Sustainable Seafood - Your Seafood Choices Can Help Protect The Ocean Environment!
Some of our favorite kinds of seafood are disappearing from the world's oceans because of overfishing, habitat destruction and the unintentional catch of other species, called bycatch. If informed choices are made about the seafood bought from the supplier, and put on restaurant menu's, we can help sure our favorites will be around for a long time. If we don't, some species might only be a memory in a cookbook.
Sustainability is a delicate balance between using and preserving our natural resources. It is imperative that decision-making about resources is based on science, considers the needs of our communities and maintains healthy and diverse ecosystems.
To understand what we can do to help our oceans, we must look at some of the problems. Traditionally, we've thought of the oceans as a limitless source of food -- in the form of fish. Generations ago, there was plenty of fish to go around. But global human population increases an estimated 78 million people each year. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that demand for seafood will grow almost 50 percent by 2010 - due entirely to population growth. In some countries seafood provides up to 70 percent of animal protein. These are also countries where populations are growing the fastest, people are the poorest, and subsistence fishing is the main way to make a living. An estimated 200 million people worldwide depend on fishing for their livelihoods. At the current rate of fishing, the oceans will be able to supply only three-quarters of the seafood the world needs in coming decades. At least 60 percent of the world's 200 most valuable fish species already are overfished.
Habitat destruction is another leading threat to fish populations. Growing human populations demand more space. Coastal areas worldwide have the fastest-growing populations. At the same time, coastal areas often are breeding and nursery grounds for the most valuable commercial fishes. Development in these areas, whether residential, agricultural, or industrial, is accompanied by pollution from sewage, siltation, chemical contamination and runoff. Even as people move to coastal areas to take advantage of the resources, they often are destroying these resources as well as overconsuming them. Without habitats for breeding, feeding and development of the young, fish will disappear.
At the same time that there are less fish to catch, increasingly efficient fishing practices make it easier to catch more. To meet the ever-growing demand for seafood, current fishing practices include methods that also catch a very high number of unwanted animals - known as bycatch -- that are thrown back into the ocean dead or dying. For example, for every pound of shrimp caught, four to 10 pounds of bycatch are also hauled up in the trawling nets. Bycatch includes other fishes, turtles, marine mammals, crabs - even birds.
Raising fish on fish farms can take pressure off wild populations, but some aquaculture practices destroy habitat and pollute. Shrimp farming often destroys mangroves where other commercial fish might breed. Salmon farming can release wastes into rivers or the ocean. In addition, it takes fish to feed these fish, which can result in a net loss in protein production. Farmed fish also can also escape and breed with their wild counterparts, introducing less robust fish into natural populations. Good aquaculture systems are closed off from the wild, preventing pollution and escapes. Striped bass are raised in closed systems, making them a good seafood choice. Farm-raised catfish and tilapia are other good choices because they eat vegetable matter, eliminating the need to fish another species just to feed them.
There is good news!
Recovery for these fish is possible. Overfished and declining populations can recover if measures are taken to better manage the fisheries through protection of breeding habitats and by adapting fishing gear to prevent bycatch and habitat destruction.
By managing fisheries in a sustainable manner, fishing, whether subsistence or commercial, will continue to supply people's nutritional needs around the world for a long time. We can balance the needs of a healthy ocean with our own requirements. But we have to act now. There are many ways you can make a difference!
Become informed consumers. Learn about the issues and make informed choices about the seafood you buy and serve in your restaurant. You and your guests can vote for conservation and sustainable fisheries with your wallets because your choices as consumers do make a difference. If we choose not to consume overfished species now, their populations can grow to a sustainable size again. To help you make these choices, several conservation organizations - National Audubon Society's Living Oceans program, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch and others have developed wallet-sized seafood guides. These guides rank popular seafood into categories based on the status of the fish population, the fishing methods used and the management plans currently in place. Seafood in the green section are abundant and the fisheries are well managed. Enjoy these often! Seafood in the yellow section raise significant concern due to some aspect of the fishery, such as fishing gear that damages habitat or takes in a lot of bycatch. We should make an alternate choice from the green list, or at least not eat these species as often. If a fish has a lot of problems, such as severe overfishing, poor management and high rates of bycatch, it is in the red section. It's best not to eat these species at all - until things change for them.
The ocean is downstream from us all - wherever we are, and we can protect it and all the animals that live in it by making informed choices about the seafood we serve and eat. Each one of us can make a difference!
For more information on sustainable seafood:
"Right Bite" is Shedd Aquarium's seafood festival and educational campaign to help consumers discover how their seafood choices can help protect the health of our oceans.
Seafood Choices Alliance
National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program
Environmental Defense "Which Fish is Best?"
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Chart
Written By: Sonja Tiegs - conservation programs coordinator at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Her work can take her to local rivers and creeks to survey fish and mussel populations or to remote islands in the Bahamas where she assists during Shedd's annual rock iguana research expedition. Sonja also heads the aquarium's advocacy team, which helps shape institutional positions and actions on conservation and legislative issues. In that role, she has helped build Shedd's Right Bite program, which educates guests about sustainable seafood choices and guides internal policy for seafood purchases for the Aquarium's restaurants and the animal collection. Sonja attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she received a B.S. in Biology and Conservation.