Fish oil sustainability paper generates heated response

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acid

An article published last week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has generated a flow of criticism for its claims that fish oil is not healthy enough to warrant its depletion of global fish stocks. publishes a selection of responses.

According to the authors led by David Jenkins, a medical scientist, the health benefits of omega-3 are insufficiently substantiated to justify the scale of promotion the fish-derived lipids are receiving. These “overdramatized”​ health benefits are putting pressure on fish stocks, they claim.

To read the article on the research paper, click here​.

Responses from the omega-3 industry, the seafood industry and the scientific community claim the paper provided a select representation of the science backing the benefits of omega-3, as well as a misleading picture of the state of fish stocks.

Jenkins did not respond to a call for comment prior to publication.

Getting the health benefits straight

Bruce J Holub, Dept. of Nutritional Sciences, University of Guelph:

“The first concluding sentence states that 'until renewable sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids derived from plant, algae, yeast or other unicellular organisms become more generally available , it would seem responsible to refrain from advocating to people in developed countries that they increase their intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids through fish consumption'. From this, one might infer that non-fish sources of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) plus EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) would be acceptable but not fish-derived sources.”

“There is extensive support from epidemiological and randomized control trials for the apparent benefits of consuming fish/fish oils (devoid of risk levels of contaminants) to human health including brain and visual development and optimal functioning as well as cardiovascular care in health and disease, plus other health outcomes.”

“The authors stated that 'The evidence is even less convincing for the benefits of fish oil for growth and brain development in infants, mental health...'. However, they failed to refer to major studies which have indicated otherwise and, perhaps even more importantly, they did not refer to numerous advisories from medical and public health groups and committees from around the world who, after thoroughly and objectively evaluating the vast medical and scientific literature, have published specific dietary recommendations on fish consumption and DHA/EPA omega-3 intakes.”

Dietary balance

Bill Lands, retired professor of biochemistry, Univ. Michigan Medical School, Univ. Illinois Medical School:

“Ironically, the call for 'responsibility' in the face of pressures is irresponsibly ignoring massive molecular pressures that current omega-6 intakes are making on the ability of omega-3 fats to maintain healthy balances in our cells and tissues.”

“Attention should be paid to ignorance of harmful imbalanced pressures on resources wherever they exist in our environment. Unfortunately, the impact of excessive omega-6 intakes and actions on our personal tissue microenvironments is being ignored by some well-intentioned scientists concerned about the macro-environment.”

“If we just lowered the current flood of omega-6 fats, sustainable amounts of omega-3 fats could manage our health.”

Where fish oils come from

Adam Ismail, executive director, Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s:

“The fact is, more than 80 percent of fish oil used in human consumption comes from the heavily-regulated and sustainable anchovy, sardine and mackerel fisheries in Peru, Chile and Morocco.”

“These fisheries closely follow best-practice guidelines for sustainable fisheries management developed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations so that there is no long-term depletion of their stocks. These practices include regular sonar censuses of the fish stocks, determining the length and quotas for the fishing season based on the size of stocks and their reproductive rates, and satellite surveillance of all fishing vessels to ensure compliance.”

“Furthermore, the amount of fish oil used for human consumption only accounts for 5-6 percent of this sustainably sourced crude fish oil supply, with the remainder going into lower value industrial and aquaculture applications. Thus, the global demand for fish oils for human consumption could grow to be 15-20 times larger than it is today and there would still be a sustainable source of fish oils.”

Fish stock sustainability

“Lead author David J.A. Jenkins says: ‘Fisheries globally have reached a state of severe crisis’ and ‘there is little doubt about the gravity of the fisheries crisis and the prospect of ongoing collapses of fish stocks’.”

“The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization just released its annual report on the status of the stocks and does not conclude the world’s fisheries are overall in severe crisis. The FAO concludes 72 percent of stocks assessed by its report are under to fully utilized, 19 percent over utilized, and 8 percent depleted (p 30). The report notes that, when it comes to depletion rates, ‘…some of the claims have been exaggerated and some misleading…(p 36)’.”

“Regarding aquaculture as a solution, Jenkins writes: ‘Fish farming is mainly a distraction in this context, since it is unlikely to resolve the problem.’

“Many knowledgeable fisheries experts consider aquaculture a key to proving plenty of fish moving forward. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states, ‘Aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world.’”

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