Consumers Can Help Reverse Fishery Declines, Says Report

Eating seafood that is lower on the food chain, like clams, can be a more sustainable option than larger fish.

A new study in Science predicts that all fish and seafood species could collapse by 2048 if current population declines continue. But fishery depletions may be avoided with the help of an unlikely ally—consumers—says Worldwatch Institute researcher Brian Halweil. In his new report, Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans, Halweil describes the growing threat to the world’s oceans but also offers concrete ways for consumers and other seafood buyers to help address the problem.

According to Gerald Leape, vice president of the National Environment Trust, the global commercial fishing industry is worth US$80 billion annually. But rapid increases in fish consumption worldwide and the use of high-impact fishing technologies have led to serious declines in marine biodiversity, says Halweil. The Science study is just the latest report to reveal the fragility of ocean ecosystems, concluding that in the last half-century, 29 percent of fish species have collapsed—experiencing population declines of 90 percent or more. In the 12 coastal and estuarine ecosystems studied, researchers found biodiversity declines of 50 percent or more; this decreased the number of viable fisheries worldwide by 33 percent and reduced the ocean’s ability to filter and detoxify contaminants by 63 percent, according to the report.

A nascent consumer movement for “sustainable seafood” is helping to reverse these trends, but needs to be stepped up, says Halweil. Positive signs include Chinese universities that now refuse to serve shark fin soup, U.S. supermarkets that offer sustainably harvested shrimp, and Japanese communities that are working to restore wild oyster beds for future generations. Changing the buying habits of large seafood distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets—particularly in the United States, Europe, and Japan, the world’s largest seafood markets—can profoundly influence the health of the marine supply chain, Halweil notes. “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,” he says.

Among other recommendations, Halweil suggests that seafood lovers eat lower on the marine food chain. He notes that species like clams and squid tend to be less endangered and less energy-intensive to raise and harvest than “higher-level” species like salmon and tuna, which can also contain elevated levels of mercury and other toxins. Other suggestions in Catch of the Day include supporting smaller-scale fishers and boats, which tend to use less destructive fishing techniques, and using non-toxic cleansers, paints, and other products to avoid washing ocean-harming chemicals down the drain. For advice on choosing sustainable seafood, Halweil recommends guides produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.