I knew I was missing something when my sister who married into a Japanese family told me she was eating less sushi and fish. Why cut back on fish when it is so good for you? I wondered. For my sister, it was to avoid high levels of mercury in some fish and to promote sustainability of ocean life.
Fish may be good for us, but we’re not so good for fish: we’ve been overfishing, and the number of fish in the sea is decreasing at an alarming rate. It wasn’t until Sam and I watched the 2009 documentary End of the Line that I understood how grave the problem of overfishing is and learned what I can do to help.
Why Are There Fewer Fish in the Sea?
One of the scientists in End of the Line responds to the question of where the fish have gone with a straightforward answer: “We’ve eaten them!”
In all seriousness, it’s true. Consider this: of the 6 billion people on the planet, 1 billion rely on fish as a major source of protein (source). With water covering 70% of the earth’s surface, you’d think there would be plenty of fish in the sea to feed all these people. Problem is, we’ve gotten really good at catching the fish. As technology progresses, we’ve built bigger boats with more sophisticated technology for hunting fish—that’s right, hunting fish. It’s a full-blown “No Fish Left Behind” campaign. One fishing method with high yield (and high collateral damage) is bottom trawling. In bottom trawling a large net is lowered to the ocean floor to scrape the bottom of the ocean’s surface, catching every last fish. Trawling also captures things we don’t need to catch, like dolphins, turtles and sharks. Perhaps worst of all, it damages the bed of the ocean floor, a precious ecosystem crucial for sustaining marine life.
Overfishing also disrupts the balance of the oceanic food chain. When predator fish are overfished, their prey flourishes in population and can become a menace or pest. For example, because of overfishing of the cod in Canada, shrimp and lobster have abounded. In the Chesapeake Bay, overfishing of sharks has caused the cownose ray to flourish. When these lobsters, shrimp and rays flourish, there isn’t enough food for them and they start eating food they weren’t supposed to eat—food designated for other sea animals. The food chain requires delicate balance and disrupting it can cause irreversible damage.
The (hopefully) obvious response to the problem of overfishing would be to take fewer fish from the sea. But fish = money & livelihood for millions of fishermen and mass corporations. International trade laws have been set up to regulate how many fish countries are allowed to catch, but in many parts of the world, fishing continues illegally. Illegal fishing can be a lucrative industry: it is worth up to $9 billion dollars a year (source). There are people working to regulate and enforce rules in the fishing industry, but it’s tough work as The End of the Line illustrates.
But what can you and I do?
- Do the same thing you do with land-based foods: vote with your dollars. Consumers have more influence on big fishing industries than they realize: in the end big fishing will cater to what the consumer demands.
- Learn which fish are caught sustainably in your region. The Monterey Aquarium’s pocket-sized regional guide to sustainable seafood is available to print from their website and their iPhone app is free.
- Another guideline comes from Michael Pollan in Food Rules: “Don’t overlook the oily little fishes,” such as sardines, anchovies, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring. These nutritious little fish “are well-managed, and in some cases are even abundant” (Food Rules, p 71). Currently the oily little fish are being ground up to produce food for farmed fish instead of being used as food for people. Furthermore, it takes 5 lb. of little wild fishes to produce just 1 lb. of farmed fish. Those 5 lbs. of little fish would go a lot farther if they were eaten directly by consumers instead of by farmed fish.
Don’t forget to watch the documentary End of the Line. It’s available on Netflix Instant Play, so if you have Netflix, you have no excuse. You can also become a fan of End of the Line on Facebook and read the latest news about sustainable fishing.