‘At lunch with a new acquaintance the other day and the guy orders Chilean sea bass. I almost coughed my water all over him.’ On lunch menus and threatened species.
At lunch with a new acquaintance the other day and the guy orders Chilean sea bass. I almost coughed my water all over him. He looked at me. The waiter looked at me. I folded. What am I supposed to say? ‘Chilean sea bass is totally over fished, you dolt,’ or ‘Sure, and I’ll have the grilled right whale with whooping crane sauce and a bowl of mountain gorilla soup to start.’
Maybe I should have, but I just met the guy and it felt awkward, so I gritted my teeth and stared at the menu. How could he not know? Come to think of it, how could this popular restaurant not know? Chilean sea bass, a.k.a. Patagonian tooth fish is one of the most over-fished species on the planet. In just one decade it has gone from being a complete unknown to being a staple item on restaurant menus across North America. To feed that demand, stocks are being hammered and scientists are worried that we might just eat this species to extinction.
So how could he not know? Fact is, most people don’t know where their food comes from or whether or not it’s being harvested in a sustainable manner. We just don’t think about it. While fish stock collapses do make the news, the stories are usually focussed on the loss of jobs that will result or what it will mean to the economy. Rarely is the concept of sustainability ever mentioned. Many people just assume that if stocks are being depleted in one part of the world, well, then we’ll just start fishing for something else. There’s plenty more fish in the sea, right? Right?
Well, no actually. Scientists like Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia point out that we are actually fishing down the marine food web – that is, as stocks collapse, we turn to the fish that our fish of choice used to eat for its dinner. Then, when they’re gone, we move another step down the food chain. At this rate, Dr. Pauly says, we’ll be eating jellyfish before too long.
We’re eating up the food chain too. Sharks used to be a minor player in global fisheries, but with the loss of other stocks and the surge in popularity of shark fin soup, they are being hit hard. Sharks grow slowly and reproduce only a few at a time – making it hard for stocks to replenish. In fact, a recent study found that populations of many species have plummeted by 75% in just 15 years.
So what do we do? On the surface, farming fish may seem like a sensible alternative to catching their wild cousins. But any regular reader of this newsletter knows that farming carnivores like salmon in floating net cages creates huge problems in the marine areas where they are situated – from pollution to the spread of disease, to the excessive use of chemicals and drugs. That’s no answer.
Then what is the answer? Clearly, we need to manage fish stocks better. And we need to create marine protected areas where fishing is not allowed, to give fish a safe haven where they can reproduce and grow. That’s great. But most people don’t manage fish stocks and the only bodies of water they can protect are their bathtubs, so what can the average person do? Obviously, avoiding eating threatened or endangered fish is a start, but what else?
Simple. Tell other people. After that lunch I e-mailed the guy who ordered Chilean sea bass and told him the fish’s story. He was aghast. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he asked. Good question. Then I e-mailed the restaurant and told them I was disappointed to see it on their menu.
A little information goes a long way. If people know a fish is threatened, most will avoid it. If restaurateurs receive enough complaints from customers, they will look for more sustainable options. When they do that, demand goes down and the fish get a much needed break.
So speak up. From now on, I will.
[uittro] Adapted with permission from ‘Finding Solutions’ (spring 2003), a newsletter of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian organisation that studies ways to find the right balance between nature and quality of life. For more information: David Suzuki Foundation, Suite 219, 2211 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6K 4S2, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.davidsuzuki.org.
Don’t order or buy these fish!
Chilean sea bass
Blue fin tuna