Five Fish that are Sustainable and (Almost) Guilt-free

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By Isaac Hopkins

According to a 2010 Food and Agriculture Organization report, 33 percent of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion, and another 52 percent are fully exploited. As more fish stocks fail under the pressure, many fisherpeople, fishery managers, and policymakers are focusing on making fishing more sustainable, using methods that have proven effective at restoring both quantity and quality in depleted fisheries.

Fish market outside Banjul in The Gambia. Fish is a crucial food for billions of people, but many fish stocks are threatened due to overfishing. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Just as importantly, consumers should be conscious of the dietary and ecological impacts of the seafood that they eat. Resources like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a National Geographic Seafood Guide, designed by Barton Seaver, make it easier than ever for seafood lovers to choose fish that are healthy for people and for the planet.

Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five fisheries that have benefited from sustainable management and are improving the outlook for fisherfolk and ecosystems.

1. Mackerel: Mackerel is a broad term that can refer to more than thirty species of moderate-sized fish that are abundant in temperate and tropical oceans around the world. Their flesh is generally oily and high in fat, and they are prized not just by fishermen, but also by many larger fish, as well as dolphins and whales.

Mackerel in Action: Canada’s Atlantic Mackerel fisheries and the King Mackerel and Spanish Mackerel fisheries are rated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a “best choice,” because they are well-managed and sustainable. Mackerel reproduce quickly, which helps them withstand fishing pressures, and most fisheries, especially in the Atlantic, are regulated by enforcement agencies of each country and rely on sustainable fishing methods. The purse seines and midwater trawls used in these fisheries cause minimal bycatch (fish of the wrong species that are accidentally caught and simply thrown out, often dead or dying) or damage to the environment by dragging trawls along the ocean bottom. Because of Mackerel’s abundance, it is available year-round.

2. Sardines: The term “sardine” applies to a number of small fish species related to herrings, the best known of which is the Pacific Sardine. Sardines are rich in nutrients, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and calcium.

Sardines in Action: Sardines have two advantages over most fish for sustainability and health. They are widespread and reproduce quickly, especially in response to population decline. And they are low on the food chain, which means that they don’t accumulate high levels of potentially dangerous contaminants, such as mercury or polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), as large predators like tuna or swordfish do. Unfortunately, sardines are often used as food for farmed fish and industrial livestock, and some fisheries have seen precipitous declines in population. Most fisheries, however, are well-managed, especially those in the Pacific, and the primary capture technique, the use of encircling nets, causes limited bycatch and virtually no damage to the ocean bottom.

3. Alaska Pollock: Pollock is a member of the cod family, and Alaska pollock (also called walleye) is the largest fishery in the United States. Much of the catch goes into frozen fillets and fish-sticks, or into imitation crab meat, called surimi. McDonald’s sources much of the fish for its “Filet-O-Fish” sandwiches from Alaska’s pollock fisheries.

Alaska Pollock in Action:  Despite some concern over the past decade, Alaska pollock populations are generally considered stable or rebounding towards target levels set by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC). The stocks are strictly controlled by Alaskan catch quotas and by the Convention on the Conservation and Management of Pollock Resources in the Central Bering Sea, which was signed by most North Pacific nations. The most common fishing technique is midwater trawling, which generally has minimal environmental impact, although bycatch of salmon has been an enduring concern. The Bering Sea pollock fishery was recertified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2010, and has been used as an example of how even large-scale fishing can be managed in environmentally sustainable ways.

4. Sockeye Salmon: Sockeye Salmon is one of several species of salmon native to the Pacific coast of North America. These fish mature in the ocean, but return to rivers and lakes to spawn, which makes them easy to keep track of. They are sought for their taste and nutritional value.

Sockeye Salmon in Action: The Sockeye salmon, especially in Alaska, is a prime example of the impact that close regulation can have on managing populations in a fishery. The numbers of spawning salmon are tightly monitored as they migrate upstream; their habitats are generally protected; fish are caught in moderate-impact ways, principally gillnets and purse seines; and the catch numbers are restricted by Alaskan regulations. The 2010 salmon run was the largest in almost a century, as ten times the expected number of salmon made the journey upriver. The greatest threat to Sockeyes may come from developments, industries, or dams along rivers, but conservation efforts have been able to keep rivers unobstructed and clean. Sockeye salmon from Alaska rank as a very sustainable option.

5. Longfin Squid: Squid can be found in almost all seas, and are part of the local cuisine in dozens of countries. Nearly the entire animal can be eaten, with the exception of the beak and gladius (an internal remnant of the squid’s ancestral shell). Even the ink makes its way into recipes! Longfin inshore squid are found in the North Atlantic, where they represent a lucrative fishery for American and Canadian trawlers.

Longfin Squid in Action:  Squid reproduce at a young age and can have many offspring, which helps them recover from intense fishing. Squid populations are difficult to track, but experts believe that many species are suffering due to unregulated overfishing. Longfin squid are an exception, which earned it a “best choice” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The longfin fishery in the U.S. is highly managed, and population levels are believed to be healthy. The trawling method generally used to catch longfin squid tends to result in bycatch problems, but habitat destruction is minimized by the location of the fishery away from reefs. Small squid live relatively low on the food chain, and can be a healthy, sustainable alternative to typical fish.

To read more about the state of the planet’s fisheries, follow these links:  Sustainability Questions Over Fish FarmingFishing for Sustainable Practices to Conserve Fisheries, Creating a sustainable world: An interview with Barton Seaver,  It’s Time to Focus on the Forgotten FisheriesInnovation of the Week: Turning an Invasive Species into a LivelihoodFood & Water Watch Wants You to Know Your FishFishing for Innovations That Conserve Fisheries, “Greening” Fisheries Could Calm Troubled Waters,

Isaac Hopkins is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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