Overfishing Threatens Popular Seafood

REMEMBER WHEN eating seafood wasn't something to feel guilty about? You know, back in the days when fish was the item of choice for the health-conscious on the restaurant menu? Suddenly ordering the wrong entree off the From the Oceans list is about as acceptable as felling a stand of old-growth forest to make a parking space for your SUV. The list of endangered fish species is growing depressingly long. We all know about the spectacular near-disappearance of the Atlantic cod, once among the world's largest FISH stocks. Now add wild Atlantic and Pacific salmon to the imperilled list, along with such traditional meal fare as orange roughy and Atlantic sea scallops. Sharks - those ferocious predators of the deep since prehistoric times - are dwindling to a precious few. The world could soon see the last marlin, swordfish, monkfish, snapper or Alaska king crab. Even Charlie the tuna could be hurtling toward extinction.

What's happening? Above all, decades of huge-scale overfishing have taken a startling toll on the oceans. The seas are plundered by gigantic high-tech trawlers that scoop everything in their wake, and longliners that unspool miles of nets and lines with hooks baited for tuna, swordfish and other top-of-the-food-chain giants. Even smaller boats, equipped with sonar, global positioning systems and other technology, are fishing deeper and in more difficult conditions than ever before. Couple all this technology with the sky-high prices that catches command and it's not hard to see why the large fish in the sea have been decimated.

"We've found a way to remove every barrier nature has placed between us and catching fish," laments Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia and one of the world's leading experts on the global fishery. "It's no longer man against the elements. It's industrial warfare against things with brains the size of peas."

But while overfishing takes the blame, the truth is not enough is known about the basic biology of the oceans to know what else may be playing a part. With close to 95 per cent of the world's seas unexplored beneath the surface, a pioneering global scientific effort on the scale of the human genome project was launched in May 2000. The Census of Marine Life, a 10-year, $1-billion project involving more than 300 scientists from 53 countries is attempting to find out what's in the world's oceans, from the types of marine bacteria to where exactly Pacific salmon go when they return to the sea. "There are amazing discoveries awaiting us," says Ron O'Dor, renowned marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the census's chief scientist.

With the project identifying three new fish species each week, O'Dor expects they'll have another 5,000 by 2010 to add to the known total of 15,304. And there may be up to two million other marine animals and plants waiting to be discovered, according to an interim report released last week. "We only understand a tiny amount of what's down there and what impacts we're having," says O'Dor. The project may help explain some mysteries of the deep. When fishing for some species like cod is halted, for instance, why don't stocks rebound? "It's tough to make decisions about the FISHERIES without knowing what all the biological players are," says O'Dor.

With a global tragedy of immense scale unfolding, it's also hard to be optimistic, says Ransom Myers, another well-known Dalhousie marine biologist. In May he released an alarming study showing that only 10 per cent of all large fish - including tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, skate and flounder - are left in the sea. "With industrialized fisheries," he says, "we have rapidly reduced the resource base of these species from the tropics to the poles." He points to the Atlantic fishery, once dependent on cod and other groundfish to fill its nets. Now almost all its revenues come from snow crab, shrimp and lobster and, increasingly, aquaculture. "That's what the global fishery is now," Myers says, "the stuff at the bottom of the food chain and farmed fish."

Where's it all headed? The health benefits of seafood - a low-cholesterol source of important protein, oils and fatty acids - ensure that demand remains high. But what's still left in the seas is looking less and less appetizing. Canada's fishery is turning to the likes of jellyfish and sea cucumbers, for export to the Far East. Meanwhile, ever-expanding fish farms pollute the seas with antibiotics-ridden, disease-carrying feces, or set the scene for escaped species to cause havoc in environments far from their natural homes.

For a frightening tale of destruction, consider the popular delicacy now known as the Chilean sea bass (in reality, the Patagonian toothfish, but who'd want to order that?). Bon Appetit magazine's "2001 Dish of the Year," its snow-white, flaky filets are prized in restaurants around the world. But it has been so overfished in the past decade - mostly illegally - in the seas off Antarctica that the average Chilean sea bass now weighs less than 10 lb., compared to 150 lb. 20 years ago, and there's a danger the fish could vanish altogether. Governments are trying to halt the slaughter: in August, after a three-week chase through Antarctic waters, Australian and South African authorities seized a Uruguayan ship carrying 94 tonnes of the threatened fish. Five crew members are to appear in court in Perth, Australia, this week, charged with illegal fishing.

