Gone Fish

Personal conservation is great, and the better seafood guides can be helpful, says our Incite columnist, an independent voice for the environment. But fisheries policy must still be changed.

The fish on my plate probably didn’t come from Chile, and it definitely wasn’t bass. But the marketing moniker “Chilean seabass” sounds more appetizing than “toothfish,” and it fools at least some consumers who have learned what toothfish are and that few if any of the world’s fish species are more grievously mismanaged than this slow-growing denizen of deep south-polar waters. Environmental “champions” of the 20th century were being honored, and I was seated next to one—Dave Foreman, cofounder of the radical Earth First!, now magically transformed to a soft-spoken, elegantly dressed, almost painfully law-abiding conservator of wildland. I steered the conversation away from the entree, a difficult task because it was so delicious. But to my relief, I soon discovered that Foreman was not nearly as much into fish and fishing as I was. The year was 1998, and in those days, for almost everyone, fish was fish. If it was placed in front of you, you didn’t ask questions. You ate it. Hosting the evening was the National Audubon Society.

My friend and colleague Carl Safina, then director of Audubon’s Living Oceans program, had recently partaken of toothfish, too—at a dinner for no less an assemblage than the board of the Society for Conservation Biology. Being more outspoken than I am (at least at social gatherings), he vented his spleen on the spot. Then, almost simultaneously with Audubon’s toothsome toothfish dinner, he launched The Audubon (magazine) Guide to Seafood, the world’s first independent and comprehensive set of directions for sustainable seafood purchasing, thereby setting a standard and trend that would save all manner of marine life around the globe and change how people perceive fish.


Thirty percent of all assessed marine fish populations are being killed faster than they reproduce. And while aquaculture, i.e., fish farming, was at first seen as a partial solution, that rapidly expanding industry has compounded more than relieved pressure on wild stocks because it pollutes the sea with pathogens, parasites, and warped genes, and because it requires the netting of enormous quantities of small fish to serve as feed. So seafood guides are now more important than ever.

But today there are so many guides that fish eaters don’t know which ones to consult. Some guides are confusing, some accidentally or purposefully misleading, some brazen greenwashing. No one is fully equipped to objectively rank the guides, but the University of Rhode Island’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative and a group called Incofish have put together the most complete lists available. (Go to Sea Grant or incofish.)

The five guides you should probably pay most attention to are those provided by the Blue Ocean Institute (the outfit run by Safina, which he started when he left Audubon), the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. (The Marine Stewardship Council also certifies sustainability by issuing labels to retailers.) Most guides list species consumers can buy without pumping dangerous amounts of mercury and PCBs into themselves or their guests and without patronizing fishing operations that deplete stocks faster than they reproduce or that damage marine ecosystems by killing non-target species (“bycatch”).

All guides are weakened by the name games played by the seafood industry as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which, as a tentacle of the Department of Commerce, has the dual and often conflicting missions of regulating and promoting fisheries. “Underutilized” fish are constantly being renamed in an effort to make them sound more palatable.

Even fish-savvy salts like Ted Forsgren, director of the Coastal Conservation Association Florida, get confused. “What the hell is that?” he asked when he saw “rock salmon” in the stores. It turned out to be amberjack, traditionally shunned because larger specimens tend to be wormy and can contain natural poisons capable of sickening or killing humans. “Redfish” is a now-prolific species of drum that was knocked way down in the 1980s by the “blackened redfish” craze started by Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme. But “redfish” is also an unrelated, slow-growing fish inhabiting deep water off New England and maritime Canada. If that’s not confusing enough, the latter species is being marketed as “ocean perch,” despite the fact that it’s unrelated to perch, a delicious freshwater fish sold in the Midwest. When commercial fishermen depleted New England and mid-Atlantic groundfish, spiny dogfish surged into the vacated niche. Americans don’t like dogfish (doubtless because they taste like foam rubber, as I can attest). So the response of governmental and non-governmental seafood promoters was to change the name of dogfish to “cape shark.”

Then there’s confusion about ranges and taxonomy. In its seafood guide, Greenpeace has placed pollock on its avoid list because the stock has been overfished, provides important forage for Steller sea lions and northern fur seals, and the fishery kills lots of bycatch. That’s probably true. “Pollock,” explains the guide, “live throughout the Northern Pacific.” That’s definitely true. But Greenpeace doesn’t mention that pollock (relatives of the fish it refers to) also live throughout the North Atlantic, where the fishery is sustainable and the population is 115 percent above target level.


I’ll confess that I was lukewarm on general seafood guides before I started researching this article. If most people followed the good ones, they’d force sustainable management and reduce bycatch. But the point is that most people don’t and won’t. This from John McMurray, New York State’s representative on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, a regional body that writes regulations for commercial and recreational fisheries in federal waters under NMFS oversight: “Seafood guides educate people, but a minority. Personal conservation choices don’t mean much if public policy isn’t changed. I don’t think there’s a direct impact. If it’s on the menu, the general public is going to think it’s okay to eat.”

Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environment Group, agrees. “If you define effectiveness as raising public awareness and getting people to think about how fish are caught and what fish you should eat, I think guides have done a good job,” he says. “But I question the notion that the way people buy seafood is going to reduce demand for fish that are not caught sustainably.”

