Share on Social Media

What is “Sustainability”?

The concept of sustainability was first employed by the United Nations Brundtland commission in 1987. It is most often defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”[1] – an objective that should be achieved in the environmental, social and economic aspects of our life in accordance with the concept.

Can fishing be sustainable?

It depends on many factors!

First and foremost, the answer to this question should be addressed within 3 aspects above, that sustainability concept considers.


The subject of sustainability in fisheries is a complex one, involving many variables, but three elements seem to be of particular importance.

The first one is the degree to which the fish populations are exploited by the humans. To keep fishing opportunities for the future generations, it is of utmost importance that we pay attention not to deplete the whole population of each species. The main idea is to catch such an amount of fish that the reproduction capacity of a species is not hindered.

The second one is related to fishing techniques. Dozens of techniques and fishing gear are known and used across the world. The fishing gears can be divided to two main categories: active and passive.

Passive gears are not towed by boats like the active gears. Certain active gears are dragged along the seabed, which could make them very harmful for the environment they go through. In contrast, passive gears, when used reasonably, cause very few damages to the environment in which they are deployed. A well-known example of active gear is the trawler. It is a large fishing net in the shape of a butterfly net, towed by a boat. Some trawlers are towed directly on the seabed. Widely used passive fishing gear are the fishing pots. These are boxes, sometimes baited, that attract animals because they look like a shelter. They are often laid on the seabed, making them far less harmful because they are not dragged along the seabed.

The last one concerns sexual maturity: Targeting fish that have reached their mature size is also a way of preserving species for future generations since they have been the opportunity to reproduce, so they can maintain their population size.


Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a huge concern as it appears to be undermining the will to reach a sustainable fishing model globally. One important dimension of this concern deals with poor or non-existent social rights. Illegal fisheries, only looking for profits, employ or exploit people under no regulations. This results in very difficult, exhausting and dangerous working conditions for fishermen. They are also reported to be subjected to bad treatment by the employers. On the contrary, good regulations can contribute to creating vocations for people who like working at sea. Fishermen’s job is physically demanding and can be really tiring but the majority of them enjoy what they do.


Sustainably managed fisheries can mean great economic opportunities for territories in the long term. For instance, when a fish is landed in a harbor, workforce is needed to store and transport the fish to the auction facilities. Additionally, when fish processing is involved, the employment of skilled people is required. Eventually, the fishmongers and the distributors are all essential links in the chain to bring seafood products to the consumer.

Sustainable aquaculture: both complex and important

Aquaculture accounts for 56% of the total seafood products produced for human consumption in the world.

The stakes for sustainability comprise much more factors than fishing because aquaculture involves more complex processes. Considering social and economic issues, smart regulations and innovations would foster better working conditions and economic opportunities as is the case for fisheries. However, regarding the environmental dimensions, the issues are different as the techniques to breed fish are completely different than the methods used for fishing.

The environmental sustainability linked to aquaculture is highly dependent on the processes and conditions under which the animals are bred. It is also very different whether the aquaculture takes place on earth or under the sea. Some of the factors that can differentiate a good from a bad practice are as follows: management of fish excrement, measures to prevent fish escape when bred under the sea (to avoid genetic pollution by spawning with wild animals), the use of medicines (dissemination of chemical substances in the environment) and the origin and sustainability of the type of food used to feed the animals. This is not a comprehensive list and a lot of other factors should be taken into account as well.

Traceability is key

How can we know if what we are about to buy is sustainable if we have no idea about where and how it was produced?

We just can’t!

We need to look closer at the label or the information written on the packaging. Then it is good if we ask ourselves these questions:

  • Is it the very animal you are looking for (species name)?
  • Has it been fished in an overexploited fishing zone?
  • What fishing gear was used to catch it?
  • Is this animal big enough to be an adult (grown up enough to having had the opportunity to spawn)
  • If it is farmed seafood: is there information about the way it was produced? Is there a reliable eco-certification?

Traceability, added to our literacy about sustainability, is the key to allow consumers to make informed decisions when buying seafood.

Traceability is also essential for ensuring the health of consumers, as strict conservation measures should be followed to avoid sanitary problems.

To conclude

Regardless of whether we talk about fishing or aquaculture, only sustainable seafood products can provide the future generations with various, high-quality seafood while preserving the natural habitats and the environment.

Knowledge about seafood sustainability and easy access to traceable seafood are indispensable for the achievement of these goals.

Keep enjoying seafood, mindfully!

Contributor: Ethic Ocean

[1] Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future , United Nations 1987