Regular meat eaters who completed Veganuary may find it easier to slip into a new diet this month. Fish Free February is hot on its predecessor's heels, and campaign founder Simon Hilbourne is keen for its message to catch on: that is, to hit the pause button on seafood consumption this month in a bid to curb the overfishing that threatens certain species and the world's oceans at large.
"There's so much talk of sustainable diets, and reducing beef and things like that, but I think fish is seen differently to terrestrial animals," says Hilbourne, the man behind Fish Free February. A marine biologist, ocean conservationist and underwater photographer, Hilbourne works for Manta Trust, the group leading the Maldives Oceanic Manta Ray Project. He launched the Fish Free February charity last year to raise awareness of environmental issues surrounding global fisheries.
“For a lot of people, it's harder to connect with fish. They're a slimy animal from under the sea and that you never really see, whereas cattle and other livestock, you see all around. Also, baby farm animals are quite cute and cuddly,” he says.
"The biggest current threat to the oceans is not plastic pollution or ocean acidification or warming sea temperatures. It's fishing," says the Fish Free February campaign website.
Hilbourne says, "The premise of the campaign is to raise awareness of the impact that fishing has on certain populations of fish and on the pollution to the oceans that happens as a result of fishing." Citing as an example, he says there is far more plastic pollution in the oceans from discarded or lost fishing nets than there are from, say, plastic straws.
Bluefin tuna and hammour among at-risk species
“All the responses I've had so far have been incredibly supportive, especially from the diving, underwater photography and marine biology communities. People are acknowledging that we need more attention in this area,” he says.
With regard to fish populations, Hilbourne claims 90 per cent of fish stocks are exploited to their maximum, meaning those populations are in exponential decline and at risk of going extinct. “Bluefin tuna is in decline pretty much worldwide, and there are a few species in the Atlantic that really aren’t doing great,” says Hilbourne. He advises that pole and line-caught tuna is the better option as net fishing results in a lot more by-catch, fish that are killed unnecessarily and that ultimately go to waste.
Salmon is another contentious choice.
The Emirates Wildlife Society, in association with the WWF, has found that the hammour fish, popular in the UAE, is overfished seven times beyond sustainable levels. This has resulted in declines of 90 per cent since the 1970s.
Net fishing is a no-no
Hilbourne warns that if the oceans continue to see a decline in these species, biodiversity will be hugely affected. "In the Indian Ocean, there's a lot of net fishing that catches everything," he says, explaining that shark is often scooped up as a by-catch product and its fins are then illegally sold on for profit.
If the ocean’s big predators become extinct, the underwater food ecosystem threatens to be disturbed, says Hilbourne, not to mention the communities around the world that rely on fishing for their livelihood.
“Fish and seafood is a staple of so many people's diets. They can't survive without it. We don't want to demonise poorer countries or fishing villages,” says Hilbourne. “Those rural communities are the ones hit hardest by overfishing because big industrial fishing vessels can fish further off from the coast and take most of the catch.”
Seek out snapper, sea bream and mullet
While Fish Free February is about taking a break from fish for a month, Hilbourne emphasises that the problem is more the targeting of certain species. Some species reproduce more quickly, still have large numbers and are less susceptible to overfishing. So cutting out fish altogether isn’t the only solution.
So if you want to continue eating seafood after this month and yet do your bit for the world's oceans, there are some choices you can make. What might be a sustainable fish stock in the UK could be overfished across the Atlantic in the US or around the UAE, making it important to research regional sustainable seafood guides to advise on which species are better based on where you live and eat.
"I don't want to take the hard line that nobody should ever eat seafood again," says Hilbourne, who advises fish lovers in the UAE to look out for orange-spotted trevally, two-bar sea bream, black-streaked monocle bream, yellow bar angelfish, sordid sweetlips, Ehrenberg's snapper, yellow fin sea bream, blackspotted rubberlip and blue spot mullet, and these always from a local fisherman or fishmonger. "The more local and small, the better, that way you're supporting the community too."