A few nights ago, I cooked tilapia. I don’t use my oven very often, but there is a particular recipe my mom taught me that I thought I’d try out. Honestly? It was fine (I am not a good cook). But while waiting for my fish, I checked out the packaging and read, in bold print, WILD CAUGHT. That makes it better, right? Fresher. Tastier. Not that farm-raised tilapia that sounds like a dirty factory. On most fish packaging, we see either label. Farm or fresh. The print matters, but it’s not always explained.
Fisheries, which work to raise and harvest fish for commercial purposes, are in production all over the world - both farms and fresh water. In more cases than not, the areas are increasingly deregulated and prone to over-fishing. When an area of water can no longer produce fish at the same or higher rate than it is being fished, the area is quite literally going extinct of fish. About 80% of fisheries are in the process of being over-fished or have already collapsed. Only a third of fisheries actually allow for re-population. At this rate, all the world’s fish could completely disappear by 2048 (According to a 2006 study. Maybe it’s gotten better? It hasn’t).
While farm fishing seems to alleviate the problem (oh! We’re not taking them from the ocean!), the issue here comes in two parts. One, many of these farmed fish are carnivorous which means that they need other fish to eat in order survive. The farms will fish for the food necessary. Thousands of smaller fish are carted to farms to feed the carnivorous ones. So if you really want to eat a salmon, it might just be better to get it fresh. Though it might be better to just avoid it entirely for a while. The other point is we’re losing land. Similar to mass crop farming, fish farming has already taken an estimated 3 million hectares of land to just farm shrimp. The land will often have been used and discarded when the farms face common complications such deadly fish disease and subsequent mutations.
Mass fishing has been a danger to oceanic ecosystems as well. Specifically, a large net is dragged across the ocean in a process called Trawling. It is primarily used to catch shrimp, but in the effort, the seafloor is torn apart and many other species of fish are fished out and then thrown back killed and unneeded. Polluted sediment is knocked up from the bottom of the ocean as well, causing 10X the amount of regular pollutants. In another case, fishing predators such as groupers and tuna, causes a disruption in marine communities. When these larger fish are not around to prey on the smaller ones, the balance is thrown. For example, Cod’s main source of food is herring. This fish, which primarily eats plankton, transfers much of these healthy plankton nutrients to the fish around it. When the herring is overfished, the Cod suffer, as well as the many other mammals and birds that eat it too. The ecosystem has been and will continue to be crippled.
This is looking BAD. We know. How do we stop this? Unfortunately, until governments decide to put more regulations on the fish industry, it will be an uphill battle from here. Personally, we can have a say though. It is important to see what fish are endangered and which are doing okay in order to let populations recover. Shellfish, such as clams, cockles, mussels and oysters, are a good bet to avoid eating those bigger guys. This all important seafood watch list will help you out as well. It will tell you what fish are safe to eat now, if you should eat them farmed or fresh, and what to be generally wary about. Avoid the salmon! But ScienceFM is going to be safe and eat arctic char and some mussels while we’re at it.
If you are still worried(which you should be) and want to actively prevent overfishing (which you absolutely should be), here are some good places to lend a few. National Resources Defense Fund (NRDF), Oceana, the Ocean Conservatory, and we are all particularly big fans of Sea Legacy.