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Widespread Fish Consumption Drives Fears of Empty Oceans

As doctors and urge us to eat more fish, environmentalists are warning that we may end up harvesting our favorite sea life to the brink.
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As doctors and health specialists urge us to eat more fish, environmentalists are warning that we may end up harvesting our favorite sea life to the brink and beyond. Some of the most popular varieties have already begun to decline precipitously, experts say. And that’s with Americans eating less than half of what the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines suggest.

So the question is, can we have our fish and eat them too?

The answer is a rather unsatisfying maybe.

Some of the most discouraging news on the fish front is the possibility that, if we don’t change our ways, we may harvest fish into extinction. According to one frightening estimate, the oceans could be virtually emptied of fish by 2050, says Jillian Fry, project director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

The push to eat more fish is based on research showing that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can help prevent heart disease, improve cognition in adults and aid in the brain development of babies.

Still, says Fry, “I’m not sure we should be even advising people to eat 8 oz. of fish per week. But we should at least include advice that people eat lower on the food chain: sardines, anchovies, herring. Those fish reproduce much faster and are a very healthy choice.”

Not everyone is signing on to the 2050 date of doom. But experts do agree that many species are at risk. A recent study published in the journal Science warned that massive marine extinctions could be in our future if we don’t clean up the environment and get smarter about how we harvest sea life. In the past four decades, ocean-going fish have declined overall by nearly 40 percent, researchers reported.

Dangers to the fish population notwithstanding, one thing that’s unlikely to change is the advice that we should eat more fish. Along with being one of the few sources of omega-3 fatty acids, “fish is a healthy source of protein, minerals and vitamins,” says Dr. Walter Willitt, a professor and chair of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. But even health experts like Willitt realize that sustainability is a paramount concern. “We can’t recommend that people in general increase fish consumption without paying attention to sustainability,” Willitt says.

Fry’s group has filed a comment with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee suggesting that sustainability issues should be considered in the creation of any future dietary guidelines.

While fish farming might seem to offer the perfect solution to the overharvesting problem, in its current state, it’s deeply flawed from a sustainability standpoint, says Theresa Sinicrope Talley, a coastal specialist with the California Sea Grant Extension Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. That’s due to the food most fish farmers are feeding their stock: other fish.

“It doesn’t have to be done that way,” Willitt says. “We don’t need to be feeding small fish to create big fish.”

Until fish farmers start feeding fish plant-based foods, aquiculture won’t be a real solution to the sustainability problem.

Which brings us back to the wild fish caught in the oceans.

On the plus side, Talley says, the U.S. has some of the strictest regulations when it comes to fishing.

The problem is, most of the fish Americans currently consume come from abroad.

“We are mostly eating other people’s fish,” says David Die, a research associate professor in the department of marine ecosystems and society at the University of Miami. “About 80 to 90 percent of the fish we consume are produced overseas, while 60 percent of what we produce goes overseas. And that’s because the U.S. consumer has a limited palate. We consume about a dozen species and our oceans cannot produce all the demand we have for those few species.”

Which is why, Talley says, the real focus should be on changing consumer preferences.

“We need to get consumers to include fish that are lower on the food chain and to diversify their demand rather than relying on one or just a few species, such as shark, tuna and swordfish” she said. “Eating those top-level predators can be likened to eating tigers. If we’re only eating those, it’s not sustainable.”

To that end, some experts are trying to find ways to make the lower-food-chain fish more appealing to Americans. “Part of what I’m doing in my job is to raise awareness of other species and to develop recipes with chefs that use fish that are lower on the food chain,” Talley says.

Another way we might be able to have our fish and eat them too is to eat only those that are locally caught, says Paul Greenberg, author of “Four Fish” and “American Catch.”

Along with that, there needs to be “a major culinary shift,” Greenberg says.

If Americans could develop a taste for marine foods like mussels, kelp, oysters and clams—all high in omega-3 fatty acids—it would help put us on track for sustainability, Greenberg says, adding that another way to eat fish responsibly is to keep track of, and buy, only those species that are in good ecological shape.

In any case, Greenberg says, because of strict regulations, most notably the Sustainable Fisheries Act, fish in U.S. waters are most likely to be sustainable, “although other issues, such as climate change, might bite us in the back.”

Still, no nation is an island.

“There are countries that are severely overfished with fisheries that are poorly managed,” Greenberg says. “Consider that 30 percent of the fish we import is from illegal fisheries. The rest of the world is running themselves into deficits. It’s hard to imagine that problem being solved without some serious science and some ‘come to Jesus’ thinking.”