I have found myself back in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown, and whilst it has changed my workdays in obvious ways from being at the Marine Education Centre in Diani, it has actually allowed me to spend time working on projects which usually find themselves on the backburner as day to day duties take priority. One of these is a local guide for sustainable fish and seafood. And yes, this is a diverse and difficult topic to encompass, but entirely necessary…check out the images below to see why!
Now, we must remember that although these facts make the situation sound hopeless, we have not yet reached the point of no return. And the main message I always try to spread… everyone can make a difference! We are all consumers, and we all have the choice of what we consume, and that choice will not only directly affect populations of wildlife and ecosystem health but will also affect the economic drive behind the industry. If we only choose certain types of food (or any other products), we will change the demand, and the supply will have to follow – but we need enough people all doing this together!
So, the idea behind a guide to source sustainable fish and seafood can be based upon the definition of sustainable, which means we need to source species at a rate that can be maintained through future generations. But to do this we must consider many factors! It is not just about the species we are catching and eating, but what each species requires to be able to maintain healthy populations. To keep it relatively simple, and to produce guides useful for everyone, from restaurateurs, to anyone choosing from the supermarket or even directly from the fishermen, we will cover three main considerations.
1. Which species should we eat?
A good starting point would be to eat locally caught rather than imported, as this will reduce the carbon footprint of the meal. Secondly one might check the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species to ensure that we do not eat any species listed as vulnerable or worse. If possible, it is always good to research local fish stocks and eat what is most plentiful. And lastly, we should consider the maturation rate of the species we wish to eat, and if a certain species doesn’t reach adulthood for many years, we should reduce our consumption of these to allow populations to naturally maintain themselves. Overall, we start by making a list of ‘take’ species and ‘no take’ species.
2. How was the species caught?
Depending on where you purchase your fish or seafood from, this may be discovered by checking the packaging, asking your supplier, or speaking directly with the fishermen. There are many different fishing methods, from the hand line through to the giant nets. The two main elements of concern should be the level of bycatch (non-target species caught) and the level of habitat destruction. It is easy to remove all methods which affect the habitat, such as nets which drag along the seafloor or dynamite fishing. Bycatch will present itself in different levels, as there are some fishing methods that result in low levels of bycatch, such as hand line fishing, but of course these do not produce high yields, so one may choose fish caught in a net, but a net with an exclusion device which repels certain species such as ‘acoustic pingers’ deterring marine mammals, or a kind of ‘hatch’ which allows certain species to escape. So now you should have two lists to consider at the shop: your ‘take’ species and your fishing methods which result in low levels of bycatch and low levels of habitat destruction.
3. Is the species mature?
Maturation refers to the ability of the species to reproduce. If we eat too many juvenile individuals before they have had the chance to spawn, where will the next generation come from? Finding the maturation size of a species is not always simple, and you will find different sizes for the same species amongst separate sources. Some will provide the size at which the species has first been recorded as mature in the sample taken for their study, others the size when 50% are mature, and some the size when 100% are mature. We recommend, the bigger the better! This is not only to ensure that the individual caught is actually mature, but also because the older a fish gets, the more eggs it produces each time it spawns. Of course, all of this is only relevant when buying the fish whole, which we also recommend for best sustainable practises.
So, now you are ready to go and buy your sustainable fish and seafood! You have your ‘take’ species, your acceptable methods of fishing, and the minimum size at which you will buy your fish or seafood!
Of course, this is not the entire story. One may ask ‘what about farmed species?’ or ‘what about imported species?’, among other considerations. There are also guidelines for each of these, and some additional pointers will be included in the guides we create. We aim to produce three similar, yet tailored guides for Diani; one for restaurants, another for residents, and a third for visitors. Each of these require meetings and trials within the community before we can make the final products, and it is not just me who is working on this. The completion of this project will very much rely on all of our talented team members, and particularly our Kenyan marine biologists as we aim to start working with community groups to ensure that the message is spread at all levels of the supply chain, and that the project uses the input of local fishermen and suppliers to help increase its effectiveness and support these valuable community members. If you are able to support our team during COVID-19, please follow this link: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/supporting-women-in-science-during-covid-19/
In the meantime, we hope you can use the guidelines above to begin your own quest to source sustainable fish and seafood, and we would love for you to help us spread the word and encourage others to get involved, as we all have consumer power!
“We don’t need a handful of people doing it perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
Jenni Choma is a marine biologist based at the Marine Education Centre since its opening. Her main aim is to use marine education and research to bring about conservation of the marine environment.