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Fish Oil: Good for Us But Bad for The Environment?

Fish oil (literally the oil from fish) has been growing in popularity since cod liver oil was first introduced during the industrial revolution.


Fish oil is very high in omega 3 fatty acids, EPA, and DHA all vital nutrients that play key roles in fetal development, growth, and cardiovascular function. Unfortunately the human body does not create enough of these nutrients on its own and therefore they must be supplemented from outside sources. Specifically ocean dwelling fish that are high in both EPA and DHA, such as Herring, tuna, Cod, Anchovies, Sardines, Salmon, and Hoki. Of this list Anchovies and Sardines have the highest levels of EPA and DHA and are therefore most commonly harvested for the purpose of obtaining fish oil.  Since 450 – 1,000 billion fish are harvested each year for fish oil and fish meal production, the question begging an answer is whether or not this practice is sustainable.

In a world where nearly 85 percent of the global fisheries are already over exploited it’s difficult to believe that the fish oil industry isn’t playing a substantial role in this decline. When looking at the sustainability of fisheries there are three components that must be understood, the overall biomass of the fishery, the reproductive rate of the fishery, and knowing exactly how much is being harvested. Once fisheries are understood in accordance with these guidelines governments are able to set regulations on how much of the fish stock can be harvested without lowering the population so far that it will be unable to rebound the following year.

Now due to the fact that fisheries often times fall out of the jurisdiction of any single country, the burden of setting up and enforcing international treaties has been laid on such organizations as the United Nations and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

The key regulation that these organizations have produced is known as the “Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.” This code is used to set up fishing regulations as well as monitoring of the fish stocks in international waters and has been signed by nearly every country that produces fish oil. Unfortunately this code sets up rules that are often times not followed to the full extent and are very hard to enforce, not to mention the countries that have not even signed the treaty in the first place.

It seems that the issue of overexploiting the planets fisheries hasn’t gone completely unnoticed and with many of the fish oil producing countries on board with the Code of Conduct of Responsible Fisheries it appears that there is a global momentum moving in the direction of sustainable harvesting of fish oil. Although these regulations may be too little too late, with many projecting total fishery collapse by the year 2050.

These doom and gloom predictions have many searching for alternate ways to obtain the vital nutrients that are found in fish oil supplements. One alternative comes from another ocean dwelling creature known as krill. Krill oil has many of the same health benefits of fish oil but is simply harvested from large amounts of the tiny, free floating ocean crustaceans known as krill. The mass harvesting of krill has many environmentalist up in arms due to the integral part that krill play in the oceans food chain, being a key dietary stable for large ocean mammals such as whales.

Another, and I believe to be the most viable, alternative to both fish oil and krill oil is known as algae oil. The marine algae is the natural food source of the fish that are harvested for their oil and is naturally the foundation of both the omega-3 and the fatty acids found in the fish. When comparing the algae oil to the fish oil their health benefits are, once again, very similar to one another yet the algae can be farmed and harvested in a much more humane and sustainable way as compared to modern fishing techniques.

In the end it is hard to say whether or fish oil production is truly sustainable. Global fisheries are being overexploited at unprecedented rates and it is difficult to imagine any international treaty curbing humans’ seemingly inexhaustible and ever growing desire for fish. I see great promise in the emerging development of algae oil. By replacing even a fraction of fish oil consumption with a more sustainable, humanly obtained product like algae oil, that much stress on the overexploited fisheries would be lifted.