"Since oceans are the life support system of our planet, regulating the climate, providing most of our oxygen and feeding over a billion people, what's bad for oceans is bad for us - very bad." - Philippe Cousteau Jr.
What is sustainable seafood?
Definitions of sustainably caught seafood vary, however NOAA has created one of the most comprehensive descriptions. This description identifies sustainable seafood as seafood caught while practicing the following essential elements:
- Creating positive social and economic outcomes for fishing communities
- The prevention of overfishing
- Fishing in a manner that will rebuild depleted fishing stock
- Minimize bycatch and interactions with protected species
- Identify and conserve essential fish habitat
By utilizing these elements of sustainable fisheries management NOAA explains “through this process, fish populations are to provide for today’s needs while allowing the species to reproduce and be available for future generations.”
How do we as consumers make sure the seafood we eat is sustainable? How can we protect people, marine life and the ocean’s delicately balanced ecosystem?
When eating in a restaurant ask where your seafood came from and how it was caught. More than likely your server and/or the chef will not know (especially if you do not live on the coast). But each time we ask, we raise awareness and people begin to think about the importance of sustainable seafood and our eating habits. Another option is to download the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch consumer guide. The guide is updated on a regular basis depending on the seafood species most in danger at any particular time and season. And yes! – there is an app for that!
If you are lucky enough to live near or visiting the water’s edge you should buy local, try to find a local Community Fishing Association (CFA) which consists of family-owned boats that utilize sustainable fishing practices. If you cannot find a CFA, do your best to buy local and ask where and how the seafood was caught.
If you are purchasing seafood from a grocery store make sure it carries the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue label as a sustainably caught wild seafood product. This label also assures the consumer that what is on the label is actually the product the consumer will eat. Recent incidents of “what is advertised is not what is consumed” particularly in the case of salmon and crab, reiterates the importance of third-party certification.
Overfishing occurs when we extract or catch fish faster than they can reproduce and replenish their stock.
In 2016 the United Nations reported that one-third of the ocean’s fish are overfished and over half are fully-fished. A fully-fished stock is a fish population that is considered to be fished to the maximum. An increase in the catch of a fully-fished community is not possible and will consequently create an overfished population.
Overfishing, in the context of NOAA’s description of sustainable seafood, changes the balance of life in the ocean and has detrimental effects on fish populations and the ocean ecosystem in general. Also, overfishing has harmful impacts on the social and economic status of human fishing communities, making it difficult for fishers to make a living.
The US and other countries have made progress in implementing measures to improve the health of fish populations in the ocean. The 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) was passed to increase the conservation and management of US fisheries and create sustainable domestic fisheries in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coast. The MSA has been instrumental in two decades of improved US fisheries.
However, a new bill, House Bill H.R. 200, is an attempt to undermine the specific sections of the MSA that has proven successful these past two decades; specifically those initiatives in reducing overfished populations and job creation within the fishing industry. HR 200 will open up successfully stabilized fisheries to overfishing once again. This bill has thrown out decades of cooperative congressional bipartisanship and science-based fisheries management strategies for short-term gain.
As of August 2018, the bill narrowly passed the House and is in committee in the Senate.
Many fishers catch “unwanted” fish species and throw the dead catch back into the ocean. Shrimp fishers are the biggest offenders of bycatch waste. Seafood Watch states, in worst-case scenarios, one pound of shrimp can equal six pounds of bycatThe amount bycatch is predicated on the type of fishing line used. The most damaging fishing lines are gillnets, longlines and bottom trawls. Gillnets are vertical netted panels that catch anything that swims into the net. Longlines have baited hooks that can extend for more than 50 miles. Both gillnets and longlines are left for long periods of time so the bycatch is dead before being pulled into the boat and discarded into the ocean. Bottom trawls scrape the ocean floor damaging the seabed ecosystem and indeterminately removing everything in their path.
Ghost nets, nets that are lost at sea, are especially dangerous for larger marine life such as sea turtles and whales. Several videos have surfaced showing a myriad of ghost nets and their destruction.
Still more destructive fishing practices are cyanide and explosive fishing, which are still allowed in certain some countries.
Hook and line fishing, on the other hand, is the most environmentally friendly and interactive type of fishing. It is performed by one baited hook catching one fish at a time and the lines are left in the water for short periods of time. This allows for more selective fishing and provides the opportunity to return bycatch to the ocean before it dies on the line.
Sadly, bycatch is not limited to fish, but also includes turtles, dolphin, coral, shark, whale and seabirds. Seafood Watch states that as many as 250,000 turtles are caught each year as bycatch.