Eating small fish benefits the Baltic Sea
The Baltic Sea is coming back to life and there is no need to stop eating fish, according to Estonian scientist Joonas Plaan.
This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia.
If we care enough about our planet, we should all stop eating fish. This was the general message of the world-famous Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy” which made waves in March 2021. This American film showed how big fishing companies were scratching the ocean floor with giant nets the size of a football stadium and then threw them away, polluting the waters, and how bycatch and overfishing destroy marine life. To stop the massacre, the authors proposed that we all stop eating fish in the hopes that reduced demand will push the industry back.
But the picture they painted only represents the poorest and most corrupt regions of the world.
“Although the documentary brought to light an important topic – the state of our waters – it does not reflect what is happening in our region,” said Joonas Plaan, Estonian fish expert and professor of environmental anthropology at the ‘University of Tallinn.
Eat small fish that are good for the Baltic Sea
In fact, the opposite is true. In the Baltic Sea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, wedged between the countries of Northern Europe, you have to eat fish.
“Eating small fish benefits the Baltic Sea!” Said Plaan. “It helps remove nutrients from the sea.” The biggest problem in this northern European sea is actually eutrophication – a process where the water is filled with minerals and nutrients. The main blame for this can be attributed to the fertilizer-dependent agricultural industry which releases nitrogen and phosphorus into the sea. Should we instead stop eating bread and vegetables?
Plaan has a simpler recommendation: eat local fish, especially the smaller ones at the end of the food chain like Baltic herring and sprat.
“Black-spotted goby, ide, sea bream carp, Prussian carp and white sea bream are also in abundance, although they rarely end up on our table,” said Plaan. In recent decades, the number of these small fish has increased due to increased temperatures and nutrients.
Biggest endangered fish
At the same time, some of the bigger predatory fish are endangered. Cod is at extremely low levels in the Baltic Sea, and the numbers of perch, pike perch and plaice are declining.
Every year, Plaan examines large databases to assess the condition of different fish in Estonian waters. Based on these numbers, he publishes his recommendations in the WWF Fish Guide on which fish are safe to eat and which are not.
This year’s guide was released on May 27 and is aimed at anyone who wants to eat and catch fish with respect for the planet.
The WWF guide to Plaan recommends staying away from fish imported from faraway places and whose conditions are not known.
Europeans love fish. The average European citizen eats four kilograms (8.8 lbs) of fish or seafood more than the rest of the world. Favorites are tuna, cod and salmon.
Most salmon, however, are raised on fish farms that have a list of problems. Among other things, the levels of antibiotics, pesticides and heavy metals in farmed salmon are cause for concern. Therefore, Plaan’s recommendation is to limit the consumption of salmon on special days.
He also recommends against buying canned tuna if possible. “We generally don’t know how they were captured,” said Plaan. “Even though there are certificates on the labels that give information about the fish, there is no guarantee. Eating local is better for the environment and for us too because it makes us eat seasonally.
The Baltic Sea is recovering
Even though it is suffering the effects of climate change, the Baltic Sea is in fact recovering, in large part because devastating Soviet practices ended three decades ago when the union collapsed.
Soviet forces that once occupied Estonia brought with them harmful industries that also severely damaged the Baltic Sea ecosystem. “The Soviet period was a sad time for the Baltic Sea,” said Plaan. “There has been a lot of overfishing.
The fishermen were expected to fish as much as possible and were told to eliminate the piscivorous seals. During the 20th century, hunting reduced Baltic seal populations by 90-95%. “It was a massacre!” said Plaan. Even though they are now under protection – and the gray seal population has recovered – many fishermen still view seals as their enemies who eat up their income and damage gear.
When the Soviet regime finally collapsed, the giant trawlers that docked in Tallinn disappeared. In fact, bottom trawling – the most harmful mode of fishing – is not used in much of the Baltic Sea – with the exception of western cod, caught by Danish, Polish, German and German bottom trawlers. Swedish. For now, this is the only way to catch some of the species that live on the bottom of the sea.
“Everything is marked in the Baltic Sea,” said Kaire Märtin, fishery resources expert at the Estonian environment ministry. Fish catches are highly regulated and inspected, although some gray areas remain. The changes to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy aim to improve operational and real-time control and surveillance, using electronic logbooks and GPS monitoring also in small-scale fisheries.
“The ecosystem of the Baltic Sea is changing and some fish are being replaced by others, but overall things are improving, although not as fast as we would like”, Plaan said optimistically. “Environmental organizations and scientists are listened to more and more, collaboration with government officials is improving.”
Embark the department stores
Scientists alone cannot make this change. Ultimately, it’s up to consumers. Plaan regularly addresses various retail chains to raise awareness about sustainable fish consumption. Rimi, one of the largest retail operators in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, has agreed to remove all non-reactive and unsustainable fish from their shelves in all Baltic states.
Katrin Bats, public relations and sustainability manager for Rimi in Estonia, said they are closely following the recommendations of the Estonian Nature Fund. They now only sell sustainable fish on their shelves.
“This step forced our suppliers to change their products as well,” said Bats. “Big chains like Rimi can really impact the whole market and change customer behavior.
After a year, it can conclude that the switch to a more sustainable selection of seafood has not changed turnover. Bats also hasn’t heard any complaints from customers.
Smart solutions for sustainable fishing
“Estonia stands out in many ways when it comes to the protection of marine life,” said Kaire Märtin of the Estonian environment ministry. Things can be changed quickly and data collected transparently, which in turn helps to make science-based decisions for more precise state rules.
One example is an online application system for anyone who wishes to apply for a fishing license for angling or recreational fishing. No need to queue or wait for hours. It only takes a minute and helps the government document and monitor what is happening in our waters.
Estonia is also fighting fiercely to open up rivers to create better conditions for fish. When rivers are blocked, it can be harmful to the entire ecosystem. To reverse the situation and restore biodiversity, discussions are underway with various hydroelectric power stations that have destroyed or significantly reduced populations of migratory fish.
There is very clear and accessible knowledge about sustainable foods and those that incur unnecessary cost to the environment. As consumers, we should just listen to the scientists.
Cover: A small fish caught locally and cooked on the island of Muhu, Estonia. Photo by Oliver Moosus.