If you’re reading this blog, you have probably heard of the issue of overfishing. In sum, our appetite for seafood has grown larger than what the ocean can supply, and this ravenous demand has resulted in plummeting fish stocks. In fact, it has been estimated that we have reduced the populations of large ocean fish to just 10% of what they were prior to the industrial revolution. However, demand for seafood continues to increase, and the fishing industry is becoming overburdened and is now forced to fish deeper and deeper waters to stay profitable despite decreasing fish yields.
As a result, some models project that many key food species will be completely depleted by 2048! Such a crash in fish populations would of course have widespread ecological impacts in the ocean, but it would also be devastating to the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on fishing and be a huge hit to the economies of coastal nations. Here is a figure to put some numbers to the issue:
OK, you may think, that stinks. But what can I do? This is a massive global problem, far beyond the scope of one person…and besides seafood is nutritious and delicious (I love it too!) so giving it up completely seems awful. However, the key here is that this issue is driven by economics, and so what types and numbers of fish are supplied will directly correlate to public demand (that’s us!). So yes, one person may not become a hero of legend who single handedly solves overfishing, but this DOES mean that each one of us can play a role. So here are some really easy things that you can do to help ensure that we have sustainable fish stocks… without becoming a superhero vigilante or even giving up eating seafood.
1) Have an idea of what fish to eat and what to avoid. Not all fish stocks are crashing! The major favorites such as striped bass and tuna (blue or yellow fin) are in sharp decline and should be avoided, but other fish stocks are actually increasing or are sustainable. Aquaculture has also produced new stocks of sustainable fish, though some fish farming has actually been seen as detrimental (ex. Atlantic salmon). This all may seem really complicated, but there are plenty of websites that consolidate the latest information into pocket-sized summaries. Below is an example from the Monterey Bay Aquarium sea food watch (http://www.seafoodwatch.org/-/m/sfw/pdf/guides/mba-seafoodwatch-southeast-guide.pdf?la=en). For more in-depth information on a lot of popular seafood species, visit blueocean.org/seafoods.
2) Ask questions! When you’re out to dinner or purchasing fish, it is completely acceptable to ask the staff where the fish was caught, how it was caught, or even the simple question of if the fish is from a sustainable/certified fishery. Many people feel like they are being a pain to ask these questions, but you’d be surprised just how many people do ask (I was asked nearly every night when I worked as a food server, and often multiple times a night). So don’t feel self-conscious about asking these questions, you’re not the only one! This can be quite important because in the restaurant industry, there is often multiple names used for the same fish or fish species are misnamed, so asking where they came from can clarify if they are truly from a sustainable stock. Further, (good) restaurants or food vendors genuinely care about what their customers want, and if the staff sees that eco-friendly fish are in higher demand, they may adjust what is being served!
3) Tell others. Despite the prevalence of this issue, much of the public does not even know about it. Informing your friends, family members or local community is an easy way to change public demand to sustainable fishes.
Now some good news! Burgess et al., 2013, displayed that new modeling systems can identify the risk of fish species to become threatened, while their populations are still healthy and sustainable. This advanced warning means that we don’t always have to play catch-up; if we adjust our eating habits now (based on these models) we can ensure that current fish stocks don’t crash in the first place! So, though overfishing is certainly a daunting task, it is a problem that can be tackled by individual members of the public doing their part!
Making it Simpler: The Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Food Watch app is free, easy and quick to use, and a convenient way to check if the fish served by a restaurant or a vendor is eco-friendly or should be avoided. You can also find their partner vendors and restaurants who only serve sustainable fishes. It does a great job of clarifying the multiple names for fishes used in the restaurant industry as well. I certainly recommend it!