Conscientious Seafood Buyers May Be Greatest Hope to Reverse Widespread Destruction of Fisheries

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Low-Impact Fish Farming and Eating Lower on the Food Chain Can Provide More Jobs and Increase Seafood Quality and Safety

Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans

Washington, D.C. — The world’s beleaguered fish populations have found an unlikely ally: seafood eaters, according to a new Worldwatch study by Brian Halweil, a senior researcher and globally recognized food expert. From Chinese universities that refuse to serve shark fin soup, to U.S. supermarkets that feature sustainably harvested shrimp, to Japanese consumers who are restoring wild oyster beds, a well-informed population of seafood eaters, distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets is playing a growing role in fostering a more sustainable, lower-impact fishing industry.

“Today, most of the world’s seafood, from tuna to salmon to bay scallops, is threatened with extinction,” writes Halweil in Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans. Studies show that fishers have eliminated at least 90 percent of tuna, marlin, swordfish, and other large predatory fish in just the past 50 years, and United Nations surveys show that roughly two-thirds of the world’s major fish stocks, from cod to salmon to mackerel, have been pushed to the verge of collapse. “A public that better understands the state of the world’s oceans can be a driving force in helping governments pass legislation to ban destructive fishing, mandate fishing labels that indicate how fish were caught, and create marine preserves off-limits to fishing where fish can spawn.”

But this growing movement is still fragile, Halweil notes. The commitments of many participants, from retail giant Wal-Mart to the Red Lobster restaurant chain, remain incomplete. For instance, Wal-Mart’s recent pledge to sell only certified sustainable fish in the next 3–­5 years involves no commitments with respect to farmed salmon and Asian-farmed shrimp, which constitute the bulk of its seafood sales. And endangered swordfish, Atlantic cod, and Chilean sea bass are making a comeback on some restaurant menus as chefs forget earlier campaigns to protect them.

The rapid decline of marine life is largely a result of increased seafood consumption and the use of high-impact fishing technology, which not only raises yields, but also requires about 12.5 times as much energy to catch fish as the fish provide to those who eat them, explains Halweil. He notes that the United States, Europe, and Japan—the world’s largest seafood consumers—receive most of their seafood through large distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets, so changes in buying habits in these channels could have a profound impact on the health of today’s fish stocks.

“In the same way the organic food movement is evolving beyond the culinary fringe, sustainable seafood can make its biggest impact when it starts appearing at popular supermarkets and restaurants,” says Halweil. “Fish is an incredibly healthful food, but we’ll need to eat less of certain kinds and more of others if we want fish in the future.” Salmon farms, for instance, consume more fish in the form of feed than they yield in seafood, and large ocean species like tuna and swordfish are most likely to be contaminated with mercury and other toxins. Eating clams, oysters, and smaller species, in contrast, puts less strain on oceans and protects consumers from contaminants.

Recalling the success of the “dolphin-safe” tuna campaign of the 1980s, Catch of the Day draws attention to a wellspring of private initiatives that are helping to save marine life—from color-coded seafood selection guides to targeted purchasing by large seafood buyers like pioneering restaurant company Bon App├ętit. These efforts are boosting the sales and reputations of participating companies, protecting jobs in developing countries where seafood is the dominant industry, and increasing the overall quality and safety of fish products worldwide.  

“Some scientists predict that if current trends continue, the oceans will be reduced to a trawler-scraped wasteland inhabited primarily by sea slime and jellyfish,” Halweil notes. “The fishing industry and fisheries regulators have spent decades trying to prevent this grim outcome, but they have largely failed. Whether it is helping a marine conservation group push through laws prohibiting deep-sea trawling or supporting more restrictive trade in endangered species, seafood shoppers can help reverse the damages humans have created and preserve the fresh catch of tomorrow.”

The world’s beleaguered fish populations have found an unlikely ally: seafood eaters, according to a new Worldwatch study by Brian Halweil, a senior researcher and globally recognized food expert. From Chinese universities that refuse to serve shark fin soup, to U.S. supermarkets that feature sustainably harvested shrimp, to Japanese consumers who are restoring wild oyster beds, a well-informed population of seafood eaters, distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets is playing a growing role in fostering a more sustainable, lower-impact fishing industry.