Other Environmental Themes

The Power of the Consumer

The decline of prized marine species is alarming, with some three quarters of the world's commercial fisheries now requiring "urgent care." Informed consumers can make a difference by purchasing sustainably-caught fish from robust populations, while avoiding fish from endangered populations. Consumer demand ultimately drives the fishing industry; If people stop buying overexploited species then fishermen will stop hauling them from the sea.

One example is Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish). An influx of pirate fishing vessels in the remote southern waters where these fish are found resulted in catches of this prized fish five times above the legal limit. In response, environmental groups launched a program, "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" that is aimed at reducing demand for the endangered toothfish and barring illicitly-captured fish from the marketplace. More than 1,000 U.S. chefs have promised to stop serving the fish until proper regulations are in effect.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to threatened species like Chilean sea bass and Atlantic cod in the form of fish from stable populations that are harvested responsibly. The trick is finding those items on a restaurant menu or in the supermarket, which is no simple matter. There's little correlation between the health of local fisheries and the availability of fish on grocery store shelves, as the product can be imported from anywhere. In many cases, no one in a store can tell you where the seafood is coming from. And even if they could furnish that information, it's hard to know what that really means.

To guide such decisions, the Marine Stewardship Council has certified toothfish, caught near the South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, as "sustainable." Meanwhile, the New England Aquarium advises the supplier of more than 800 U.S supermarkets on wise seafood options. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes a periodically-updated list that recommends the best choices—such as Pacific halibut, Alaskan salmon, and farmed rainbow trout—and those to be avoided, including Atlantic halibut, orange roughy, and bluefin tuna. "Educating consumers to ask the right questions can help determine what seafoods are offered," explains Aquarium biologist Steve Webster.

In the end, individual choices about what to eat can affect the well-being and survival of entire fisheries. To paraphrase an old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you can feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish responsibly and eat wisely, and you can feed him and his progeny for years to come."