Eating fish is considered a most healthy practice as they are the richest sources of EFA (Omega-3 acids), vital for sustaining human life, which are not synthesized by the body. There are hundreds of types of fish harvested from fresh water as well as the marine bodies while large quantities are reared under captivity through aqua culture technology. There are over 27000 species of fish known to mankind and 14-16% of animal proteins consumed world-wide comes from fish. Some of the most commonly consumed fish include Anchovy, Carp, Cat Fish, Dog Fish, Bass, Cod, Eel, Haddock, Herring, Mackerel, Marlin, Pom-fret, Pollock, Salmon, Sardine, Snapper, Tilapia, Trout and Tuna. World wide commercial fish catch is estimated at 95 million ton (mt) while fish farming yields another 50 mt annually. Aquaculture sector provides another 15 mt.
Increasing concern is being raised about the sustainability of fishing as a perennial source of food in view of over exploitation using modern trawlers. During the last 50 years of commercial fishing the effective population of 50 major species of fish has been reduced to 10% while many are on the brink of extinction. To day long line fishing is able to catch only one fish per 100 hooks as against 10 fish per 100 hooks 15 years ago reflecting the rapid decline in the fish population. According to fishery experts if the level of fishing is not reduced to 50% of what is being done currently, the day is not far off when commercial fishing will have to come to a grinding halt.
Nutrition experts recommend 300-600g of fish consumption per week for maintaining good health and at the rate fish is vanishing in the open water bodies due to over exploitation, 100% of the supply will have to come from fish farms and aqua culture, a tall order considering the constraints and limitations inherent in captive production. Even assuming that only 50% of world population consumes fish, the annual requirement to meet the needs @ 25 kg per capita works out to about more than 250 mt taking into consideration spoilage and non food uses and whether such production is sustainable is a big question mark. This assumes critical importance in view of the dwindling supply from the open seas and persistent call from the fishery experts to cut down on the catch by half for building up the resources to sustainable levels. Compounding this problem is the hypoxia condition generated in the oceans due to indiscriminate pollution and consequent depletion of oxygen when there is a shift in fish gender, males predominating the newly hatched population which further depletes production.
Marine Conservation Society (MNC) has sent advisories to the consumers to avoid eating a dozen species including Anchovies which face imminent extinction if conservation measures are not adopted immediately. MNC is doing a yeomen service in the field of fish conservation and has categorized edible fish species into five groups with rankings from 1 to 5 denoting the vulnerability of each variety. A rank of 5 considered worst from the sustainability angle is a danger signal and there are 69 species already with this ranking which include Monk fish from Spain, North Sea Cod, Dog Fish, Atlantic Salmon, Common Skate and Sword Fish. MNC does not label entire species unacceptable to eat but strives to explain whether a certain type of fish is sustainable or not based on how it was caught. Probably consumers may play a role in conservation if the information regarding this is available to them. How far it is practical to force the processors to declare the MNC rankings on the label of the product, remains to be seen. It is presumed that consumer awareness and resistance to purchase of such endangered species may eventually act as a deterrent to over exploitation and consequent extinction. It may be too much to except the retailers to know the origin of fish from which products sold by them are made and pass on this information to the consumers.
New products in the market under the functional food umbrella invariably include Omega-3 acids extracted from fish sources like Anchovy and how far this pull from the market will affect the population of fish is an unknown factor. Obviously those who cannot eat fish because of many considerations will plumb for such products containing odorless nutrients derived from fish to enhance the nutrition quality of foods they consume. A revisit of the olden days, when cod liver oil in capsule form as a source of Vitamin A was available which need not be 'eaten' but swallowed without the feeling the smell associated with fish, can increase the demand for fish and the world will have to cope up with such a surge in demand in the coming years through new innovations to increase production manifold.