Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

For the last three months I have been preparing for graduation, which at St. Edward's University means researching and analyzing a global issue and spewing out a thirty page paper on the information. I'm not going to share this lovely piece of workmanship with you (beg as you may!), but I am going to do a little post on things you can do to help.

I chose overfishing for my topic. Coming from the East Coast I grew up around delicious seafood restaurants. Newspapers talk of fishermens' issues, crab feasts are more than tradition, and everyone can send you to their favorite markets for fish. When I became vegan I wondered about whether I would occasionally include fish in my meals, which I don't, but I took this opportunity to research why I should or shouldn't. Don't worry... I am not going to say you shouldn't enjoy seafood. I know that that would simply go no where. What I am going to ask is that you enjoy it a little more sustainably and conscientiously. By doing this, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to taste a piece of delicious tuna or order any sushi they'd like. Sadly, if consumers continue on their current path, by 2050 most seafood will only be enjoyed through storytelling.

So what is going on? The oceans are simply being overfished. Currently 25% of global catches are ten types of large predator fish, and nine of these ten are in collapse (meaning 90% below amounts that were present 50 years ago). Much of the fishing that is occurring is happening illegally, with catches being unreported or underreported and all sorts of regulations being skirted. This mainly happens with industrial ships in foreign waters, waters off of developing countries where the boats can take all the fish while the local populations go into starvation since their food source is gone. Not only do these illegal ships harm local people but they also have abysmal living conditions for workers, making them sleep on cardboard in cockroach infested areas after 18 hour days and paying them with by-catch rather than money. It is estimated that the IUU (illegal, unreported, unregulated) boats catch around 19% of the global catch, but that is a difficult number to accurately get. Because of the overfishing that is rampant, each year since 1988 the global catches have gone down by half a million tons. It is not leveling off because there are no areas for fish to regroup and restock; current technology allows ships to locate and catch fish in ways that never happened before.

Beyond this, the common method of bottom trawling (where a HUGE net is scraping the bottom of the ocean) is extremely destructive to the ecosystem, killing plants and animals that aren't the target. Each year trawlers drag up an area twice the size of the contingent United States. With a harmed ecosystem and a lack of fish the oceans are not healthy, which means they can't absorb carbon as effectively as before. More carbon in the air is the biggest cause of climate change and global warming, so we need the oceans to be at their peak to help fight.

Depressing, right? It's looking pretty awful for the world's oceans, air, and stomachs. But luckily there are simple changes that YOU can make, changes that will fight these issues. Consumers have the power in their hands, so by making smarter choices in the way we buy we can make a difference for the world.

How you can help:

1. Buy local. If you are lucky enough to have oceans and bays nearby, support them! Local fishermen typically use sustainable methods of fishing because they want to maintain their livelihood. Go to markets that sell local catches and do not be afraid to ask where the fish was caught.

2. Buy sustainable. For those who don't live near water or don't like the fish offered at the local market, seek out sustainable companies. A New Hampshire-based company called EcoFish sells frozen fish from high-quality fisheries throughout the world. They only sell fish that have been caught using sustainable methods, such as hook and line, rather than by trawlers. Yes it may be more expensive, but it is a necessary step to ensuring our ocean as we know it. Another idea is to find sustainable fish markets. I was lucky enough to interview Carol Huntsberger, proprietor of Quality Seafood in Austin, and learned all the steps she has taken to make sure she is only selling sustainable options. Support smaller businesses like hers that are happy to answer questions and rely on customer feedback and desires.

3. Be informed. If you've taken the time to read my lengthy overview above, you are likely more informed than you were. Stay that way! Be up to date on what types of fish are endangered and shouldn't be eaten while which others are safe. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great tool for this called the Seafood Watch Pocket Guide that can simply be downloaded and carried with you to restaurants and markets. This will help ensure the fish that need protection for a while get it so they can replenish their numbers naturally. Do more research online, through books, and even documentaries. I highly recommend a recent film called The End of the Line if you'd like to learn more.

4. Ask questions. Ask where the fish is from and how it was caught. These two pieces have huge effects on how sustainable it is. Within every realm, whether ocean fishing or fish farming, there are more sustainable methods than others. This is another place where you can inform yourself on the best and worst places to buy from. But fish from the United States are almost always a safe bet since regulations are high here.

5. Eat less fish. This doesn't sound great right now, but will be better in the long run. What most fish currently need is a break, or at least a breather, and the First World consumption of fish has risen drastically since 1950. More than one billion people throughout the world rely on fish as their main form of sustenance, and most of these people are in Third World countries. For those in developed nations, fish is typically a choice made on desire. By eating fish less often the demand for fish will reduce and so will the global catch. When you eat it, enjoy it. Take time to appreciate what you are eating and to realize that the steps you are taking are ensuring seafood for generations to come.

So there you have it! Even making one or two changes can have effects on the market and the oceans. You have more power than you think. Share this information with friends and family and take heart in knowing that simple actions can have a big impact.

** If you would like a list of my sources please let me know as I'd be happy to provide them. I decided to keep them out of here to make it a bit more reader-friendly.