price will increase too. The two likely scenarios from this situation are either a decrease in the amount of fish eaten in Europe, or an increase in fish imported from countries outside of Europe where fish stocks are higher and/or not controlled by quotas. In 1992 a GATT (General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs) dispute panel looked into the United States as they tried to place an embargo on importing tuna from Mexico. The United States argued that the tuna had not been caught using the dolphin friendly procedures enforced on United States fishing fleets and therefore should not be sold in the United States. The panel ruled in favour of Mexico. If this situation were to happen in Europe even more trade would be lost as demand for cheaper fish from other countries increased. This would put fishers under even greater pressure to find the funds to support their family. Does the government then have an obligation to stop the importation of fish from unsustainable sources to protect fishers? If the government does intervene and prevent importing popular species of fish from other countries then they will be depriving consumers of a healthy source of protein. If they do not intervene then the fishers’ income will severely decline, which could lead to exceeding quotas to supplement income. Furthermore, the government could be in a situation like the United States whereby they tried to intervene but their embargo was overturned by GATT. In this case the government would be powerless to prevent the importation of fish into the UK (Beckerman, 2003).

This essay has argued the point that in whichever way fish stocks are managed there will be inevitable human suffering to some degree. To argue this point, first the point of view of the consumer was taken. The aspects discussed included health, eco-labelling and the right to an informed choice. The view point of the fishers was then discussed and included an appreciation for fishers’ freedom to choose as well as the possibility of criminality and possible future scenarios.

A point which has repeatedly surfaced throughout this discussion is the issue of priorities. Essentially this issue breaks down to, who is more important human survival or fish survival. If human survival is most important then the fish stocks will inevitably seize to exist either in the near or distant future. Eventually the demand for fish protein will far exceed any sustainable management plan, and as human survival is more important than fish survival, the fish would have to give way. If fish survival or well-being is most important then there are serious implications for humans. Whether it be consumers or fishers there will be serious suffering felt as a result. Consumers will have to pay more to eat healthier, sustainable food and fishers could have to break the law or find alternative jobs to gain a reasonable income. However, the current opinion is neither a priority to humans or to fish. I believe this is a much more dangerous position to be in than choosing to prioritise fish or humans. By trying to conserve both fish and humans, the consequences if the management strategy fails could be severe for both parties concerned. It strikes me there are going to be difficult questions about our priorities asked in the future, particularly concerning the feasibility of sustainable fishing in Europe. However, I believe these questions will be left unanswered up until a point whereby either consumer or fisher suffering become so great, something has to give, unfortunately that will have to be the fish.

BBC. 2012. Skippers and firm fined almost £1m for part in £63m ‘black fish’ scam [Online]. Available: [Accessed 22/03/2012.
BECKERMAN, W. 2003. A poverty of reason: sustainable development and economic growth, Oakland, The Independent Institute.
CLONAN, A., HOLDSWORTH, M., SWIFT, J. A., LEIBOVICI, D. & WILSON, P. 2012. The dilemma of healthy eating and environmental sustainability: the case of fish. Public Health Nutrition, 15, 277-284.
COOKE, S. J., MURCHIE, K. J. & DANYLCHUK, A. J. 2011. Sustainable “seafood” ecolabeling and awareness initiatives in the context of inland fisheries: Increasing food security and protecting ecosystems. Bioscience, 61, 911-918.
HATCHER, A., PASCOE, S., BANKS, R. & ARNASON, R. 2002. Future options for UK fish quota management. University of Portsmouth.
JACOBY, E. 2004. The obesity epidemic in the Americas: making healthy choices the easiest choices. Rev Panam Salud Publica, 15, 278-284.
JACQUET, J. L. & PAULY, D. 2007. The rise of seafood awareness campaigns in an era of collapsing fisheries. Marine Policy, 31, 308-313.
MARTINET, V., THEBAUD, O. & DOYEN, L. 2007. Defining viable recovery paths toward sustainable fisheries. Ecological Economics, 64, 411-422.
MSC. 2011. Partner release: McDonald’s to bring sustainable fish to millions in Europe. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 23/03/2012.
UN 2010. The state of world fisheries and aquaculture. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, Rome.