I learned that our oceans are in pretty bad shape. Since industrial-scale fishing began in the late 1800s, 85% of the world’s fisheries have become fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed, according to Seafood Watch. Oil spills, fertilizer and pesticide run off, and acres of floating garbage add to the list of threats to our fish habitats.
At the same time, the demand for seafood is greater than ever. According to the Worldwatch Institute, globally we’re consuming nearly eight times as much seafood as we did in 1950. It’s impossible for our natural fish stocks to keep up.
As a result, over the last 25 years, aquaculture, or fish farming, has grown exponentially. In China for instance, aquaculture production has increased 900% since 1970, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In the US, half the seafood we eat is now farm raised.
So, what to buy for dinner?
Overfishing is the biggest problem with wild-caught seafood. We’re catching fish two and a half times the sustainable level.
Fishing equipment itself can wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems. Bottom trawls and dredges drag across the seafloor and destroy fragile fish habitats, similar to clear-cutting a forest.
Bycatch is also a big concern. Fishing nets and longlines catch sea creatures by mistake. Every year, hundreds of thousands of turtles, whales, dolphins, seabirds and other animals die when they get tangled in driftnets or caught on longline hooks. The shrimp industry is especially guilty; for each pound of shrimp caught, as much as six pounds of other species might be thrown away.
Aquaculture has its own problems. Putting thousands of fish in crowded net pens in open water can produce tons of waste that pollute local waterways and spread disease to wild fish. Pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals used to control diseases and parasites can spread into the local environment, not to mention the contaminants they put in the fish itself.
Inevitably, some fish escape from the open pens. Escapees can potentially mix with wild species and cause genetic changes and possible extinction.
Local habitats may also be destroyed. In tropical countries, mangrove forests are cut down to build fish ponds. When the ponds get polluted, they’re abandoned and a new section of mangrove forest is cut down.
Here are three tips I’m using to help me find the “right” fish:
1. Choose seafood caught in US waters. Today, 91% of the seafood we eat in the US is imported, yet US fisheries are the most sustainably managed in the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). US fisheries are scientifically monitored and legally enforced under strict standards of sustainability. Buying fish caught or raised here is a good first step.
2. Look for MSC and ASC logos. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifies and labels wild-caught seafood, and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certifies and labels farm-raised seafood. The World Wildlife Fund established these organizations to encourage sustainable fishing practices and help consumers make informed seafood choices. We should use them.
3. Download Seafood Watch’s free mobile app. You can use it at the grocery store or in a restaurant to help you make on-the-spot decisions. The app gives you “best option”, “good alternative” and “avoid” suggestions. It also can help you find stores and restaurants near you that sell sustainable seafood.
Tonight for dinner I’m grilling the rainbow trout I bought at the Co-Op. Yum.