Personal conservation is great, and the better seafood guides can be helpful, says our Incite columnist, an independent voice for the environment. But fisheries policy must still be changed.
The fish on my plate probably didn't come from Chile, and it definitely wasn't bass. But the marketing moniker "Chilean seabass" sounds more appetizing than "toothfish," and it fools at least some consumers who have learned what toothfish are and that few if any of the world's fish species are more grievously mismanaged than this slow-growing denizen of deep south-polar waters. Environmental "champions" of the 20th century were being honored, and I was seated next to one--Dave Foreman, cofounder of the radical Earth First!, now magically transformed to a soft-spoken, elegantly dressed, almost painfully law-abiding conservator of wildland. I steered the conversation away from the entree, a difficult task because it was so delicious. But to my relief, I soon discovered that Foreman was not nearly as much into fish and fishing as I was. The year was 1998, and in those days, for almost everyone, fish was fish. If it was placed in front of you, you didn't ask questions. You ate it. Hosting the evening was the National Audubon Society.
My friend and colleague Carl Safina, then director of Audubon's Living Oceans program, had recently partaken of toothfish, too--at a dinner for no less an assemblage than the board of the Society for Conservation Biology. Being more outspoken than I am (at least at social gatherings), he vented his spleen on the spot. Then, almost simultaneously with Audubon's toothsome toothfish dinner, he launched The Audubon (magazine) Guide to Seafood, the world's first independent and comprehensive set of directions for sustainable seafood purchasing, thereby setting a standard and trend that would save all manner of marine life around the globe and change how people perceive fish.
Thirty percent of all assessed marine fish populations are being killed faster than they reproduce. And while aquaculture, i.e., fish farming, was at first seen as a partial solution, that rapidly expanding industry has compounded more than relieved pressure on wild stocks because it pollutes the sea with pathogens, parasites, and warped genes, and because it requires the netting of enormous quantities of small fish to serve as feed. So seafood guides are now more important than ever.
But today there are so many guides that fish eaters don't know which ones to consult. Some guides are confusing, some accidentally or purposefully misleading, some brazen greenwashing. No one is fully equipped to objectively rank the guides, but the University of Rhode Island's Sustainable Seafood Initiative and a group called Incofish have put together the most complete lists available. (Go to Sea Grant or incofish.)
The five guides you should probably pay most attention to are those provided by the Blue Ocean Institute (the outfit run by Safina, which he started when he left Audubon), the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. (The Marine Stewardship Council also certifies sustainability by issuing labels to retailers.) Most guides list species consumers can buy without pumping dangerous amounts of mercury and PCBs into themselves or their guests and without patronizing fishing operations that deplete stocks faster than they reproduce or that damage marine ecosystems by killing non-target species ("bycatch").
All guides are weakened by the name games played by the seafood industry as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which, as a tentacle of the Department of Commerce, has the dual and often conflicting missions of regulating and promoting fisheries. "Underutilized" fish are constantly being renamed in an effort to make them sound more palatable.
Even fish-savvy salts like Ted Forsgren, director of the Coastal Conservation Association Florida, get confused. "What the hell is that?" he asked when he saw "rock salmon" in the stores. It turned out to be amberjack, traditionally shunned because larger specimens tend to be wormy and can contain natural poisons capable of sickening or killing humans. "Redfish" is a now-prolific species of drum that was knocked way down in the 1980s by the "blackened redfish" craze started by Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme. But "redfish" is also an unrelated, slow-growing fish inhabiting deep water off New England and maritime Canada. If that's not confusing enough, the latter species is being marketed as "ocean perch," despite the fact that it's unrelated to perch, a delicious freshwater fish sold in the Midwest. When commercial fishermen depleted New England and mid-Atlantic groundfish, spiny dogfish surged into the vacated niche. Americans don't like dogfish (doubtless because they taste like foam rubber, as I can attest). So the response of governmental and non-governmental seafood promoters was to change the name of dogfish to "cape shark."
Then there's confusion about ranges and taxonomy. In its seafood guide, Greenpeace has placed pollock on its avoid list because the stock has been overfished, provides important forage for Steller sea lions and northern fur seals, and the fishery kills lots of bycatch. That's probably true. "Pollock," explains the guide, "live throughout the Northern Pacific." That's definitely true. But Greenpeace doesn't mention that pollock (relatives of the fish it refers to) also live throughout the North Atlantic, where the fishery is sustainable and the population is 115 percent above target level.