While flipping through daytime television channels recently, I caught the last words of Ellen DeGeneres swearing to give up fish. She had just interviewed Captain Dave Anderson, who recently untangled a gray whale, a sea lion and other bycatch from a fishing net. In addition to the issue of bycatch, unsustainable fishing methods have resulted in 85% of the world’s fisheries being at-capacity or overfished. With an increasing focus on health these days, many of us have sworn to eat more fish, and have started taking fish oil as a daily supplement. While both may be beneficial to our health, I wonder what the impact of increased seafood consumption is on the health of the oceans?
First, how does the seafood get to our plate? The two most common methods of commercial fishing are purse seine nets (25%) and trawling (54%). Purse seines are used to catch skipjack tuna (the kind you usually see in the grocery store in cans). They use a large net that surrounds schools of fish, then pulls together at the bottom like a string bag. Some commercial fisheries also use fish aggregating devices (FADS) with these nets as a way to lure a large number of fish, but which also attracts other ocean dwellers and results in a high percentage of bycatch as well. Trawling, which uses nets that are sometimes as large as a football field, similarly has problems with a large amount of bycatch due to its indiscriminate nature. Imagine the loss to the diversity of species with 100 million sharks and rays and 300,000 whales, porpoises and dolphins trapped in nets each year. Also imagine a huge trawling net dragging the sea floor, scraping up everything in its path – sponges, starfish, coral, anemones, turtles, and other sea life. Many are dumped back in the sea, but often do not survive their injuries. Although still a huge problem, some technological fixes have emerged to aid in reducing bycatch, like turtle exclusion devices, and devices that emit a sound to warn of impending nets. Also, some nets have “escape hatches” where some animals can break through to be released. Nevertheless, we need a full commitment to solving bycatch problems if we are going to save the diverse species that we enjoy in our oceans today.
Some people think that aquaculture, or aquatic farming, is the answer. Right now over 100 species are currently being farmed, providing 50% of seafood to U.S. consumers alone. Farming methods vary by country, but often include open net pens for salmon, ponds for shrimp, catfish and tilapia, and raceways for fish like rainbow trout in the U.S. While aquaculture can take the pressure off the oceans, it has its own set of problems. Two of the main issues are that often the fish being raised are fish-eaters themselves, and are being fed wild fish – putting even more pressure on the oceans. For example, it takes 3 pounds of wild fish to feed 1 pound of farmed salmon! Additionally, there is a great deal of water pollution that affects the rest of the nearby ecosystem and also the problem of competition for habitat, as mangrove forests are cut down to make way for shrimp farms, or farms are placed in natural pathways for other fish migrations.
What to do? First, let’s give kudos to those who are committed to sustainable fishing:
- One of the most unique U.S. seafood markets, known for literally chucking fish to customers, Pike Place Seafood Market in Seattle, sells only 100% sustainable seafood! They are now partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, and are committed to ensuring the health of the oceans for the future.
- Greenpeace ranks supermarkets on their sustainable seafood practices and tracks their efforts to continuously improve the sustainability of their offerings. Hats off to Whole Foods and Safeway for their high rankings! Half of seafood purchases are made at supermarkets, so there is a huge opportunity for purchaser power to be utilized to encourage sustainable brands. One of the biggest sellers in the world, canned tuna, also has one of the biggest sustainability problems. Whole Foods sells its own sustainable tuna brand, and does not sell any seafood that is on the Red List – including orange roughy, bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, grouper and shark. We also applaud Costco, A&P and Trader Joe's who are working hard to improve their sustainability each year, but hope others like Kroger will follow their lead. We can show our support by redirecting our dollars to companies doing good things to push for others to follow their lead.
To find out how sustainable seafood is defined and to make good decisions on which seafood to purchase, check out these great resources:
- Avoid Red List species to steer clear of endangered and overfished species.
- Find out where to buy certified sustainable fish or seafood in your area by using the Marine Stewardship Council’s product finder for your area or get a pocket guide.
- Check out the SuperGreen List that points you to seafood that is healthy for both you and the ocean.
- Look for the Sustainable Seafood certification label when you purchase seafood.
The ultimate solution will be a combination of government regulations, industry standards, and suppliers’ and retailers’ commitments to supporting sustainable fishing and the health of our oceans. Most importantly, each of us has an opportunity to influence consumer trends by showing our support for restaurants and markets committed to sustainable seafood.
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