“This is a bad meal because we have no fish.”
A friend of mine heard this phrase several times each day while spending a year in the Marshall Islands, a series of islands in the South Pacific surrounded by vast expanses of ocean.
Given the small amount of land available, residents of the islands traditionally relied on fish to provide much of the protein in their diet. So why are they now going without fish?
To see the answer first-hand, stop by the seafood counter next time you get groceries.
No problem better exemplifies the phrase “think globally, act locally” than the depletion of the world’s fish stocks. The decisions we make at the grocery store and restaurants have direct impacts on the status of fish populations on a global scale.
Fisheries expert Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia described the first known example of the problem in a lecture accompanying his selection the recipient of the 2005 International Cosmos Award. (The award honors an individual each year who has contributed to the balanced relationship between humans and the natural world.)
Archaeological evidence from about 90,000 years ago, Pauly said, shows fishers in modern Congo heavily exploited a now-extinct catfish species. “This pattern of fisheries exterminating the population upon which they originally relied, and then moving to other species, has been going on ever since,” said Pauly.
Evidence from analysis of global fisheries suggests we’ve not yet learned the lesson. Simply put, we cannot remove more fish from the seas each year than the populations can replace.
Records of total annual harvest of fish from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations show harvest levels have remained stagnant since the late 1980s. Yet the past two decades have seen unprecedented improvements in the technology used to locate fish and efficiency in capturing them.
Further, we are exploiting populations that have been historically unavailable or undesirable to harvest. But with the addition of these fisheries over the past twenty years, global harvest totals have not increased.
To maintain the levels of production of years past, we have been forced to exploit more remote fish populations – precisely because the harvests of traditional stocks have not been sustainable.
In 2006, the journal Science published an article that predicted a complete collapse of global fish stocks in 2048 if current practices continue. Importantly, the same article noted it is not too late to avoid the predicted collapses.
Fortunately, even people in a state as landlocked as Colorado have the ability to help the status of global fish stocks.
For starters, get a seafood wallet card from the Audubon Society (seafood.audubon.org). This lists popular seafood choices based on their environmental impact and sustainability.
By purchasing responsible seafood, we support the fishers who make their living without destroying resources and reduce the economic incentive to fish irresponsibly.
In addition to making a statement through your seafood purchases, become informed about issues affecting seafood and let Congress know it’s an important issue.
For instance, aquaculture provides an increasingly large share of the fish we eat. However, most operations still rely on wild-caught fish to feed the farmed fish, often requiring several pounds of wild fish to be harvested to produce a single pound of farmed fish.
(U.S.-raised tilapia is a safe and tasty alternative to this problem, as tilapia consume a more vegetable-based diet.)
The decisions our government makes today about aquaculture will have a profound impact on the oceans in the 21st century.
To read up on the status of ocean fisheries in greater depth, check out the April issue of National Geographic magazine.
Residents of the Marshall Islands are going without fish because the increased global demand for seafood and the decline of traditional supplies have pushed fleets into the waters supplying food for the islands.
Ultimately, their problem is ours. What happens in the Marshall Islands today will happen in American markets eventually.
We decide the fate of the ocean’s fish with our shopping carts. If we want to enjoy seafood for the next century, we must purchase responsibly today.
Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology masters student. His column appears every Tuesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.