Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Is Your Seafood Sustainable?

Fishing practices worldwide are damaging our oceans, depleting fish populations, destroying habitats and polluting the water. Informed consumers can help turn the tide. However, before finding a solution, we must discover the problems facing marine ecosystems. The following three issues can be solved through the same strategy, consumer choice. So what are these global challenges facing fisheries?

With an ever-growing world population to feed, fisheries worldwide are strained to their limits, in a state of decline, or, in worst case scenarios, have already collapsed. In the western Atlantic, cod were once so plentiful that fishing trawlers had a hard time just pushing through them. Today, they are almost nonexistent. When a fishery collapses, thousands of people are forced out of work and the fish species itself becomes in danger of extinction. Worldwide, fishing fleets are taking fish out of the oceans faster than they can reproduce. It is important to know which fish are most vulnerable to overfishing. Generally long-lived and slow growing species, including the Chilean Sea Bass (formerly known as the Patagonian Toothfish), living at least 40 years, and the Orange Roughy (Slimehead family), known to survive for over a century, tend to mature late and have low reproduction rates. Effectively, even relatively minor fishing pressures can have devastating impacts on such fisheries.

Habitat Destruction
Another major issue facing global fisheries is habitat destruction. Some trawling techniques employ an extremely efficient method of dragging nets along the ocean's bottom, scooping up nearly every fish in its path. While it results in large catch rates, it also has the unfortunate result of destroying any life on the ocean floor as large rollers are used to weigh the nets down. This leaves a flattened seascape, unable to recruit new life in the now-barren habitat.

This is another serious problem in global fisheries. Most prevalent in the previously-described trawling style of fishing, it is the unwanted or unintentional catch of non-target species. Worldwide, it is estimated that fisheries dispose of 25% of their catch for this reason, resulting in a nearly 100% mortality for those unfortunate enough to be caught. For example, it is estimated that for each pound of shrimp caught in a trawl net, an average of two to ten pounds of other marine life is caught and discarded overboard as bycatch. In addition, dolphins, whales, turtles, and sharks are frequently caught in trawlers’ nets and long-line operations, often severely affecting their populations.

So how can you help? Well, in the simplest and most effective way any consumer can: with their wallet. Patronize establishments which support sustainable fisheries while making an effort to educate those who have yet to understand the issues. Certain grocery stores have committed to stocking sustainably harvested fish as well. How can you tell? Look for the Marine Stewardship Council seal on produce counters or in restaurants. But what about fish which aren't under the MSC guidelines? The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has compiled and published a series of Regional Guides which you may download free of charge. These handy pocket guides show you which fish to avoid, good seafood alternatives, and best choices for both health and sustainability. Prefer a paperless alternative? A free iPhone app (opens in iTunes), complete with all regions and their respective seafood recommendations, is available, making sustainable seafood choices accessible anywhere your iPhone or iPod Touch travels.

Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Joseph Winn is the President/CEO of GreenProfit Solutions, Inc. which assists businesses in becoming environmentally responsible. You may view their website at or e-mail Joseph at [email protected] .