The thunderous power of the dollar can obliterate nearly all barriers between consumers and the objects of our desire. If one is willing and able to throw out enough cash, there’s very little in this world that we can’t have. Sadly, this reach extends to a number of aquatic species that just aren’t built to cope with such pressure. In this month’s “4 Oceans,” we examine several seafood items that we just shouldn’t eat, even if we have the wherewithal to acquire them.
This is probably old news to a lot of readers, but the current state of the world’s bluefin tuna populations have been reduced to shadows of their former glory. The fish that fed Rome’s legions now barely ekes out an existence as it is hunted relentlessly to satisfy the top echelon of the world’s sushi industry. Bluefin prices soar while stocks continue to plummet, shackled to the twin lead weights of insatiable demand and ineffectual management.
Last year, a smattering of different countries attempted to grant the bluefin protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which would have effectively ended international trade in this animal. This push was mercilessly quashed by a larger and more committed cadre of governments led by Japan, which hosted cooperative delegates at a pre-vote banquet where they served – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.
Bluefin stocks around the world are verging on utter collapse and yet fishing pressure does not abate. Politics and short-sighted economic interests are nearly always victorious over science and environmental consciousness whenever this bluefin is involved. But even if we can’t depend on political processes, we can least put the chopsticks down.
Over the last four years, ten of the twenty largest seafood retailers in the United States have discontinued orange roughy. Some stores, like Whole Foods and Wegmans, even made public statements on the environmental impacts associated with this fishery when explaining their decisions to stop selling this species. It’s comforting to see for-profit retail enterprises taking stands that seem based more on ethics and long-game considerations than simple quick-fix cash grabs.
Anyhow, orange roughy is a fish that has no business playing any significant role in our seafood industry. The animal simply isn’t built to withstand heavy fishing pressure. First off, it reaches market size well before sexual maturity – a lamentable characteristic, since this results in many roughy being eaten before they’ve had a chance to reproduce and repopulate the fishery. Second, the animal itself can live to a tremendous age – ninety-year-old roughy are not uncommon (at least, they weren’t before we started eating them all.) Fish that live that long are generally not built to reproduce in great numbers; they have evolutionarily invested in longevity rather than in quantity of offspring.
To worsen matters, orange roughy is caught using wantonly destructive bottom trawl nets, and its flesh is a simple, flaky white fillet (there are other, more sustainable sources for this type of product.) It’s best to avoid this species altogether.
Shark (and shark fin)
The more we learn about the role that sharks play in our oceanic ecosystems, the more bat-shit crazy we have to be to keep slaughtering them. Sharks are apex predators, feeding slowly from the top of the food chain and ensuring that the populations of other animals in their areas are kept in check. Without sharks, we see population explosions of their prey items, which in turn devastate the organisms that they prey upon, and so on and so forth. The removal of a single shark from the food system it polices is akin to hurtling a massive monkey wrench into the core gears of the ocean’s ecological stabilization machinery, and we are tossing out somewhere between 50 and 100 million of these wrenches every year.
While many sharks are killed accidentally as bycatch in longline fisheries that target other animals (longlined swordfish is particularly worrisome), the majority of annual shark casualties are perpetrated intentionally by those the shark fin industry. Shark fins – used for soup, especially for weddings and other significant events, by certain segments of the world’s Chinese communities – can fetch astronomical prices and are often used to convey a message of status and wealth. Luckily, the world is waking up to the damage that finning wreaks upon our ocean. Shark fin bans have been enacted in Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan (Mariana Islands), and have been proposed in California, Oregon, and Washington State. If these landmark pieces of legislation pass, we will have taken a great step towards protecting these unique and mysterious creatures.
Chilean sea bass
The Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) are long-lived, slow-to-reproduce apex predators. Still, there are those that claim there is such a thing as a sustainable Chilean sea bass fishery. Some would argue that a particular population, under the guidelines of a particular management authority, governed under a certain catch quota, can in fact be fished sustainably, and that this particular fishery, cut off from the larger amorphous Chilean sea bass industry – dominated as it is by pirates and a rapacious gold-rush mentality – merits our support.
Allow me to propose a slightly different line of thought.
The world is a finite place. I know it doesn’t seem as such, but the ocean is a contained area, and it has boundaries. It does not go on forever. It ends – and in more than one sense.
Over the past century, the way that we fish has changed. Decade after decade, we have pushed the boundaries of our oceans in every way imaginable – geographically (ships are going farther), bathymetrically (ships are fishing deeper), and temporally (ships are spending more time on the water). In our quest for seafood, we strain at the very boundaries of our food system, until we reach the ocean’s farthest-flung reaches in all three categories – by dropping hooks to the ocean floor off of Antarctica in the middle of winter.
That is how, where, and when we catch Chilean sea bass.
Sustainable fishing simply cannot occur in an area and at a depth that is so obviously a reaction to an overblown and exhausted food system — a food system that, because of its inability to balance itself, has cantilevered out into dangerous extremes. The very existence of a Chilean sea bass fishery is in itself evidence of an unsustainable fishing paradigm. To label a Chilean sea bass fishery sustainable only serves as evidence to the contrary, as the claim itself underscores our failure to grasp and to apply the true meaning of sustainability to our seafood industry.