Doctors recommend fish over beef, mutton and pork for healthy human protein consumption. Yet, with global warming and ocean acidification, can the oceans sustain more harvesting of fish? Seafood plays an important role in a balanced diet. High in Omega-3s, which boost immunity and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other ailments, seafood is especially important for pregnant and nursing women and young children.

Many of the fish species we depend on for food, however, are in critical condition. Fish sources are being depleted by bigger and more technologically advanced fishing vessels and fleets. And their disappearance has meant smaller fish are now being targeted, which is bad news as well, because the smaller fish are feed for the larger fish – causing even more decline.

Sylvia A Earle, PHD, former Chief Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, “90% of the big fish in the world’s oceans are gone – all within my lifetime.

Seafood consumers want to do the right thing. The results from a 2012 poll showed that 80 percent of Americans who regularly eat fish say it is “important” or “very important” that the seafood they buy is caught using sustainable methods. (“Sustainable” was defined as still being plentiful for future generations, and caught using methods that did minimal harm to other animals in the sea.)”

But sustainable catch methods are not yet the norm among fishermen.

…sustainable catch methods are not yet the norm among fishermen…

Perhaps a visible wake-up call occurred this April in California. More than 900 malnourished sea lion pups were rescued since January, compared with 100 in the same period last year.

Long line fishing boats use up to 60 miles of hooked lines, taking thousands of lives of non-targeted fish and sea life, called “by-catch”. These dying or dead creatures are discarded. Another fishing method, bottom trawling, dredges the sea floor, often degrading the seafloor habitat.

Fish farms and aquaculture have been posited as a solution to the reduction in wild seafood, but for some of the more popular species such as salmon, shrimp and blue fin tuna, these tightly packed farms have many environmental impacts and can cause harm to wild stocks. The farmed fish feed on tons of smaller fish, which are often taken from the wild stocks. Farmed salmon are contained in open net pens so close together that they get sick, leading to the use of antibiotics and other chemicals. Furthermore, the contaminated waste from these fish is released through their open net pens polluting surrounding waters and sea life. Salmon farms are most often located right where rivers meet the sea. Sea lice, only mildly harmful to full grown fish in pens, attach themselves to the small wild smolts coming out of the rivers after they hatch. These small wild fish will then die with only one or two lice on them. Even more alarming, there are now reputable scientists reporting that a fatal virus, called infectious salmon anemia, ISA, is killing not only the farmed salmon, but also the wild salmon on the BC coast, as they swim by on their migration routes.

Some companies are moving to more sustainable practices, such as contained ponds, allowing more room in the tanks between fish, and using vaccines rather than antibiotics. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), now an international non-profit organization, certifies fisheries that they label ‘sustainable.’

Like organic food labeling programs, the MSC does not certify the fisheries itself. Instead, a fishery that wants the label hires a commercial auditing company to decide whether its practices comply with the MSC’s definition of “sustainable.” According to MSC, their standard for sustainability includes dozens of items, designed to assess whether the population of a fishery’s target species is healthy; if the fishing practices don’t cause serious harm to other life in the sea — including accidentally catching other animals – bycatch; and if the fishery has good management. If the commercial auditors give the fishery a passing score, then the fishery gets the right to use the blue “Certified Sustainable Seafood” label.

This long and often expensive marketing process can cost up to $150,000 or more.

There has been an explosion in sales of MSC-labeled products at chain stores such as Target, Whole Foods, and now Wal-Mart. This has also led to a change in the source of MSC’s funding. Originally, 75 percent of their funding came from foundations. Today over half their funding comes from licencing fees.

A recent series of articles by National Public Radio reviewed some of the MSC’s certification practices. They found that particularly the swordfish industry has been mislabeled. Canada’s long-line swordfish boats accidentally catch tens of thousands of sharks every year. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has warned that the main kinds of sharks that swordfishermen accidentally catch are “threatened” or “endangered” or “of special concern.”

Tropical areas are also seeing adverse effects of fish farms on local people and the wetlands and forests that sustain them. Private shrimp farms have had a devastating effect on public fishing areas, public recreational areas now off limits, and pollution of ground water. As a result, these farms are also reducing the wild seafood available for commercial wild fisheries and native food stocks.

Your Choices Matter

Fortunately, consumers can make choices to help reduce or mitigate the impact of our own consumption of fish and seafood.

