Ecological footprinting · Food

But where’s the fish?

 Image from
Processing orange roughy.

Why are there no questions about fish consumption in the Greener Neighbourhoods footprinting quiz?

We use the New Zealand Footprint Project’s (NZFP) calculator to measure the ecological footprints of participants and were involved in trialling the calculator before the 2013/14 round of the Greenest Neighbourhood competition. This was when we made the startling discovery that the impact of fish was so high that, if a neighbourhood group simply gave up fish for the length of the contest, it would put them on a good footing to win.

So we went back to Dr Ella Lawton of NZFP and asked her to explain a little. She told us fishing makes up 62% of the total NZ food ecological footprint (in NZha) and 35% of the total NZ ecological footprint. That’s an absolutely huge impact!

In case you’re wondering, the ecological footprint of fishing land is based on the amount of annual primary production produced in the area above a hectare of ocean floor required to sustain a harvested aquatic species.

When the footprint tool was being used as part of a competition, it seemed to us that a heck of a lot was riding on a single question without going into what species you eat or how they are caught. This is especially important in Kāpiti as many people here are recreational fishermen and likely to have strong opinions on this. We could imagine this question becoming a major sticking point, particularly if a group decided to run with it.

alex rd fishing collage
Alexander Rd neighbours go fishing, 2012

Going back to Dr Lawton again, she told us the fish calculations came straight from Global Footprint Network’s (GFN) data and she believed them to be as correct as the data allows. She did agree that the fish footprint is extremely difficult regarding the type of fish consumed etc. and noted that the energy footprint for commercial fishing is also included in this calculation.

One option then was to manipulate the Kāpiti calculator to give a more detailed understanding of the fish footprint. But including recreational fishers, for example, is just plain difficult – GFN data providing a rough breakdown of yield per fish type exists, but the other really important question for recreational fishers is whether they use a boat. Boats have a very high footprint depending on how people use them, the number of people on board and the amount of fish caught. This would all add up to a lot more questions (and we were running out of time to get the calculator operational).

Apparently we weren’t the only ones struggling with the big fish question – a lot of footprint projects internationally just don’t deal with fish, putting it in the ‘too hard basket’ for these very reasons. We were left with three main options:

  1. Remove fishing land – with some information provided as to why.
  2. Go into a whole lot more detail about fishing – type of fish and boat use.
  3. Fudge the results to half or quarter the impact, and perhaps highlight that the impact has been limited for some reason.

In light of the time available to us, we went with the first option. We reasoned that the ecological footprint was being used as a comparative tool and, while excluding fish was far from a perfect fix (reducing the gap between vegetarians and omnivores or pescetarians, for example) encouraging participation was a higher priority to us than seeking technical perfection (we also felt it was cleaner and had more precedent to remove fish entirely).

BestFishGuide(1)So there you have it: no fish in the quiz and rapidly depleting fish out there in the wild. It’s  a far-from-tidy solution and we’re still left with the question of what we can do about one of the single-biggest footprint influences. There’s a few options out there:

  1. Stop eating fish – the obvious option. Some more eye-opening figures from Dr Lawton tell us that one hectare of fishing land produces a mere 30kg of food, whilst one hectare of grazing land produces 1,872kg of animal products. Crop land has the highest average yield of 2,680kg of plant-based products per hectare. Obviously these products aren’t directly interchangeable, but it’s interesting to see the fish yield in context.
  2. Catch your own fish, ideally without a boat, especially a powerboat. Depending on your method, catching your own also eliminates by-kill and increases yield as you either eat what you catch (nose-to-tail preferably) or return it alive.
  3. Get picky about what you purchase. Thanks to Forest and Bird’s Best Fish Guide, you can make informed, eco-friendly choices at the supermarket or when eating out. The guide uses a traffic light system to rank seafood choices according to their ecological sustainability  – this means a whole range of environmental effects have been included in their assessment (more information about the ecological assessments behind the guide can be found here). The guide for 2013/14 is available as an app, a wallet guide or a download, and the current edition includes farmed species alongside wild fisheries for the first time.















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