What I had not realized, however, is that seafood guides work in more subtle and indirect ways than simply influencing consumer demand. Here’s how: Safina gets an irate letter from the halibut fishermen’s association in British Columbia. How dare he endorse the halibut fishery in Alaska as sustainable and ecologically relatively benign and simultaneously reject B.C.’s when B.C. halibut are part of the same international stock, when they’re managed under the same plan, and when the B.C. halibut fleet uses the same fishing gear? Safina explains that Alaska halibut fishermen employ “albatross avoidance lines”—ropes festooned with brightly colored streamers. They’re towed from each side of the boat and scare away albatrosses and other seabirds so that, as the “longline” (from which dangle thousands of baited hooks) is paid out, it has time to sink out of the birds’ reach. Albatross avoidance lines are simple and cheap, and reduce avian mortality by about 97 percent. Safina gets this response: “Oh, is that all? Okay, we’ll start using them, too.” They did, and now the B.C. halibut fishery is endorsed.

So huge, influential, and controversial is the MSC that it merits special attention. MSC offices in London, Seattle, Tokyo, Sydney, The Hague, Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Stockholm, and Paris have labeled 103 fisheries and have 134 under “full assessment” and about 50 under “confidential pre-assessment” by third-party certifiers. Big grocery chains like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and Europe’s Waitrose carry fish packaged with MSC’s blue check-mark label.

But lately the MSC has come under intense fire from ocean advocates. “It often certifies part of a fishery,” remarks Crockett. “How does the consumer know that the fish is from the part of the fishery that’s certified? There’s no good tracking.” Other critics cite the MSC’s certification of the South Georgia Island toothfish fishery. “Welcome Back Chilean Seabass!” whooped Whole Foods in an ad that gave the impression that everything everywhere was fine and dandy. Largely lost on the public is the fact that the certification represents only about 10 percent of the fishery and that most of it is illegal, unreported, and dominated by pirate vessels that unload their catches in such countries as Namibia and Mauritius, getting as much as $1,000 per fish.

Those critics have a point, but here’s a side of the story that hasn’t been reported: The South Georgia fleet wanted to improve the black image of toothfish, so it started bootstrapping itself. It solved its seabird bycatch problem with the same kind of avoidance lines that won the B.C. halibut fishery endorsement by the Blue Ocean Institute, reducing mortality from tens of thousands of albatrosses and petrels a year to almost zero. It placed observers on all its vessels to ensure that these devices were deployed and that toothfish landings were legal and accurately reported. When the MSC finally certified the South Georgia fleet, the Ross Sea toothfish fleet became envious and implemented reforms that won it certification also.

“The fishing industry pays for MSC certification,” says Crockett. “The applicant hires a third-party certifier. That’s not independence. Then MSC gets a percentage [0.5 percent of the wholesale value] of the sale of the product from labeled companies.”

Kerry Coughlin, the MSC’s regional director for the Americas, counters with this: “The system can’t create a bias because certification is completely isolated from the MSC. It’s done by independent contracted auditors—a team of scientific experts. The process is open and transparent. Of course they get paid, just like auditors who audit businesses.” Still, the incentive is clearly there for the MSC to make its process more welcoming to marginal operations.

It’s hard to tell how much of the criticism is justified and how much is inevitable simply because the MSC is so huge. Last September, in a blistering op-ed in the journal Nature, six scientists, including marine ecologists from the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, dressed down the MSC for what they consider unjustifiable certifications. Lead author, the Centre’s Jennifer Jacquet, has also issued the following complaint in the online publication TheTyee.ca: “We were dismayed when we heard that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced recently that the process has begun which could lead to the certification of Peruvian anchovies—a fish which contributes to about a third of the world’s fishmeal production [largely for animal feed]. The MSC is making a mistake. This issue is not whether the fishery is ‘well-managed’ but what we do with the fish.”

The point Jacquet and others miss is that if there’s a mistake, it hasn’t happened yet. The Peruvian anchovy fishery came to the MSC seeking certification, but first it will have to complete third-party pre-assessment. It may well be that the independent auditor will agree with Jacquet and deny certification. Something like a third of all applicants never make it past pre-assessment on their first try. But when they flunk they don’t just give up and go away; they study the reasons they flunked, make improvements, then reapply. As Coughlin correctly observes, “MSC acts as a change agent.”

Maybe the most justifiable criticism of the MSC comes from Pam Lyons Gromen, fisheries project director of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. “MSC has three principles they score fisheries by, the second of which deals with ecosystem-based management. It’s very soft and has no concrete standards. We’ve been trying to work with MSC on safeguarding forage fish [that sustain larger fish, birds, and mammals], but they haven’t remedied the problem.” On the other hand, it’s asking an awful lot of any private organization to figure out ecosystem management, a science so new and so complicated that even fisheries managers have yet to implement it. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Council’s McMurray told me this: “I’m on the ecosystems ocean planning committee, and every meeting I go to we get a presentation about how to do ecosystem management. We all nod and say, ‘Great presentation.’ And the council usually doesn’t lift a finger to move in that direction. The staff doesn’t have the resources or the science. It’s just an incredibly complex and difficult thing to do.”


