The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

End Of The Line

August 25th, 2009 · 3 Comments · Posted in Sustainability

Bluefine tuna, just one of many fish species

Bluefine tuna, just one of many vanishing fish species

The year 2048 is not so far away. Yet that is the year some authorities predict the world’s fisheries will totally collapse if current fishing practices remain in place.

Imagine, 90 percent of the world’s living space is contained in our oceans. It’s an area of incredible size, filled at one time with a seemingly endless bounty of sea creatures of every description. But modern technology has vastly shrunk the size of our oceans. The equipment is already in place to catch every desirable fish, down to the very last one. And we are doing it. Fish are rapidly disappearing from the planet because we humans are eating them all.

That is the message of “End of the Line,” the film version of Charles Clover’s meticulously researched book. I first read the book a couple of year’s ago and was shocked not just by how rapidly we are eating our way through the world’s fish populations, but how governments are wilfully complicit in the destruction.

The list of vanishing species grows every day: cod, Atlantic salmon, red snapper, bluefin tuna. The case of the bluefin is perhaps most dramatic. For centuries fishermen in the Mediterranean awaited the mighty fish’s migration from Atlantic waters and set out their nets in ritualistic fashion. Now spotter planes track the bluefin’s movements and they are taken with methodical swiftness by huge factory boats. Scientists believe that in a few years there will be no more bluefin of reproducing size. Yet European Union governments ignore the warnings and set catch quotas many times the sustainable limit. Glamor restaurants such as Nobu continue to offer bluefin on their menus, even though they know the fish is endangered. Corporations such as the Japanese Mitsubishi are hording frozen stocks of bluefin in anticipation of the day when they will be gone from the sea and what remains will fetch astronomical prices.

It is distressing that governments do so little to protect our ocean resources. Only 1 percent of the world’s oceans have been placed off limits to fishing. Yet where fishing is halted, sea life shows a remarkable capacity to rebound. Many fish farming practices are no solution. For instance, it takes an estimated three pounds of wild fish such as anchovy, converted into meal, to make one pound of farmed salmon. Why not just eat the anchovies instead, one fisheries expert in the film asks.

Indeed, we as consumers do have a voice in this. First, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site and download a copy of their wallet guide that you can refer to when you are standing at the seafood counter wondering which of the fish for sale are actually sustainably caught. You might be surprised at the number of threatened species that are being sold every day, even at supposedly “green” markets such as Whole Foods. Seafood Watch also offers an application for your iPhone.

If you are still confused, buy only fish that carries the label of the Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC label is the seafood equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. The MSC rates fisheries around the world for sustainability. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them. Alaska is one that stands out. Salmon and black cod (sablefish) from Alaska are almost always a good bet.

Consider trying fish lower on the food chain, such as anchovies, sardines and mackerel. They are still plentiful, reproduce quickly and carry less of a risk for toxins such as mercury. Better still, they are rich in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.

Other good alternatives include farmed tilapia (except from Asia), farmed U.S. catfish, farmed barramundi and farmed trout. Certain shellfish also are abundant. Sea scallops from the U.S. Atlantic have made a comeback, and there are plenty of farmed mussels, clams and oysters.

If we don’t do something, the day may not be too distant when the only thing swimming in our oceans will be jellyfish and worms. It’s not a pretty picture.

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  • Brett

    Ed, you do a great job bringing these topics to the forefront. The iPhone app is pretty nice and simple enough to use. It’s disconcerting though to see all the red (avoid) fishes — victims of what you’ve described above. I second the notion to eat lower on the fish food chain. I just tried scallops recently and am not sure why I avoided them for so long!

  • BarraLover

    Ed – Thanks for your efforts in making people more aware of the issues regarding dwindling fish populations and sustainable alternatives.

    I work for Australis Aquaculture, the Massachusetts-based company that is spearheading the popularity of barramundi (mentioned as a good alternative). You can find barramundi at a growing number of restaurants and retailers, including Safeway/Vons, Whole Foods, Costco, Jewel-Osco, Schnuck’s, Dierberg’s, Giant and others. For those who are not familiar with this delicious, healthy and sustainable fish, you can learn all about it at:

    Thanks again for generating more awareness on this important issue.

    Carol Devine

  • Ed Bruske

    Brett, I agree–it’s discouraging to see so many “avoid” advisories. Welcome to the world of disappearing fish. Simply move over to the “excellent choice” column and resign yourself to eating sustainable fish only. There’s still great stuff to choose from, especially if you have a conscientious seafood providor.

    Carol, if barramundi is readily available, why can’t I find it? I ask for it at every opportunity at my local Whole Foods. It’s become a running joke, even after the seafood manager assured me it should be making an appearance in June or July. What gives?