INCOFISH – international
cooperation
to keep plenty
more fish in the sea

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INCOFISH
Environmentally aware seafood fans can now use their mobile phones to find out which fish have been caught sustainably, and which deserve to be struck firmly off the menu, thanks to a service developed by the INCOFISH (‘Integrating multiple demands on coastal zones with emphasis on aquatic ecosystems and fisheries’) project. It is just one of many tools created by the project with the aim of helping consumers pick fish which have been ethically sourced.

INCOFISH brings together 36 partners from 23 countries on 4 continents (Europe, Africa, America and Asia). Their goal is to study the pressures faced by coastal waters around the world, with a focus on fishing, and develop tools that can be easily used by consumers, fishermen and policy makers to reduce these pressures.

Plenty more fish in the sea?

According to the saying, there are plenty more fish in the sea. Unfortunately, research shows that this is no longer the case. In Europe, many once-common species are now overfished. In the North Sea, cod stocks are on the verge of collapse, while the growing popularity of sushi around the world is pushing the Atlantic bluefin tuna to the brink of extinction.

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Fishing affects the environment in other ways too. For example, bottom trawling for Norwegian lobster devastates the sea floor and its inhabitants, such as starfish, shellfish and other crustaceans. Many fishing methods also catch large numbers of unwanted fish along with the target species; this ‘bycatch’ is usually discarded. Endangered species such as turtles and dolphins can also become entangled in nets, where they drown.

One important INCOFISH result is the discovery that fisheries could maintain current catch levels while drastically reducing the damage they cause to both fish populations and the wider environment. In an article in the journal Fisheries Research in August 2008, the scientists show that wild stocks could be up to seven times larger if the fish were caught at a size where they have reached their full growth potential and have spawned several times.

Alternatively, the larger catch per effort could be used to introduce slightly less efficient fishing methods that are less harmful to the environment.

Good fish, bad fish

Consumers also have a role to play in preserving marine life. They can avoid eating endangered species, opting instead for fish from sustainably managed stocks that are caught or farmed in ways that cause minimum damage to the marine environment.

However, many consumers struggle to differentiate between the fish that have been sourced ethically and those that have not, and this is where the INCOFISH project comes in.

They have developed an International Seafood Guide which contains ethical information on over 4 000 varieties of seafood from around the world. The guide pulls together data from 27 existing seafood guides and uses a simple traffic light system to inform users of a species’ status. Green means the fish was caught sustainably and can be enjoyed with a clean conscience; amber means the fish was caught in a questionable manner and if possible an alternative should be found; and red means the fish should definitely be avoided.

By clicking on a link users can find out more about the fish and the way it was caught. Among other things, the guide tells users whether a species is vulnerable to over-fishing or is fished using methods which harm other species or are damaging to the environment.

The guide also helps users avoid eating juvenile fish. In many fisheries, a lot of fish are caught when they are very young, before they have been able to reproduce. This practice is placing the future of many fish stocks in peril. Young fish are also small, and so by choosing bigger fish, consumers can ensure they are eating mature fish that have already reproduced.

But how big should a fish be? Again, the INCOFISH seafood guide has the answer – by clicking on a ruler icon, the user can find out the smallest acceptable size for the whole fish, the headless fish or a fillet for the fish in question.

The guide can be accessed by any internet-enabled mobile phone at www.seafoodguide.mobi, making the information it contains immediately available for restaurant diners hesitating over the menu and shoppers lingering over the fish counter. It is now available in 17 countries worldwide, including 9 in the EU.

‘Don’t catch the babies’

The project partners are also working closely with fishing communities, to encourage them to preserve the resources they rely on for their livelihoods. The project has developed a fish ruler to help fishermen avoid catching juvenile fish that have not yet reproduced.

Made out of flexible but sturdy plastic that can be rolled up to fit in a pocket, the ruler is very easy to use. Pictures of the most common commercial species are printed on the ruler indicating the minimum length of mature fish. In this way the fishermen can easily check to see if they are catching juvenile or mature fish and, if necessary, change the size of their nets’ mesh accordingly.

Different versions of the ruler have been created for different regions of the world including the North Sea (this version is available in German and English), the west coast of the US, the Philippines, Senegal and Peru; each one shows popular local species.

Tools to save the seas

While the mobile fish guide and fishing ruler are two of the project’s main products, other important INCOFISH outputs include data on the history of key fish stocks, maps showing current and predicted biodiversity in our seas, and an inventory of the plants favoured by herbivorous fish.

The project’s products and findings are freely available on the INCOFISH website at www.incofish.org. The hope is that this toolbox will help all of us – consumers, fishermen and policy makers – protect our marine environment and ensure that it continues to provide us with food long into the future.