Sardines Creative commons image Credit: Rockyeda under CC-BY licence Sardines: An alternative to a world without fish? 'Over-fishing', 'discarded' fish thrown back into the sea by fishing fleets because they have exceeded their EU quota; illegal fishing by pirates in search of the expensive - and now rare - fish species, (at an estimated annual cost of £9 billion) and the continual threat to endangered species like blue-fin tuna are all consequences of what many have begun to call a 'crisis' in the fishing industry.

Underpinning the 'crisis' is a wider story of social hardship; economic divisions; decline in traditional fishing communities and working practices, and environmental destruction. The driving forces of this crisis - namely the rapid expansion of global trade, the impact of the industrial food system and the dominance of supermarkets - have combined to put pressure on fish stocks, fishing communities and the health of the sea.

There are stories, too, of changing consumer patterns, and the juxtaposition of the pursuit of new exotic 'global' tastes, with the lack of appeal of 'local' familiar fish, while the loss of traditional skills and knowledge has contributed to the crisis. Yesterday's staples – including oysters in Britain and lobsters in North America – have become today's luxuries.

Over-fishing has been a feature of the expansion of global trade, with both factory and illegal or unregulated fishing contributing to declining fish stocks. In short, there are too many boats and too few fish. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 1% of industrial fishing fleets account for 50% of all catches.

Declining fish stocks have become an international issue, the concern of the European Union as well as national governments and the subject of increasing political debate. It has led to heated arguments between environmentalists, campaigning journalists and representatives of the fishing industry, while it has produced another example of the gastronome as a political subject, bringing together questions of politics and pleasure

According to Charles Clover in his book The End of the Line, recently made into a successful documentary film, over-fishing will mean extinction for the most popular fish species over the next decades. He argues that the way we currently consume fish is completely unsustainable.

Clover proposed a campaign to "reclaim the ocean", in which he called for more marine protected areas, in order to conserve the environment, oceans and eco-systems; responsible fishing and a more curious consumer who will ask fishmongers and restaurants where the fish is from, and whether it is an endangered or exploited species.

Discards have become a major feature of the fishing crisis, publicised by the high profile campaign led by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has argued that half of all fish caught in the North Sea are discarded. His Fish Fight was a very creative campaign against the practice of discarding fish on the grounds that the fishing team have exceeded their quota, and that the fish being discarded are less valuable than other species.

His campaign became part of a wider battle against over-fishing, and for changing the way we consume fish, which engaged the public through petitions, challenging them to become more discerning consumers. The Fish Fight campaign also developed effective alliances with movements like Greenpeace to force the large supermarkets (including Tesco and Morrisons) to change their practices.

It drew on the knowledge of marine biologists, as well as local fishermen, to highlight the cause of endangered fish species. Hugh's Fish Fight, became a powerful campaigning lobby which has complemented other campaigns such as restaurants banning the use of bluefin tuna.

One feature of the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaign is to try and raise awareness of simple, traditional fish like mackerel and sardines, which have lost their previous appeal but which are cheap, high in Omega 3 fish oils and universally recognised as good for the brain and heart. Maria Damanaki Creative commons image Credit: The European Parliament under CC-BY-NC-ND licence Maria Damanaki

This attempt to re-educate people about wider varieties of fish - including the more than 50 different species that come ashore in Cornwall - has also been reflected in many other movements such as the biennial Slow Fish gathering in Genoa, Italy, organised by the Slow Food movement.

Here, fisherfolk, activists, chefs and consumers meet to debate the politics of fish and to taste sustainable dishes. At its 2011 meeting, Sanjay Kumar, an Indian chef based in Cornwall took his campaign for the Cornish sardine to EU fisheries minister Maria Damanaki.

So, will the crisis in the fishing mean the 'end of the line?'

Leading economists and ecologists, led by Dr Boris Worm, Professor of Marine Biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, estimated in 2006 that if current momentum continues there will effectively be no seafood at all by 2048. This four year study attracted a lot of attention, featuring in both The End of the Line and Hugh's Fish Fight, while being challenged by some in the fishing industry, and has become an issue of hot political debate.

It was followed by a further study by Worm and Hilborn in 2009 that showed some recovery of fish stocks due to improved conservation practices. In 2011, Worm again warned that some regions 'may run out of seafood by the middle of the century if current trends continue'.

The first victims of the crisis in the fishing industry have been those who have earned their living from fishing and the sea. This could be the 'end of the line', too, for many in the Billingsgate fish market where generations of workers have plied their trade, as well as having devastating consequences for many communities in the UK, which were built on the back of the fishing industry.

However, there are at least signs that some aspects of the crisis are now being addressed . Hugh's Fish Fight resulted in the support of European Union Fisheries minister Damanaki calling for a change to the EU's Common Fisheries Policy to ban discards (though this has since been opposed by a British parliamentary committee).

Research on the impact of Charles Clover's film, particularly following the large audiences it attracted after its Channel Four showing, suggested consumers were changing their behaviour.

Some supermarkets like Waitrose experienced major increases in the purchase of sustainable fish options and several leading chefs removed bluefin tuna, a species facing extinction, from their menus.

The future success of the campaign, for those seeking sustainable alternatives, would now seem to depend on two factors.

The first is about politics. The alliance between chefs, consumers, environmental activists and local fishing communities will need to grow further as it has done in other spheres of the growing politics of food.

The second is about pleasure. The rediscovery of interest in traditional fish like sardines and mackerel will have many benefits for work, health, and environment, but above all educating people about the local and varied tastes and flavours of the sea close to home will be key to a more sustainable solution.

Further reading

The Fish Market: Inside Billingsgate
The End Of The Line

Hugh's Fish Fight
Slow Fish: The Food Programme: Sanjay and the Sardine
The Marine Conservation Society's Good Fish Guide

Editor's note: This article was amended by the author on 28th May 2012 to provide extra clarity in response to reader's comments.

Doctor Worm on Fish Stock Collapse