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Shortsighted recommendations to eat more fish ignore large-scale environmental impact

Recommendations by international health agencies, doctors, nutritionists, and the media to consume more fish for better health ignore the fact that fish stock are collapsing worldwide, reports a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

“Even at current levels of fish consumption, fisheries globally have reached a state of severe crisis. Already, the demand from affluent and developing economies, particularly newly affluent China, cannot be met by the world’s fisheries,” states the new report.

Not only are recommendations to consume more fish—sometimes two to three times current levels—driving fisheries to the brink and species to extinction, they are also harming developing nations that have depended on fish as a local source of protein for centuries. Most wealthy nations have already depleted their fish stocks, leading them to increasingly turn to poorer nations for fish.

Red anchovies at fish market in Ranteapo, Sulawesi. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“Declining catches are increasingly diverted toward affluent markets rather than local ones, with dire consequences for the food security of poorer nations, islands and coastal communities,” write the authors.

While the authors note that the science remains inconclusive regarding the health benefits of increasing fish consumption, the peril to fisheries is clear. According to the study, fisheries have been declining since the 1980s while the number of collapsed stocks have risen exponentially.

“These trends imply the collapse of all commercially exploited stocks by mid-century,” state the authors. “Yet the dire status of fisheries resources is largely unrecognized by the public, who are both encouraged to eat more fish and are misled into believing we live in a sea of plenty.”

Live eels for sale at fish market in Ranteapo, Sulawesi. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

In addition the authors argue that one of the widely touted solutions to fishery collapse, i.e. fish farming, is more of a “distraction” than a solution, since the practice comes with its own environmental problems. Most notably, fish farming depends on stocks of small wild fish like anchovies to feed the large predatory fish which they sell, further threatening wild stocks. A better solution, write the authors, may be the development of alternative sources of omega-3 fatty acids; currently such sources are being developed from algae, yeast, and plants.

The authors conclude that due to the plight of global fish stocks, health agencies should rethink their policy of encouraging fish consumption.

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