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April 1999 Vol. 25, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Politically Correct Guide to Eating Fish

from the April, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson, and ... Carl Safina? Yes, this is a list of authors of classics of marine ecology, and reviewers really are bandying Safina’s name around with such august company. Elliott A. Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, says it straight out: “the best writer about the sea since Rachel Carson.” Stephen Colwell, executive director of the dive organization CORAL, says Safina’s book, Song for a Blue Ocean, “captures the good, the bad and the ugly of what is going on in the world’s oceans.” Bert Jones and Maurine Shimlock, authors of Secret Sea, had the strongest reaction of all: by the time they’d reached the end, they’d decided to give up eating fish — even sushi!

For those of us who aren’t ready to make a commitment of that magnitude, a sliding scale to let us know just how much damage we’re doing appeared in a past issue of Audubon. The scale, which Safina himself prepared, ranks marine species from populations in abundant supply to species in serious trouble. It considers such issues as the species’ current status, its management history, and ancillary bycatch or habitat concerns to arrive at a recommendation of which fish to order for dinner and which to shun.

Sharks, swordfish, and shrimp top the list of fish in trouble, followed closely by orange roughy, grouper, and Atlantic groundfishes such as cod and haddock. All suffer from scant populations, histories of poor fisheries management, and substantial bycatch concerns. Sharks top the list of atrisk species for many “dull” reasons — including overfishing, slow species recovery from overfishing, and turtle bycatch in gillnets — and a few memorable ones, including exploitation of shark cartilage for “miracle drugs,” $90-a-bowl shark-fin soup, and the fact that all too many of the sharks caught for soup are killed for their fins and discarded. Swordfish are popular for pricey steaks, which has depleted the species, and shrimp have the highest bycatch of any of the world’s fishes: for every pound of shrimp sold, an average of seven pounds of other sea creatures was killed and thrown overboard. Even farmed shrimp are a problem, with farms being such serious polluters that the Indian government recently ordered more than 100 of them closed. Orange roughy, a “trendy” fish unheard of until a few years ago, doesn’t spawn until after age twenty and may live to reach 100, so depleted populations take many years to recover. Similarly, grouper change sex as they age. While this may well give the term “my old man” new meaning, it also means that heavy fishing, which claims mostly older fish, could wipe out nearly an entire gender.

Species that fall into the middle-of-the-road or gray area are often fish that have been depleted in some subgroups or regions but not in others. Bluefin tuna, for example, is so severely overfished to supply Japan’s sushi bars that a single fish often sells for $10,000 to $20,000. Conversely, most tuna sold in the U.S. as “chunk light” is either skipjack tuna, which is still in substantial supply, or yellowfin, a declining, but not depleted, species. “White” or albacore tuna, long the “politically correct” variety because its harvest did not involve substantial dolphin bycatch, is also a declining species. Likewise, red snapper is depleted, while other snapper populations are in fair shape. And many salmon populations are deemed at substantial risk, although nearly 50 percent of all salmon sold is farmed and Alaskan salmon populations are still considered healthy.

While ordering dolphin (mahi mahi) might make you feel as if you’re eating Flipper, populations are still in ample supply, although fishing is intensifying. And species such as squid, crabs, and striped bass are abundant, adequately managed in general, and have low to moderate bycatch concerns, putting them at the top of Safina’s list of fish to be eaten with a clear conscience.

Of course, if you’d like to know why some populations flourish while others decline, you should consider reading Song for a Blue Ocean itself. Although Colwell insists that it’s “not a doom and gloom story,” Jones seems to have his doubts. “If you ever want to eat fish again,” he cautions, “don’t read this book.”

— John Q. Trigger

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