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Tipping the Scales
November 09, 2000
long shot of rows of fish at fish market

We’ve all heard how good for us eating fish can be—they’re full of protein and healthy fats and low in cholesterol. And health conscious Americans are eating more fish now than ever before. But how many of us take time to think what this means for the number of fish in the sea?

According to Carl Safina, director of the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program it’s time we started. His research and that of other scientists shows that because of our appetite for sea creatures, many of the world’s favorite fish are in trouble. Stocks of some species are now so low that they may become "commercially extinct"—fished to the point where it is no longer economically viable to catch any more. What’s more, some high-tech fishing practices and fish farming methods are having a detrimental effect on the marine environment, causing further deterioration of life in the oceans. "What we are doing to the oceans is maybe a little bit of overkill—literally speaking," says Safina.

Too many fishermen in the sea

fishing en masse at sea
image: NOAA

One of the main problems associated with the fishing industry is overfishing. Populations of some fish are shrinking because they are being caught faster than they can breed and replace themselves. "It’s like if you have a bank account, instead of living off the interest, you’re living off the capital of the account itself," says Safina. Overfishing is getting worse due to the continuing growth of the world’s population, and therefore the demand for fish, but also because modern vessels and new technologies make it possible to catch more fish than ever before. "We can find them and pinpoint every little location with satellite navigation, sonar, even radar, which just allow boats to keep fishing in fog which normally would be too dangerous," says Safina.

The most well known victims of overfishing are Atlantic cod and Atlantic swordfish. The Patagonian toothfish (known to consumers by its market name, Chilean seabass) and some species of shark used in sushi recipes are also extremely overfished and are of particular concern because they reproduce very slowly. Other fish species like mackerel, sardines, anchovies and whiting seem to tolerate heavy fishing very well, largely because they breed very quickly.

fishermen sorting through a mound of fish
image: Earth Justice/Greenpeace

There are indirect pressures on fish populations too. Many fishing methods directed at one particular species end up catching large numbers of other fish and sea life not targeted by the fisherman. The most celebrated example is that of dolphins being caught by tuna fishermen, but this phenomenon, called "by-catch" or "by-kill" is common and in some cases higher numbers of the unwanted fish are caught than the intended catch. "In some shrimp fisheries, for example, ten pounds of fish and other sea life is shoveled overboard for every pound of shrimp. That’s a really dirty fishery," says Safina.

And it’s not just creatures in the water that are affected. Patagonian toothfish are caught from vessels that cast hundreds of hooked lines over the side, baited with squid to lure the toothfish. Unfortunately, squid is also the favorite food of rare albatrosses. "They try to get the bait as it’s being put out behind the vessel and often get hooked and drown," says Safina.

Modern fishing practices can also cause collateral damage to the environment. Beams and chains at the openings of trawl nets used to catch shrimp and bottom dwelling fish cause damage to the seafloor. Rocks and crevices on the seafloor that many fish species use for spawning and which provide shelter for young fish can be destroyed. "All that stuff gets completely scoured away," says Safina.


image: NOAA

One solution to the plundering of the seas and the resulting damage to the marine environment is to farm fish. While fish farming, or "aquaculture," is environmentally benign for some species of fish in certain areas, with others it can be wasteful and often increase overfishing of other fish. "Fish are not cabbages, they don’t grow on sunlight and they have to be fed something," says Safina. "And what fish eat are other fish, and the other fish come out of the ocean. So to grow fish we’re mostly catching ten times more fish out of the ocean to feed the fish that we’re trying to grow." And while the value of farmed fish means that it’s still a profitable business, it places an added burden on the oceans. Large man-made concentrations of fish and shellfish can also be plagued by diseases, which can then spread into natural fish populations.

Marine conservationists like Safina have been warning of a crisis in the oceans for a long time, but changing the habits of the fishing industry has proved to be hard to do. "We’ve worked for a long time trying to get new laws put into action and we’ve succeeded in some cases, but one of the impediments is the sense that the public doesn’t really care and government can only go so far with businesses as well," says Safina.

Fish In Danger

You might think twice before ordering:

Wild Scallops
Atlantic Halibut
Orange Roughy
Salmon (farmed and Atlantic)
Chilean seabass

Safina believes that the most efficient way of solving the fish crisis is to put pressure on the fishing industry to be more respectful to the environment and sensitive to overfished species—not by imposing regulations but by educating consumers as to which fish species are good to eat, and good for the environment. "Once consumers start to show a preference, we’re hoping that it will also work with people in the food industry to cater toward that market. To say, ’We’re gonna look specifically for better producers, more sustainably caught food, because there is a lot of demand out there,’" says Safina.

The change in preference that Safina is talking about doesn’t mean that people will have to eat less fish either. "Its not like: ‘Oh my God everything is destruction and waste,’" he says. About 50 percent of fish in stores and restaurants come without any environmental baggage, meaning that there are sensible alternatives. While Atlantic cod is seriously imperiled, cod caught in the Pacific is much more abundant and there are regulations in place that should help maintain the population.

Turning the tide

In an attempt to bring a sea change in the way people think about and buy fish, the Living Oceans Program produced the "Seafood Lover’s Almanac," a 120-page guide for concerned fish lovers. The book lists more than 135 fish and shellfish with information on the populations of each fish, how fast they reproduce, the environmental stability of their habitats, as well as the environmental impacts of the methods used to catch them. Each fish is then given an overall ranking on the "Audubon Fish Scale" as a quick reference for consumers. Safina hopes that consumers, armed with the information in the almanac, will be able to make decisions about what fish they buy from the store or in a restaurant. "You can ask: Where did this come from? How was this caught? And once consumers start to show a preference, we’re hoping that it will also work with people in the food industry to cater toward that market," he says.

fish for dinner

The question remains as to whether the food industry will be receptive to Safina’s plan and whether consumers will care enough to ask about fish before they buy it. According to Rick Moonen, executive chef and partner at Oceana, a seafood restaurant in New York City, chefs should feel obliged to do something. "It’s occurred to me over the last four to five years that it really becomes our responsibility as chefs and spokespeople to sort of help preserve the future, the longevity and the sustainability of the products that are available today," he says. As part of a national Give Swordfish a Break campaign Moonen took swordfish off his menu for two years (and only occasionally puts it on now), and he also does not offer Chilean seabass. "Restaurants can take an active role in making sure that they try to purchase as responsibly as possible to adhere to the guidelines that are set up by organizations such as the National Audubon Society," he says, "and realize that what they do on a daily basis helps."

Elsewhere on the web

Links to sustainable fisheries sites

National Coalition for Marine Conservation

National Resources Defense Council

Environmental Defense Fund

Facts about shrimp fishing and the environment

Ecofish–a company which supplies environmentally friendly fish to the food industry

by Tom Clarke

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