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Many of Europe’s major retailers “are turning a blind eye” to suppliers using caught seafood to feed the farmed fish that make up about half of global consumption, claim campaigners.

A report published on Thursday by the Changing Markets Foundation accused 49 supermarkets in Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the UK of “failing to address” the “unsustainable nature” of the £196bn global aquaculture industry.

It called on those retailers to “improve transparency” in “destructive” supply chains.

Consumers – who were being misled by supermarkets, according to the report – should limit consumption of prawns and salmon, two of the so-called Big 5 most-consumed fish in the UK, as they were often fattened-up with seafood caught in the wild while also being kept in “appalling conditions” on fish farms, it added.

About 100 million tonnes of farmed fish are eaten worldwide each year, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which estimates around a third of the wild fish stocks to be overfished and more than half the rest to be at or close to the limit.

It comes as a group of small-scale fishermen known as The Low Impact Fishers of Europe, along with environmentalists including the WWF, said this week that overfishing in Europe was in part due to the EU and governments funding a minority of larger vessels that rake in 95% of the continent’s catch. 

Though often portrayed as a way to ease pressure on wild fish numbers, aquaculture ended up making the overfishing problem worse, the Changing Markets’ report alleged, estimating that almost one-fifth of the world’s catch ends up as feed for captive fish that was in turn destined to pass through “murky” supply chains while being dispatched to supermarket shelves.

No retailer had published “a clear target” for cutting or eliminating the practice, the campaigners said, which singled out Iceland for “failing to respond”, though others, such as Tesco, M&S and Waitrose “engaged thoughtfully with our questions”. Iceland declined to comment.

“Supermarkets pay lip service to sustainability in their public statements, but refuse to take meaningful action,” said Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at the foundation, which researched the report in partnership with fellow activists Feedback, the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, and Western Sahara Resource.  

The report follows warnings by some of the UK and Europe’s biggest retailers and fish suppliers in recent months over sustainablility concerns around tuna sourcing in bothe the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

Princes slashes Indian Ocean tuna catch but warns more needs to be done