Now, more than ever, the choices that chefs and seafood consumers make can have a profound effect on the health of the world's oceans. From the cold waters of the North Atlantic to the scenic shores of the Mediterranean and the Hawaiian Islands, stocks of certain once-abundant fish species are dwindling. Yet, under a phenomenon referred to as the "Tragedy of the Commons," fishing fleets roam largely unregulated waters farther and wider, using increasingly sophisticated equipment, to harvest fish and shellfish that please our palates—often with little regard for long-term consequences.
The problem is linked to the simple economic principle of supply and demand. Throughout the world, ever-increasing populations need—or simply want—seafood in their diets. Fish is high in protein, low in fat and provides numerous health benefits. And, to billions of us, it is tasty. So, quite simply, our cravings for swordfish, shrimp and cod drives an industry that in many areas seems destined to run at full tilt until the stocks simply collapse and commercial harvesting is no longer viable.
Knowledge of these trends is not new. In 2004, I reported in this column that a movement was afoot to help seafood consumers make choices that can satisfy their cravings for seafood without harming the ocean environment. Unfortunately, some well-known organizations that follow the issue closely are reporting that most consumers are still buying seafood without a thought of where it comes from, or what impacts its harvest might have had.
"Our oceans are in trouble as a result of destructive fishing and aquaculture practices and environmental contaminates," says a report released this week by Environmental Defense, a New York City-based environmental organization. "The truth is that most people do not know how their seafood is produced or where it comes from (more than 80 percent is imported)."
Without a doubt, choosing "environmentally correct" seafood can be a challenge. Take salmon, for example, one of the West's most popular fish varieties. Salmon raised in farms might have polluted ocean waters. Some wild salmon populations—including Idaho's sockeye salmon—are in danger of becoming extinct. "On the other hand," Environmental Defense reports, "wild salmon from Alaska are abundant."
Despite the veil of mixed messages, there are tools available to help consumers make sensible choices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now requires large supermarkets to note where the fish in their cases came from (some smaller markets do this voluntarily). And, some organizations, including Environmental Defense, publish lists to help consumers determine which are the best and worst seafood choices.
Environmental Defense recently updated its "Seafood Selector" list, including the "best" and "worst" choices from an environmental perspective, as well as notes about how different varieties might promote or hinder good health.
Among the "best" category are such delicacies as U.S. farmed abalone, Dungeness and snow crab, Alaska halibut, farmed oysters, wild Alaska salmon and farmed bay scallops. The "worst" category, which lists fish species that are endangered and/or pose a health risk, includes Chilean seabass, Atlantic cod, grouper, Atlantic halibut, marlin, monkfish, orange roughy, rock cod, shark, imported shrimp and prawns, farmed Atlantic salmon, snapper and imported swordfish. (To read the entire list, visit www.oceansalive.org.)
The lists do present some limitations but rarely rule out entire varieties of seafood altogether. Thus, making choices that could help steer the fishing industry more toward successful models employed in some places, notably Alaska, are rarely difficult. And, they need not be made alone. Fishmongers are often more than happy to help customers make a purchase that will melt in the mouth without weighing too heavily on the mind.