It’s Time to Get Serious about Overfishing

fishing boat

We need to save our oceans, and quickly. The most recent and widely cited report on fisheries predicts a complete global fisheries collapse by 2048 and asserts that ninety percent of large fish such as tuna and swordfish are already gone.

Other than the people using seafood wallet cards and reading eco-blogs, does anyone care?

In a 2008 report on the US Marketplace by Seafood Choices Alliance, chain restaurant operators report that only 22% of their customers are concerned about the environmental condition of the oceans. According to retailers, 25% of their customers are concerned. They better start caring because all-you-can-eat shrimp platters might not be the only casualty of the coming catastrophe. All life on earth depends on the health of the oceans. Even ours.

Not surprisingly, if consumers don’t care, few retailers and restaurants will take action because, after all, their job is to give consumers what they want or to go out of business. If retailers and restaurants won’t take action, neither will the wholesalers. Only 37% of retailers decided not to sell a certain seafood because of environmental considerations, according to a 2007 survey.

The terribly sad thing about this nearly imminent collapse is that it’s preventable. Though pollution, ocean acidification, and global warming all play a part, overfishing is by far the largest problem. And the most fixable. According to the book Bottomfeeder, we are vacuuming the bottom of our oceans clean.

We need a multi-pronged plan:

1. Consumers (and that means everyone) need to step up and push retailers and wholesalers to do the right thing. The power of the purse truly is a force to be reckoned with, but it has to be collective to work.

2. Governments need to cooperate on regulations and enforce fishery quotas.

3. New policies need to be put in place to protect fisheries.

Point 1: How do we get consumers to care? I truly believe that people would care if they only knew how bad it was. It’s not in the seafood seller’s business plan to let their customers know. That’s why I believe in-your-face tactics like some of Greenpeace’s recent campaigns can be really effective. Their ability to raise consumer awareness can push retailers to do the right thing.

Greenpeace’s recent brilliant attack on Trader Joe’s is a case in point. They used the attack, Twitter and humans dressed as giant orange roughy outside the stores to protest Trader Joe’s sales of endangered fish. The campaign was barely out of the gate before Trader Joe’s announced it would follow Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations for purchasing seafood.

Then there was the protest against the high-end Manhattan Restaurant, Nobu. It got a lot of attention, including in the New York Times.

Lamely, Nobu chose to leave the fish on the menu but to tell customers that it’s endangered and they should choose something else.

Less well-publicized, Greenpeace also puts out a seafood scorecard that allows consumers to assess how well their favorite supermarkets do in terms of sourcing sustainable seafood.

Another novel idea is that of consumer supported fisheries. Or Seafood CSAs: These seem promising from the point of view of supporting the smaller scale fisherfolk and keeping them in business. Such schemes, though great, are likely to be adopted by so few people that they won’t make a huge difference in the future of our oceans on their own.

In addition to consumer-focused efforts and campaigns, other ideas are being floated to help save our oceans. In order to do away with what is called the tragedy of the commons, some fisheries experts and governments (including ours) are proposing a privatization plan that provides individual transferable quotas that fisherfolk bid for. The logic is that everyone will have a vested interest in conservation. The plan does seem to have worked in some places. But I suspect, as usual, the devil is in the details. Critics say that such a plan will force smaller fisherfolk out of the game in favor of the large fleets that cause most of the destruction in the first place.

Up until now, governments have been lousy at cooperating to save our fisheries and oceans. The problem with global trade is that everyone has to commit to supporting bans on certain types of equipment or fishing moratoriums on certain species. That is slowly changing. The Pew Environmental Group recently formed a coalition dedicated to reforming the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.

And even more recently, France’s President Sarkosy announced his support for a ban on the sale of bluefin tuna. The British fisheries minister joined the ban, and more are likely to follow.

It’s clear from all of this, that everyone needs to do his or her part. How can you do yours? Here are six easy recommendations:

1. Educate yourself about what is sustainable and what isn’t. Try reading a book on the subject. The wallet cards such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch cards are great, but a subject as complex as this deserves further study.

2. Know the big three. The three most popular types of seafood in America are also the most environmentally problematic – salmon, shrimp and tuna. Stay away from farmed salmon and eat wild salmon as a special occasion food. Find out where your shrimp was farmed or caught. If it’s really cheap, you probably shouldn’t eat it. Most species of tuna are endangered and high in mercury, too. Enjoy the small species (such as skipjack) if they are hook and line (not long line) caught, and only once in a while.

3. Give that supermarket sushi a pass. It’s full of cheap tuna, salmon, and shrimp. See above.

4. Develop a love for sardines, both canned and fresh. They are great for you (full of Omega-3s), are low on the food chain and are abundant.

5. This is the hardest one. You have to spread the word. Remember, people don’t know this information, so you have to tell them. It’s hard to talk to people about their food choices without being seen as an annoying, judgmental killjoy, but find a nice way to tell your friends and family members that they might want to lay off the canned albacore or treat it as a special occasion food.

6. Be Hopeful.

Further Learning:

End of the Line
A Good Catch
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
Fish Forever
Seafood Lovers Almanac

Image: Jonathan Assink

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.