Catch of the Day Fact Sheet: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans

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Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans

Growing Seafood Consumption Worldwide

  • The world’s fish farmers and fishing fleets harvested 132.5 million tons of seafood in 2003 (the latest year for which data are available), nearly seven times the harvest of 1950.
  • People in the developing world eat most of the world’s fish (thanks to larger populations there), but they eat much less per capita: 14.2 kilos per year, versus 24 kilos in the industrial world.
  • Chinese consumers now eat roughly five times as much seafood per capita as they did in 1961, and total fish consumption in China has increased more than tenfold. Over the same period, U.S. seafood consumption jumped 2.5 times.

State of Today’s Fish Stocks

  • As more vessels work a limited number of fisheries, roughly two-thirds of the world’s major stocks have been fished at or beyond their capacity. Another 10 percent have been harvested so heavily that fish populations will take years to recover.
  • In 2004, marine scientists concluded that industrial fleets had emptied the oceans of at least 90 percent of all large predators—tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks, cod, halibut, skates, and flounder—in just the past 50 years.
  • Worldwide, fishers catch an estimated 18–40 million tons of fish and other marine creatures that are discarded—as much as half of all official marine landings.

Rapid Growth in Seafood Trade

  • Since 1976, the volume of seafood trade has jumped fourfold, to 30 million tons, while the value has jumped ninefold, to $71 billion (in 2005 dollars). Fish processors exported 14 million tons of frozen fish in 2004, over six times more than in 1976, with frozen shrimp and squid experiencing particularly rapid growth.

Inefficient Energy Use

  • In 2000, the world’s fishing fleets burned about 43 million tons of fuel to catch 80 million tons of fish. In other words, they use 12.5 times as much energy to catch fish as the fish provide to those who eat them.

Illegal Fishing and Its Impact on the Developing World

  • The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that illegal fishing robs sub-Saharan Africa of more than $1.2 billion annually in stolen fish, unpaid taxes, and lost work.

Positive Trends

  • The Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies certain seafood as “sustainable,” has granted its label to 18 fisheries worldwide, including North Sea herring and Australian mackerel. More than 370 products in nearly 30 nations now carry the group’s “Fish Forever” logo.
  • Scientists estimate that establishing no-catch marine reserves over 20­–30 percent of the oceans would provide spawning grounds and refuges to sustain all major fisheries. This would create 1 million jobs and cost $5–19 billion each year—far less than current fisheries subsidies.

Tips for Consumers and Policymakers

What’s a Seafood Lover to Do?

  • Eat low on the seafood chain. This means fewer salmon and more clams and squid. Fish lower on the ocean food chain tend to be less endangered, and catching them is less energy intensive. They are also less likely to accumulate mercury and other toxins in their flesh.
  • Get to know where your fish comes from and how it’s caught. Avoid seafood caught using large-scale indiscriminate techniques, such as long-lines (tuna and swordfish) or bottom trawling (shrimp and cod). Seafood guides, like the ones put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium ( and the Blue Ocean Institute (, often include this information.
  • Support small-scale boats and fishers. Smaller boats support more people per fish caught than large vessels. They also tend to use more selective and less destructive fishing practices.
  • Consider what you wash down your drain. Much of the water we use in our homes—for showers, sinks, washers, and toilets—ends up in the oceans. Switch to non-toxic, biodegradable cleaners and dispose of paints, car oil, and other toxins at recycling centers.
  • Consider the other food you eat. Runoff from large livestock farms and agricultural chemicals often ends up in the ocean, where it encourages algae blooms that rob other ocean life of oxygen. Animal feedlots also feed livestock large amounts of fishmeal and fish oil. Favoring organic food and pasture-raised meats means fewer farms dumping waste into the oceans.

Proposed Fisheries Policy Reforms

  • Eliminate fisheries and energy subsidies. Propped up by $15–20 billion in annual subsidies, global fishing fleets are estimated to be up to 250 percent larger than are needed to catch what the ocean can sustainably produce. The United States, European Union, and Japan account for 75–85 percent of fisheries subsidies. Payments that encourage the use of less-destructive gear, direct marketing to consumers, and ecological fish farming are better options.
  • Establish a global network of marine reserves and protect future fishermen. Studies show that putting just 20–30 percent of the oceans off-limits to fishing would provide sufficient refuges for major fish populations to spawn and reproduce. While fishermen might lose access to their favorite grounds in the short term, such reserves result in more fish to catch in the long term.
  • Eliminate bottom trawling. Dragging a net across the ocean bottom has been compared to clear-cutting a forest in search of squirrels and chipmunks. Such fishing is energy intensive and destroys habitat that can harbor future populations of fish. Such trawling should be banned from the most sensitive deep-sea areas (coral forests) and gradually eliminated in other areas.
  • Reduce wasted and illegal catches. Canada, Iceland, and Norway have adopted “no discard” policies that create an incentive to minimize bycatch. Existing international fisheries laws would be adequate to reduce illegal fishing if they had sufficient staffing and the support of governments to enforce them.
  • Encourage ecological fish farming. Large fish farms currently follow the model of land-based industrial farming, raising large numbers of nearly identical species in tight, unsanitary conditions. Raising multiple species together (e.g. salmon and mussels) can reduce pollution, disease, and the need for inputs. Raising herbivorous fish (e.g. tilapia rather than salmon) can reduce aquaculture’s massive use of fishmeal and fish oil.