Let's talk about fish, baby. Specifically, let's talk about the current state of our ocean's fish stocks and endangered species, and what we can do as consumers to support a sustainable harvest in marine ecosystems. If you eat seafood of any sort, from kelp to oysters to mahi mahi, or if you care about issues facing our collective future such as environmental health and food security, this is the page for you.
Our first order of business is overfishing. Put simply, overfishing is the harvest and consumption of marine species (they don't have to technically be fish) at a rate faster than their populations can recover. We (humans) do this a lot. So much, in fact, that we're driving an alarming number of wild stocks to near-extinction. This is bad news for the ocean and it's also bad news for a growing global population of humans who need to eat. There's an excellent, informative and brief animation on overfishing that circulated the Internet in 2013- I highly recommend watching it here.
"Put simply, overfishing is the harvest and consumption
of marine species at a rate faster than their populations can recover."
Overfishing doesn’t only include the rapid reduction of wild fish stocks. Commercial foraging for bottom-dwelling shellfish such as oysters and mussels has permanently disastrous effects on marine ecosystems. These species are usually harvested by dredging, whereby a large "scoop-like" apparatus (aka, a dredge) is dragged along the bottom of the sea by a boat and then hauled up and emptied to collect its contents. Dredging is enormously destructive to seabed communities and can result in irreversible damage to their structure, diversity and overall health. Similar to dredging, bottom trawling, involving the dragging of a trawling net along the sea floor by a boat, is responsible for the widespread ruin of seamount habitats and other benthic (sea-floor) ecosystems. In 2006, the UN Secretary General reported that 95% of damage to global seamount ecosystems is caused by deep-sea bottom trawling. These systems completely destroy coral reefs and any other structurally complex habitats in their path, leaving nothing but mud in their wake, which can support only a very few species. If they aren’t stopped, the sea floor is at risk of becoming a barren wasteland of mud.
Dredging is enormously destructive to seabed communities
and can result in irreversible damage to their structure,
diversity and overall health.
Unsustainable Wild Harvesting Practices:
In addition to overfishing, there are a number of specific fishing practices that are particularly egregious due to their wastefulness and unsustainable nature. These include:
…and many more. While I can’t possibly fit enough information here to fully explain all of them, I have provided links to external sites for a more in-depth look. I’ve also written about issues like Bluefin Tuna conservation and shark finning, so if you’ve been following the newsletters or looking back through the archives you’ll already be familiar with these.
One of the ways people have tried to mitigate the effects of destructive fishing is aquaculture, or the farming of fish and other marine species. As our global population grows exponentially, food security has become one of the most important issues facing modern civilization. People need to eat, and right now the distribution of food is heavily skewed toward developed nations, leaving billions of people malnourished and disadvantaged. Entrepreneurs, politicians, human rights activists and scientists alike are starting to look to aquaculture as a potential solution to the future of food on this planet. For an inspiring and informative overview, check out Jackie Savitz’s 10-minute Ted Talk outlining the potential of aquaculture to feed the world. There are many types of aquaculture, and the sustainability of these systems varies significantly. National Geographic has recently produced an excellent feature on aquaculture that I highly recommend. It’s a great general overview of the current state of the industry and all the different types of marine farming, as well as some possibilities for the future as global demand for protein continues to increase.
Key points include:
- Land-based aquaculture is just as environmentally destructive as other land-based farming.
- Farming carnivorous species (such as affluent consumers’ beloved salmon) is unsustainable. Wild stocks of feed for these species such as anchovies and sardines will not keep up with the expansion of the industry, and if we continue fishing them to their maximum capacity as we are today, those “spectacular collapses” to which the article alludes will occur with increasing frequency. NOTE: The alternative, which many fish farms use already and which the National Geographic article entirely glosses over, is artificial food- often called “blood meal” and usually created from ground-up bits of animal waste- chicken bones, by-catch from commercial fishing boats, etc. We need to focus on herbivorous species (those that don’t eat meat) as the aquaculture industry continues to grow. Shellfish, as the article mentions, are a perfect example.
- Polyculture, or Integrated Aquaculture, meaning the simultaneous farming of many species at different trophic (food-chain) levels, is the sustainable route for the future of aquaculture.
A few aquaculture facilities are working toward true sustainability by expanding into polyculture or multi-trophic systems. The diagram above illustrates what an integrated aquaculture setup can look like (click to enlarge). Integrated aquaculture not only widens the scope of marketable products produced by the farm; it also creates a more resilient system that can withstand a number of disturbances (disease, weather events, etc.) and that requires little to no artificial input because species can feed naturally. Often, integrated aquaculture goes even farther by using waste products from terrestrial (land) farms or other facilities, lessening the negative environmental impacts of those businesses as well. The featured image here, taken from the National Geographic piece, shows a seaweed farm that utilizes agricultural run-off to supply nutrients to the growing plants, which leaves the water flowing out to the open ocean runoff-free.
Animal Welfare (Fish Have Feelings, Too):
While the National Geographic article is thorough, there are some problematic aspects of aquaculture that it overlooks. Fish welfare is a notable example. A tilapia farmer in the beginning of the piece states that fish are happy “when they’re not dying,” but this is far from the whole truth. In terms of animal welfare we have majorly disregarded fish as deserving of attention. However, studies are increasingly finding that tightly crowded fish in farms are highly stressed and that simple observations of their behavior can reveal a great deal about their well-being, which we would do well to optimize. Meat from stressed fish is of lesser quality, and of course there’s the overall issue of animal rights to consider.
So what seafood can I feel good about eating?
There are a number of “seafood guides” floating around (pun intended), all of which are aimed at helping consumers make more sustainable choices with the health of the ocean’s ecosystems in mind. Links to a few of the most reputable are provided below for your convenience. Since I am often asked for my personal opinion, I’ll leave you with this:
The MOST crucial items to avoid are:
Shark products (most famously shark fin soup),
Bluefin Tuna, and
I also strongly recommend avoiding any bottom-dwelling species such as oysters, clams, crabs and mussels that were wild-harvested due to the devastating effects of dredging and bottom trawling.
Farmed shellfish, especially green-lipped mussels - these are one of the most sustainable options on the market.
Also, any products from integrated/polyculture/multi-trophic aquaculture facilities.
As a general principle, eat lower on the food chain (plants such as seaweed and herbivorous species), and you’ll be better off! Seaweed farms, like the one in the featured image on this page, can be very eco-friendly!
Sustainable Seafood Consumer Guides:
- The Environmental Defense Fund has an amazing Seafood Selector complete with pictures, descriptions and comparisons among/between species.
- The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a very handy pocket guide, and even offers an app for your smartphone so when you’re at a restaurant you can make more sustainable choices right from your table!
- The World Wildlife Fund has separated its guides by country, which can be very helpful depending on where you live or travel.
- Oceana, though targeted at American audiences, has some very useful information no matter where you are, and also offers a smartphone app.
- Love Tuna in a can? Greenpeace has a super user-friendly Canned Tuna Guide that ranks 14 of the most popular and widely-available canned Tuna brands in the U.S. based on their sustainability in a number of categories.
Image credits: Featured Image: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/aquaculture/?utm_source=NatGeocom&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=inside_20140605&utm_campaign=Content; Integrated Aquaculture Diagram: http://earthsky.org/human-world/the-problematic-relationship-between-aquaculture-and-antibiotics