Seeking Sustainable Seafood

Learn more about harmful industry practices, threatened ocean species, and trusted market labels so you don’t have to flounder next time you shop for seafood.

| January/February 2020

Photo by Getty Images/aymeric bein

When we think of ocean activism, most of us probably first consider the problem of pollution. After all, it’s estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, which either floats on the surface, sinks out of sight, or breaks into the countless nanoplastics later ingested by aquatic species. Mercury pours into our water during coal combustion, contaminating our seafood. Pesticides, herbicides, detergents, and sewage run into inhabited waters. Light pollution wreaks havoc on shallow reef ecosystems. Noise pollution interrupts communication, hunting, and reproductive patterns for many marine animals.

These harmful human practices destroy marine habitats and put countless endangered, threatened, and protected (ETP) species at further risk. But pollutants are only the beginning. Though sustainability issues in our oceans have worsened, our demand for seafood products has remained constant. Companies and fisheries are depleting fish populations as they try to keep up with the demand, endangering aquatic species at every turn. We know fish is a key protein in a healthy diet, and we have guides, such as those from the United States Food and Drug Administration, to tell us which fish to avoid for the sake of our health. But we also need to learn which seafood to avoid for the sake of our oceans, and the health and longevity of the diverse life they contain.

Overfished and Underpopulated Oceans

In the mid-1900s, policies and subsidies around the world contributed to a rapid rise in industrial fishing operations to match public demands for seafood. But ever more aggressive tactics, sophisticated techniques, and improved technologies have changed commercial fishing from a booming enterprise into one of the ocean’s greatest threats. Overfishing happens when a fish species is removed from their body of water at a rate too rapid for the breeding population to replenish. Because these fish populations can’t recover quickly enough, fisheries’ catching yields have also declined; in 1989, experts predicted a total yield of 307 million tons, but only about 87 million tons of marine life was taken from the ocean. A 2003 report estimated that the population of large predatory fish in the ocean was down to just 10 percent of its previous numbers. Today, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one-third of the world’s assessed fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits.

Photo by Getty Images/Paolo Cipriani

However, there’s proof that with the correct fishery management, stronger enforcement of the laws in place to govern catches, and sustainable aquaculture, many populations could still be restored. As consumers, we can and should do our best to avoid buying or eating those species that suffer most from overfishing due to public demand, and instead turn to those whose populations are sustainable and secure, such as local catfish, Alaskan salmon, and farmed shellfish.

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