After hearing so much about the environmental damage caused by livestock, sustainable food fans can be forgiven for thinking that seafood is the way to go. After all, we don’t cut down rainforests to raise wild salmon, and sea bass don’t eat grain that might otherwise go to the needy. Because the ocean is naturally filled with trawler after trawler of fresh fish, seafood would seem to go hand in hand with environmental stewardship.
But the truth of the matter is that we’re exploiting our oceans just as much as any other piece of the ecosystem, and overfishing is driving most of that damage. Species are being pushed to the brink all along our coasts, as key fisheries suffer from exhausted fish stocks. Even those that have escaped the brunt of the damage are living on borrowed time – a 2010 UN study estimates that all fisheries could completely run out of fish by the year 2050.
The Dramatic Impact of Overfishing
Unfortunately, sustainable lifestyle enthusiasts won’t need to wait until 2050 to see the impact of overfishing on our oceans. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, “85 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed.” Examples range from the decade-long collapse of the anchovy industry off the coast of Peru starting in the 1970s to the extinction of blue walleye in the Great Lakes in the 1980s.
The decline of Atlantic cod off the coast of Newfoundland is one of the more shocking examples of a species collapse caused by overfishing. These fish were an important traditional resource for native peoples living near the eastern coast of Canada, and cod were among the first of these resources to be exploited by early European settlers. Schools of the fish were so thick in 1600 that ships had trouble rowing through the shoals. Industry built up around Atlantic cod, and coastal towns in Newfoundland were dependent on fishing for their livelihood.
By the 1980s, Canadian fishermen were catching more cod than ever before with the help of powerful factory trawlers. But the stock of fish leveled off, then began to decline. In 1992, the Canadian government put a stop to Atlantic cod fishing off the coast of Newfoundland in the hopes of giving the fish time to recover. They’re still waiting, as stocks have only bounced back to 10% of their historical high.
The Impact of Overfishing on 5 Popular Fish
Not all fish species have been hit as hard as the North American Atlantic cod. Other populations, such as the ones off the coast of Europe and Russia, have not declined as sharply as those in Canadian waters, and that’s because a fishery’s location has a lot to say about whether we’re harvesting sustainable food or causing environmental devastation. Sometimes it comes down to the specific island chain where the fish are caught.
However, there are some rules of thumb about species to avoid if you’re concerned about the impact of overfishing. Here are five of the most notoriously eco-unfriendly seafood items. If environmental stewardship is your bag, search for alternatives to these fish whenever possible.
1. Tuna. The Atlantic bluefin tuna can be found off the coasts of North America, Europe and Africa. They were prized in the Mediterranean for millennia but were initially unwanted by ocean fishermen because their great size damaged fishing equipment. Today, one of those extra-large fish might bring hundreds of thousands of dollars at market. Long-lived and slow to grow, the Atlantic bluefin is especially susceptible to overfishing.
2. Orange Roughy. Another slow-growing fish, the orange roughy can live to be over 100 years old. A long lifespan means the roughy doesn’t produce offspring until later in life, and that means any imbalance in the population can have lasting consequences. The orange roughy is a deep-sea fish, so special nets are required to pull them from the bottom of the ocean. This causes habitat destruction on top of the overfishing.
3. Eel. Take note, sushi and sashimi fans: you might not remember eating eel, but it’s labeled as unagi in Japanese restaurants. Eels are another fish that matures slowly, and they sometimes don’t breed until after they’re 20 years old. This makes it more difficult for populations to recover from losses to the fishing industry, and in fact the past several decades have been marked by a steady decline in the number of eels caught. Eels have been successfully farmed, but the practice is dependent upon wild-caught immature eels. That just puts further pressure on natural populations.
4. Atlantic Salmon. Wild populations of Atlantic salmon are considered endangered because of the impact of overfishing, and that means that the stuff you see in the market or in your favorite seafood restaurant was almost definitely farmed. But unlike eels, salmon are capable of producing offspring in captivity.
So farmed Atlantic salmon should be a relatively sustainable food, right? Uh, not so much. The farmed salmon need to eat, and they’re fed ground-up fish for the most part. This puts further pressure on the natural populations of other species. Sustainable lifestyle advocates should also be aware that fish farming often requires pesticides and antibiotics to keep fish healthy, and that’s never good for the environment.
5. Blue Marlin. There are few things in all of sport fishing more stirring than the sight of a marlin gathering speed and launching itself out of the sea. Unfortunately for Hemingway fans, blue marlin have suffered a significant decline in population. They often end up as bycatch when vessels head out to search for tuna or swordfish, and when the marlin themselves are targeted by commercial fishermen, other types of animals – including birds, sea turtles and sharks – are often caught inadvertently. Recovery efforts are underway, but studies from 2011 indicate that the blue marlin is still suffering from overfishing.
It’s Not Too Late to Address the Negative Impact of Overfishing
Although things seem very dire for some of the most highly prized seafoods, conservation efforts have already made a difference for many fish. One such species on the rebound is the Patagonian toothfish. You might not recognize that name, but in the 1970s the toothfish was remarketed as Chilean sea bass. The new name proved to be much more palatable, and demand skyrocketed. When attempts were made to stabilize Chilean sea bass populations through catch regulation, pirate fishing caught on and decimated sea bass stocks. And, yes, pirate fishing is a real thing, and it’s bad news.
The fishing industry responded with real conviction, though. They forced the illegal fishing ships off of the water. American importers were required by law to check for documentation of legal fishing practices. And while reducing the impact of overfishing on sea bass was the primary goal, the industry went even further than that. Early fishing methods killed endangered sea birds, but thanks to the current restrictions, today fewer than 10 albatross drown per year as a result of sea bass harvesting.
There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, both for recovering sea bass and albatross populations, but recent results have led the Monterey Bay Aquarium to move certain methods of sea bass harvesting off of their Seafood Watch “Avoid” list.
So all is not lost. If you’re a seafood fan, there’s still time to reduce the impact of overfishing, and it all starts with the choices you make. Organizations like Greenpeace and the Blue Ocean Institute publish buying guides to make sure that you know which fish to avoid. Seafood Watch has even developed an app for iPhone and Android that will allow you to check their recommendations when you’re in the market or at a restaurant.
The combined voices of sustainable lifestyle enthusiasts have already produced real change in fresh fish markets around the world, but we all need to keep applying pressure if we want to see true environmental stewardship in our oceans. Do you have any tips for sustainable food lovers who are searching for the right seafood? Please share in the comments section!