A few weekends ago at a small get-together, I was brought into a conversation about sustainable seafood because I study aquatic ecology and how human activities are affecting marine ecosystems. Though I don’t study the management of commercial fishing per se, my interests and research predispose me to information about these topics. Until this conversation began, I had always assumed that everyone had the same level of access to this information as I do, but what I learned - mind you, from a group of well-informed people - was that this was simply not the case. I came to realize firsthand the extent of the information lag between research and the public, and that while people were generally aware that we are overfishing the oceans and that by continuing to eat certain types of fish we were contributing to this problem, they didn’t know much more than that, and even less which fish were sustainable and which were not. In response I wrote this op-ed.
The bottom line is that fish are important for many reasons. Not only do fish provide the primary source of protein for the world’s human populations, but they make up an important portion of many food meals for livestock, poultry and even other farmed fish species. Economically speaking, the fishing industry is one of the largest sources of trade in the world, accounting for over a hundred billion dollars of trade annually, and ranging from small-scale subsistence fishing to the large-scale commercial operations that stock your local grocer. Additionally, and in many ways most importantly, fish are fundamental in maintaining an ecological balance in the oceans. Fish play the role of both predator and prey, and anything that may affect their ability to perform that role can disrupt the entire ecosystem.
Unfortunately, despite the obvious importance of this industry to the world, the majority of important fishery species in the ocean are in peril. We are currently harvesting at or just over the maximum capacity of fish that the ocean can produce. If we maintain this rate of fishing, the majority of these fish stocks will become so depleted that they will no longer be profitable for the industry and will no longer be available to feed the majority of the world. Some of the grimmest estimates predict a total collapse of all commercially harvested fish populations by 2048. In other words, if we maintain our destructive ways in 40 years the world’s primary source of protein will no longer exist.
That is one scenario; that is the bad option. The other option is a drastic shift toward sustainable fishing. And here is the good news. Fish populations, even ones that are at the brink of collapse, can and will recover given the proper management and regulations. It is actually possible to harvest even larger quantities of fish from the oceans using more sustainable practices.
A case in point is the Alaska wild salmon fishery, arguably the most efficient, best managed fishery in the world and also one of the most productive. Just 30-plus years ago, poor management and increased market demand drove the Alaskan salmon fisheries to record-low production and to the brink of collapse. This drought of fish and the ensuing blow to the local economy motivated fisheries managers and the local government to impose strict regulations and policies. Today, Alaskan salmon fishermen are enjoying record-high salmon catches and stable incomes based on fisheries.
Although the degree of decimation to global fish populations is daunting, there is a bourgeoning movement on the horizon that, with the proper support, can bring sustainable fishing practices to the mainstream. Like all industries, commercial fishing is market-driven. Its direct dependence on consumer demand actually puts the power directly into our own hands through the ability to simply choose what we eat. This is where the consumer - that means you - comes into play.
In general, like my friends at the party, people are becoming more aware of the urgent need for sustainable goods, not only seafood, but produce and common household items, which is opening up an entirely new market created by this awareness. In order for consumers to make better decisions about what they purchase and from whom, you have to be informed about which issues are most important to consider when buying seafood. Namely, you need to know: Is this fish species currently overfished? Second: What is the harvest technique? For example, for every one pound of shrimp caught by trawling, up to 15 pounds of other animals are killed and discarded. Last, who is harvesting this species?
Some of the answers to these questions are easier to come by than others, and so while your local fish market should be able to answer all these things (if they can’t answer these basic questions then you should consider a new vendor), the average attendant serving you your fish and chips may or may not be so helpful. But remember, this scenario is market-driven. If the demand by consumers for this information increases, vendors will be forced to be more accountable, which will in turn put further pressure on the industry to be sustainable.
My recommendation for everyone who consumes seafood is, first and foremost, to buy responsibly. Fortunately, there are organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.mbayaq.org) and the Blue Oceans Institute (www.blueocean.org) that are publishing wallet-sized seafood guides that help you make informed seafood purchases. The easiest way to do this is simply to carry one of these guides in your back pocket and to consult it before every purchase. In my opinion the best and most comprehensive guide is produced by the Blue Oceans Institute. That group has also taken things a step further by creating what they call the FishPhone. This service allows you to simply text the number 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish in question; then they text you back with information that will help you make the most sustainable decision. These organizations are beginning to provide the public with the needed information to make reasonable purchases, but the important thing to remember is that their influence is limited, and that it is you as the consumer who ultimately has the power to influence the industry.
The key to the transition to sustainability is education, and thankfully, information is contagious. You may be surprised at the willingness of your friends to participate when you pull the sustainable seafood guide out of your wallet the next time you dine at your favorite seafood restaurant.
With this column I have provided a modified list (taken from the Blue Oceans Institute) of the “goods” and the “bads” of the seafood industry. Sadly, many of the “bads” are often on our “favorites” list as well, but remember - and this is the key to the whole movement - with sufficient market pressure from people like you, many of these depleted fisheries can recover, and gradually our favorites will find themselves repopulating the “good” list.
originally appeared in the Flagpole