Eating sustainably: Fish in Peril

I just finished watching an eye openning film last night called The End of the Line which is a thought provoking documentary that explores the fishing industry, issues of overfishing and the very real possibility that we may exhaust our oceans of fish within our lifetimes.

A few things have stuck with me. As many of you may remember, the Canadian Maritimes used to be home to flourishing fishing towns, and the sheer abundance of cod was the reason many Europeans immigrated to Canada in the country’s infancy. But since then, Canadian cod stocks plummeted to such a level that in 1992, the Mulroney government put a halt to all cod fishing for the next two years. I was a bit young to remember this, so the magnitude of the problem really didn’t register with me until I watched this film. What’s even more interesting is that even after over a decade after this moratorium, the cod population has still not recovered, and in fact has declined by an estimated 70 – 90% since the 1950s.

Blue fin tuna was another fish mentionned in this film as a species that is in steep decline. Our appetite for sushi and reverence of celebrity chefs has driven the industry to overfish this species almost to extremely low levels. And yet, despite scientists saying that the sustainable level of fishing tuna was 14,000 tonnes a year (as of the making of the movie in 2007), the UN set the international fishing quota at 30,000 tonnes – over twice the sustainable level. And what’s more, there are so many unscrupulous companies and fishers out there that an estimated 60,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna were being fished annually.

And while I knew that fish farming came with many drawbacks such as sealice infestations, the need to use antibiotics and more – what I didn’t realize until watching this film was that it takes on average 5 lbs of other fish (like anchovies) to produce 1 lb of salmon. Lesson here… eating anchovies is the better choice and a much more efficient use of resources (just like choosing vegetables over meat).

Of course, no one would be so tempted to (or so able to profit from) overfishing species in peril if the demand didn’t exist. So, it’s really up to us, the consumer, to be informed and to take the responsibility upon ourselves to act.

In my book, I list a shortened version of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish” which lists fish species by their mercury levels, and also indicates which fish species to avoid for sustainability reasons. This afternoon, I also picked up a handy wallet guide made by SeaChoice which can be found here. Make it a habit as well to ask where your fish came from, and how it was caught. When shopping, you can also look for the Marine Stewardship Council seal (a checkmark that looks like a fish) which certifies fish caught sustainably.

So for those of you who want a quick low-down – here are is my abridged list of fish to enjoy, and fish to avoid:

Best Choice (wild):
Mackerel
Mahi Mahi
Pollock (Alaska)
Sardine/Herring
Shrimp/Prawn (Spot, Canadian Pacific)
Squid

Avoid (wild):
Chilean seabass
Cod (Atlantic)
Crab (King, Jonah)
Flounder/Sole
Haddock
Halibut
Orange roughy
Scallops
Shark
Tuna (Albacore, bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye)

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