Sayonara to Sushi? Say it Ain’t So.

Last year more than 90 million metric tons of fish was harvested worldwide.  This is the equivalent to the weight of the population of China.   The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 30% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished (harvest rates are greater than fishing mortality rates) and 60% are fully fished (harvest rates are approaching maximum sustainable yield).  We are on the verge of losing several species of fish as well as endangering entire ecosystems.  With the loss of these fish comes the loss of a valuable food source and income streams for millions of people.

The posterfish for the overfishing epidemic might be the bluefin tuna.  It is estimated that the bluefin tuna population is under 3% of its historic population.  This is mainly due to countries like Japan, South Korea, and the United States exceeding fishing quotas for several years running.  Most of the world’s bluefin tuna is consumed in Japan– upwards of 80% of the world’s catch.  Bluefin toro sushi is highly sought after and consumers are willing to pay top dollar.  One sushi restaurateur paid $650,000 for a 212 kg bluefin in January, 2017.  To feed this ferocious appetite for bluefin, 70% of Pacific bluefin are less than a year old when harvested; 95% less than three.  These harvesting practices are decimating the bluefin tuna population.  Some speculate that population has fallen past the point of recovery.

Fishing for Northern Atlantic cod had been a way of life for people of the region for 500 years. But in the 1960’s something new came to the Atlantic seaboard– fishing trawlers equipped with radar became commonplace.  30 years later, in 1992, Canada declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery.   Atlantic Cod had been fished to near extinction.  The northern cod population was at 1% of its historic numbers.  35,000 people lost their jobs due to the collapse of the fishery and 20 years later the cod population has not recovered and the moratorium remains in place.Chilean_purse_seine

Wild salmon numbers have also been on the decline.  The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the salmon population has decreased by 50% over the past 20 years.  This is mainly due to commercial overfishing, mostly in the Norwegian Sea.  Habitat loss has also hurt salmon, as many spawning rivers have been dammed.  Wild Atlantic salmon are no longer seen in the rivers of Connecticut which has over 3,000 dams.

Is aquaculture the answer?  Farmed fish has been touted as the answer to overfishing, but fish farms come with their own set of problems.  In terms of tuna, no.  Tuna can not be farmed large scale.  The majority of farmed tuna are merely juvenile bluefins that are caught wild and then fattened in offshore pens.

There has been success in farming salmon and cod.  Over 2 million tons of Atlantic salmon are farmed each year and farmed Atlantic cod saw some limited success with 25,000 tons farmed in 2010.  There are several concerns abouts about farmed fish however.  Farmed fish are much more prone to disease and parasites than wild fish.  A percentage of farm raised fish escape hatcheries each year and could pose health risks when introduces_g159d to wild populations.  The waste produced from fish farms also have a significant impact on surrounding ecosystems.  Lastly, salmon require almost 2 pounds of protein for every 1 pound of salmon.  To feed massive salmon fish farm billions of “trash fish” are caught every year and ground into fish feed.

Tilapia has been successfully farmed in Africa and Asia and is a suitable, sustainable replacement for whitefish.  But the same qualities that make tilapia an ideal fish for aquaculture means that it is incredibly invasive.  Here in the US tilapia has taken over freshwater bodies throughout the southeast and many states are attempting to regulate it.

Would you change your fish eating habits?  Would you try eating different types of fish?  The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has an app that gives the latest recommendations for seafood and sushi.  Would you use it?

 

 

http://overfishing.org/

https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_greenberg_the_four_fish_we_re_overeating_and_what_to_eat_instead

http://www.fao.org/fishery/culturedspecies/Salmo_salar/en

https://massbay.mit.edu/seafood/tilapia.pdf

http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/salmon/

Greenberg, Paul, 1967-. Four Fish : the Future of the Last Wild Food. New York :Penguin Press, 2010. Print.

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32 thoughts on “Sayonara to Sushi? Say it Ain’t So.

