Both a delicacy and a fast food staple, fish is a food enjoyed across the world. People are frequently buying and eating halibut fish tacos, to Bluefin tuna sushi, to meals prepared at home of any variety of fish. But where does this fish come from? Most people have a vague image of fishing boats or maybe even fisheries. However, the media isn’t as saturated with images of fish preparation as it is with images of industries such as chicken factory farming or cattle slaughtering. That does not mean that the fish industry is free of complications that are relevant to consumers. On the contrary, the fish industry poses many sustainability issues that consumers should be aware of in order to make responsible choices when consuming fish.
A little less than the majority of seafood sold for food purposes is labeled as “wild”, meaning caught in the ocean. The biggest problem with wild caught fish is overfishing. Overfishing occurs when more fish are taken out of the sea faster than they can reproduce. This practice results in dwindling fish populations. For example, the Bluefin tuna population has recently been estimated at 21 to 29 percent of the tuna population in 1970. In the case of Bluefin tuna, and many other wild caught fish, overfishing occurs from fishing practices such as purse seining and longlining. Purse seining is the practice of pulling a large net to gather schooling fish, and then pulling the net’s drawstring to envelop them. Longlining refers to pulling a fishing line tens of miles long barbed with baited hooks to ensnare fish. Both of these methods can take out hundreds or thousands of fish from the ocean at a time. Thyey also result in frequent catching of other wildlife besides the target fish, called bycatch, such as sea turtles. While some regulations are in place across the world to limit overfishing, the loopholes are immense. Regulations in the U.S. are often lax and unenforced. Additionally, around eighty-four percent of fish consumed in the U.S. is imported, and new studies say that one in three imported fish could have been caught illegally. Thus, the overfishing problem continues.
Fisheries also face their fair share of sustainability issues. One issue is the feeding of farm-raised fish; many species are fed a mush made of seafood that is caught wild in the ocean, contributing again to overfishing and also increasing the fisheries’ carbon footprint. The booming fish industry has also lead to sprawl of farms, largely overseas. For example, shrimp farming is thought to be responsible for half of all mangrove loss. Shrimp, like most farmed seafood, is kept in aquaculture ponds. The mangroves are demolished to make room for the ponds. The ponds are then pumped with pesticides are other contaminants until they are forced to be abandoned after a few years. Practices such as this are destructive to their environment and wholly unsustainable.
However, this information is not indicating that all fish consumption supports unsustainable practices. Some fish are caught or raised with less environmental impact. Modifications to fishing gear can reduce bycatch and make the release of bycatch safer and easier. Catch limits on certain species can also reduce overfishing, as well as stronger regulation to avoid the selling of illegally caught fish. Fisheries can set up in abandoned urban areas rather than in decimated natural areas. They can also monitor water quality more carefully and reduce the amount of chemicals introduced to the ponds. In order to make smart choices about where you get your fish, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (along with other wildlife services) produces a list of current recommended seafood. The seafood on the list is most likely to have come from a sustainable source. As of right now, here are the best seafood choices in Colorado:
Arctic Char (farmed)
Barramundi (US & Vietnam farmed)
Bass: Striped (US hook and line, farmed)
Clams, Mussels & Oysters
Cod: Pacific (AK)
Perch: Yellow (farmed)
Rockfish (CA, OR & WA)
Salmon (AK & New Zealand)
Sardines: Pacific (Canada & US)
Shrimp (AK wild, US farmed)
Smelt: Rainbow (Lakes Erie, Huron, Superior, except bottom gillnet)
Tilapia (Ecuador & US)
Trout: Lake (Lake Superior, MI)
Trout: Rainbow (US farmed)
Tuna: Albacore (Pacific troll, pole and line)
Tuna: Skipjack (Pacific troll, pole and line)
Whitefish: Lake (Lake Michigan, WI)
Check the Seafood Watch app or seafoodwatch.org to get up to date information on what fish is sustainable at a given time and location. Happy (and sustainable) eating!
Written by Lindsey Brand, ESLLC 2015-2016
“Consumers.” Consumer Resources to Support Sustainable Seafood from the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey Bay Aquarium, n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
“Fisheries Improvement.” Fisheries Improvement. Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Nania, Rachel. “What You Need to Know about Farm-raised vs. Wild-caught Fish.” WTOP. Washington’s Top News, 01 June 2015. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Playtex Sport. OXYGEN. 2 Sept. 2013. Television.
“Sustainable Fishing.” National Geographic Education. National Geographic, 29 May 2012. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.