Bad week for fish

Last week brought a perfect storm of bad PR for the world’s seafood. Or, it might have actually been good PR from the beleaguered fish’s perspective. Interestingly, the three stories of depletion fish stocks, illegal fishing, and seafood contamination are closely related.

First, Elizabeth Rosenthal at the New York Times reported that the strengthening Euro and a traditional taste for seafood has made Europe the world’s largest market for fish, importing about $22 billion worth a year. But this roaring import market isn’t just evidence of Europe’s traditional taste for fish. It’s also buoyed by Europe’s depletion of its own fish stocks, since much of this fish comes from waters hundreds or thousands of miles away. Europe now imports 60 percent of its fish.

Second, in a monumental transfer of nutrition and wealth, much of this growing import tab includes fish stolen from the waters of West Africa, the Caribbean, and other poorer regions, where local populations used to depend on the catch for dinner. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, up to half the fish sold in Europe is illegally caught or imported.

Third, the New York Times Dining Section reported that tuna served in Manhattan sushi houses often contains dangerous levels of mercury, a pattern ostensibly present with tuna served anywhere in the nation or the world. A follow-up editorial in the Times made the profound point that “the food you eat is only as safe as the environment it comes from.” For decades, industry, coastal cities, and unsuspecting citizens have taken advantage of the diluting power of the oceans for dumping grounds. In particular, coal-burning power plants release massive amounts of mercury into the air, which eventually enters the ocean food chain only to come right back at us in our seafood, particularly in large, long-lived species like tuna, swordfish, and cod.

The connection between the first two stories is straightforward. As Europeans—not to mention Americans and Japanese and Chinese—crave more seafood, the price goes up, as does the incentive to get fish by any means necessary. A reef fish caught off the coast of Senegal commands a much higher price in Europe than it does in a coastal fishing village.

It may not be immediately clear what tuna with dangerous levels of mercury has to do with depleted, illegal fish being sold in Europe. But the same large fish that command the highest prices in seafood shops, sushi bars, and restaurants from London to Berlin also tend to be the most endangered fish in the sea. Their size—and their fatty flavor and texture—makes them highly desirable, but also makes them high in contaminants. (See my previous post on choosing safer seafood.)

And because these problems are integrated, the solutions naturally are as well. Avoiding these big, luxury fish will mean fewer international fleets scouring the waters, and less competition for the fish that poor fishing villages depend on. But it will also mean less risk of consuming unsafe levels of mercury. As with so many environmental issues, self-interest ends up also being in the best interest of the planet.