Overfishing: What Sailors Should Know
The fallout from depleted fish stocks is complicated, but the path to recovery and the choices you can make aren’t. From our December 2012 issue.
Ever since my book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food came out, I’ve found myself frequently answering the same questions over and over again about the ocean, fisheries, and seafood. Which fish should I eat? Should I eat wild or farmed fish? Should I quit eating fish altogether?
These are the standard ones. While I’m always happy to entertain questions from people who want to engage with the sea, I feel that many are missing the point about the future of fish, fishing, and seafood.
Since cruising sailors are generally a salty bunch with enough time at sea under their belts to understand that the ocean is a subtle and complex organism, I was happy to sit down with the editors of Cruising World and dig a little deeper into the issues I believe are pertinent to this topic.
CW: Let’s start with the word overfishing. A lot of us don’t really know what it is. What is overfishing?
PG: We must distinguish overfishing from the more extreme issue of outright species extinction. The ocean is a good deal healthier than the land in terms of wild-species abundance. On land, we talk about saving the last few hundred Bengal tigers or the handful of whooping cranes remaining to us. But in the ocean, the fish we eat are orders of magnitude more abundant. Even Atlantic bluefin tuna, that much-celebrated overcaught fish, still number in the millions. What we’re talking about in the ocean is the loss of abundance, the loss of the ability of the particular species in question to feed us. Overfishing quite simply is the act of catching fish quicker than the rate those fish can replace themselves. This distinctly downward trend is also a reversible trend. Many fish grow fast and are very fertile, so even an overfished fish can make a fast recovery if given the chance.
CW: How do you stop overfishing?
PG: As University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn told me, the most effective way to stop overfishing is to limit the number of people who can fish a given population of animals. It’s pretty darn obvious that if you let everybody who wants to fish onto a fishing ground, there’s going to be too much fishing pressure. The impactful change you can make, therefore, is to set up rules whereby entry into the fishery is controlled. This has started to happen in the United States. In the last few years, the United States began implementing a system called Catch Shares, which pre-allocates the amount of fish that can be caught to a predetermined number of fishermen. This has worked very well with Gulf red snapper and Alaskan halibut, which are rebuilding nicely. It’s just now being implemented with New England groundfish, like cod and haddock, although that’s a more complicated and controversial story.
CW: Then does it really matter which fish we eat?
PG: Yes, it does matter, but not in the way you think. Choosing a particular fish to eat or not eat is a little like trying to hit a moving target. Fish populations go up and down, and it’s very hard to identify a fish in the marketplace by its provenance. It’s better to think about the fishermen from whom you’re buying than about the fish themselves. My inclination is to buy from small-scale fishermen who use gear that doesn’t harm the bottom and that doesn’t kill untargeted species.
The fishermen who most often fall into this category are hook-and-line fishers, and many of them have bonded together into a new phenomenon called community supported fisheries, or CSFs. CSF members pre-buy a share in a local fishery and get a certain poundage per week. In the process, consumers get to know their fishermen and learn a lot about their immediate marine environments. Most coastal states now have CSFs, and their numbers are increasing.
CW: Does that mean that you’re against farmed fish?
PG: No, there are many good farmed-fish options. Arctic char and barramundi are a couple of good ones. But if your community has a solid, well-managed fishery, why not support it? This leads to a larger point about the American seafood diet. About 80 percent of the seafood that Americans consume is imported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
I think Americans would do well to eat American fish because they’re usually well managed and because it builds relationships in our local ports between consumers and producers.