Sustainable Seafood Choices: Plenty More Fish In The Sea?

The phrase “there are plenty more fish in the sea” is common, but unfortunately for many species in our oceans this is no longer the case.

Technological improvements in recent decades have meant a dramatic increase in the effectiveness of commercial fisheries, enabling them to fill the ever-growing demand of a mushrooming global population. Unfortunately, the pressure put on the ocean’s resources as a result of modern mass-fishing methods cannot be sustained long-term, and the stocks of many targeted species have suffered a catastrophic decline throughout the last 50 years. 

Overfishing is a serious problem, affecting more than 70 percent of the world’s fish stocks, while research shows that a horrifying 90 percent of the populations of large pelagic species have disappeared from our oceans. And although you can get these nutrients elsewhere, seafood can provide omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of diseases like cancer and heart disease while also boosting immunity. If you do eat seafood, learn how to choose sustainable seafood, in order to ensure not only the availability of such food in the future, but also the stability of the marine environment from which it comes.

Choosing sustainable seafood is not only good for the environment, but also for your own health. Many species that should be avoided from a conservation perspective — such as all species of shark and bluefin tuna — are also unadvisable because of the high levels of mercury they contain. Shopping with a conscience is also one of the best ways to support marine-resource management efforts worldwide. Enforcing marine-conservation laws at sea is notoriously difficult, but if the demand for a threatened species goes down, so too will the supply. The depletion of the world’s fish stocks is not an isolated issue, it is one that will ultimately affect us all, and which each of us can do our part to counteract. Choosing sustainable seafood may seem like a cumbersome task, particularly for those who lack in-depth knowledge of species and the factors affecting their populations. Institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium provide easy-to-use guides that divide options into three basic categories: Best Choice, Good Alternative and Avoid, in a list that is kept up-to-date to incorporate the most recent fisheries data.

Choosing Sustainable Seafood

Species labeled “Best Choice” are typically those that are either naturally abundant, or for which effective regulations ensure a stable population. In addition, the methods used to catch these species must not negatively impact the marine habitat, or affect non-targeted species as a result of bycatch. They are usually fast-growing fish that take a relatively short time to reach sexual maturity, resulting in a high rate of reproduction.

“Good Alternative” species are typically acceptable choices that may have some considerations to bear in mind, i.e. whether they meet local size restrictions and whether or not they were caught in season. Those on the Avoid list include all species at risk of overfishing, those with already-damaged populations, and the targets of any fishing methods that damage other species or the marine environment. In addition to these three categories, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program features a Super Green category, which lists fish that are both sustainably caught or farmed and are particularly beneficial to human health. These species are low in mercury and high in omega-3. As of July 2013, this category includes wild-caught Pacific sardines, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, freshwater Coho salmon farmed in American tank systems and Atlantic mackerel caught using purse-seine methods in Canada and the U.S.

As the specifics of the fish listed in the Super Green category demonstrate, seafood sustainability is not based on species alone. The origin of the fish in question and the method used to catch or farm it must also be considered. For example, Atlantic cod caught on hand-lines in Iceland falls under the Best Choice category, while the same species caught via bottom trawling in the Canadian Atlantic is listed as Avoid. This distinction is made because fish stocks are more plentiful in Icelandic waters than in Canadian waters, and because hand-line fishing only targets one fish at a time and therefore has an almost negligible impact on fish populations. Comparatively, bottom trawling not only catches many more cod, but also damages the sensitive seafloor and results in the bycatch of countless other species that are subsequently wasted. Fishing methods like these are responsible for the decline of many vulnerable animals including sharks and turtles. It is estimated that the hugely destructive Chilean sea bass industry is responsible for drowning over 100,000 albatrosses each year.

Farm Raised
The question of whether farm-raised seafood is a better choice than wild-caught seafood is also a difficult one with many variables. On one hand, farming creates stocks for consumption separate from those needed to maintain the marine ecosystem. On the other hand, lax enforcement of health and environmental regulations (particularly in Asian countries) can mean that farmed choices are sometimes worse both for you and for the ocean. In order to qualify as a positive alternative to wild fisheries, proper infrastructure must be in place to deal with farm waste, the feed used for farmed fish must not be sourced from wild-caught species and the eggs and larvae used to populate the farms must be independent of wild stocks. When fish enclosures are in the ocean or in rivers, the possibility of fish escaping the farms and transferring diseases to wild stocks must be controlled.

History shows us that the ramifications of failing to choose seafood sustainably can be devastating. The demand for bluefin tuna, particularly in the sushi industry, has led to overfishing to such an extent that the species faces imminent extinction. Slow rates of reproduction, the collection of juvenile bluefins for farming operations and the highly migratory nature of these fish have all contributed to the destruction of their global populations. In the 1980s, orange roughy became hugely popular — only after the populations of these deep-sea fish were decimated did scientists discover that they have a severely low rate of reproduction due to their 100-year-plus lifespan. The Chilean sea bass and the red snapper are just two other popular seafood choices that have suffered hugely as a result of overfishing. Crustaceans have their own set of issues; raising shrimp in coastal mangrove forests leads to the destruction of valuable nursery habitats for other fish and invertebrates. It is estimated that the environmental footprint of a single shrimp farm affects an area up to 50,000 times the size of the farm itself.

So, with all these considerations and variables, how can we ensure that we’ve chosen sustainable seafood? Free apps and booklets detailing the Best Choice, Good Alternative and Avoid lists are available free of charge and can help you make the right choice at your local supermarket and at restaurants. Always read a product’s label, which often provides information pertaining to the country of origin, the fishing method used and whether or not the seafood in question was harvested in the wild or in captivity. Ask your fishmonger if you are uncertain; not only will they often provide a better insight into seafood sustainability, but expressing interest also shows that ethically sourced products are important to customers. The same process is applicable when choosing which restaurants to support. If we all make an effort to follow these simple guidelines, we will be safeguarding not only the health of our oceans, but also our ability to enjoy seafood responsibly for many generations to come.