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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, May/June 2005



How to help fisheries conservation by watching what you eat

By Captain John McMurray


Saltwater flyfishers, perhaps more than any other user group, understand the importance of healthy and abundant marine resources.  We are well aware of the intrinsic value of the sea - the open green and blue expanse of life that keeps us in touch with who and what we are in a world full of big cities and crowded subways.  But still, we buy/order and consume seafood on a regular basis -- and why not?  It tastes good and can be very healthy.  Of course, eating fish is not a terrible thing, to say so would make me a giant hypocrite.   But when a human population that is growing exponentially favors certain species, which are being harvested at unsustainable levels or with habitat destroying gear, it has and will continue to have negative impacts on entire ocean ecosystems.  Not necessarily groundbreaking news to most readers.


But still I am constantly reminded, most people, including my flyfishing friends, assume that if it is on the menu, or behind the counter, it is caught legally, is readily available, healthy and abundant. These assumptions are not true in many cases.  Demand fuels fishing effort and consumer choices can, and do make a difference.   During this day and age we should know which species are in good shape, which are not and why.  Choosing seafood that encourages abundance rather than depletion and choosing seafood which is caught or harvested in ways that do not harm habitat or other marine life is not just something that’s nice to do, it’s our responsibility. 


While space here doesn’t allow for a comprehensive listing, the following are a few examples of popular menu choices and their status.  For a full list of seafood choices and detailed reasons why you should or should not consume them, log onto the Blue Ocean Institute website:


What you can order with a clear conscience:


Alaska Salmon – While not so readily available for us East Coasters, I can attest to the fact that out of all the salmon on the market, Alaska salmon, especially if it’s fresh, is by far the tastiest.  And because there are strict limits on where and when they can be harvested, most stocks remain healthy and abundant.  In the U.S. Northwest and parts of British Columbia, dams, clear-cut logging and other land abuses have defaced streams and rivers.  However, most habitat in Alaska remains intact, supporting ongoing generations of wild salmon. 


Alaska Halibut – Studies indicate that Pacific halibut are currently in good shape because of strongly enforced international management between Canada and the U.S.  Most halibut comes from longline gear off the coast of Alaska.  There used to be high incidental catches of seabirds, but fishermen employing this gear are now required to use bird-scaring devices that prevent seabirds from going after baits.  Managers use an extensive network of closed areas to support continued viability.  It seems to be working well.  Atlantic Halibut is commercially extinct because of a grand management failure, although if it is caught incidentally when targeting other species, it does occasionally make it to the market.  It is still rare to see one on a menu.  At any rate, ask where the halibut on the menu comes from. 


Tilapia, (St. Peters Fish) U.S. farmed – Originally a freshwater fish native to and harvested in Africa, tilapia are now farmed in many countries including Taiwan, China, Central America and others.  Mainly herbivores, tilapia require little or no wild fish in their feed.  Unfortunately, there are habitat degradation, wastewater and escapement issues with these unregulated operations. However there are a rising number of regulated tilapia farms developing in the U.S. These farms have fewer pollution and escape problems.  A delicious firm and white flakey flesh makes these fish a restaurant favorite. 


Wahoo - Hands down my favorite type of sushi.  Often billed as “super-white” tuna at sushi restaurants, this fish has perhaps the richest taste of any raw fish on the market.  These fish are sought after by anglers for their lighting fast runs and by commercial fishermen for their high market price.  But, because they don’t appear to stay in any one place, there is no directed commercial effort; instead, they are incidentally captured in small numbers in other fisheries, and therefore are not overfished. Managers in the eastern U.S. recently implemented a precautionary plan to prevent future commercial Wahoo fisheries from developing.


Mahi-mahi (pole/troll-caught) - Mahi-mahi produce many offspring and they mature in less than one year, living a maximum of five years.   Their life strategy allows them to  withstand a high level of fishing pressure.  Pole/troll-caught are better than longline-caught fish because of the associated bycatch inherent to that gear type.  There is limited information available on abundance of mahi worldwide since no formal assessments have been conducted, but the consensus is that they are in fairly good shape.  Ask your waiter or fish monger how the mahi are caught.  If he doesn’t know, go somewhere else. 


Yellowfin, Bigeye and Albacore Tuna (pole/troll-caught) – Like Mahi-mahi these fish mature early and are prolific reproducers, thus they can withstand significant fishing pressure.  However, most commercial tuna fishing is done with longlines or purse-seines, which results in large bycatch numbers.  Tunas caught with pole/troll gear have little bycatch and a lower potential for enormous catches, giving tunas a greater opportunity to reproduce. 


Farmed Striped Bass - Hybrid Striped bass —a cross between striped bass and white bass—are raised in ponds and tanks with few escapes and minimal pollution. To me, these hybrids taste exactly the same as the wild version and I can order them guilt free. 


What you shouldn’t order:


Chilean Seabass (Patagonian Toothfish) – Chilean Seabass is the sheik market name for Patagonian Toothfish which is harvested in the frigid Antarctic waters off of Chili.  These fish are slow growing and long lived, having a lifespan of up to 50-years.  There is major concern among the scientific community that some populations are on the verge of collapse due to excessive fishing pressure.  While international management efforts are in place, there are serious problems with illegal fishing. 


