Magazine article Geographical

Shell Shock: As Consumers' Tastes Shift to Encompass More Exotic Cuisines, Prawns Have Gone from Being a Luxury Item to a Staple of the British Shopping List. but as Demand for All Types of Seafood Grows Worldwide, Vital Habitats Are Being Destroyed to Make Way for Large-Scale Fishing and Aquaculture. Victoria Lambert Discovers What's Being Done to Develop a Sustainable Shellfish Industry

Magazine article Geographical

Shell Shock: As Consumers' Tastes Shift to Encompass More Exotic Cuisines, Prawns Have Gone from Being a Luxury Item to a Staple of the British Shopping List. but as Demand for All Types of Seafood Grows Worldwide, Vital Habitats Are Being Destroyed to Make Way for Large-Scale Fishing and Aquaculture. Victoria Lambert Discovers What's Being Done to Develop a Sustainable Shellfish Industry

Article excerpt

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Mangrove swamps are one of the world's most important habitats: they support local subsistence economies; protect the coastline from erosion, floods and hurricanes; and provide breeding grounds for fish and crustaceans. Yet, mangroves are under threat from developers, climate change and--not least--shrimp farming.

According to figures from the Environmental Justice Foundation, up to 38 per cent of mangrove destruction is due to shrimp farm development--and the ironic result is that local wild fish and shrimp supplies are dwindling rapidly. It seems that in our efforts to bring shrimp and prawns more easily to the dining table, we're allowing whole ecosystems to be destroyed, with long-term implications for biodiversity, conservation and even food security for locals.

This destructive farming for shrimps is one of the most worrying aspects of the way we produce seafood for consumption, but it's far from the only one. Our passion for lobster, crab, scallops and the like can have a devastating effect on other forms of marine life. Meanwhile, some wild seafood is threatened by the wider aspects of climate change, which may force us further into the growing field of aquaculture which is still relatively poorly regulated.

SUSTAINABLE STANDARDS

One of the most contentious issues is sustainability: at what point are we simply fishing entire species into oblivion? According to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), 52 per cent of all fish (including shellfish) are 'fully exploited'--or fished to their maximum capacity; 24 per cent are 'overfished'; and just 21 per cent are 'moderately exploited: This means that three quarters of all fish are fished to virtually their maximum. And as so much of the world depends on fishing for a living--the industry is worth US$83billion a year globally--it's clear that the protection and continuation of this livelihood is vital.

In 1992, after the collapse of the Grand Banks off eastern Canada, when overfishing destroyed not just the historic abundance of native cod but also the delicate Newfoundland ecosystem, WWF collaborated with Unilever to set up the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a now-independent body that was charged with developing ways to make fishing sustainable. The MSC now assesses fisheries with a view to granting them the right to carry its 'eco-label' of approval. So far, eight per cent of the world's fisheries are under assessment or certified.

Burry Inlet Cockle Fishery near Llanelli in South Wales carries the MSC standard. To ensure that cockles are not overfished, it sticks to strict rules: only traditional methods of hand-raking and sieving are allowed, a limited number of annual licences are granted (about 55), a catch quota of 300-600 kilograms per person per day (but not on Sundays or at night) is fixed, and cockles must meet a minimum size to allow the survival of spawning stock. As an example of best practice, it's difficult to beat.

CATCH-ALL PRACTICES

And the cockle collectors certainly don't have to worry about one of the MSC's greatest concerns: whether a fishery is doing enough to prevent bycatch--the fish (other than the targeted species) or other wildlife caught by accident. These are often killed and thrown away needlessly, or die before they can be rescued, and can include large animals such as albatrosses, turtles and dolphins.

Debbie Winton, research officer at environmental NGO Earthwatch Europe, explains that there is bycatch with virtually all fishing methods, but some are worse than others. 'Shrimp trawl fisheries are known to have higher bycatch-to-catch ratios in weight than any other gear type and account for more than one third of the global total bycatch,' she says. 'Incidental capture of sea turtles in shrimp trawls is the most important human cause of sea turtle mortality in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico'

Campaigning organisations such as seaturtle. …

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