Monday, March 19, 2007

Slaughter at Sea

Recognize the fish in this picture? If nothing else, you should know this is a fish we should not be be eating. It's the bluefin tuna, highly prized by sushi chefs everywhere. And don't we love our tuna sushi? Unfortunately, bluefin tuna will soon go the way of the Atlantic cod and the American bison unless humans check their appetite for seafood along with their rapacious fishing practices.

That's the word in the latest edition of National Geographic. Remember when you opened National Geographic to see pictures of erupting volcanoes, topless native dancers and for the incredibly detailed maps of the world? The magazine is trying to be more relevant, less lofty, and has tackled all sorts of issues in recent years. The April edition, focusing on the world's oceans and fisheries, is a good reminder that we foodies need to be more aware of what we cook and what kind of environmental sensitivity we expect from our favorite restaurant chefs.

The bluefin tuna is a prime example. It has been overfished to the point that 90 percent of the stock has been completely eliminated in recent decades. Limits and quotas have been imposed, but are hardly enforced. The NG correspondent recounts taking to the air over the Mediterranean during spawning season and finding several spotting planes illegally aloft, signalifing fishing vessels where to find the bluefin.

"There is no way for the fish to escape--everything is high-tech," NG
quotes one tuna spotter pilot as saying. "I am an environmentalist, and I
couldn't stand the way they fished with no care for the quotas. I saw
these people taking everything. They catch whatever they want. They just see
money on the sea. They don't think what will be there in ten years."

The same issue describes steps taken by New Zealand to guard its oceanic resources, as well as a small village in Newfoundland reeling from the collapse of the cod industry. The National Geographic account is actually pretty tame. For a more complete description of how the world is destroying its fisheries, pick up a copy of The End of the Line, by British journalist Charles Clover. Clover tells how European inspectors and their complicit governments routinely look the other way when illegal catches are brought to market. He also describes how European union countries, especially Spain, along with Russia and others, buy off the governments of small nations so they can park their huge trawlers off-shore, scoop up all the fish and leave the natives wondering where their primary source of protein went.

Governments and environmentalists are now mulling these dire bullet points:

In the past 50 years, populations of large fish species - including tuna, swordfish, marlin, sharks, cod, halibut and flounder - have decreased 90 percent worldwide.

A total of 98 species are overfished, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. As a result, half of all U.S. fisheries and a quarter of the major fish stocks worldwide are in jeopardy of an abrupt, severe decline from which they may never recover.

Fish stocks have collapsed in nearly one-third of all ocean fisheries, and all commercially valuable world fish stocks could completely collapse by 2048.

What's a cook to do? There are four main areas of concern: Fish species that have been overfished; fishing methods that wreck the enviornment, such as trawling with rigs that lay waste to the seafloor; seafood production that harms the environment, such as certain types of open-water fish farming that pollute the oceans; and seafood that contains toxins such as mercury and PCBs.

For instance, you might have thought buying farm-raised salmon was doing the fish population a favor. But ocean environmental groups urge consumers to stay away from farm-raised salmon on grounds that it pollutes the seas and infects wild fish with disease. They would prefer you purchase wild-caught salmon from Alaska. (The fisheries around Alaska are cited as among the few sustainably managed in the world, along with New Zealand and Iceland.)

Along with bluefin, several other species you might find at your local seafood market are on the "avoid" list: monkfish, orange roughy, Florida pompano, farmed salmon, black tiger shrimp, skate, red snapper (some varieties), tilapia from China and Taiwan, blueline tilefish, flounder.

For complete listings of which fish to buy and which to avoid, consult the user friendly listings from the Monterey Bay Aquarium at Other valuable resources are the listings provided by the Blue Ocean Institute here and here


Molly said...

Yes! National Geographic has been rather on the money these past few years. More than ever, a gift subscription to NG is a great way to educate/inculcate our loved ones, young, old or in-between. And they've made this transition without sacrificing the amazing photography. Witness the photo-essay on dragonflies a while back.

Kevin said...

Damn your prolific -- or is that prolix? (I'm teasing.) Our oceans are the last gasp of our hunter/gatherer heritage and, sadly, they are gasping.

Ed Bruske said...

I've got the writing bug again, Kevin. A runaway train. I'm finding there's a lot out there I feel strongly about. Unfortunately, my work life sometimes interferes with my need to pull on the content together...