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Fishing Gear, What’s More Sustainable?

If you’re from a Scandinavian country like me, you might eat fish once a week—maybe even more. We know fish are captured either commercially or cultivated for consumption. But do we have any idea about how fish are caught? Or which methods and tools are used? Or, how various methods of fishing can impact the environment?

Unfortunately, to this day there are no fishing techniques or gear that have zero environmental impact—from physical destruction of sea bottoms (affecting habitats), catching unwanted species and wrong-sized fish, to the carbon footprint of fishing boats. So then, which fishing gears have the highest environmental impact?

3 Common Fishing Techniques in Europe

The European Commission has grouped the different gears according to three major fishing techniques depending on how they are used. In the EU, fishing techniques are classified under three gear groups:1

1. Towed gear

Towed gear literally drags a net “bag” across the bottom of the ocean floor. We typically call this gear trawls and dredges. These are used for capturing bottom-dwelling sea life (e.g. flatfish, mussels, and some cod species), which is why the net has to be in contact with the ocean floor. Essentially, fishermen are “towing” their catch. 

2. Mobile gear

Types of mobile gears include seines, longlines and trolling lines (which are either nets or lines with hooks). Unlike towed gear, mobile gear is not actively towed, although involving the movement of the fishing vessel. Mobile gear is usually being used in the open water column. Techniques like these are effective for schooling fish species like sardines, herring or mackerel.

3. Passive gear

 Passive gear (e.g. gill nets, trammel nets, traps, longlines) use traps, nets or lines with hooks that are anchored or left to drift in the water. This technique is widely used in European waters. Essentially, this technique passively catches fish, rather than actively drawing them in.

But how do each of these techniques impact the environment? Scroll through the galleries below to find out.

Gear impact on the environment


Towed Gear

Mobile Gear

Passive Gear

So, which fishing gears have the highest environmental impact?

Well actually, there is no complete consensus on this, as different gears affect the environment in different ways. But, the gears with highest habitat impact are dredges and demersal trawls. They have more by-catch, especially trawls since they are the least species- and size-selective gears. The more sustainable gears to look for are traps and lines.

It is also important to understand that as long as we want to eat certain species of fish or seafood, some fishing techniques are unavoidable. You cannot, for example, catch flatfish with passive or mobile gear—at least not yet.

So when buying fish, the most sustainable fish-choice is to go for open-water living species, because the gears used to catch them seem to only be impacting vulnerable species caught as by-catch and not habitat on top.

The bottom line

While no techniques have zero impact (at least not yet), some gears have more sustainable methods than others. So do not give up hope on your search for sustainable choices for fish-eating! Scientists and fishermen are working hard together to create innovative fishing gear to try and overcome these impacts.

For now, you can look for MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) markings on packaging as guidance to more sustainable fish. There are also several websites where you can look up a fish species to see if it is sustainably fished. Different websites have different criteria, but most are based on how they are fished, where and if the fish stock is healthy (and not declining). Take a look at seafoodwatch.org and eumofa.eu, as both have detailed descriptions of various fish species.


Are you, like me, optimistic that we will find sustainable fishing methods? Leave a comment below!

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