  1. Thanks for posting this! I had no idea about the magnitude of this issue. It seems like a recurring theme with many of our food related blog posts is that there seems to be a very non sustainable side to foods that we generally think of as “healthy”. I think that this issue really stems from a lack of understanding of where our food comes from and misinformation and misconceptions about food production. I think that with increased access to this kind of information from reliable and unbiased sources, it may help to raise awareness and alleviate some of these issues.

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  2. This is unfortunate to hear as I am a huge fan of salmon myself. Eventually, this will become a matter of supply and demand and once there is a premium on various types of fish then the market will move to cheaper forms of meat or more grains/vegetables. Tilapia is typically the cheaper alternative to salmon, which makes sense given that they are easily farmed. I would be willing to switch to tilapia if the price of salmon were to get too high. Hopefully farming method will improve and I won’t have to remove salmon from my diet.

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  3. This was an interesting read and something I did not think about prior to this blog. It’s sad how humans are depleting a lot of our resources including food at such a quick rate. I agree with Melissa that the problem stems from unawareness and lack of knowledge on where our food comes from. As a fan of many fish that are being overfished, I would consider eating/trying different types of fish to alleviate this problem.

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  4. Discounting restaurants, could something as simple as an “overfished” label or something similar be put on certain fish packaging at grocery stores? This might spread more awareness to the consumer and discourage them from supporting these unsustainable fishing practices. I don’t usually research my food beforehand so I know I would appreciate being more informed about the methods behind my food at the store.

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    1. I doubt that supermarkets would put a label on their products that would deter sales– especially on their top sellers. I think this pressure has to come from outside the supply chain.

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  5. Im not a fan of sushi so I don’t each much of fish other than the occasional fish. I see this as a problem more in China and Japan where their diets heavily depend on fish. I honestly don’t know of many people that eat a lot of fish in the United States. I do think we can get fish farming to be more sustainable. As time goes on, new technology and way of fish farming will become available to try to make it more environmentally friendly. I do think that the overfishing needs to stop so that these species can recover. I agree with the other comments in that people would be more likely to eat another type of fish if they knew the fish that they wanted was overfished and in danger of extinction. Most of our issues in the world are due to lack of public knowledge.

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    1. Americans on average eat 15.5 pounds of seafood a year. Per capita this is not much, but by volume it actually makes the USA the second largest consumer of seafood worldwide. And the vast majority of this seafood is shrimp, salmon, and tuna.

      And yes like you and several others have mentioned I do think that there is a lack of public knowledge.

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  6. Growing up on the coast, I have always loved seafood, sushi, and anything of the sort. It would be hard for me to give it up all together, especially tuna. I think the harvesting to the consumption is such a long journey and so misinformed that consumers are completely oblivious to how big of an issue this is. With the ocean being such a vast ecosystem, I think there is a more practical and sustainable way of being able to continue harvesting fish, once, of course, we have brought the populations back. The problem is, we may have taken to big of a bite out of the food chain to even bring them back.

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    1. I think part of the problem is that the oceans are so vast. You can’t imagine catching all the fish out of the ocean. How could you? Its so big. But we have managed.

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  7. Over fishing is a huge problem globally. Even in countries such as the US that have fairly regulated fisheries, the fish populations today are nothing like what they were 50 years ago. Other countries with less regulated fisheries are seeing even larger drops in populations. This is a big issue that I think will certainly come to a head in our lifetime. Especially considering that there are other threats to fish besides over fishing. Much of the ecosystems and food webs that they are relying on to survive are under threat of climate change as well.

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  8. One of the largest environmental issues outside of water shortage and climate change will be the loss of tuna, salmon, or cod completely. At this moment, we have a choice to make about whether we truly want to keep running up the price for scarcer and scarcer fish or we place a moratorium. I’m curious about whether or not the Cod will actually recover, especially if its habitats are degraded as well. In ecology, many ecosystems can cross a threshold and never return to a previous state without a huge “push”. I wonder if we have sent some of these fisheries into a death spiral…

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  9. I wasn’t aware that this was an issue. The statistic about the bluefin tuna being less than 3% of its historic population was staggering. The photo of the fish being captured in the net was a little unsettling as well. It is reassuring though knowing that aquaculture has already shown signs of success. Hopefully this will lead to the resolution of this issue!

