Fish or Foul

The life-and-death quest for ethical seafood

| September-October 2008

  • Fish Market

    image by Greg Vaughn,

  • Fish Market

This article is part of a package on ethical seafood. For mouth-watering recipes, sustainable seafood news, and myriad resources to help readers stay informed and eat sustainably visit Sustainable Seafood.

The world’s oceans are being transformed, and not for the better.

Around the world, unappetizing creatures are proliferating in the absence of big fish. Carpets of primitive sea squirts now cover continental shelves. The filter-feeding fish that once cleaned the oceans are being caught and ground into fertilizer, causing giant abundances of toxic plankton. Flotillas of jellyfish, some 10 miles square, are stinging sea cages full of salmon to death.

Scientists now know that the eating habits of a single species, Homo sapiens, are driving these changes. By knocking out the chain’s upper levels (which include predatory fish like tuna, swordfish, and shark) through violent overfishing, and skimming off the middle and bottom for industrial use, we are changing, perhaps permanently, the structure of an environment that nourishes us. Unless we adjust our attitude toward seafood, ours might be among the last generations able to enjoy the down-to-earth luxury of freshly caught wild fish.

The good news is that there is a way to eat that balances conservation and health—even when it comes to the complex, multispecies cuisine that is seafood. And it can be done without leaving the oceans, or our plates, empty.

Choosing fish ignorantly is no longer an option. In too many cases, following the line connecting the fish on the plate to the hook or net that caught it—or the aquaculture pond it was grown in—leads directly to a scene of devastation. Popcorn shrimp in the strip malls of America leads to poisoned drinking water in some of the world’s poorest countries. Steamed wrasse in Shanghai, to corals poisoned by cyanide and ripped apart by dynamite. Roasted monkfish in New York, to the Atlantic seafloor reduced to mud by bottom trawls.

Rod Paynter
8/25/2008 7:35:35 PM

The pirate infested Barents Sea? There's a mistake here, methinks. The Barents Sea is bordered by Russia and various Scandinavian countries. Pirates? No way.

8/25/2008 7:16:50 PM

There are two major advantages to eating ethically correct forms of seafood - they are healthy and cheap. I haven't lived near the ocean since childhood - and I do remember going with my mother to buy freshly caught wild BC salmon and Alaska crab in the afternoon to eat for dinner that night. It was glorious. But now, I've grown to love kippered herrings in curried cream sauce, sardines in oil or lemon pepper sauce, mackerel with hot peppers - they come from the nearest supermarket (which isn't exactly full of specialty foods). Outside of a can, frozen pollock is the cheapest frozen fish - and it tastes pretty good in a sauce, or baked with dill, etc. And it's all really cheap! Give it a try!

Gary Ashcraft
8/25/2008 1:41:46 PM

You did'nt even begin to dwell on the great floating sea of plastic spinning out in the middle of the Pacific and it's inevitable impact on the food chain from the ocean as it breaks down and enters the food chain? Gary Ashcraft

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