The End of Seafood?
A new report has a lot of bad news for the ocean’s future. And some ideas for making that future brighter.
Boris Worm (pronounced Vorm) has been studying the ocean and its inhabitants for more than a decade, but never before has his work made such a global splash. Last November Worm and several international collaborators made headlines by publishing a massive study in the journal Science that took stock of the earth’s oceans. One of the key projections: Global fisheries could collapse by the year 2048. On a more optimistic note, the research also showed that there is still time to turn this trend around. Audubon recently chatted with Worm, a professor of marine biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, about his research, as well as his suggestions for making our consumption of an ever-popular natural resource more sustainable.
Audubon: According to your analysis, which of the important commercial species are in the biggest trouble?
Worm: Definitely, the large animals. They tend to be not as abundant as others; they’re easy to target; and they’re often very valuable. So they’re easy to exploit. Often large predators are the first to go.
Q: Can you give me some examples?
A: The Atlantic sturgeon is almost extinct; it’s very threatened on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantic cod is on the endangered species list in Canada, which surprises a lot of people. The Atlantic salmon is at very low levels; there’s no viable commercial fishery for it anymore. Look at Europe, where [human] impacts have been occurring longer. You can see that flamingoes vanished from the southern part of the North Sea, coinciding with Romans invading that area and hunting them for their tongues—that’s what they were eating.
Q: Their tongues?
A: The tongues, yeah. They have very fleshy tongues. It’s the same mindset that caused whalers to go to the Arctic and hunt the bowhead whales just for their baleen and discard the rest. Today we don’t have to look that far. Sharks are being depleted dramatically in oceans all around the world for their fins [the main ingredient in shark-fin soup].
Q: You say in your study that global fisheries are in danger of collapsing within 40 or 50 years. What makes you so sure?
A: I have to make an important distinction here. It has been reported that we “predicted” [global fisheries] would collapse by 2048. Actually we “projected” that if the current trend would continue in the same way for the next 50 years, most fisheries would enter a state of collapse. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no fish anymore. It means that the catch levels for these species, on average, will have declined by 90 percent or more. But that is only if the trend that we observed over the last 50 years continues. I don’t believe that that’s going to happen, because I see a lot of concern already emerging about his trend.
The message we are giving, at this point, is that it doesn’t seem to be too late. We could turn this around through proper fishery management measures, marine reserves, limitations on destructive fishing gears, limitations on pollution, and so on. People have been trying to make progress on all of these points during the last 10 years. So it’s going in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go—and we have to work internationally.
Also, I feel that consumers have a large responsibility to make decisions that help ocean ecosystems recover. And this means choosing sustainably caught fish or sustainably aquacultured fish at the seafood counter and at restaurants. There are a number of websites, like the Marine Stewardship Council (www.msc.org), which basically brands certain fish species sustainable, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program (http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.
asp), which is just excellent information on every single fish species you find at seafood counters. You can see exactly how threatened it is, whether there has been damage done to its habitat, where it comes from, whether it may even pose a human heath risk.
Q: If you had to pick two or three species that are absolutely off-limits but are still commercially available, what would those species be?
A: I would say orange roughy. It has just been listed an endangered species in Australia, and the fishing practices relating to this species are very destructive. These fish are basically mined out, and they don’t seem to recover well because they’re very slow- growing, and very long-lived. Definitely a no-no for me. Also aquacultured salmon; if it’s not organically grown, it’s a no-no, because the large amount of fish that goes into feeding the salmon and because of the pollution it causes in coastal environments. A third one would be bluefin tuna. I would never eat bluefin tuna, because it is so depleted.
Q: What do you think are the most important large-scale changes that need to occur?
A: The most important immediate thing is to end overfishing. Right now 74 stocks [around the world] require recovery. Legislation has mandated rebuilding plans for 67 of them, and this has been going on for the last ten years. Out of those, 34 are still being overfished, meaning the fishing mortality is still higher and the stock is going down and down and down. Currently, three stocks out of these 67 have been rebuilt to a level that’s within safe biological limits. That tells us we have a long way to go; we’re not even giving half of the species that we know are overfished a chance to recover. And of those that have recovered, it’s a slow process. It has often been done with the help of large-scale area closures. Marine protected areas and fishery closures have proven very successful in bringing species and the productivity of the system back. Fisheries benefit. And there are other benefits, too, like tourism and the stability of ecosystems.
Q: In general, do you think it’s more important for countries to increase the efforts in managing the waters around them or to engage in international fisheries management organizations?
A: The two have to go hand in hand. We can’t wait for things to be fixed locally before we move on to the international scale. We just don’t have the time. Also, I think what is partly overlooked is really the consumer aspect of it. What’s on our plates? Where does it come from? How has it been fished? Is it an endangered species? Is there tremendous bycatch associated with it? Is there pollution associated with it? That information is available, and everybody should do their part in making the right choices.
Here are some resources you can use to make the right seafood choices:
Marine Stewardship Council
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp
National Audubon Society
Environmental Defense www.oceansalive.org/eat.cfm?subnav=bestandworst&link=hp
Seafood Choices Alliance www.seafoodchoices.com/home.php
Blue Ocean Institute
The Ocean Project
Environmental Working Group
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