Sustainable Fish Week at Ghent University

This week is ‘Sustainable Fish Week’ at Ghent University in Belgium. All fish on the university restaurants’ menus come from sustainable fisheries or fish farms (with practices that can be maintained without reducing the ability of the target fish to maintain its population and without threatening other species within the ecosystem, for example, by removing their food source, accidentally catching and killing them, or damaging their habitat). Tuna sandwiches will be taken off the menu and a sustainable alternative will be provided instead. Those who take their meal at a university restaurant will receive a free ‘fish guide’ with helpful information for making responsible fish choices at home. Those with strong stomachs may also enjoy the opportunity to taste jellyfish at the university restaurants. The message is that, if we continue to eat unsustainable fish, then soon jellyfish will be the only alternative to fish left on the menu.

Ghent University also organises an information evening about sustainable fish, open to the wide public. Experts will talk about the consequences of overfishing and about how we can make ‘sustainable fish decisions’.

The Sustainable Fish Week is not a one-off event. It is meant as an ‘appetizer’ for the university’s future fish policy. In November 2011, the university’s Marine Biology Research Group launched the Sustainable FISH @ UGent project. The aim is to assess the university’s fish and seafood purchases and to remove those that score poorly on sustainability from the menus and replace them with sustainable alternatives.

On its website, Ghent University proudly writes that it accepts its responsibility and has opted for sustainable fish. It would be great if other universities adopted this initiative (and similar initiatives such as ‘Donderdag Veggiedag’/‘Thursday Veggie-day’, a campaign to encourage people to eat vegetarian at least one day a week; those who, on Thursday, choose the vegetarian option at restaurants who participate in the initiative (such as the university restaurants) receive a free drink or desert).

Why would other universities not copy such initiatives?

Some might argue that universities should remain neutral about ethical matters, but this seems a very weak argument. First, it is not clear why selling both sustainable and unsustainable fish is more ethically neutral than selling only sustainable fish. The two different policies reflect two different substantive ethical positions: that eating unsustainable fish is ethically acceptable, and that it isn’t. Second, it could be argued that, as educational institutions, universities should set an example for ethical behaviour. There is sufficient scientific evidence now to show that if we maintain current fishing practices many fish species will go extinct., resulting in an unstable ecosystem with potentially disastrous consequences for the environment. True, major fishing companies may be harmed by campaigns like the Sustainable Fish Week. But surely that is not a reason not to replace unsustainable fish with sustainable fish. We should instead put pressure on these companies to change their practices, and we should support those fisheries and farms that have sustainable fishing policies. Another reason why universities should copy this initiative is that, as educational institutions, their impact may be much higher than the impact of individuals trying to convey the message that we should opt for sustainable fish instead of unsustainable fish.

I hope that, by making this initiative more widely known through this blogpost, other universities, schools or colleges will feel inspired to undertake similar initiatives. It is a simple initiative, but with potentially a significant impact.

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