Seafood is often hailed as a healthful source of protein. The American Dietetic Association states that many cold water fish, like albacore tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines, Atlantic herring, swordfish and lake trout, contain healthful omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are thought to “lower the risk for blocked blood vessels, heart attacks and strokes.” But what is healthful for our bodies isn’t always healthful for our earth. Problems with by-catch, overfishing, habitat damage, and aquaculture make many fisheries detrimental to the oceans and their inhabitants.
Most people probably know something about by-catch. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Earth Island Institute and the Marine Mammal Fund launched a nationwide boycott of tuna, spurred by biologist Samuel LaBudde’s video footage of dolphins dying in tuna fishing nets. Since then, dolphin deaths in tuna nets have dropped from about 80,000-100,000 deaths per year to about 2,000 deaths per year. This drastic decline in deaths is attributed to the “Dolphin Safe” labels on tuna products that allow consumers to choose to purchase tuna from fisheries that do not intentionally use dolphins when searching for tuna, do not use drift gill nets, and do not cause accidental deaths or injuries when setting their nets. But, by-catch remains a problem, catching marine animals like sea turtles or even the wrong age or species of fish, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Overfishing is a problem that can be easily overlooked. Afterall, it is difficult to think about something disappearing when you can’t see it to begin with. People see trees disappear over the years as a town is developed. But they don’t notice less and less fish or other marine life over time unless they are fisherman or scuba divers. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “overfishing means catching fish faster than they can reproduce.” Cod, sharks, and bluefin tuna have already been overfished, and more species are currently being overfished, such as Caspian Sea sturgeons, Chilean seabass, Florida Queen conch, flounder, and grouper.
Some types of fishing techniques directly damage ocean habitats. Dredging, trawling, and dragging severely damage the ocean floor where many fish and shellfish live. Gillnetting can damage the ocean floor when the nets are pulled up, as can traps during ocean swells or when removed. Fish and shellfish such as cod, halibut, and scallops depend on the ocean floor habitat for survival.
The fact that there is a problem with aquaculture seems counterintuitive. Many times when I’ve asked a waiter the origin of a particular seafood, he has responded proudly that it was farmed. But farmed seafood can actually be worse than wild-caught, depending on the fishery. Net-pen farming concentrates fish in a small area, resulting in many of the same problems seen in factory farms, like pollution of surrounding areas, disease spread, and contamination of the environment with drugs administered to prevent disease. Many shrimp farming operations destroy coastal habitat to construct the farms.
In an ideal world only sustainable fishing practices would be used. Until that time, you can make a substantial impact by choosing to eat only seafood from sustainable fisheries. And you can educate your friends and family about your choice. The Monterey Bay Aquarium makes seafood choice easier by providing a wealth of information about fisheries on their website. They maintain a list of 84 types of seafood with information about fishery rating and certification, market names, where and how the seafood was caught, and a brief summary of the related issues. You can print pocket guides from their website or get an application for viewing seafood recommendations on your iPhone. You can also go to the site to find out more about how you can help by spreading the word to friends, family, and your favorite restaurants and grocery stores.
*All information about fishery issues was obtained from the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.