Seafood Choices: Lots to Consider, Many Tools

Last week, NRDC released a report on how whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are killed or seriously injured around the world after getting entangled, trapped, or hooked in commercial fishing gear, Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries. It puts some flesh on the estimate that more than 650,000 marine mammals are killed or seriously injured every year in global fisheries, identifying populations threatened by this “bycatch,” like the North Atlantic right whale and the New Zealand sea lion, and regions of the world where bycatch is rampant, like Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. It also explains how enforcement of a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) will lessen this carnage by forcing countries exporting seafood to the United States to meet U.S. standards for marine mammal bycatch reduction.

With this law already on the books, people have an opportunity to help save whales, dolphins, sea lions and other marine mammals, by demanding that the Obama Administration finally enforce the law. But what can they do to save marine mammals while regulations are worked out? What choices can consumers make to help? Unfortunately, until this law is enforced, there is no way to know that any imported wild-caught seafood is meeting U.S. standards for marine mammal bycatch. Only American-caught seafood is operating under the MMPA’s regime for bycatch reduction.

That doesn’t mean that American fisheries are perfect—they’re not. Many U.S. fisheries continue to suffer from over exploitation, continue to threaten sea turtles, sea birds, and non-target fish species, and despite the MMPA, kill or seriously injure too many marine mammals, including right whales. But many U.S. fisheries are getting better as detailed in a 2013 NRDC report, Bringing Back the Fish: An Evaluation of U.S. Fisheries Rebuilding Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and, in the case of marine mammals, while there are problem fisheries, the MMPA provides mechanisms to address shortcomings. NRDC supports additional initiatives to reduce bycatch of all marine species by strengthening U.S. fisheries law as detailed in a blog by my colleague, Brad Sewell.

Nor does it mean that all foreign fisheries are bad—they’re not. Many foreign fisheries work hard to operate sustainably and to limit harm to non-target species. And there are many instances where foreign fisheries are doing a better job than U.S. fisheries on a variety of criteria, including bycatch of all kinds.

As I was drafting portions of the report, I realized how many different issues crop up if a person wants to make smart choices when purchasing seafood, let alone other types of food. People have choices between wild-caught and farmed seafood and how much they want to support sustainable fisheries. People can investigate how fisheries affect sea turtles and sea birds and determine how much weight to give stories like those exposing the shooting of seals that get too close to fish enclosures in aquaculture facilities.

It’s a lot to process. For some people it’s too much. For example, my sister has given up seafood completely and urges her friends and family to give it up, turning up the vitriol at times by referring to people who don’t as “fish snarfing piglets.” I haven’t reached the point of name calling myself, but I do think that reports like Net Loss and Bringing Back the Fish can provide consumers with important information when shopping for seafood. Using these tools in conjunction with others, like those provided by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which grades seafood items as “Best Choices, “Good Alternatives,” and ones to “Avoid,” on the basis of ecosystem sustainability, consumers can make informed choices about what shows up on their kitchen tables.

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