By Kim Robson:
Four years ago, we reported on an alarming study that suggested ocean life is experiencing an unprecedented level of damage and facing possible mass extinction. Over-fishing, warming ocean temperatures, and the acidification of sea water has harmed the oceans far more than we ever realized. “We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” said Douglas J. McCauley, one of the study’s authors and an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Long gone are the days of Popeye the Fisherman, a weathered old salt toiling alone on a wee boat, casting his single line into the sea. Today’s industrial fishing employs bottom trawlers, enormous nets that dredge the sea floor, virtually sterilizing millions of square miles of seabed and destroying sections of the continental shelf. The technology and ability to kill now far outweighs the capacity of ecosystems to replenish themselves. In fact, much of our fish now comes from fish farms, which are expected to provide most of the fish we eat within the next 20 years. But the greatest damage comes from large-scale habitat loss. Coral reefs, which are important fish habitats, have declined by 40% worldwide.
George Monbiot of The Guardian writes, “Huge ships from rich nations mop up the fish surrounding poor nations, depriving hundreds of millions of their major source of protein, while wiping out sharks, tuna, turtles, albatrosses, dolphins and much of the rest of the life of the seas. Coastal fish farming has even greater impacts, as fish and prawns often are fed on entire marine ecosystems: indiscriminate trawlers dredge up everything and mash it into fishmeal.”
What We Can Do
The simple answer is this: stop eating fish. Stop thinking of fish as a source of food; instead, let’s protect fish — they are a vital and irreplaceable component of any healthy marine ecosystem. Marine oceanographer Sylvia Earle, says, “They’re part of the systems that make the planet function in our favor, and we should be protecting them because of their importance to the ocean. They are carbon-based units, conduits for nutrients, and critical elements in ocean food webs. If people really understood the methods being used to capture wild fish, they might think about choosing whether to eat them at all, because the methods are so destructive and wasteful.”
Most important to avoid are apex predators like tuna, which can live up to 32 years, or sea bass, which can live up to 80 years. Imagine how many countless smaller fish had to be eaten for those predator fish to reach maturity. For instance, bluefin tuna takes 10-14 years to mature; compare that to land animals that can be eaten after a few months (chicken) or a couple of years (beef, pork). Cod, once so plentiful that it was considered unlimited, is now protected because of its dwindling numbers and sizes.
Unsustainable Seafood to AVOID (and Why):
Apex predators that exist at or near the top of the food chain are critical to a flourishing ecosystem and also prevent the spread of disease.
Atlantic Salmon— Not managed as well as Pacific.
Swordfish— Overfished by longline fishing, which puts other sea life such as sea turtles, sharks — even albatross — at risk.
Wild Sea Scallops— Dredged from the ocean floor, disrupting the habitat faster than it can recover. Get farmed scallops instead.
Bluefin or Bigeye Tuna— Apex predators, slow to mature, swim in schools, thus making them more vulnerable to large nets.[insert “bluefin-tuna” image here]
Atlantic Cod— A deep-water fish whose population collapsed in the 1990s and has never fully recovered.
Imported Shrimp— 90% of our shrimp is imported from sensitive habitats that are poorly managed. Use of antibiotics and pesticides is common.
Spanish Mackerel— Overfished and not well managed.
Grouper— Very large and overfished. During mating, they congregate in huge, centrally located spawning grounds, allowing fishermen to easily harvest more than is sustainable.
Sustainable Seafood to Seek Out (and Why):
Look for smaller “forage” fish that are lower down on the food chain — they can be grown and harvested quickly. Smaller fish eat more zooplankton, preventing dangerous algae blooms. Surprisingly, farmed shellfish are among the most sustainable seafoods around. Scallops, clams, mussels, oysters — or any shellfish — can be sustainably farmed and harvested.
Northern Anchovies— Fast-growing, sustainably managed, responsively harvested.
Atlantic Herring— See above. Pacific herring caught in California is also acceptable.
Sardines— Caught with little environmental impact or unintended catches. Fast growing, contain no contaminants. Look for wild Pacific sardines (avoid the Atlantic variety).[insert “anchovies” image here]
Catfish— Mild taste, flaky texture. Farm-raised sustainably in self-contained ponds in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Texas. Ponds also double as wetland habitats. Free of contaminants. High protein, high in Omega-3.
Barramundi— Sweet and mild with a delicate texture. Good substitute for red snapper, grouper or Chilean sea bass. Farm-raised but also fast-growing.
Fresh Oysters, Clams, or Mussels— Contain high levels of Omega-3 and vitamin D. Shellfish farms benefit the environment because they filter water of contaminants, and provide important habitats for other marine plants and animals.[insert “shellfish” image here]
Wild Alaskan Salmon— Far more flavorful than farmed salmon, which is dyed pink. High levels of Omega-3. Very carefully regulated by a number of agencies. Populations are healthy enough to withstand some commercial fishing, which doesn’t overly disrupt the marine environment. Look for Chinook, Coho, Chum, Keta, King, Pink, Red, Silver, Sockeye or Sake.
Dungeness Crab— Sweet, white, juicy flesh. Very carefully regulated with size limits and trap restrictions. Look for trap-caught crab from Canada, California, Oregon and Washington, but avoid Alaskan or Atlantic Dungeness crab.