But the high seas are no easy place to police. The best bet in the long run could be a consumer boycott of Chilean sea bass, swordfish, beluga caviar and other endangered species that's now spreading across North America and Europe. Many concerned chefs are removing embattled species from their menus. At C Restaurant, Vancouver's hottest seafood eatery, Chilean sea bass, shark, marlin, orange roughy, swordfish and sea turtle are no longer available to diners. "Sure, it presents problems for us," admits chef Robert Clark, "but we've got to stand up and be responsible and accountable."

How does the average consumer keep up with the ever-changing list of what's OK and what's forbidden? A few enterprising companies have sprung up to peddle ecologically responsible, "guilt-free" fish. The British-based Marine Stewardship Council, which emerged from a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the world's largest buyer of seafood, issues labels for stores and restaurants to use to verify that a fish was caught in a sustainable fishery. Sobeys Inc., like most of Canada's supermarket chains, counts on its suppliers to adhere to any international laws - and to ensure their stores are not filled with the kinds of fish that are going to draw the unwanted attention of environmentalists.

But there's no guarantee of any direct relationship between the sustainability of a fish and its availability on store shelves. In truth, you're unlikely to find a waiter or someone behind the seafood counter who can tell you where the fish comes from. And even if they can, who knows what to make of that information? Which is where organizations like the New York City-based Audubon Society and California's Monterey Bay Aquarium come in. Both institutions have compiled lists of the best and worst seafood options to help consumers know what's what. They look at a variety of factors - size of the stock, management practices and what kind of impact the fishery has on other species and the environment - when making their ratings. Stone and dungeness crab, for example, get top marks from the Audubon folks because those fisheries are well managed and the species are caught with traps rather than nets. At the other end of the scale are wild sea scallops, which have been overfished with draggers that scoop up many other kinds of fish and severely disrupt the habitat on the ocean's floor.

The two organizations don't always agree. The aquarium's Seafood Watch puts farmed trout on its "best choice" list, while Audubon rates it lower on its scale because it's concerned about the pollution from trout aquaculture. But both say a resounding "no" to farmed salmon, which sometimes escape from their coastal pens and disrupt the wild-fish population. But then there's similar consensus that wild Alaska salmon is a terrific choice for consumers.

Sometimes the advice is counter-intuitive. There are still plenty of shrimp in the ocean, for instance. But shrimp trawl nets devastate the ocean-bottom ecology. They also have a very high rate of "bycatch" - estimates are that for every pound of shrimp you eat, an average of seven pounds of other sea life was killed, only to be dumped overboard. Millions of red snapper juveniles, for example, are destroyed each year by shrimp nets, which is why red snapper is now depleted - and why both the Audubon Society and the Monterey Aquarium suggest you give imported shrimp a miss. Something else you perhaps don't want to know: catches of Atlantic lobster have declined to the point that both institutions put caution signs over those luscious steamed crustaceans.

So what are we left with? It's still acceptable to eat some types of farmed fish, notably sturgeon and its caviar which, unlike the wild varieties, are on no one's endangered list. As a rule, you're more likely to dine guilt-free if the fish comes from the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic, where the pressures of overfishing have been greater. Pacific halibut and cod are both OK, for instance, but sitting down to a plate of either species caught off Newfoundland or Nova Scotia is a definite no-no.

If you're determined to eat with a clean conscience, you may have to broaden your tastes a little. Look for striped bass or catfish at the supermarket or your local eatery. They're a safe bet - they're both abundant, well-managed species. It's not exactly an order of clams and chips on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, or a plate of coquilles St. Jacques (with their heart-stopping combo of scallops and mushrooms in a rich wine sauce) overlooking Vancouver's English Bay. But choosing environmentally friendly seafood should be good for the soul - if not the best for the taste buds.

WHAT'S OK TO EAT? AND WHAT'S NOT?

There's no full consensus on a handy consumer guide, but here are the Audubon Society's recommendations

DON'T EAT: At risk or pose a risk to others

King, tanner and snow crabs; Atlantic cod, halibut, flounder and sole; bluefin (rare) tuna; wild scallops; haddock; monkfish; snapper; swordfish; marlin; grouper; shark; shrimp; wild and farmed Atlantic and Pacific salmon; orange roughy; Chilean sea bass

EAT INFREQUENTLY: Concern about species, fishing methods or stock management

Bigeye (steaks) and yellowfin (steaks and canned light) and albacore (canned white) tuna; Atlantic and spiny lobsters; mussels, squid; Pacific flounder and sole; farmed rainbow trout

EAT GUILT-FREE: Abundant, well-managed with low bycatch

Wild Alaska salmon; farmed mussels and clams; striped bass; farmed freshwater catfish, crawfish and tilapia; Pacific cod; cat mahimahi; Pacific halibut; stone and dungeness crab; skipjack (canned light) tuna.

See also ENDANGERED ANIMALS.

Maclean's November 3, 2003