It's time to stop devouring the most overfished and worst-managed seafoods
Maclean's Mon 03 Nov 2003

REMEMBER when eating sea food wasn't something to feel guilty about? You know, back in the days when fish was the item of choice for the health-conscious on the restaurant menu? Suddenly ordering the wrong entree off the From the Oceans list is about as acceptable as felling a stand of old-growth forest to make a parking space for your SUV. The list of endangered fish species is growing depressingly long. We all know about the spectacular near-disappearance of the Atlantic cod, once among the world's largest fish stocks.

Now add wild Atlantic and Pacific salmon to the imperilled list, along with such traditional meal fare as orange roughy and Atlantic sea scallops. Sharks -- those ferocious predators of the deep since prehistoric times -- are dwindling to a precious few. The world could soon see the last marlin, swordfish, monkfish, snapper or Alaska king crab. Even Charlie the tuna could be hurtling toward extinction.

What's happening? Above all, decades of huge-scale overfishing have taken a startling toll on the oceans. The seas are plundered by gigantic high-tech trawlers that scoop everything in their wake, and longliners that unspool miles of nets and lines with hooks baited for tuna, swordfish and other top-of-the-food-chain giants. Even smaller boats, equipped with sonar, global positioning systems and other technology, are fishing deeper and in more difficult conditions than ever before.

Couple all this technology with the sky-high prices that catches command and it's not hard to see why the large fish in the sea have been decimated.

"We've found a way to remove every barrier nature has placed between us and catching fish," laments Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia and one of the world's leading experts on the global fishery. "It's no longer man against the elements. It's industrial warfare against things with brains the size of peas."

But while overfishing takes the blame, the truth is not enough is known about the basic biology of the oceans to know what else may be playing a part. With close to 95 per cent of the world's seas unexplored beneath the surface, a pioneering global scientific effort on the scale of the human genome project was launched in May 2000. The Census of Marine Life, a 10-year, $1-billion project involving more than 300 scientists from 53 countries is attempting to find out what's in the world's oceans, from the types of marine bacteria to where exactly Pacific salmon go when they return to the sea. "There are amazing discoveries awaiting us," says Ron O'Dor, renowned marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the census's chief scientist.

With the project identifying three new fish species each week, O'Dor expects they'll have another 5,000 by 2010 to add to the known total of 15,304. And there may be up to two million other marine animals and plants waiting to be discovered, according to an interim report released last week. "We only understand a tiny amount of what's down there and what impacts we're having," says O'Dor. The project may help explain some mysteries of the deep. When fishing for some species like cod is halted, for instance, why don't stocks rebound? "It's tough to make decisions about the fisheries without knowing what all the biological players are," says O'Dor.

With a global tragedy of immense scale unfolding, it's also hard to be optimistic, says Ransom Myers, another well-known Dalhousie marine biologist. In May he released an alarming study showing that only 10 per cent of all large fish -- including tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, skate and flounder -- are left in the sea. "With industrialized fisheries," he says, "we have rapidly reduced the resource base of these species from the tropics to the poles." He points to the Atlantic fishery, once dependent on cod and other groundfish to fill its nets. Now almost all its revenues come from snow crab, shrimp and lobster and, increasingly, aquaculture. "That's what the global fishery is now," Myers says, "the stuff at the bottom of the food chain and farmed fish."

Where's it all headed? The health benefits of seafood -- a low-cholesterol source of important protein, oils and fatty acids -- ensure that demand remains high. But what's still left in the seas is looking less and less appetizing. Canada's fishery is turning to the likes of jellyfish and sea cucumbers, for export to the Far East. Meanwhile, ever-expanding fish farms pollute the seas with antibiotics-ridden, disease-carrying feces, or set the scene for escaped species to cause havoc in environments far from their natural homes.

How does the average consumer keep up with the ever-changing list of what's OK and what's forbidden? A few enterprising companies have sprung up to peddle ecologically responsible, "guilt-free" fish. The British-based Marine Stewardship Council, which emerged from a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the world's largest buyer of seafood, issues labels for stores and restaurants to use to verify that a fish was caught in a sustainable fishery. Sobeys Inc., like most of Canada's supermarket chains, counts on its suppliers to adhere to any international laws -- and to ensure their stores are not filled with the kinds of fish that are going to draw the unwanted attention of environmentalists.

But there's no guarantee of any direct relationship between the sustainability of a fish and its availability on store shelves.

If you're determined to eat with a clean conscience, you may have to broaden your tastes a little. Look for striped bass or catfish at the supermarket or your local eatery. They're a safe bet -- they're both abundant, well-managed species. It's not exactly an order of clams and chips on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, or a plate of coquilles St. Jacques (with their heart-stopping combo of scallops and mushrooms in a rich wine sauce) overlooking Vancouver's English Bay. But choosing environmentally friendly seafood should be good for the soul -- if not the best for the taste buds.

Check with the Audubon Society for a list of recommendations on what fish are at risk.