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Overfishing and destructive fishing methods are taking a toll on the world’s fish. The oceans may seem inexhaustible, but the most popular fishing areas are confined to coastal areas where both human and fish populations congregate. In recent decades, the strain of keeping up with human demand is stretching many fisheries to the breaking point. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, four-fifths of the world’s major fisheries are fished at or beyond sustainable limits, or in some cases have already been fished out.

The precipitous decline in so many of the world’s fisheries is not just a response to human need. Technological advances in the past few decades have enabled the world’s fishing fleet to maximize its catch. Unfortunately, the focus has been on increasing volume at any cost, not on reducing waste or fostering a more sustainable relationship with the world’s fisheries. It is increasingly becoming a game of Where’s Waldo as an ever more sophisticated fleet of boats lands an ever smaller amount of fish, with production falling by 3.7 million tons from 2000 to 2006.

Commercial fleets often use trawl nets and dredges that rake the ocean floor in a process more akin to clearcutting than fishing, sweeping up unwanted flora and fauna along with the desired catch and obliterating seabed habitat in the process. Some overfished stocks can recover, but the devastation wreaked by deep sea trawlers makes this difficult. The consequent disruption of biological balance in aquatic ecosystems is critically impairing the natural ability of fish to survive and reproduce. A 2006 study in the journal Science found that unless steps are taken to reverse trends, current commercial fish and seafood species could collapse by 2050.

Seafood and Your Health

The potential for mercury contamination raises questions concerning the net health benefits of eating fish. If Omega-3s found in fish build the brain, while mercury in that same fish tears it down, is fish at best a nutritional wash? A 2006 Harvard Study found that the benefits of eating fish a few times a week greatly outweighs the potential harm from contamination. Coronary heart disease, which is all too common in an America overrun by fast food chains, is reduced by over a third by modest fish consumption. 

Pregnant women and young children should remain cautious, however, about eating fish that may be contaminated by mercury. (On the other hand, the Omega-3 fatty acids in fish have been shown to improve early brain development.) As a rule, the higher up a particular fish is in the food chain, the greater the risk of mercury contamination, due to the principle of bioaccumulation.    

The EPA and FDA recommend 12 ounces of fish a week for mothers-to-be and their young children. To limit the overall exposure to toxins, these vulnerable populations should avoid top-of-the-food-chain fish like shark and swordfish.

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