SHOULD I EAT FISH? HOW OUR SEAFOOD CHOICES AFFECT GLOBAL FISH POPULATIONS
When you look at the piece of fish on your plate, what do you know about it? What species is it? What is its origin? Was it caught legally? Was the fisherman given an honest wage? When you begin to think about these questions, one starts to realize how much is left unknown. Even those of us who make an effort to be informed about where our seafood comes from, what does it all mean in the big story of ocean health? Some of us get to the point where we stop and ask ourselves…should I eat fish?
Humans have been hunting and eating fish since we discovered its existence. It has been central to our diets and even our civilizations settlement. Especially in the United States, we are advised to eat more seafood, but the sustainability of the world’s seafood resources is a concern. The demand for fresh seafood has increased, and our technology has advanced. Global fishing capacity is stronger than any other time in history. In addition to human consumption, fish stocks are threatened by climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. We don’t have the room to put more and more pressure on this system.
Each year, almost half of the edible seafood supply is wasted. This waste is predominantly from consumer waste. Several studies estimated that the US seafood supply is at approximately 4.7 billion pounds per year, which includes domestic and imported products. Of this great amount of seafood, roughly 2.3 billion pounds is wasted. While several hundred million pounds are lost via bycatch and distribution, 1.3 billion pounds is lost at the consumer level. This is staggering. In a world where fish is a finite resource, and food security is an issue, this is simply unacceptable. One author illustrated the magnitude of this loss, by stating that this wasted seafood has enough protein to fulfill the annual requirements of as many as 10 million men or 12 million women. Currently, several universities and organizations are putting immense effort into how to solve this issue, at the production, distribution, and consumer level. We need to begin to treat seafood more delicately. It is so valuable to us, and our health, so why are we not treating it that way?
While many would jump to the idea of aquaculture, or farmed fish, to solve our seafood issues and increased demand, aquaculture is NOT a flawless system. Aquaculture has been on the rise, making up a large majority of the fish in our stores and restaurants. While farmed seafood can take the pressure off stressed fish stocks and reduce destructive fishing impacts, aquaculture does not just create new fish from nothing. Several fisheries exist just to provide fish meal and food for aquaculture. Aquaculture should be supported as a great compliment to our wild-caught seafood.
So, what can you do? As consumers, we have so much power. The industry continues to exist in such a manner because there is a demand. We need to use our vote to push more restaurants and retailers to choose sustainably caught or farmed seafood. Knowledge is power, and we have the knowledge now more than ever. With better knowledge, we can make better choices for our society’s future and the ocean’s future. There are several places online where you can get a better understanding of what seafood you should be choosing. Start with Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website. They continue to give consumer scientifically backed information on what are sustainable seafood choices (http://www.seafoodwatch.org/).
When you are shopping or dining, start looking at labels with great attention. Look for seafood that is local if you have that benefit. If locally caught seafood is not an option, look for the eco-labels. Start by looking for the label for the Marine Stewardship Council (https://www.msc.org/) The MSC and their standards for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability are some of the toughest in the world. Other major ones include Ocean Wise (http://seafood.ocean.org/seafood ), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (https://www.asc-aqua.org/news/latest-news/ascs-new-consumer-label-for-responsibly-farmed-fish/ ), and Friends of the Sea (http://www.friendofthesea.org/ ). These organizations will support products in which fisheries and aquaculture have left no lasting impact or damage to the marine environment or recommend seafood that is abundant and resilient to fishing pressures. By looking for these labels and purchasing these seafood products, there will be a vote for more sustainable seafood. With more pressure, more fisheries will take the step to be more sustainable.
We need to change the way we think about seafood. We need to open our minds to eat smaller fish, such as sardines and anchovies. Instead of demanding fashionable fish or rare species, we could be eating food lower on the food chain, receiving the same health benefits and taste. The recipes are endless, and there is room for your creativity to grow. If you are going to buy larger species, purchase only what you are going to cook immediately. If you buy frozen seafood, avoid thawing. A great way to see the progress of your change in habits is to keep a log or diary. It just takes a few moments to write down details about what you purchased, how you prepared it, and what you wasted or why. You can start looking for trends in your behavior and make more detailed changes.
You don’t need to be an expert to understand or illustrate the wastefulness occurring. Stimulate dialogue and conversation with your friends and family. People will need to make the choice on their own, but each of us can be an advocate for what is occurring in the ocean. There is no doubt that others will begin to listen. While many have made the choice to remove fish from their diet, that is not necessary or an option for everyone. We can start making informed and smart decisions about what we are eating, without giving up our beloved sushi or favorite seafood dishes. If we can begin to reduce that 1.3 billion pounds of consumer waste each year we will be doing amazing things for the ocean! While some loss is unavoidable, we can do SO much to limit our own waste. Be the voice and be the vote.
Humans have undoubtedly impacted fish populations around the world. Many of us have heard or read about the dark reality that all fish will be lost by 2050. This is not completely true. We are learning each day from what we are doing to the ocean, making changes, and seeing the successes. It is not all doom and gloom. Each year fishing regulations and management attempt to put the best practices into place. Several managed fisheries are rebuilding and learning from the past. More community-based management is implemented in developing communities, giving local fisherman good equipment, a say in how to manage their local waters, and given just pay. Marine reserves are created each year, protecting ecologically rich areas where fish populations can rebuild, and environments can thrive. So many individuals and organizations have already committed to changing the course of history, so fish will always be an option in our future. We need to rethink our perspective of fish, why we eat it, how we eat it, and how we waste it. The change starts with us.