shoal tuna

What Is Sustainable Fishing, and is it Really Sustainable?

‘Sustainable fishing’ is a term you’re likely to have heard before— perhaps you may have even watched Netflix’s documentary Seaspiracy? Some might argue that fishing is sustainable, after all, humans have been catching fish for thousands of years. But in the 21st century, things are very different.

The world’s fisheries are at breaking point, and many stocks are on the brink of collapse. A recent study by the UN found that around 90% of global fish stocks are either overfished or at risk of being overfished.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how sustainable fishing actually is – and whether it can be improved.

What is Sustainable Fishing?

Sustainable fishing is when the biological stock is not being depleted by fishing activities and is maintained at a level consistent with its reproductive potential. Sustainable fishing seeks to preserve habitat and threatened species while avoiding overexploitation of the sea by limiting the amount of fish removed.

Fishing practices where more fish are caught than are being replenished naturally, is not sustainable. As a result, the long-term supply of fish will decline.

Sustainable fishing practices


Some cultures around the world still hunt for specific species with spears at different times of the year, which maintains healthy stocks.

spearfishing is an example of sustainable fishing

Cast-net fishing

Cast-net fishing is a traditional technique for skilled fishers, and can catch dozens or even hundreds of fish.

Fly fishing

Traditional rod-and-reel methods, such as fly fishing, allow recreational and commercial fishers to target a wide variety of fish species in both fresh and saltwater.


This fishing method is considered controversial despite it putting less stress on natural fisheries. Critics say the energy and resources required to maintain a fish farm may.outweigh its benefits.

Fisheries management

Fisheries-management agencies, usually government bodies or independent organisations, are responsible for setting catch quotas, enforcing boundaries, and licensing fishers

Sustainable vs Commercial Fishing

Commercial fishing, as opposed to sustainable fishing practices, relies on trawlers rather than traditional fishing methods to catch their supply.

In commercial fishing, large ships drag nets through the water or along the seabed to catch fish, wiping out habitat and eliminating fish populations as well as animals higher on the food chain that rely on them. This is not an environmentally friendly method of fishing. Trawlers are wiping out habitat and eliminating fish populations – as well as animals that depend on them.

commercial fishing boat

How is sustainable fishing measured?

There is no single way to measure sustainable fishing. However, there are several common indicators used to record sustainability of a fishery: its size, geography, and the fishing method used.

The Marine Stewardship Council is an organisation that aims to set standards for sustainable fishing. Their Fisheries Standard measures a fishery’s sustainability standards on:

  • Sustainable fish stocks
  • Minimising environmental impact
  • Effective fisheries management

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) awards fisheries a sustainable status, represented by a blue tick logo, which you’ll find on the label of the product. The MSC bases its rankings on fish stocks, practices carried out, and traceability of the wild fish. 

To gain certification, fisheries must submit to (and pay for) an independent audit.

However, some experts claim that MCS’s rating can be too generic. For the UK, there is also a lack of key data on how sustainable fisheries are being managed.

Sustainable fishing labels to look out for

If you are buying packaged, uncooked, and unprocessed fish, information must be given about the place and method of catch.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council – An independent certification covering legal, environmental, and social criteria, maintaining fish welfare and making sure feed is sustainable.

Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) – Standards cover environmental responsibility, animal health and welfare, food safety, and social responsibility (bear in mind that this logo is more common in the US than in the UK.

Soil Association Organic – Encouraging less environmental impact, with fewer chemicals and medicines allowed in the fishing process. Stocking densities also tend to be lower, which can reduce stress and the risk of disease and parasites.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – The MSC blue tick requires fishing from healthy stocks, keeping the stocks well-managed, and minimising the impact of fishing on other species and the ecosystem.

We’ve also created a list of trustworthy sustainable badges and certificates that you should look out for when looking for a eco-friendly or ethical product.

Is sustainable fishing actually good for the environment?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t exactly black and white – it depends on which fishery you look at. 

Whilst some sustainable fishing companies focus on yielding a low amount of stock and looking after the local environment, others can have a detrimental impact on the world’s oceans. 

Fishing farms in particular can be very counterproductive. Whilst they focus on maintaining a limited amount of fish, the conditions in a lot of farms are often overcrowded and unsanitary – similar to a lot of land farms. 

Because of this, farmed fish have high levels of parasites, diseases, bacterial infections and viruses.

Can commercial fishing ever be sustainable?

It could be – but our society, businesses and legislation will need to make drastic changes.

Firstly, we need to eat less fish – or rather, take less fish out of the ocean. In the UK alone, we consume £5.7 billion worth of fish and seafood products every year, which we import from more than 85 countries. 

So, before we focus on fixing anything else, we need to rapidly decrease the number of fish we’re consuming.

We also need to make the fishing industry more distributed, as fishing quotas have now become more concentrated – in the hands of a small number of multi-million-pound companies. In fact, just five families control nearly a third of UK fishing quotas.

Compared to smaller fishing operations, these big companies employ fewer people, use less sustainable fishing methods, and less money is funnelled into local economies.

On top of this, the Government must enforce more marine-protected areas and provide them with a higher level of protection. A network of ocean sanctuaries will mean various species of fish and other marine life can thrive, away from the threat of industrial fishing fleets.

What fish can I eat if I want to be more sustainable?

Eating no fish is the short answer. 

But if you want to keep fish in your diet, but would also like to improve your sustainability, we’ve listed the five most sustainable seafood species caught or farmed in the UK below:

  • Oysters, mussels, and king prawns
  • Atlantic halibut (but only farmed halibut from the UK, as this species is endangered in the wild)
  • Herring
  • Plaice
  • European Hake

The least sustainable seafood species caught in the UK

These are the five least sustainable seafood species caught in the UK:

  • Cod
  • European Eel
  • Wild Atlantic Salmon
  • Whiting
  • Wild Atlantic halibut

In Summary

Sustainable fishing certainly has the potential to be more eco-friendly, but it needs to improve massively. One thing’s for sure, if we don’t find a sustainable way to fish soon, our planet will suffer the consequences.

Omar Agor-Wood
Omar Agor-Wood

Omar is a digital marketer by day for one of the UK's largest environmental consultancy companies, and is writing like the world depends on it for Pick Ethical at night. He has a passion for hiking, bouldering, and making a fuss of his dog.

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