Shortage of fish 'stops poor from eating healthily'

Less wealthy nations forgo a good foodstuff to meet Britain's appetite for seafood, say experts

Lewis Smith
Saturday 18 October 2014 22:24 BST
The UK does not produce or import enough fish for everyone to eat healthily
The UK does not produce or import enough fish for everyone to eat healthily (Getty)

Declining global fish stocks mean too few fish are caught to meet the minimum recommended levels of consumption for good health, a major study has shown. It also calls on the Government to consider the wider implications of promoting greater fish consumption.

The health benefits of seafood are clear: fish protein is low in saturated fats and high in nutrients and essential fatty acids as well as being rich in calcium, zinc and selenium.

In the UK there has been a long-established policy recommending that everyone should eat on average two portions of seafood a week, amounting to 280g per person.

However, the new report shows that, even accounting for imports and farmed seafood, the UK fails to import, catch or produce enough fish or shellfish for the whole population to eat the recommended two portions a week. It can only provide 179g per person, less than two-thirds of the recommended level.

The paper, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, found that for only 10 of the past 124 years has there been enough seafood to meet minimum health standards. The late 1940s was the last time supplies were adequate to provide 280g for everyone each week.

"Our paper shows the serious disconnect between healthy eating recommendations and the finite capacity of wild fish stocks to meet those aspirations," said Dr Ruth Thurston, of the University of Queensland in Australia, who co-authored the report.

"It demonstrates how UK consumers have so far been protected from falling domestic production by increasing imports, but this demand is often filled at a high social and environmental cost in producer nations, many of them very poor."

Fish protein is low in saturated fats and high in nutrients and essential fatty acids as well as being rich in calcium, zinc and selenium (Getty)

Globally, the trends are similar: years of overfishing have depleted stocks so that landings of seafood have declined since the 1970s. The combined quantity of wild and farmed seafood worldwide, once processed, provides an average of 181g weekly for each person on the planet, almost 100g less than the UK recommended level and 65g less than the 246g per capita recommended by 14 countries issuing dietary advice.

The problem is compounded by large fish imports by wealthy countries such as the UK that "consume more fish than they produce". This reduces the availability of fish in parts of the world where it is most needed. Europe imports 60 per cent of its seafood and the US imports 86 per cent.

According to Dr Thurston, the growth of aquaculture has shielded the UK and the rest of the world from much of the shortfall in landings, but this has come at an environmental cost, such as the destruction of mangrove forests to make way for prawn farms in South-east Asia.

Dr Thurston added: "These findings are a wake-up call to the UK government that our national health aspirations have to be considered on a global stage, and that we need to think carefully about the implications of promoting greater fish consumption in a world where many people are already protein deficient."

In the report Dr Thurston and her co-author, Professor Callum Roberts of the University of York, urged governments to develop policies on seafood production that look beyond their own borders and protect the environment while feeding the human population.

With fisheries "in crisis" after widespread collapses of commercial stocks, they said, a massive expansion of aquaculture is needed to enable supply to keep up with demand as the human population rises.

They added that reformed fisheries management and increased efficiency may not be enough to ensure fish supplies meet future demand, given population growth. Aquaculture will probably need to contribute substantially more than it does today.

"It has so far spared the world a downturn in fish supplies by outpacing human population growth since the 1950s, averaging a remarkable growth of 8.8 per cent year since 1980," they said.

However, Professor Roberts added: "Many aquaculture operations inflict heavy environmental costs on wild fish stocks and coastal ecosystems, such as habitat loss, pollution, disease and pests. To be viable in the long term and help to feed the world, there has to be a Blue Revolution in fish farming to sustainable production methods. Better management of wild fisheries could also boost production while helping to heal damage to ocean life."

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