One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, All Gone
Look there beneath the waves it's a whale! No it's a shark! Maybe a salmon? Oh wait it can't be any of them because they're all dead...........Seriously, though that could really happen by 2050 if predictions of one study reported in Science comes true. Of course this won't happen because the authors are referring to the worst case, doomsday, do-everything-the-most-harmful-way-possible scenario. Basically, if everything that COULD go wrong DID go wrong, these scientists are predicting the death of our oceans.
I think the valuable lesson here is in showing us that now is the time to change. In humanity's typical fashion we have waited until the last useful moments to start saving the fish. Like a kid cramming for finals, we're just making it harder on ourselves and we're not learning much. Insert Big Yellow Taxi reference here. There was a good article on this issue in the New York Times last week by Mark Bittman. Bittman, a former NOAA staffer-turned-sustainable chef, now writes columns for the New York Times and has a blog called the Minimalist about how to cook and eat sustainably that includes yummy recipes.
The article itself discusses the middle path of sustainable seafood. Several environmental groups like Sea Shepherd argue that there is no such thing as sustainable seafood unless it is a single individual fishing to feed only their immediate family. The article points out how this isn't the case but that we cannot simply continue our current habits either. His argument is that we can still eat fish just smaller amounts of our current favorites interspersed with the increasingly popular fish like tilapia that are plentiful and can be raised and caught with minimal environmental damage.
Bittman's background is a perfect example of the government's attitude toward the ocean. Up until a few years ago the ocean was viewed as an infinitely renewable resource. This is why unlike land animals that either fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA or EPA, fish are monitored by Bittman's former employer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A branch of the Department of Commerce, NOAA's main job is to watch for and warn about hurricanes.
By placing fish under the purview of the DOC they were placed in the same category as minerals like oil and coal, something to be dug up as fast and efficiently as possible. In fact Bittman's job was to go around and promote consumption of what had previously been considered "underutilized" species until they became overfished and then they just moved on to promoting the next species on the list. As a college senior, my entire life has been an era of environmental awareness and worry, which is why I can't fathom this older attitude of unlimited consumption. It seems to have had a lasting affect and might even be the root of all our environmental and social problems.
To keep it real: the days of cheap bountiful fish stocks are gone. Like everything else on this planet, they are becoming increasingly scarce.We reproduce more and more in a quest to model Star Wars capital planet Coruscant. For all the non-nerds out there it's the planet that's just a giant metropolis because the human population got so big it consumed the entire planet's surface. Because we can't just all go on an intergalactic cruise and let robots clean up for us like in Wall-E we need to change our habits in order to fix this problem.
This doesn't mean you can never enjoy a romantic salmon dinner for two or a crab broil ever again, just not as often as before. You can then fill the interim with fish that are better for the planet. The same principles work on both land and sea. So just like eating vegetarian is better for the environment then eating Quadruple Bypass burgers from the Heart Attack Grill (which serves its 8000 calorie burger with a side of jolt cola, French fries that have been deep-fried in pure lard, and a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes), eating fish lower on the food chain is better than eating the higher level carnivores. This is because as factories organisms are woefully inefficient with only 10% of its energy able to be passed on to whatever eats it. As we head up the food chain we get a smaller and smaller amount of energy for ever greater amounts of input. So instead of those salmon why not a nice tilapia or carp filet? The tilapia filet most likely cut your fish bill by more than half. Along with saving you money these lower level fish can also save you from contact with harmful levels of pollutants like mercury. Due to a process called bioaccumulation which is diagramed and described on our seafood page, the higher the aquatic food chain one goes the higher the levels of contaminants. Also on our seafood page you'll find links to the EPA guidelines on fish consumption and a link to fresh water advisories listing from which bodies of water fish are safe to eat and in which ones they aren't.
Which fish is sustainable and which is not is an ever changing list that can leave even the most knowledgeable fish lover scratching their heads. Luckily the Monterey Bay Aquarium has continuously updated pocket guides listing what we should avoid.
Check out New Dream's page on the Health Impacts of Eating Fish with several great links to recent studies on the issue and EPA guidelines on safe consumption.
2008 U.N. report on the State of World Fisheries.
If you want access to comprehensive data on the state of the ocean's fisheries, including easy-to-understand graphs and charts, check out the Sea Around Us Project website.