Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To Eat or Not to Eat, That is the Fishy Question

I love seafood as much as the next person...well, ok, probably more. It is a healthy and delicious food source, but there is a limit to the fish in the sea. We tend to think of ocean fish and shellfish as just food on our plates, but they are wildlife. Wildlife that we hunt on a very large scale.

Humans have been fishing the oceans for thousands of years, but within the last half century technology has developed such that we are able to fish farther, deeper, and more efficiently. As such, more than 70 percent of the world's commercial marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished, or have collapsed. Add to that illegal fishing, habitat damage, and bycatch and you have a serious worldwide problem. Over the past few decades aquaculture, or fish farming, has become an increasingly popular solution to the increasing pressures on marine resources. In fact, today, half of our seafood comes from farms. However, the ecological impact of farming depends on the species raised, the farm location, and how the animals are raised. What does that mean? Well, some species are easier to raise than others, some farms are closed-systems where wastes are controlled, some farms have higher escape rates which threaten native species with diseases, and some farms feed a vegetable- or soy-based diet while others feed with wild caught fish.

Alright, well, that's pretty bleak right? So what can you, the single lowly consumer, do about it? Actually, that is pretty simple. Ask questions and watch what you eat. First, there are a few ocean-friendly steps that you can take:

1. Purchase seafood from a green (or if unavailable, yellow list) or look for the Marine Stewardship Council blue eco-label in stores and restaurants. (see below about where to get and how to read seafood guides)

2. When you buy seafood, ask where it comes from and if it is farmed or wild-caught. Most reputable markets will label their fish. However, some stores and restaurants only give generic names and catch locations for their fish. Ask anyway and tell them why you care, it may prompt them to look into it. An alternative is to buy seafood through online retailers, such as, who feature sustainable species and deliver right to your home.

3. Spread the word. The more people practicing safe seafood the better.

Seafood guides are a free and easy way to help you choose the right seafood. In general, the lists are broken up into three colors:
  •  Green (Best) - abundant, well-managed and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.
  • Yellow (Good/OK) - an alternative to green but there are mixed records on how they are managed, the health of their habitat, or how they are caught or farmed.
  •  Red (Avoid/Worst) - have one or more serious environmental problems such as overfishing, poor management, high bycatch, extensive habitat damage, or come from farms that allow widespread pollution, spread disease, use chemicals, or have a high escape rate.
No matter the country you live in you should be able to find a list that works for you. There are small pocket guides, larger lists, and even easy-to-use online searches. I've listed some great websites below where you can find more information about sustainable seafood and lists to help you choose wisely.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
This is the best website I have found for information, guides, searches, and links.

Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector
This is a great website that includes a lot of information about each of the species on each of the three lists. They also include great, free, downloadable guides.
Blue Ocean Institute's Seafood Page
This website includes a great FAQ page as well as a seafood and sushi guide.

Natural Resources Defense Council's Sustainable Seafood Guide
This guide delves more into the topic of contaminated seafood but includes a shopping guide, recipes, and health alert information.

Marine Stewardship Council
Find out what MSC products are available in your country. Find out about what it takes to get a product certified and even track a fishery.

Marine Conservation Society - FISHONLINE website
This is for you U.K. folks. You can search for a fish, get fish ratings and lists, get information on fishery/production areas and methods, and download seafood guides.

Australian Marine Conservation Society
This one is for the Aussies. They include all the information you could want about your oceans. There are downloadable seafood guides and also an iPhone app!

WWF Sustainable Seafood Consumer Guides
Not in the U.S., the U.K, or Australia? Not a problem. Check out the World Wildlife Fund's list of worldwide seafood guides. The is a link to your country's web page with link to download a seafood guide PDF. While you are there (no matter your country of origin) check out their information on fisheries and sustainable seafood.

End of the Line
This is the world's first major documentary about the effects of overfishing. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is now out on DVD. Go to their website to watch the trailer, find or organize a screening, order a DVD, and/or find links for guides.

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