Global fisheries are in a state of crisis. Technological advancements in commercial fishing and a growing global appetite for delicious and nutritious seafood have fuelled a fishing boom that now threatens to collapse fisheries from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific. Whether it is bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, red snapper, or countless other species that make for popular seafood dishes, what we are taking out of the ocean is beyond what mother nature can sustainably provide.
The thriving demand for seafood has encouraged the development of unsustainable fishing practices that not only lead to decreases in the population of targeted species, but which also damage marine habitats and disrupt the bedrock ecological processes upon which marine life at large depends. Modern mass fishing is putting such enormous pressure on the ocean’s resources that, if nothing is done, the phrase ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ will cease to have any literal meaning.
The good news is that there is something consumers can do about it. A sustainable seafood industry has sprung up in response to the problem of overconsumption. Sustainable fisheries target plentiful species that reproduce quickly and can replenish their populations, instead of species with low reproductive rates. Sustainable aquaculture farms follow environmental safeguards that minimize the negative impact of fishing and farming activities on marine environments.
Informed customers can help to ensure a responsible future for the industry—and the continued health of our oceans—by choosing sustainable seafood when cooking a seafood dinner, shopping at the fish market, or eating out at a seafood restaurant.
State of the Seafood Union
Seafood, whether wild-caught or harvested through aquaculture, provides food, nutrition, income and livelihoods to countless people worldwide. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately one billion people around the world currently consume seafood as their main source of protein, while over 100 million people rely directly or indirectly on the seafood industry for their primary income. Unfortunately, numerous problems plague the seafood industry and threaten its continuation into the future.
The biggest problem is overfishing, which occurs when more fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. Lax regulation and the mismanagement of fisheries have led to over 85% of global fish stocks being fully or over-exploited. Fish species that grow to a large size, are long-lived and slow growing, such as bluefin tuna, tend to be the most vulnerable to overfishing. These fish also tend to be carnivores that are higher on the food chain, and the disappearance of these predators from the food chain has deleterious consequences on complicated food webs.
Other problems stem from destructive fishing methods. Bottom trawling and dredging are wrecking the ocean floor. Dynamite and cyanide fishing kill indiscriminately and ruin marine habitats such as coral reefs. Other fishing methods, such as long-lining and purse seine fishing, kill millions of unwanted fish species as bycatch along with those that are targeted.
Currently, over half of the seafood consumed globally is raised through aquaculture, and fish farming is often touted as a sustainable alternative to catching fish in the wild because it creates a stock of fish separate from those needed to maintain the marine ecosystem. The truth is, if it is not done properly, fish farming can be harmful and unsustainable as well. For example, farmed fish are often fed wild-caught fish, which in some cases means that more wild fish are used for feeding than are harvested for food, leading to a net reduction in fish quantities. Furthermore, escaped fish can spread diseases or other contaminants from fish farms to the wild. Also, important marine habitats such as mangroves are sometimes destroyed to make room for fish farms.
Wild fisheries require a healthy, productive ecosystem to persist into the future and fish farming must be done responsibly to contribute to the sustainability of the industry. Luckily, the growth of sustainable seafood offers a way to replenish our oceans and manage their resources into the future.
What is Sustainable Seafood?
Seafood can be deemed sustainable if it comes from a fishery whose practices can be maintained indefinitely without harming the target species’ ability to maintain a healthy population. Also, sustainable seafood products must be caught or farmed in ways that do not cause considerable damage to the ocean environment from which they were taken or farmed.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, “sustainable seafood is either caught in the wild or farmed in ways that maintain both the long-term health of the oceans, and the health of the species being captured.”
What makes wild-capture seafood sustainable?
Whether a wild-capture fish is sustainable depends on multiple factors, including its growth and reproductive rate, the population size, and the way in which it is caught.
Generally, sustainable capture fisheries target species that have a low probability of being overfished, either because their populations are healthy or because they grow very quickly and reproduce at a young age. Additionally, fish is considered more sustainable if caught using a fishing technique that produces little to no bycatch and does not cause harm to the surrounding marine environment.
What makes farmed seafood sustainable?
Like wild-caught seafood, whether a farmed seafood product can be considered sustainable depends on several factors. If the fish used to feed the fish are wild-caught, and more fish are used for feeding than are produced for food, then that is not very sustainable. Farmed fish that eat plankton or other non-fish organisms use less resources to produce and are more sustainable. Fisheries located in enclosures inside a river, lake or ocean must have efficient methods to deal with farm waste to prevent runoff from polluting the surrounding marine environment. Finally, controls must be in place to prevent the spread of disease when a farmed fish escapes.
How to Choose Sustainable Seafood
Conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Oceana and Seafood Watch have created comprehensive guides that can help consumers make informed choices when buying seafood. Others, including the Marine Stewardship Council, Friend of the Sea, and Responsible Fishing Scheme, have developed various sustainability certification schemes and a labeling system that can help people choose the right products at the grocery store. While the sheer abundance of labeling systems can be daunting, here is a guide to the most common labels and certificates for seafood products.
Sustainable seafood is not just a pie-in-the-sky idea, but it’s a major economic force that is making itself known in the industry. Over the past 15 years, the amount of ‘certified sustainable’ seafood sold in global markets has risen from 0.5% to 14%. That is a huge rate of growth—almost 10 times the rate of growth in conventional seafood—which producers are sure to notice. While you may think that your individual actions will have a negligible effect on a multi-billion-dollar global industry, the collective actions of countless consumers who care about sustainability and the environment are starting to be felt.
Buying sustainable seafood shows businesses that customers care about sustainability. Restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets will start selling sustainably-sourced products if they know it is what the customer wants.
So next time you are buying fish at the store, make sure to read the labels. Ask yourself, is this product farmed or wild? How was it caught? If you are thinking of eating a seafood dish at a restaurant, make sure to ask your server where the seafood came from. Even if they cannot answer you immediately. Also, do not be afraid to try something new. Eating a variety of different seafoods, instead of the same, overfished kinds, will help to reduce pressure on these populations.
Put Money Where Your Mouth Is
It is critically important that we understand the impact of our choices. Over the next forty years, as global population increases and countries with large populations such as China become wealthier, seafood consumption is expected to double. Demand for seafood is not going away, and our only option for ensuring that there will always be plenty more fish in the sea, is to make choices that ensure a sustainable global seafood industry. Be a part of the solution, and eat sustainably.
By Ryan Patrick Jones