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  10. I’ve been transitioning to a pescatarian diet, so this is not good news. With fish populations becoming scarce, will we be forced to produce more beef and other meats? It seems as though overfishing is bad for climate change as well.

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  11. I think aquaculture is a helpful tool to have to help avoid overfishing but it can’t be the only solution. The focus needs to be on changing our fishing and consumption habits rather than trying to keep up demands. Fish is another natural resource that the earth provides us that we are misusing. We need to fix our bad habits.

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  12. I LOVE fish and sushi is my favorite food so this makes me so sad 😦 I also barely eat meat so fish is an important part of my diet. Are there any statistics on the biggest consumers or wasters of fish? Like is the problem just over population? Or do certain countries (like the US or China) eat more than recommended portions?

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    1. By volume China is the number one consumer, we are two.
      Per person America is 15.5 pounds a year which is below the recommended “healthy” intake of fish.

      The problem is that there are just a few types of fish that are eaten worldwide. Mainly in the west we eat salmon, tuna, and cod. This practice is what is driving these fish populations towards extinction

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  13. I am not a huge sushi fan so I may be covered there, but I really enjoy traditional cooked seafood. Unfortunately I eat very minimal seafood so I will be less inclined to use an app or service to guide my food choices. Maybe the public can pressure fish “producers” and “manufacturers” to guide the choice of which fish to harvest by season to mitigate bad habits.

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  14. Maybe a bit off topic to this blog, but I believe it is sometimes problematic that some environmentalists hold fish in such a high regard, but end up only eating the type of fish that are being fished to extinction. Clearly fish have their own problems, but yes we can consume more invasive driven species to help reverse trends that we accidentally started in shifting fishing away from overfished species and killing off invasive instead of maybe eating all bacon wrapped burgers with extra pork. I know that some people will evade certain fish species due to “taste” or “aesthetic” of the fish seeing it as lower quality. The problem with that is by not eating that lower quality, the “higher quality” fish will only become more scarce (more expensive and harder to find) relegating you in the future to the fish that you avoided eating. We might need to more aggressively involve new techniques in cooking or outreach about methods to cook and serve certain fish in order to shift people to eat certain fish in order to avoid heavier aquaculture and creation of another major environmental problem.

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  15. This is scary. I guess with oceans making up 3/4 of the Earth, a lot of people just sort of assume there is so much space for the fish to thrive and reproduce. Populations being at 1% – 3% of historic trends is scary. It sort of goes back to what they were talking about in Chasing Coral (although over fishing is a result of simply overfishing and not carbon emissions). The documentary said we were looking at collapses of entire families of organisms. Not just species or genuses.

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  16. Fish farms have plenty of problems with them but at the same time I think they may be the only way we can prevent the wild extinction of many species and continue to support human populations that depend on fish as their primary protein source. It seems like everywhere we look its the decline and replacement of wild systems with ones managed by humans. Will there come a day when the only things that can be really considered wild exist on small patches of nature preserves?

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  17. I found this post to be extremely interesting because I am a major fan of seafood. I do not think I would make an active effort to eat less salmon unless prices get too high. On the other hand, my family and I consume a large variety of fish outside of salmon. I think this is because Asian supermarkets offer a much greater number of fish options compared to your typical Kroger or Publix supermarkets. Some of this is contributed to the fact that the Southern Chinese population enjoy having many options when it comes to seafood. It would be interesting to see this kind of transition happen to the Western world. It could possibly take some pressure off tuna and salmon if people are developing interest in other fish.

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  18. I have heard that overfishing is a problem and see where it would be likely in that there isn’t a great way to regulate it, however I did not realize it was so bad in the case of the tuna. In another class I’ve had, we talked about the practice of eating raw fish as a fad. If the population can survive this period, which should be closing soon, then it will be able to bounce back naturally as the demand is decreased. I personally do not eat fish very often, so my eating habits won’t change very much due to this information. Thanks for the read.

