Our food chain faces more challenges than ever, caused by a number of issues, not only land based but in the oceans, rivers, and lakes as well. Some of these challenges include:
With a growing world population and marine fisheries in decline, fisheries experts have long hoped that aquaculture might one day take up the slack. In some ways it already has, but a growing number of marine scientists believe that parts of the industry may instead contribute to the further decline of marine resources. The intense controversy pertains to which species are being farmed and how they are being farmed.
Salmon, shrimp, and tuna are examples of carnivorous animals that must be fed other fish. Most farms raising these species ultimately consume more fish than they produce. The profit motive also inclines many farms to implement large-scale, industrial practices that can result in pollution, the destruction of marine habitat, and a tendency to generate diseases that pose a risk to both wild fish and consumers.
And there are a number of other contributing issues:
Catching fish faster than they can reproduce is the single biggest threat to ocean ecosystems. Seventy-five percent of the world's fisheries are either fully exploited or have collapsed. The global fishing fleet is operating at two times the sustainable level—too many boats chasing a dwindling number of fish.
Management agencies need to set realistic catch limits that help ensure the health of species and preserve their roles in the ecosystem. Alaska wild salmon are one example of a fishery that is thriving under sensible limits and careful management.
The fewer fish there are, the more desperate we become to catch them, and this leads to illegal fishing. At least a quarter of the world's catch is illegal. Effective enforcement can help eliminate this drain on our ocean resources. One example is the wasteful practice of shark finning, where the shark's fins are removed and the rest of the animal is thrown overboard to die a slow death. This practice, while illegal in over 100 nations, continues to threaten shark populations worldwide.
About one-fifth of total global fisheries production is poached. The biggest issue is pirate fishermen taking fish outside the scope of an existing management plan. These violations include taking undersize fish, fishing in closed areas during seasonal closures, using illegal gear or taking more fish than is allocated.
Slow-growing fish that breed late in life are naturally vulnerable to over-fishing. Patagonian tooth fish, a.k.a. Chilean sea bass, have been particularly affected by pirate fishing. Poaching is rampant, especially in remote waters where law enforcement is difficult.
As long-established fish populations have collapsed, fishing has moved and intensified in Africa and the Pacific. Pirates who ignore regulations and steal fish are denying the poorest regions of the world much-needed food, security and income. While poor nations are implicated in illegal fishing, developed nations are most to blame. Significant unlawful fishing happens inside the "exclusive economic zones" of many countries, including the United States, mostly due to a lack of enforcement and penalties.
Oceans never get a rest; many fishing practices destroy fish and the places they live. Among different fishing gear, bottom trawling and dredging are top offenders. Trawls and dredges that drag across the seafloor can destroy the delicate ecosystems that provide shelter, food and breeding grounds for fish and other species. In heavily trawled areas, it's the equivalent of clear cutting a forest several times a year.
In Alaskan waters alone, bottom trawls remove over one million pounds of deep water corals and sponges from the sea floor each year. In many areas, marine life and seafloor communities have no chance to recover; parts of the North Sea off Denmark are trawled up to 400 times a year.
In 2003, California replaced spot prawn trawls with traps, reducing seafloor damage and helping the state's rockfish population recover. In general, traps and pots cause less seafloor damage and catch fewer unintended species than other types of fishing gear.
Two hundred thousand loggerheads and 50,000 leatherback turtles are caught annually. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds are killed annually when they become entangled in driftnets or caught on long line hooks when they dive for bait. Nearly 20 percent of shark species are threatened with extinction, primarily as a result of being caught accidentally on long lines.
By catch also includes young fish that could rebuild populations if they were allowed to grow and breed. Worldwide, one out of every four fish caught is discarded dead or dying, as "by catch." One of the biggest offenders is the shrimp fishery.
For every pound of shrimp caught, it discards almost twice that in other species. It can be 10 times this in some areas. By catch doesn't just include fish—turtles, seabirds and other animals also suffer.
By catch is often caused by less selective fishing gear like long lines or bottom trawls. Long lines have baited hooks and can extend for 50 miles or more. When cast out and left to "soak," long lines attract anything that swims by, from sharks to sea turtles. Bottom trawls drag nets across the seafloor, catching everything in their paths. Fishermen truly don't want to haul in by catch—it wastes their time and wears out their gear. Boats need to be outfitted with more selective gear to reduce this waste, and to help preserve our oceans.
In contrast, gear like hook-and-line fishing limits by catch, because fishermen can quickly release unwanted catch from their hooks since lines are reeled in soon after a fish takes the bait.
Benefits of Better Fishing Gear
In places where management agencies have enforced the use of better fishing gear, by catch and habitat damage have been reduced. This includes requiring devices that allow turtles to escape from nets, the use of less harmful "circle hooks" and a movement away from harmful methods such as bottom trawls and dredges.
The world over, regulations dealing with over fishing and other issues facing our oceans are weak and poorly enforced. While all of us—consumers and fishermen alike—can produce positive change, individuals can't do it all. Innovative management is essential, using proven measures like those below, customized to each fishery.
Creating Marine Protected Areas
Similar to state and national parks on land, Marine Protected Areas preserve undersea habitat, allowing marine wildlife to recover and thrive. These safe havens result in larger, more abundant fish, plants and other marine life.
In order to be truly sustainable, aquaculture operations need to operate in ways that do not harm marine ecosystems or coastal communities and that neither consume more resources than they produce or rob future generations of a healthy ocean.
In China, millions of people depend on farms that raise carp, an herbivorous fish that requires no fishmeal. Carp are omnivorous species like catfish and tilapia that can be farmed with very little need of fishmeal or fish oil. Farms that raise shellfish like abalone, clams, oysters, and mussels also produce a net gain in protein for a hungry world. These kinds of aquaculture are best suited for truly taking pressure off our over-exploited oceans.
Combining the work of conservation and public health organizations, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has identified seafood that is "Super Green," meaning that it is good for human health and does not harm the oceans. This list highlights products that are currently on the Seafood Watch "Best Choices" (green) list, are low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
The Super Green list includes seafood that meets the following criterias: Low levels of contaminants such as mercury and PCBs, and the daily minimum of omega-3s.
The recently released movie Oceans is an fascinating documentary with unprecedented footage,—in my opinion one of the most important movies released this year, one you do not want to miss if you care about our planet. And I know most of us do.
Again, we as chefs and professionals can contribute greatly, and I feel a compelling obligation to not only educate our employees, but our guests as well, to take action and be part of the solution. Incorporate more sustainable seafood in your menus. Ask your suppliers to support you in sourcing and obtaining sustainable wild and farmed species. Educate yourself, your team, and guest to make a lasting difference.