Are we overfishing our favourite fish?

Cod and haddock are our favourite fish, but with cod fish stocks in decline, are we overfishing?

We love to eat fish. Especially when it is fish & chips. The British eat 167 million fish & chip suppers each year (UK Fisheries). Nearly a quarter of us eat fish & chips weekly and 80% of us eat fish & chips at least once a year. 

UK consumers prefer cod and haddock for our fish and chips. We import most of our cod and haddock. We buy cod that is fished from Iceland, Norway & the Barents sea while 90% of our own cod is exported to the EU. 

We also buy in our haddock from the north Atlantic and the EU’s northern external waters. The IUCN lists haddock as of least concern in Europe but vulnerable worldwide.  

The type of cod found in British waters is Atlantic cod. Atlantic cod populations are declining globally. The Guardian reports that stocks have declined by 31% since 2015 and the IUCN have labelled this species as vulnerable with a fragmented population. 

Despite this, the UK Fisheries says there are plentiful stocks of both cod and haddock in the north Atlantic and the EU’s northern external waters. A British trawler called the Kirkella fishes in this area and supplies 8% of our fish.

However UK Fisheries also report that our cod quotas have dropped to less than half the levels of 2018 (19,500 tonnes to 7,000 tonnes in 2022). This means we are dependent on importing cod to meet demand as we consume approximately 115,000 tonnes of cod a year (The Guardian). 

The Marine Conservation Society highlights a problem with recording fish stocks. Fish stocks are measured by the biomass (weight), rather than by the individual species. 

For example, the Scottish fish stocks increased by 1.2 million tonnes over the twenty years since 2001. It sounds like a conservation success story. But only three fish species make up this growth; plaice (almost 800,000 tonnes), European hake and haddock (both 200,000 tonnes). That accounts for almost the entire increase, which means that other species are not increasing. 

The Marine Conservation Society claims that there are now so few cod in the north sea they are not a sustainable breeding population and in the west of Scotland cod stocks are 10% of what would be considered a healthy population. This is as a result of overfishing. 

What is overfishing?

Catching fish is not bad for the ocean, but catching fish faster than they can replenish themselves is. This is overfishing. 

The WWF estimates that globally our oceans are overfished. They say we have a fishing fleet that is 2-3 times the size that would be sustainable. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that one third of fisheries that have been assessed are overfished. 

Bycatch is also an issue, where the fishing trawlers pick up other species while fishing. One third of rays, sharks and chimaeras (fish related to sharks and rays) are facing extinction due to bycatch. The number of species that are threatened has doubled in the last decade (WWF). 

What can we do to eat fish sustainably?

Choose sustainable fish alternatives and always buy fish from a certified sustainable source. The Marine Conservation Society has a good fish guide that can help you to identify which fish species to eat and where to buy them from. They suggest European hake is the best choice (at the time of writing).

We have a wonderful selection of sustainable companies in our directory so that you can choose to buy products and services from ethical businesses.

Annette Clubley

Annette is a keen wildlife conservationist, mindful of sustainability and our impact on the environment. Outside of work, family is her focus and she loves teaching the next generation to enjoy the outdoors.