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As a responsible consumer, you can support sustainable fisheries by asking at your local market, where the seafood items come from.
Photo: Ann McMann

April 2, 2002
Selecting Seafood Wisely
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

More than 1 billion people now rely on fish as their main source of animal protein, making it the fifth largest agricultural commodity in the world. Once one of the cheapest animal meats, fish is now the most expensive, a direct reflection of its increasing scarcity.

The landings from the world's wild capture fisheries have continued to decline since reaching a peak of 112 million metric tonnes (mmt) in 1995. Current Optimistic estimates are that future landings will be in the vicinity of 100 mmt per year. The steady growth of wild capture landings between 1955 and 1995 largely reflects the massive increase in consumer demand. However, it is safe to assume that demand is likely to grow, until the anticipated shortfall in global supplies of seafood reaches approximately 20 mmt by the year 2010.

Throughout the world, a million boats fish the seas, far more than is required to capture the available fish. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that over $90 billion (U.S.) is spent each year to catch $70 billion worth of fish. The FAO also reports that more than two thirds of the world's fish stocks are over exploited and in dangerous decline, or are fished to capacity and unable to withstand any increase in fishing pressure. This state of affairs only increases the pressure on the fisheries biologists whose job it is to estimate the number of fish in a stock that should be safe to catch, a stock they cannot see, but still, must estimate as to size and number so as to fix a quota on next years catch that will not result in diminishing that stock.

As Peter Larkin stated in his epitaph for the concept of maximum sustainable yield -

    "While it is true that the data on world fisheries are better now than they have ever been, it is also true that they are still incomplete and riddled with inadvertent errors, omissions, guesses, and in some cases, even perjuries.

The question is - Is there a way out that may allow us to find a sustainable balance within the productive generosity of nature?

We must behave as though the answer to this question is yes for if it is not, humanity is in danger. In any case, it is clear enough that unless all of us plays a role in maintaining sustainable fisheries there is no cause for hope. One of the most effective ways we can have an impact is by supporting fisheries whose methods do not negatively impact the oceans and its inhabitants. This includes:

  1. Supporting fisheries that have little wasted catch of animals other than the target species (a small, so-called, "by-catch"),
  2. ensuring that we do not purchase species whose wild populations are threatened by overfishing, and
  3. that we avoid species being farmed in ways destructive to either the environment or other fish species (e.g. species harvested as food for other species that are being raised in aquaculture facilities).

So how can you find out which fisheries are safe so you only support those being fished sustainably, with a low bycatch or that are being farmed responsibly? Currently, several organizations publish information designed specifically to give the general public a guide to purchasing particular fish species. The best of these guides are supported by the latest scientific data on the status of particular fisheries in different oceans.

Swordfish being loaded into a freezer truck in Fremantle, Western Australia.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch chart, the swordfishery around the world varies. The status is as follows - the Pacific is "not overfished" but there is concern about by-catch, the Indian Ocean is "unknown" while the Atlantic is "overfished".
Photo: Ann McMann

One of the best, most easily accessible guides is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Ocean Conservation - Seafood Watch Chart. It comes in a small wallet-sized version that tells the consumer what species have wild populations that are abundant enough to sustain fishing; those that have low levels of wasted catch or 'bycatch' and those that are fished or farmed in ways that do minimum harm to the environment.

For example, by simply looking up a species such as the Patagonian Toothfish (also called the Chilean Sea Bass), a consumer will learn that this species is often harvested illegally and that heavy, unregulated fishing is rapidly wiping out this slow-growing deep-ocean species. Yellowfin tuna, on the other hand, are not currently being overfished in the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian oceans, where the populations currently appear to be healthy.

The Seafood Watch website describes each seafood item, where it is sourced, along with status of the fishery plus additional information. This in turn allows the consumer to look up a particular species, read about its global status and then make an informed decision about whether or not they should be supporting certain fisheries by purchasing their products. It also arms you, as a buyer with a series of questions you can (and should) ask your local market or waiter at a restaurant. I have found it interesting to see how seriously such questions are taken by some suppliers. I have had the feeling that I was witnessing the first time they had taken any serious notice of what fish they served, and that they were now likely to concern themselves more with some of the finer details of what they should and should not offer rather than to face the same embarrassment in the future. Towards that end it is useful to carry several copies of the list to give to one's supermarket manager or restaurateur.

We have much to learn, but if all of us who eat fish take the responsibility of demonstrating that we are intent on protecting the world's fish stocks, then our chances of slowing and finally stopping the destruction of such stocks will be better.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey.

Primary data sources for the status of the Fisheries:

  • U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), U.N. Food and Agricultural Organizaton (FAO),
  • Australian Bureau of Rural Sciences (BRS)
  • New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries (NZMF)
  • Canadian Division of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO),
  • International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT),
  • Inter-American Tropical Tuna Association (IATTC)


Log by Genevieve Johnson

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