Supporting Sustainability: A Guide To Responsible Fishing Methods

Fish and fish products are consumed the world over for their numerous health properties. But what harm is the increasing consumption of fish causing to our oceans?

One of the main issues with current fishing methods is the collateral damage known as by-catch. By-catch consists of unwanted species which are caught alongside the main target. This can be other fish, marine animals, such as dolphins or porpoises, and even birds. By-catch does not usually survive and is thrown back into the ocean. Alongside this, habitats and eco-systems, such as coral reefs and estuaries, are under threat from extensive and damaging fishing practices.

The damaging methods of fishing, which have led to a dramatic decrease in fish numbers, have subsequently forced governments to impose limits on fishing hauls. This, coupled with the public becoming more aware of their choices in the markets, has led to more responsible and sustainable fishing methods evolving. But first, let’s have a look at some of the more damaging practices.

Trawling

Trawling is used to catch species that live in the sea rather than on the sea-bed. It involves towing a large, heavy net and frame through the water at various depths. Trawls are destructive. They capture a large amount of by-catch, and if used near the sea-bed they drag on the bottom, destroying habitats and eco-systems.

Dredging

Dredging is similar to trawling. It involves dragging a heavy frame along the sea-bed to scoop up any shellfish living there, such as clams and scallops. Like trawling, dredging captures without discrimination and causes damage to the sea-bed.

English: Trawler Hauling Nets Source: http://w...

English: Trawler Hauling Nets

Purse-seining

Perhaps most famous for trapping dolphins and turtles, purse-seining is the use of a large net, which hangs vertically in the water. The bottom is closed shut around a school of fish. Some nets are equipped with release devices for marine life.

Long-lining As its name suggests, long-lining is a baited fishing line that can extend up to fifty miles. It can be set near the surface, or near the sea-bed. Although long-lining seems a more sustainable method of fishing, other species can be attracted by the bait, including sharks and turtles.

Gill-netting

Gill-netting is a curtain of net set either on the sea-bed or the surface. Fish swim directly into the net and are captured. This can create a large amount of by-catch, entangling any marine animal that swims into it.

The following list outlines a selection of more sustainable fishing practices, as well as looking at how fishing companies are evolving innovative designs to improve their sustainability credentials.

Traps or pots

These are baited cages placed in the water. Cages hold the catch alive until the fisherman returns. Lobster, shrimp, crab and other sea-food can be captured this way. Any by-catch can be released before it dies, and stationary pots do not damage the sea-bed or eco-systems.

Hook and line

Conjuring up visions of the traditional fisherman, a hook and line is simply a fishing rod. It is not harmful to the environment as by-catch can be quickly released. Because fish are caught slowly this way it reduces over-fishing, allowing stock to replenish.

Trolling

Similar to Hook and Line, trolling involves using lines that are attached to a boat. Any by-catch can be quickly released, and no damage is done to the sea-bed or habitats.

Harpooning

A blade thrown by a skilled fisherman; it’s environmentally sound, with no risk of by-catch. Harpooning is used to capture larger species of fish.

Innovation

The demand for ethically-sourced fish and seafood has inspired fisheries to look for alternative and more innovative methods of large scale fishing. New designs in development include various mesh panels in fishing nets which allow smaller fish to escape and others which direct fish to escape via holes. Some companies have designed mechanisms which identify by-catch and release it before being taken out of the water. Filtering out by-catch before it is taken out of the water can significantly reduce the stress caused to fish and animals caught in error during this process.

So, always make an effort to understand how the food you eat has arrived on your plate. Tinned fish and shell-fish is often labelled but, if you buy directly from the supermarket or fish-monger, ask how it’s been caught, as more and more companies are tuning into consumers’ ethical concerns.


Gary Bale writes on a range of topics relating to sustainability, conservation and ecology.

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