The Monteray Bay Aquarium and the Wild Fish Conservancy are two of many international organizations that monitor where and how fish and sea food are caught. SeafoodWatch is a Guide and App that provides lists of seafood, which are categorized as the Best Choices, Good Alternates, and those to Avoid.

SeafoodWatch applies the following ratings:

Best Choices: Seafood in this category is abundant, well-managed and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.

Good Alternatives: These items are an option, but there are concerns with how they’re caught or farmed-or with the health of their habitat due to other human impacts.

Avoid: Take a pass on these items for now. They are caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.

The Super Green List provides a list of wild and farmed seafood that’s healthy for people and the oceans.

For example, let’s look at shrimp. They list Black Tiger Shrimp, Tiger Prawn, White Shrimp, Pacific White Shrimp, West Coast White Shrimp, and Ebi Mexico Farmed in Open Systems as those to AVOID.

They list the best choices for freshwater prawns as Giant River Prawn and Malaysian Prawn U.S. Farmed. For pink shrimp the best choice is Bay Shrimp, Cocktail Shrimp, Ocean Shrimp, Salad Shrimp, Ebi Oregon Wild-caught.

Shrimp is the world’s most valuable seafood and one of the top seafood choices of U.S. consumers. Seafood Watch explains that Shrimp trawling accidentally catches and kills more than 1.8 million tons of marine life each year, including turtles, sharks and other animals, accounting for more than 25% of the world’s wasted catch. U.S. shrimp trawlers must adhere to stricter environmental standards than those in other countries and this makes U.S. wild-caught shrimp a “Good Alternative” and imported shrimp is listed as “Avoid.”

If you’re interested in Rockfish, they say that Black rockfish from California, Washington and Oregon is the “Best Choice.” They also point out that rockfish is often mislabeled as red snapper or Pacific snapper. There are no snapper on the U.S. West Coast. In summary, they explain that Black rockfish populations off the coast of California, Washington and Oregon are healthy and abundant. Unlike other species of rockfish, black rockfish grow and reproduce fairly quickly – traits that help them withstand fishing pressure. Black rockfish are the most common species caught in coastal waters. They are mostly caught by hook-and-line or bottom longline, methods that do little habitat damage.

Seafood Watch suggests we avoid Rock Cod, Pacific Snapper, Red Snapper, Pacific Ocean Perch and Pacific Trawl.

As for salmon, The Environmental Defense Fund gives farmed Atlantic Salmon its “Worst” rating, with high contaminants. They state:

  • Most salmon sold in U.S. supermarkets and restaurants are farmed and labeled Atlantic salmon. Most are imported from Chile and Canada. (Wild Atlantic salmon is endangered in the U.S and cannot be caught commercially.)
  • Salmon farming is associated with numerous environmental concerns, including water pollution, chemical use, parasites and disease.
  • Wild salmon from Alaska come from a well-managed fishery and are low in contaminants. There are five species of wild salmon from Alaska: chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye. All come from well-managed fisheries and are low in contaminants.
  • Arctic char, a member of the salmon family, comes primarily from eco-friendly farms.

Other Best Seafood choices include:

  • Albacore Tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia)
  • Freshwater Coho Salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.)
  • Oysters (farmed)
  • Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
  • Rainbow Trout (farmed)
  • Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)
  • Arctic Char (farmed)
  • Barramundi (farmed, from the U.S.)
  • Dungeness Crab (wild-caught, from California, Oregon or Washington)
  • Longfin Squuid (wild-caught, from the U.S. Atlantic)
  • Mussels (Farmed)

Contaminants in Seafood

Seafood contaminants include metals (such as mercury, which affects brain function and development), industrial chemicals (PCBs and dioxins) and pesticides (DDT). These toxins usually originate on land and make their way into the smallest plants and animals at the base of the ocean food web. As smaller species are eaten by larger ones, contaminants are concentrated and accumulated. Large predatory fish—like swordfish and shark—end up with the most toxins.

You can minimize your impacts on the oceans and the wild fish and seafood that live there by learning about fishing practices and choosing fish and shellfish that are still in abundance and are caught with methods that don’t destroy the homes and habitats of wild fish and shellfish.

Can the Oceans Keep Up with the Hunt, (video)

An NPR-Truven Health Analytics Health Poll of 3,004 adults was conducted during the first half of August 2012. “Roughly one in four respondents (24 percent) said they rarely or never eat seafood. But another 30 percent said they eat seafood at least four times a month.

Responses (4)