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Fishing for Sustainability

by Nicole Makris

From a health perspective, fish and seafood offer benefits that are hard to find elsewhere. Unfortunately, the current consumption of seafood, specifically fish, is wrought with controversy and ecological degradation.

Conservation biologists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle recently conducted a study of seafood recipes over the last 122 years. They found that newer recipes called for large, predatory fish despite depleting populations of such fish due to overfishing. The impact of this inverse relationship is easy to understand: Because these fish are higher on the food chain, their disappearance has a greater impact on their respective ecosystems. Unfortunately, as the study points out, the very rarity of a fish is often what makes it exotic and desirable for consumption.

Take, for instance, the hidden camera sting operation taken on by producers of Academy Award winner The Cove. Filmmakers discovered that The Hump, a high-end sushi restaurant in California, was illegally selling whale meat at $85 a plate as the "chef's choice" entree. Though the bad publicity forced the restaurant to close its doors, there's no telling how many other upscale seafood restaurants engage in similar activity.

Japan, a country known for its seafood consumption, is currently in hot water with advocates for sustainable seafood. As Kristen Ridley pointed out, Japan strong-armed less developed nations into rejecting a proposed ban on bluefin tuna at the United Nations Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, even though the fishes' population has decreased by 80 percent in the last 40 years. The country also spearheaded the opposition to proposals to protect several species of shark, arguing that regulating the shark fin trade would hurt poor coastal nations.

The unfortunate trend in seafood consumption appears to support the forbidden, rare and therefore most environmentally damaging dish as the greatest luxury. But, aside from advocating for a cultural shift in thinking, how do we establish a food system that supports sustainable seafood? A University of British Columbia study calls for better government regulation of fisheries, noting that there are no set guidelines that define a fishery as "sustainable" and that mislabeling and misleading information confuses even the best-intentioned consumers. The Environmental Defense Fund points out that fish farms currently face a number of challenges, such as polluting ocean water, endangering wild fish and sea animals, and degrading natural ecosystems. Still, EDF argues that steps can be taken to promote ocean-friendly fish farms that would prevent overfishing. But the skeptic in me wonders how similar "fish farms" would be to controlled animal feeding operations. Where will all the waste go?

For the time being, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Super Green List allows consumers to find a fish that's healthy to eat, low in environmental contaminants, and caught or farmed in an environmentally friendly way. Even so, the future of fish is uncertain, and it's kind of a big deal. With the populations of small coastal nations exploding, sea levels rising, and overfishing already targeted as a problem, it's going to take an international effort to demand responsible seafood consumption. After all, no one "owns" the ocean: It's the tragedy of the commons.

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