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The Power of the Consumer in Sustainable Fishing

Jan Lee
Jan Lee | Wednesday May 14th, 2014 | 3 Comments

Non-Sustainable_fishing_ThomasBjorkanFor many of us, our connection with the global fishing industry is the local fish store or supermarket. For most of us, that amply stocked fish counter and frozen seafood section is our indicator of whether the ocean’s richest bounty is faring well. We may hear of the plight of one or another fleet of fishing vessels that, for some reason, has been short on its catch that season, but we are rarely burdened with the impact of that shortage. The selection of fish in the display case may change, but more often than not, the shelves appear to stay well stocked.

But take a stroll down the fishing docks of any major port, where just 30 to 40  years ago boats were brimming with their latest catch, and the impression is liable to be different. Fisheries are progressively being fished out, and at an alarming rate. As early as 2006, scientists predicted that global fisheries will collapse by 2048 unless we find ways to stop rampant overfishing.

Today, the news is even more specific: According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, located in Monterey, Calif., 85 percent of fisheries around the world are already being fished to capacity, or are in the process of decline.

Species like the blue fin tuna, once prolific and popular, are rapidly reaching extinction. The  grouper, orange roughy, some Chilean Sea Bass* and various abalones are either have been subject to overfishing as well.

What can the common consumer do? How can the average person who shops at that fish counter really have an influence on the actions and decisions of fishing vessels on the other side of the world?

The answer, says Ryan Bigelow, who serves as the outreach manager for Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program, isn’t simple. But consumers do have a direct input to changing  global fishing patterns. And they do have a direct say into whether stores and restaurants stock sustainable seafood.

Sustainable_Fishing_Snapper_JimBeccaWicks

Overfishing and the consumer

The first step, he says, is to understand what overfishing really is. Sure, it’s essentially extending past the limits of what our waters can sustain, but the problem, or symptom, may not be limited to the single type of fish you like, or the particular region the fish comes from.

“[Overfishing] is taking too much [fish] or too much of a species, or too much of one piece out of one area.” Therefore, “you have to consider that species as a larger ecosystem. It is probably predator or prey for something else. It might be both. So when you take one piece of one string out of the web and pull it, it impacts across the entire system.”

An example is the over-abundant lobster population on the East Coast, Bigelow says, which scientists believe is flourishing beyond sustainability because a local predator — cod — has been overfished.

“And that sounds like a good thing, right? More lobster. But there’s so many lobster that the price has dropped so the market has crashed. So you have these unintended consequences of pulling on one species that other species rely upon, either as food again or as a species to keep them under control as a predator.”

Fishing the smaller fish stocks

The concept of simply turning to smaller fish down the food chain that  haven’t been overfished can have mixed results as well. On one hand, Bigelow says, it makes sense to turn to smaller fish that may have been prey for that larger, now overfished species. Smaller fish often reproduce faster and in large numbers — an added benefit in terms of commercial fishing.

But as scientists are finding, says Bigelow, “We don’t really know what the impacts are to the broader ecosystem when we start pulling [fish] out in the numbers we do. When you have a very small creature that is a necessary prey item for so many other species and when you start pulling them out of the water, we really can’t say for certain how fast those impacts will be [felt].” Scientists are only beginning to understand the vast web that makes up the marine ecosystem, and how to anticipate the impact we may have commercially on other species that may be affected by our fishing habits.

Sustainable fishing and the consumer

Still, there are steps that consumers can take that have been shown to influence the markets, and thus the choices that are made on the open sea.

  • Speak up for sustainable seafood. Stores listen to consumers, especially when enough speak up, says Bigelow. When a store that wants to be seen as an environmentally responsible company realizes that sustainable purchases matter, they tend to communicate that to their distributors in the way that matters: economically. “[If] Whole Foods or Safeway turns around and says … ‘We only want to buy green-rated or yellow-rated (sustainable) fish products,’ that has a direct impact on what gets pulled out of the ocean,” says Bigelow. “You are directly impacting the fishing because you are choosing more sustainable products.”
  • Remember that shopping habits count as well. Just as in the same way that our spoken preferences can influence the market, so do our indirect buying habits. “If we all decide that we want blue fin tuna, then we’re going to drive overfishing in the market. And if we all decide we are going to pay a lot for that tuna, even more so. Really our ability to impact overfishing for positive or negative is built upon consumers’ relationships with businesses.”
  • Be the adventurous consumer. One of the greatest impacts on our marine ecosystem has been the persistent demand for specific types of fish: “Our shrimps, our salmons, our tunas,” says Bigelow.  “Expand your horizons. So you love salmon; we all do. But do you like tilapia; do you like carp; do you like other species?” Let your local fish store know you’re open to other types of sustainable fish and encourage them to investigate.
  • Keep in mind not all farmed fish are the same. There’s been a lot of controversy over farmed fish, and the confusion hasn’t helped consumers make sustainable choices. “Aquaculture is a necessary component of seafood consumption,” and it is here to stay, says Bigelow. At the same time, some systems have proven to be more effective and ecologically supportive than others. But again, customers can make a point by doing research and only buying farmed fish from sources that are marked sustainable with the green or yellow label, he advises. Never purchase seafood that has a red label.

Monterey Bay Seafood Watch maintains a website with an informative listing of seafood sources from around the world. It also offers an app that consumers can download and use to connect with its database for on-the-spot referencing of its Seafood Watch partners and other resources. Its services are geared toward making it easier for consumers to become informed and to use their “voice” to support sustainable fishing. In the end, Bigelow says, the choice rests with the consumer.

* Monterey Bay Seafood Watch advises consumers to pick their Chilean Sea Bass carefully. “Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish are commonly sold and marketed as Chilean Seabass, despite being two separate species. Recommendations differ depending on the region where the Chilean seabass originates …” Some toothfish have now earned the “green” label, thanks to Seafood Watch and the concerted effort of those who have worked to restore vitality to this species. More information can also be found at the following National Geographic article.

Salmon being picked up for slaughter, Norway: Thomas Bjorkan

Snapper in the Maldives: Jim and Becca Wicks


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  1. May 14, 2014 at 15:49 pm PDT | bambu writes:

    This is a worrisome trend. We’re pleased that the author focuses not only on the harsh realities but also the actions that we as consumers can make. The power of one. The power of many. Too often, environmental calamities feel beyond our control to correct. This is not one of those. Our actions, and our choices have a direct impact on the health of our fisheries. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a strong advocate for sustainable eco-systems, and why we, as a small family business, wanted to partner with their team. We are supportive of their efforts to heighten awareness and encourage people to make informed decisions.

    We particularly like the tip on being an ‘adventurous consumer’ – new opportunities to discover new tastes from less threatened fish. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply Or REGISTER HERE if you are new.

    • May 15, 2014 at 12:12 pm PDT | J_N_Lee writes:

      Thank you bambu for your comment. Yes – the credit goes to the interviewee, Ryan Bigelow and Monterey Seafood Watch, for the tip about being inquisitive and adventurous. Great point! I plan to take it up on my next trip to the seafood counter at Yokes!

      Reply Or REGISTER HERE if you are new.

  2. May 16, 2014 at 1:04 am PDT | COLTO Inc writes:

    I think you should revisit your article where you state Chilean seabass are rapidly reaching extinction. Currently 54% of the world’s toothfish catch has been certified as sustainable and well managed by the Marine Stewardship Council – likely to be 70% by year-end. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program also rates 63% of the world’s Chilean Seabass as either ‘Best Choice’ or a ‘Good Alternative’. A far cry from extinction…

    Reply Or REGISTER HERE if you are new.

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