Don’t forget about fish on Endangered Species Day

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blue shark swims in California

20 million blue sharks are caught every year, despite their ‘near threatened’ status

Today is Endangered Species Day. This day is dedicated to all endangered species, but let’s be honest: most of us will immediately think of polar bears, tigers and gorillas – not of fish like the Atlantic halibut, spurdog or European eel.

But these fish, and many more, occupy the very same threat categories as the big mammals – only they appear on the European Red List of Marine Fishes (did you know that more than one species of fish are referred to as ‘fishes’?). Despite being endangered, some of these species are still caught, and some of them might end up on your plate.

Threatened fishes on the European Red List – and on the menu?

You would be pretty shocked (we imagine) if you found tiger steaks on a restaurant menu or in the supermarket. So why is it different for fish species that are also classified as threatened?

I can think of three main reasons:

  1. Fish are less photogenic than tigers so they rarely appear on campaign posters.
  2. Some species are not widely known, or are sold under different or misleading names.
  3. We are told that eating fish is healthy, but not all of us question which species we eat.

All of this means people are not fully aware of how threatened some fishes are. However, this situation can and must change. Protecting endangered fishes is no less necessary than protecting other creatures. If we want healthy oceans then we have to tackle all the threats they face and help them recover.

Assessing the threat to Europe’s fishes

Last summer the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published its first full assessment of the conservation status of all marine European fishes. The result: 7.5% of the 1,220 species assessed were classified as ’Vulnerable‘, ‘Endangered’ or even ‘Critically Endangered’. This means they are considered to be ’threatened with extinction’ in European waters.

This includes several fish species that people like to eat, like the Atlantic halibut (Vulnerable), lesser-known target species like the roundnose grenadier (Endangered), and bycatch species like the leafscale gulper shark (Critically Endangered). These names will not ring a bell for everyone, but the European eel (not to be confused with Conger eel!) might. This snakelike fish is very popular in kitchens around the world, and you have probably seen or tried it before, maybe as smoked eel. But on a global level it is even more endangered than tigers.

While there are various campaigns to protect charismatic mammals with a similar threat status, protection of threatened fishes in European waters is at best patchy.

For several species, fishing quotas limit how much fishers are allowed to catch. But often such quotas only apply to part of the places these species live, and are frequently set above sustainable levels. Targeted fishing for some species is prohibited, but this does not protect them from being caught accidentally as bycatch and thrown back into the sea, dead or dying.

Remember fish on Endangered Species Day

The threat status and the level of protection of many species differ between different parts of the world. So it’s absolutely essential that people can find out not only what type of fish they are eating, but also where it comes from, and whether it was caught in the wild, or farmed.

It is quite alarming that eating a critically endangered species like European eel seems to be accepted or overlooked because it’s a fish, whereas gorilla for dinner is rightfully unthinkable.

In the long term, the key ingredients of a successful recipe to prevent fishes from becoming more and more at risk of extinction will have to include:

  • Robust laws protecting fishes;
  • effective implementation and enforcement of these laws;
  • good traceability from fishing net to plate; and
  • improved public awareness and meaningful labelling so consumers can make informed decisions.

As for today, Endangered Species Day should be about all endangered species, not just the more popular ones.

For now, let’s take comfort in the thought that, at least in the UK, it’s becoming easier to find fish certified as ‘sustainable’ in the supermarket. The commitment of many seafood businesses to common labelling and sourcing standards developed by the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) is a major step in the right direction. And guides like the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide can help consumers identify fish species to avoid.

By making a choice to learn more about what you eat, you can help species in need recover and enjoy your next fish dinner with a clear conscience.

Image credit: Mark Conlin

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