Eating fish is healthy. That is why fish is a recommended food. But how much fish can we sustainably consume? And what are possible alternatives? FISSH is a RIVM research project that addresses this complex social issue.

Fish consumption and health

The Netherlands Nutrition Centre, the Health Council of the Netherlands and the World Health Organisation recommend eating oily fish (like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and trout) at least once a week. Fish contains certain fatty acids that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

These recommendations focus on human health benefits, without taking into account how much fish would need to be available to supply those quantities. RIVM is investigating how healthy, safe and sustainable it would be if we started eating more fish according to the guidelines. In other words, if we were to eat more fish and less meat, what would that change in diet mean for public health, the environment and the economy? And how about alternatives which have the same health effects?

Wild-caught fish versus farmed fish

In the last few decades, fishing has become more sustainable, for instance because regulatory measures have been taken (such as imposing fishing quotas) and fishing technologies have been improved. Much of the fish consumed in the Netherlands has an MSC or ASC label, which indicates sustainable fishing. However, viewed from a global perspective, the certified fish available in stores still only represents a fraction of the total range available. Across the world, fishing in the wild disrupts the ecosystem services of oceans, seas, lakes and rivers, resulting in a decrease in biodiversity. In addition, many types of fish are overfished. Is sufficient sustainable fish still available to support an increase in fish consumption?

Fish farms also come with some drawbacks. For instance, farm-raised fish is often fed with wild-caught fish. In addition, fish farms cause e.g. eutrophication of the surface water due to the precipitation of nitrogenous substances. Moreover, fish farms cause water pollution due to contamination with antibiotics and pathogens. Fish farming can also be based on sustainable and less sustainable alternatives, and technological sustainability continues to improve in this sector as well. For instance, pilot projects are being done on feeding fish with insects and algae instead of wild-caught fish.

Solutions via FISSH and Solution-focused Sustainability Assessment


The FISSH project

The Fish Integrating Sustainability, Safety and Health (FISSH) project aims is to assess health, food safety and sustainability as they relate to in fishing and fish consumption. The market may not offer sufficient quantities of sustainable fish for all the Dutch people to consume fish according to the guidelines. This means that these three aspects could clash, much like the interests of the stakeholders. Solution-focused Sustainability Assessment (SfSA) is a method used and tested to assess these aspects and to help find answers to the issues addressed in FISSH.

Solution-focused Sustainability Assessment (SfSA method)

SfSA is a procedure for solving complex social issues. ‘Wicked problems’ like these involve conflicts of interest, uncertainty regarding knowledge and opinions, and a lack of clearly defined and widely accepted methodology for processing the data (for instance quantification). In response, RIVM has designed the SfSA procedure.

What defines SfSA is its focus on solutions. At the beginning of the process, significant effort immediately goes into comprehending the issue as well as finding possible solutions. In the end, the analysis does not focus on quantifying the problem, but on comparing possible solutions. The second step of SfSA already deals with designing and developing solutions. Stakeholders play an essential role in that step. Next, an assessment is made to determine which solution makes the best contribution to public health and a healthy environment. That requires an assessment framework. It is important that all stakeholders support the assessment framework. The best solution is handed off to the competent authority, so measures can be taken.

Explanatory notes about the study

The focus is mainly on what is known as oily fish, because they contain higher concentrations of the fatty acids responsible for the health benefits of fish consumption. The study focuses on current fish consumption in the Netherlands. This could mean that the fish is farmed or caught in another country, but it is consumed in the Netherlands. All effects from the chain, from catching the fish to disposal after consumption (for instance waste management and recycling) are included in the study, specifically focusing on health, sustainability and food safety.

The study started in January 2015 and continued until mid-2016. The results will be made available on this website.