Mediterranean countries looking elsewhere for seafood

Published on
May 24, 2017
Mediterranean seafood

European Mediterranean countries now import almost twice as much seafood as they produce, according to a report just released by WWF.

Decades of rising demand, coupled with falling fish stocks due to increasing use of industrial techniques, poor catch monitoring, the spread of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and numerous environmental factors have all contributed to less seafood productivity from the once-abundant Mediterranean Sea.

For local inhabitants and tourists who flock to the region, fresh local fish is as much a part of the Mediterranean experience as its golden beaches and sunny climate. Artisanal fishing communities, fish markets, seafood restaurants and maritime heritage are all central to the area’s unique economic, social and cultural identity. 

The report, “WWF Seafood and the Mediterranean 2017,” finds that the idealized image no longer matches the reality of the situation in the Mediterranean, where more than 93 percent of assessed fish stocks are threatened by overfishing. 

The largest catches in the region are made up of sardines and anchovies (42 percent), demersal species (21 percent), cephalopods (8 percent), crustaceans (7 percent), molluscs and bivalves (6 percent), and tuna and swordfish (5 percent). 

European Mediterranean nations such as Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia now harvest three times as much of their catch from Atlantic waters as they do from the Mediterranean. For every kilo of seafood caught by these nations, another two kilos are imported, the majority from developing countries including Morocco, Turkey, Mauritania, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya. Product is also exported to these countries, particularly low-value processed and canned products, fishmeal and baitfish. 

The European Mediterranean states are among the world’s highest consumers of seafood, with an annual mean consumption of 33.4 kg per person, compared to the E.U. average of 22.9 kg and a global average of 19.2 kg. Interestingly, the report includes Portugal in its calculations, although this country’s coastline starts just outside the Mediterranean. Portugal has the highest annual seafood consumption, at 56.8 kg per person, followed by Spain at 42.4 kg.

Annual regional spending on fish and fishery products in 2014 was more than EUR 34.57 billion (USD 38.88 billion), which amounts to 63 percent of the total E.U. spend on this category. Together, Spain, Italy, and France account for more than half of the spending, despite having only around one-third of the E.U.’s population.

The report points out that of the 7.5 million metric tons (MT) of fish consumed each year by the Eastern Mediterranean countries, just 2.75 million MT originates from domestic sources, leaving a shortfall of 5 million MT. Interestingly, the market for sardines and anchovies is 100 percent satisfied by the local catch, along with 96 percent of demersal species. However, imports are required to make up 82 percent of the demand for cephalopods such as octopus and squid, 72 percent for crustaceans, 75 percent for tuna, and 32 percent for molluscs and bivalves. 

WWF launched the report at Slow Fish 2017, which took place in Genoa, Italy last week, where representatives of the nonprofit spoke about the urgent need to protect remaining Mediterranean fish stocks, to work towards a more sustainable marine future, and to increase aquaculture production.

Aquaculture currently produces around one-third of total fish landings by volume in the European Mediterranean region. In Greece and Italy, aquaculture exceeds wild capture, a situation that mirrors the global situation, where more than half of all fish consumed come from aquaculture.

The report outlines steps that can be taken to reverse the damage, including better cooperation between nations on sustainable fishing methods to protect juvenile species, and greater uptake of sustainability certification such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). It also encourages European Mediterranean consumers to try different species, and fishers to team up to market these to appeal to local triggers, particularly provenance, artisan produced and sustainable. 

“Education matters,” the report said. “Informed consumers actively contribute to better outcomes. If they know what they’re really eating, how it’s caught, where it comes from, and what impacts its harvest has had, then social and environmental factors become more important in buying decisions. Labeling must be comprehensive and correct, so consumers can understand and trust what they’re told.”

WWF’s multilingual, online Sustainable Seafood Guides offer buying information on the seafood available in 12 European countries, and rates it with a traffic light system to help shoppers make an informed choice.  

If shoppers need more persuading to change their eating habits, the guides also feature recipes from well-known chefs to inspire them to try something new.

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