More Fish in the Sea? Soon, Maybe Not
Published on Tuesday, November 14, 2006 by
More Fish in the Sea? Soon, Maybe Not
by Haider Rizvi

Seafood consumers in industrialized countries can help save the world's wild fish stocks, according to a new study that provides a ray of hope just days after researchers announced that if current trends continue, all world fisheries will collapse around 2048.

The new study comes from the Worldwatch Institute, an independent think tank that has carried out scores of studies on the environment and sustainable development.

"Today, most of the world's seafood, from tuna to salmon to bay scallops, is threatened with extinction," says Brian Halweil, a senior researcher at the Institute who has just concluded a study on fish stocks.

In the past 50 years, fishers have eliminated at least 90 percent of the world's tuna, marlin, swordfish, and other large predatory fish, according to the study titled, "Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans."

Citing United Nations surveys, Halweil points out that about two thirds of the world's major fish stocks--from cod to salmon to mackerel--have been "pushed to the verge of collapse."

The rapid decline in fish stocks, says Halweil, is the result of increased consumption and the use of high-impact fishing technology, such as bottom trawlers, which are being increasingly used by industrial fishers.

The commercial fishing industry across the world makes at least $80 billion every year, according to the National Environment Trust.

Many environmental groups have demanded a worldwide ban on the use of bottom trawling, but the industry continues to resist such calls.

Bottom trawling involves dragging huge, heavy nets along the sea floor. Large metal plates and rubber wheels attached to these nets move along the bottom, crushing nearly everything in their path.

Such high-impact fishing technologies have led to "serious decline" in marine biodiversity, says Halweil, explaining that in the last half century, nearly 30 percent of fish species have collapsed--experiencing population declines of 90 percent or more.

Recently, Science magazine reported that some coastal and estuarine ecosystems had already declined by more than 50 percent. As a result, the number of viable fisheries worldwide has dropped by 33 percent.

This has also weakened the oceans' ability to filter and detoxify contaminants by 63 percent, according to the report.

Halweil thinks the massive disappearance of fish stocks poses a "serious threat" to the world's oceans. However, he still believes there is room for a remedy.

In his view, a public that better understands the state of the world's oceans can be a driving force in helping governments pass legislation to ban destructive fishing.

"From Chinese universities that refuse to serve shark fin soup, to U.S. supermarkets that feature sustainably harvested shrimp, to Japanese consumers who are restoring wild oyster beds, well-informed seafood eaters, distributors, restaurants, and supermarkets are playing a growing role in fostering a more sustainable fishing industry," he says.

Though growing, this movement has yet to make a difference. As Halweil notes, even though some major supermarkets pledge their support, they often fail to match their words with deeds.

Wal-Mart, for example, recently assured consumers that it would sell only certified sustainable fish in the next three to five years, but made no commitment with regard to farmed salmon and Asian farmed shrimp, which make up the bulk of its seafood sale.

Noting that the United States, Europe, and Japan--the world's largest seafood consumers--receive most of their fish through large distributors, supermarkets, and restaurants, Halweil says a change in buying habits could help stop further declines in fish stocks

People need to change their buying habits because sustainable seafood can make its biggest impact when it starts appearing at popular supermarkets and restaurants, according to Halweil.

"Fish is an incredibly healthful food," he says, "but we need to eat less of certain kinds and more of others if we want fish in the future."

Salmon farms, for instance, consume more fish in the form of feed than they yield in seafood, and large ocean species like tuna and swordfish are most likely to be contaminated with mercury and other toxins, he explains.

Eating clams, oysters, and smaller species, in contrast, puts less strain on oceans and protects consumers from contaminants.

The study suggests that private initiatives could help reduce the risk of further declines in fish stocks, and notes that targeted efforts by both buyers and businesses have already produced positive results in some places.

Considering the enormous damage that bottom trawling has caused to marine life, the study also points to the need for supporting small-scale fisheries and boats that avoid the use of chemicals.

"If current trends continue, the oceans will be reduced to a trawler-scraped wasteland inhabited primarily by sea slime and jellyfish," says Halweil, urging seafood consumers to play their role in saving fish stocks.

Copyright © 2006