Orange Roughy – Occurring off of New Zealand, Australia and Namibia, these fish also grow slowly, mature late (20-to-30-years), and can live as long as 130-years.  They congregate at predictable times in large groups around underwater seamounts to spawn.  Since the start of large-scale fishing with deep-water trawls only two decades ago, their numbers have plummeted.  Deep-water trawls wipe out habitat as they scrape against the sea-mounts. 


Atlantic Cod – Fishing pressure on Cod has been so great for so long that few remain.  Cod can live to 20-years, but most are caught before age five.  Bottom trawls rake up hundreds of miles of bottom habitat each year and there are associated bycatch problems as well.  Management of this fishery has been disastrous.  Cod was the subject, along with other New England groundfish, of a lawsuit by environmental groups to end overfishing and reduce bycatch a couple of years ago.  The stock remains in bad shape.   


Flounder/Sole – Flatfish species are vulnerable to fishing pressure because, like other overfished species, they tend to be found in the same locations and the same general times year after year.  Due to poor management, most flounder and sole populations are seriously depleted.  Like cod, most flatfish are caught with bottom trawls that destroy habitat and result in tons of unwanted bycatch.    


Sharks- Most shark species (mako, thresher, and coastal sandbar sharks in particular),  are vulnerable to fishing pressure because they mature late, grow slow, live long lives and produce very few young.  Sharks evolved as top predators producing few young because they faced little risk of predation.  Now, unfortunately, there’s a market for shark fins, in addition to the large incidental catch on longlines that are targeting other species.  Declines are occurring in most areas of the world and there is currently no international management in place.   


Swordfish – The subject of the 1998 "Save Our Swordfish” -- S.O.S. boycott and "Give Swordfish a Break" campaigns which asked consumers to stop eating swordfish; restaurants, chefs & retailers to stop serving it, consumers to stop buying it.  The average weight of a commercial swordfish today is less than 90-pounds whereas in the 60's it was over 300 pounds.  Strict catch limits are resulting in early signs of recovery, but they are still overfished.  Furthermore, most market swordfish are caught with longline gear which, as previously mentioned, has major bycatch issues, most notably with sharks and endangered sea turtles.   


Snappers – There are over 100 different species of snapper, but red snapper appears on menus more than any other.   These fish can live as long as 25-years and other species of snapper can live to be 100.  Snappers spawn in groups staying in the same coral reef or rock ledge areas, making them easy targets for fishermen.  Release mortality is also very high, as these fish are pulled from great depths and don’t deal with pressure change well.  Some, but not all species, change sex over their lifetime, so fishing out specific age groups can jeopardize reproductive success.  Due to overfishing, the limited data that exists shows a decline, low abundance or high risk of depletion.


Grouper – Like snappers, grouper gather in large groups in very specific areas to spawn.  Over-fishing in these spawning areas has depleted most grouper populations.  Some species change sex with age like snappers, so they have the same overfishing age class reproductive problems.  Grouper hunters often use cyanide and explosives, which kill corals and fish, to stun and catch grouper for the live fish trade. 


Borderline Fish 


Shrimp (farmed and wild) – Although most shrimp populations are abundant, there are problems with how the majority of shrimp are caught or farmed.  Because the fishery employs small mesh nets, there is a tremendously large amount of bycatch involved.  Additionally, the bottom trawls that are used damage habitat.  Shrimp farming, mostly located in developing countries, causes major problems including destruction of coastal mangrove habitat, water pollution and displacement of local fishing communities.  In addition, farmed shrimp are fed fishmeal which depletes more resources than it puts out.  The good news is that there are currently a few sustainably operating shrimp farms.  I’m optimistic that more will pop up and that the existing ones will work out some of the problems in this industry.  


Farmed Salmon – The salmon farming industry is growing in leaps and bounds.  Virtually all Atlantic salmon on the market is now farmed as the abundance of salmon populations in many areas of the Atlantic range from low to endangered to extinct.  There are high environmental costs in farming salmon such as water pollution, mercury build-up, disease, the high content of wild fish in feed, escapement and overuse of antibiotics.  But because of market-based pressure that was initially created by environmental groups, the industry is working hard to clean their act up.   Don’t swear off farmed salmon yet, but for now it may be prudent to steer clear of them. 


Wild Striped Bass – Because of effective management measures, this species recovered from severe depletion in the 1980’s.  Striped bass reproduce quickly and can live up to 30 years.  Most market fish are caught with low-impact hook and line gear, but they are also harvested with gill and pound nets. Because these fish are heavily regulated and the demand for the fish is high, a large poaching industry exists.  Furthermore, recent data indicates that fish in the eight-plus-year-range are being heavily overfished.  In addition to high recreational fishing mortality, the larger fish of the stock that winter in schools off the coast of North Carolina are extremely vulnerable to the commercial fleet.  A lot of their spawning habitat, particularly areas in the Chesapeake have been degraded as well.  In the conventional sense, this species is not necessarily in trouble, but my recommendation is don’t eat it unless you caught it.


Just like the growth of the organic, health food and even the low-carb hysteria, a market based sustainable seafood movement is gathering steam.  There are chefs across the nation who are choosing not to serve fish that they know is not sustainably caught.  Be part of the movement.  Choose your seafood wisely.