Calamari pizza, blackened tuna caesar salad, shrimp puttanesca—whatever your seafood craving, the nation’s restaurants are likely to have it. New and exotic seafood combinations are popping up on menus across the country and Americans are getting hooked. According to the National Fisheries Institute, we spend about $50 billion on fish and shellfish a year, consuming nearly 15 pounds of the marine resource per person annually.
Whatever the reason behind the steady climb in seafood’s popularity, it’s taking its toll on marine life around the globe. Seventy percent of the world’s most valuable fisheries, and 11 of 15 major fishing grounds, are either overfished or fished to the limit according to the United Nations. World catch reached 90 million tons in 1997 (up from just 19 million in 1950) and from this harvest another 30 million tons of sharks and other “non-target” species are annually thrown back overboard, dead or dying, as inadvertent “bycatch.” As a result, 34 percent of all fish species are vulnerable to or in immediate danger of extinction.
“Most seafood comes from the wild,” says Carl Safina, director of the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program. “And by their choices consumers can either help heal or restore the oceans, or add to their continued degradation and problems.”
Certain popular food choices have gained notoriety for the precarious state of their fisheries, particularly the Atlantic swordfish and Chilean sea bass. The swordfish is the subject of a well-publicized campaign to remove them from menus until the species, stressed to the point of collapse (nearly two-thirds of swordfish caught in the North Atlantic today are too young to breed), has the opportunity to recover. Such well-known chefs as Nora Pouillon have lent the full force of their names, and restaurants, to “Give Swordfish a Break.” As for the Chilean sea bass, often sold as the Patagonian toothfish, up to 70 percent found on U.S. markets have been caught illegally.
Reducing pressure on certain species has resulted in success stories. “In almost all cases, species do bounce back quickly within 10 years when we don’t catch them faster than they can breed,” says Safina. Populations of Striped bass on the East Coast, Red fish in the Gulf of Mexico and King mackerel in Florida are all on an upward climb. Rebuilding stocks through similar wise choices could mean an annual world catch increase of 20 million tons, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It could also mean preserving livelihoods and rejuvenating the economy in many fishing regions. In the U.S. alone, the Commerce Department estimates that restoring depleted fisheries could double commercial revenues, create 300,000 new jobs and add $25 billion to the overall economy.
Although aquaculture, now the fastest-growing segment of United States agriculture, may seem like an easy answer, it, too, can come with its own set of problems, according to Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense. “Consumers shouldn’t buy farmed fish with the idea that it’s necessarily taking pressure off of marine resources. Some put the pressure back on,” she says. Many farmed fish are fed diets of fish meal or fish oil from wild-caught species, and so it can take many more pounds to produce what actually ends up in the store. And then some, like salmon and shrimp, have been widely criticized for the environmental ramifications of the farms themselves.
Despite the increasingly complex web of choices facing consumers in the supermarket and at their favorite restaurants, making informed decisions is growing easier. California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium has an online “Seafood Watch” [in the form of a printable wallet guide] that keeps tabs on fisheries both in trouble and well-managed. National Audubon offers a similar guide. The organization has also recently published the 120-page illustrated Seafood Lovers’ Almanac ($12.95, 888-397-6649). Readers can follow the Audubon-rated “fish scale,” or judge for themselves using information provided on the different species (as you would find them in a market or restaurant), how they’re doing in the wild, how they’re caught, facts about their life and other names under which they may be sold.
Look for the Labels
The first global standards for well-managed fisheries were just developed by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a four-year joint effort of the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever. Its Fish Forever eco-label is designed to be a market incentive for sustainably harvested seafood, beginning with the Western Australian rock lobster and the United Kingdom’s Thames herring. Fishery operators can volunteer to be independently assessed to qualify for the new label. Over 100 major seafood buyers, including Whole Foods Market, Legal Sea Foods and Shaw’s, have pledged to buy from these certified sources.
Turtle Safe labels direct consumers to shrimp that have been harvested from trawlers using Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) to protect endangered marine sea turtles. Shrimp certified by the nonprofit Sea Turtle Restoration Project can be found in a number of independent stores and restaurants, mainly on the West Coast. But beware of greenwashing, because (as with other eco-labels) copycats abound. Although some companies are dubbing themselves “turtle-safe,” they may actually gather the shrimp from otherwise polluting shrimp farms; the true Turtle-Safe label only certifies wild catch from trawlers in Georgia.
Probably the most familiar of all sustainably fished labels can be found among the towering containers of canned tuna, the seafood of choice for most Americans. Since 1990, the “dolphin safe” symbol has designated companies that refuse to buy tuna caught by the chasing and netting of dolphins, a policy which has decreased dolphin deaths in the Eastern Pacific 97 percent. Although the U.S. Department of Commerce recently attempted to weaken the label, opening up the market to indiscriminate foreign imports, the decision was overturned by a federal judge and the label remains a strong guide.
For those still overwhelmed by the idea of navigating a menu of fishy choices, there is now a way to have sustainable seafood delivered right to your door. Ecofish, launched last summer as an Internet-based seafood retailer, selects only species from fisheries that meet strict ecological criteria established by an advisory board of marine scientists, to offer for sale. On the basis of their population status, level of bycatch, environmental impact of harvesting and location, Ecofish is currently selling Dungeness crab, Yellowfin tuna, Pacific halibut, Blue mussel, Spiny lobster, Coho salmon and Rainbow trout. The New England-based company donates 25 percent of pretax profits to support marine conservation efforts around the world.
What the world’s fisheries really need is a much-needed rest. But if we don’t at least lift pressure on the hardest hit, it’s clear we’re just fishing for trouble.
JENNIFER BOGO is associate editor of E.