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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.
Visit the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector to see its recommendations about what to eat, what to avoid, and why. There, you can compare the omega-3 content and mercury levels of the fish and shellfish you’re most likely to buy at restaurants and supermarkets, as well as discover the eco-friendliness of the farm or fishery where your food was caught. The site rewards the fisheries making strides toward sustainability by marking them as “improving.” For an even more in-depth look at current sustainable seafood choices, visit Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Search for any fish or crustacean you’re considering, and Seafood Watch will list the “best” choices, the “good alternatives,” and the species to “avoid.” This information derives from data analyzing fisheries’ populations, fishing methods, habitat health, and more to determine sustainability. For example, purchasing orange roughy fish should be completely avoided, while some albacore tuna are safely and sustainably farmed. You can also check for your best local seafood choices here.
When it comes to human impact on marine life, many of the creatures in the most danger aren’t even those we consider food, but are still affected by our fishing practices. Take the Southern Resident killer whales in the Salish Sea. They’re some of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the U.S., with only 76 left as of June 2019, and only about 26 of those breeding.
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Apart from chemical-, noise-, and plastic-polluted waters, the alarming rate of decline of killer whales can be attributed to the scarcity of their main food source: chinook salmon. Increased human consumption and overfishing have directly contributed to the loss of a species that researchers believe may account for up to 85 percent of the killer whales’ diets. Advocates for these animals claim that one of the simplest courses of action to help restore salmon populations in the area would be breaching the four out-of-date lower Snake River dams, which keep salmon from important spawning habitats, sometimes killing the fish as they migrate. Advocates cite similar removal projects, such as those along the White Salmon, Sandy, and Elwha Rivers, as proof that this action works. However, we may not know until 2021 whether action will be taken. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released recovery plans for the salmon in the Snake River, but an environmental impact statement has yet to conclude whether breaching the dams would be beneficial.
Luckily, there are salmon advocates to match the killer whale advocates. Save Our wild Salmon is a coalition interested in restoring salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia-Snake River Basin. You can support their work and learn about their goals here. Another organization, Salmon-Safe, has created an accreditation program to label foods and drinks that are farmed in such a way as to protect water quality, maintain watershed health, and restore habitat along the West Coast. According to its website, more than 95,000 acres of farm and urban land have been certified through this peer-reviewed program, which is partnered with big names in eco-consciousness, including Oregon Tilth and Demeter USA. While the associated farms — and therefore their products — remain primarily in the Northwest U.S., local shoppers can seek the Salmon-Safe label on wine, beer, eggs, chicken, and produce.
Right Whales at Risk
Other species are threatened by climate change because their food sources seek cooler water when the temperatures of their old habitats rise. For North Atlantic right whales, whose preferred habitat already fell dangerously close to shipping lanes and major ports on the Atlantic seaboard, the movement of their prey now puts them in the path of boats and ships as they hunt. With only about 400 remaining, they’re one of the world’s most endangered large whale species. NOAA reports that more than 85 percent of right whales have entanglement scars.
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Canada is leading the charge when it comes to protecting these whales. The country banned lobster and crab fishing in the areas heavily populated by right whales in 2018, and remains ready to set temporary bans in a wider range if any whale is spotted. The closing fisheries mean fewer fixed fishing lines that would entangle the whales. Several Canadian research groups are also working on “ropeless gear” to eliminate the threat of entanglement almost entirely.
While there’s no single food certification we can seek to help counteract the danger right whales are facing, a good place to start is with crab and lobster meat certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). In March 2018, the MSC suspended the certificate of the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab trap fishery, as a 2017 incident report concerning right whale mortalities showed the fishery to be in violation of an MSC standard regarding ETP species. While some worry that the MSC has recently become less discerning with its certification, this international nonprofit works to conserve marine environments by rewarding sustainable fishing practices and positively influencing the seafood market, and its suspension of the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence fishery can only mean good things. Look for its blue label, or visit its website before you buy.
Tuna Fishing Fiascos
Another mammal we wouldn’t call “seafood” is considered by NOAA to be the largest cetacean bycatch in the world: dolphins. For decades, the most common global tuna fishing practice included herding schools of dolphins into a tight group, then setting a purse seine net around the school, capturing the visible dolphins in order to capture the schools of yellowfin tuna known to swim beneath them. When all goes well with this method, the dolphins are released unharmed. When something goes wrong, however, dolphins die.
Between 1959 and 1976, an estimated 6 million dolphins were killed in association with eastern tropical Pacific Ocean tuna fisheries. Public outcry led to the 1990 Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act and the 1997 International Dolphin Conservation Program. Together, they established conditions for the protection of dolphins when fishers use purse seine nets, changed labeling standards to make “dolphin safe” mean no dolphins are killed or seriously injured while tuna are caught, and placed observers on tuna vessels to verify that these standards are met. By 1999, the number of dolphins killed as bycatch dropped to 3,000 per year, and today the number is about 1,000.
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However, even “dolphin safe” foods aren’t without alternative marine victims. The most popular alternatives to herding dolphins in order to catch tuna are fish aggregating devices (FADs). These large objects — anything from fallen trees to man-made buoys — are released out to sea to attract fish (which are naturally drawn to floating things). Barnacles and mussels grow on the FAD; fish view it as a source of shelter and food; and soon, a whole ecosystem forms in the area. Fishers either equip FADs with beacons or anchor them to the sea floor, and by the time they scoop up their haul in purse seine nets, they’re not only catching tuna, but sharks, sea turtles, marine mammals, and everything in between. These creatures become the very bycatch we’re saving dolphins from becoming, and bycatch like this only contributes to the overfishing crisis. For example, 10 percent of all fish caught by fishing vessels are discarded back into the ocean, most already dead or dying.
While “dolphin safe” is a good start to labeling sustainable tuna, Greenpeace, a global environmental activist organization, reminds us that “dolphin safe doesn’t mean ocean safe.” Greenpeace released a Tuna Shopping Guide that ranks canned tuna brands not only by dolphin-safe practices, but exactly how responsibly caught the products are. Most major U.S. tuna brands rank at the bottom of Greenpeace’s list. This guide is available online, and even includes a “Decode the Can” link to help you dissect common terms on tuna labels and further understand what you purchase. These terms include “FAD-free,” which Greenpeace urges consumers to seek out.
Why Consumerism Counts
Counteracting climate change and plastic pollution are only the first steps in making our seafood market more sustainable. With NOAA monitoring coastal pollution, and offering seafood safety tips through FishWatch, and with the Environmental Protection Agency offering suggestions for choosing the best seafood, the U.S. government has begun to delve into what will best protect our health. But there’s more we can do.
Of course, we want to save ETP species, but even if we do our best to protect whales, dolphins, and sharks, we still must reckon with the fact that more commonplace marine animals are being killed because of the ways we interact with our oceans. Our consumer mindset expects a wide variety of seafood to be available at all times, and this has led to overfishing practices that have grossly depleted once-diverse ocean life. However, our dollars can still make a difference. Consider which fishing practices to support, and only purchase from those companies that meet your sustainability expectations. Stay informed about which fish are threatened, and replace their presence in your diet with creative options. “Dolphin safe” labels were born out of public demand for less harmful practices, and with similarly loud voices to speak against today’s issues, we can enact change again.
Haley Casey is an editor for Mother Earth Living. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found gathering new ideas for green living.