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  19. Interesting article. Overfishing has been an issue that is rarely brought up due to large amounts of fish but is becoming a more prominent issue. The term “there is plenty of more fish in the sea” might not be relevant much more. However, it will be hard to change eating habits since the human population continues to grow and eating fish is a healthy choice compared with the alternatives.

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  20. This problem is such a difficult one to tackle from a policy perspective because it is so international in nature. It seems like the oceans are under attack from a lot of directions. The stability of fish populations is especially concerning because so many people rely on it for their primary source of protein, especially in coastal parts of the developing world where people just don’t have the financial means to switch to something else easily. A couple months ago I had the opportunity to talk with some Alaskan fishermen while traveling, and they told me how they were disgusted by salmon farming because the fish are crammed together in these small ponds in filthy water. They told me that salmon meat, which is normally pink, comes out gray and the farms dye it back pink so it looks more appealing. Obviously Alaskan fishermen are a biased source, but they do know a lot about salmon and I thought it was notable how repulsed they were by salmon farming. We really have to start doing a better job of protecting these populations in the natural world.

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  21. Yeah, this problem isn’t one that economics can solve, I believe. Maybe I just don’t have a lot of faith in the supply-demand principle, but the natural tipping point for fish populations doesn’t necessarily meet the point where low supplies raise prices to a demand-deterring level. Fish farming could be a viable option for some species, but like the energy sector, we need to seriously diversify our food palette and impress upon our generation and the ones to follow a disdain towards excessive consumption. Mackerel and eel, in my experience, are low on the food chain and taste great, as opposed to tuna and such. The issue raises questions concerning how efficiently the fish meat is being used (ratio of fish caught to fish consumed), and what exactly is going on in Japan in response to their booming fish market?

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  22. I feel like fish is typically viewed as a healthy alternative to meats. And the environmental impacts are just unseen, because we hear first how bad beef is environmentally.
    One significant issue in talking about overfishing comes up in the context of developing countries. For many people, fish are a vital source of nutrients– they overfish out of necessity. It is very difficult then because they enter a cycle of environmental degradation and poverty, as their immediate need compromises their future. I know this article focuses more on the types of consumption from wealthier people, in the form of big fish like salmon and tuna. I think we are at the point when we need a moratorium. There is a critical point where the species will be doomed to extinction. I don’t know if we have reached it yet, but we are definitely risking it.

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  23. The sad truth is that even with more sustainable alternatives, there will still be a demand for the more rare types of fish such as tuna. As long is there is a demand, there will be large-scale harvesting of the fish. The US could suspend tuna fishing for a while, but I doubt japan would ever consider doing this. It seems to me that unless there is some miraculous development, the bluefin tuna population has little to no chance to ever recover.

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  24. To reduce my environmental impact, I have recently stopped eating all meat besides some fish every now and then. This blog really makes me rethink my decision. Maybe I should cut fish out out of my diet due to their chance of extinction and instead eat chicken every now and then. Hopefully I can eventually become completely vegetarian. But this is scary. I know so many people becoming vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, reducetarian, etc, and moving towards plant based diets. I think this will have a rippling effect over the next few decades and hopefully create less of a demand on these species of animals. Hopefully this movement, along with regulations can help save these species.

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  25. The concept is really simple, you can’t take out more than what is coming in or otherwise you have a negative net. For some reason that is a hard concept for us to grasps when it comes to capturing wildlife. Besides just the risk of losing some of these species I think about the impact that is going to occur in these ecosystems.

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  26. Personally, the only time I each fish is if I eat sushi, which is not often, but I understand that this is the only source of protein for many communities around the world. I believe a large part of this problem can be considered a marketing problem. In Japan, South Korea, and United States, where the bluefin tuna is considered a delicacy, there perhaps needs to be a marketing strategy to stigmatize the bluefin and promote the taste of tilapia or other easily farmed fish.

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