This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

AUGUST 2013: Your doctor says "eat more fish," but wild stocks are plummeting and fish farming harms the environment. Oy!

Eat More Fish?
The health/environment conundrum

You know I'm not a doctor, right?

I just want to get that out of the way because I'm about to disagree with yours, and I want to make sure you don't take my opinion as medical advice. It is advice for keeping your planet healthy, not your body.

That said, as your body lives on the planet, there's a possibility it could benefit, too.

My advice? Be careful which—and how much—ocean fish you eat. Recommendations for how to do that will follow, but first let's talk about the reasons why.

Roughly 80% of global fish stocks are maxed out due primarily to overfishing. Some are being fished at capacity, meaning they're holding steady but lack any extra capacity to accommodate growing demand. Others have collapsed or are in decline. Of particular concern is the status of big predatory fish, such as cod, halibut and tuna, whose numbers have plummeted by 90% since 1950.

I know this state of affairs doesn't accord with your experience at restaurants and markets where fish always seems to be available. Don't let the disconnect fool you. An increase in farmed fish is masking the decrease in wild varieties.

Some say this only goes to show we needn't worry about dwindling fish stocks: Aquaculture will keep us in good supply. Maybe, but modern methods of fish farming tend to be damaging to the environment and put additional pressure on wild fish populations. They harm coastal habitat, pollute water, spread disease and parasites and contaminate wild gene pools. Moreover, raising carnivorous fish, such as salmon, consumes more fish than it produces.

There is also the animal welfare problem. As with livestock in terrestrial factory farms, fish in aquatic factory farms suffer from severe overcrowding and its side effects—the aforementioned disease and parasites, as well as physical injury. They are also inhumanely slaughtered.

But let's get back to the original issue—that we are knowingly and unnecessarily driving many wild species to the brink of extinction. Not only is it unethical, it is likely to affect ocean ecosystems in dramatic and possibly disastrous ways. I call that reckless.

Fortunately, we have not yet passed the point of no return. Marine species can recover when adequately protected through the establishment and enforcement of science-based catch limits. In the U.S., for instance, we have seen good progress in rebuilding fish stocks since passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996.

The trouble is that equally good protections don't exist in most other nations and regulation of fishing on the high seas is slight.

Even so, we can have a powerful impact on the future of marine wildlife and the ocean through our choices in the marketplace. Keep in mind that the U.S. is the third largest consumer of fish in the world so our influence as Americans is great. Here's how to make it felt:
  • Buy domestic fish. America has some of the best regulated and managed fisheries in the world.

  • Buy local if you can. The closer the source, the less it contributes to global warming, which helps to preserve a stable marine environment for fish and other marine species.

  • Buy directly from fishermen and women if possible and question them about their fishing methods to confirm they fish sustainably. One great way to connect with them is to join a Community Supported Fishery (CSF).

  • When you can't buy direct, shop at stores that are committed to selling sustainable fish. In 2013, Whole Foods, Safeway and Trader Joe's were the top three chains to do so, according to Greenpeace's annual survey—which isn't to say your local market or fishmonger doesn't do so as well. Ask.

  • Choose wild over farmed. It's generally the more sustainable option.

  • Choose small, non-predatory fish, such as oysters, mackerel, sardines and mussels. These species tend to be less at risk.

  • Be open to new (wild, local) varieties of fish.
In restaurants, follow the same general guidelines. If no fish on the menu fits the bill, consider ordering something else and telling the waiter why. At a fine restaurant, ask to see the chef so you can tell him or her directly. There is no better way to be an agent of change.

To get detailed information to help you figure out whether a particular fish on the menu or in the can is sustainable, try the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch pocket guides or app.

If this all seems a bit too complicated—and perhaps even morally compromised as it does for me—you could also eat less fish. Just two three-ounce servings a week will provide the minimum amount of recommended Omega 3 fatty acids. Or you could get your Omega 3s from alternative sources, including flaxseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, canola oil, kale and spinach.

There's no perfect approach. Find one that works for you—and still lets you enjoy your meals.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

Atlantic cod
THE SPECTACULAR COLLAPSE in the early '90s of Atlantic cod fisheries in Canada and the U.S. was a wake-up call, inspiring more effective laws to protect American fish stocks. With the help of this legislation, many fisheries have been rebuilt. Unfortunately, efforts to rebuild the Northeastern cod fisheries have not yet met with success.

The sudden rise and fall of the Newfoundland cod fishery in Canada is shown in the chart below. See an enlarged version here.
Cod catch off Newfoundland, 1850-2000

Photo: Hans-Petter Fjeld (CC-BY-SA). Graph: Philippe Rekacewicz, Emmanuelle Bournay, UNEP/GRID-Arendal.

SMARTER THAN YOU THINK: Recent research has found that fish can count to four and are socially intelligent, able to recognize "shoal mates," track relationships and cooperate. Scientists have also observed them using tools for nest building.

INDUSTRIAL FISH FARMING, as currently practiced, tends to be damaging to the environment and puts additional pressure on wild fish populations, as this video on farming with open net and cage pens explains.

JOIN A COMMUNITY-SUPPORTED FISHERY (CSF) to get fresh, local seafood directly from fishermen and women. Many CSFs abide by specific sustainability criteria, which ensures that the fish they provide is abundant and the method of capture is not causing ecological harm. Find one near you at Local Catch.


Overfished and Under-protected

UTNE Readers
The Story of Declining Fish Populations

Fish Farming's Growing Dangers

On Earth
Seafood Surprise: Wait ... What Am I Eating?

Sustainable Seafood Guide

On Earth
Don't Hold the Anchovies

Grow NYC
Local Seafood FAQ

Harbard School of Public Health
Omega 3 Fatty Acids

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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