McMurray stresses that good fisheries management does not happen without public involvement and that that can’t happen unless people understand management issues. Council members don’t get more atypical than McMurray. He’s an environmental activist, an accomplished outdoor writer specializing in marine conservation, an avid angler, a saltwater fishing guide, and director of grant making for the Norcross Wildlife Foundation.

McMurray is also one of the few anglers who understands that badly regulated sport fishing can be just as devastating as badly regulated commercial fishing. For example, an NMFS-sanctioned angler free-for-all in the South Atlantic has played a major role in nearly wiping out red snapper, and something like 80 percent of all Atlantic striped bass mortality is caused by sport fishing. Because Atlantic striped bass are mostly found within three miles of shore, they’re managed by a multi-state commission. But for offshore species, commercial and recreational overkill is the result of a federal law predicated on the mistaken belief that “stakeholders” will do what’s best for the resource and the public good even when it means resisting their immediate appetites.

In 1976 Congress tried to end two centuries of unsustainable fishing by passing the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which set up eight regional management councils comprised of “user groups”—mostly commercial fishing interests. Giving an industry a “stake in its own future” sounded very progressive (except to anyone who understood human nature). On all three coasts the scheme worked about as well as telling children to make their Halloween candy last all year.

Magnuson allowed fishery plans to be modified by short-term, shortsighted “economic considerations,” and such considerations almost always “justified” overfishing. So for three decades commercial fishermen, assisted by the recreational party-boat fleet and individual anglers, continued to strip-mine federal waters.

Finally, in 2006, Congress amended Magnuson so that, for the first time ever, the councils could not set catch limits that killed fish faster than they could reproduce. For overfished stocks it required that those limits be in place by 2010. The deadline for other stocks was 2011.

One might suppose that stakeholders would embrace the simple and ancient wisdom of maintaining golden-egg production by sparing the magic goose. But no. Major elements of the commercial and recreational fishing industries are railing against the Magnuson amendments, depicting them as a plot by fish huggers to put them out of business. Accordingly, they have prevailed on Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) to introduce the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act—“flexibility” being a euphemism for delay. When the legislation was first introduced in 2007 it appeared DOA, but outrage over fisheries closures, particularly in the South Atlantic, has given it new life.

No group has been louder in pushing emasculation of Magnuson than the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). Director James Donofrio proclaims that the amendments resulted from the public swilling the “Kool-Aid of the anti-fishing environmental groups.” On February 24, 2010, fishing organizations, whipped to a froth of paranoia by the RFA and several of its allies, protested the amended Magnuson Act on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, shrieking and waving placards adorned with swastikas and such messages as “Nuke NMFS” and “Fix Magnuson Now.”

Few plans mandated by the strengthened Magnuson Act have elicited more outrage from the sport and commercial fishing industries than the sharp decrease in catch limits for summer flounder. And none has been more successful. Twenty years ago the population had been fished down to 15 percent of sustainable levels. Strict catch limits imposed under Magnuson have created such a population explosion that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council has made the justifiable decision to increase the 2011 limit from 22.13 million to 29.48 million pounds. Now that anglers and commercial fishermen can kill lots more summer flounder, the RFA bleats about not being able to legally plunder other depleted stocks. Dozens of species are recovering because of Magnuson, a desperately needed law that may be gutted by Congress just as it is starting to work. The NMFS estimates that the economic value of rebuilding depleted fish populations is a $31 billion increase in annual sales and support for 500,000 new U.S. jobs.

In 1883 British biologist Thomas Huxley made this declaration: “I still believe that the cod fishery . . . and probably all the great sea-fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we can do seriously affects the number of fish.”

Huxley lacked evidence to the contrary, but the RFA and its allies have no such excuse. Basically their argument comes down to this: “Our current economic ill-health requires us to keep destroying the resources on which our economic health depends.”


Application of Huxley’s approach by the NMFS and councils has led to public boycotts of specific species or genera—hardly the proper way to manage fish but sometimes the only remaining alternative. The most successful boycott (no longer in effect) was Give Swordfish a Break, a response to the hideously mismanaged North Atlantic longline fishery that had knocked down the stock nearly to commercial extinction. Launched in 1998 by Seaweb and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Give Swordfish a Break mobilized thousands of chefs up and down the East Coast. Eventually it also caught the attention of the NMFS and even the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)—the body that supposedly manages highly migratory species (including swordfish) by setting quotas for member nations but which has been so derelict that it’s often referred to as the “International Commission to Catch All the Tunas.” With swordfish demand way down, nursery areas off the Carolinas closed by the NMFS, and better ICCAT quotas, swordfish are close to recovery. Largely because of Give Swordfish a Break, that species is the only big marine fish on the planet doing better than it was a decade ago.

A newer boycott that promises great success is Take Marlin Off the Menu, a project hatched in 2008 by the International Game Fish Association, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, and The Billfish Foundation. Marlin and their close cousins spearfish and sailfish, collectively known as “billfish,” are critically depressed worldwide. (Swordfish are technically billfish, too, but they’re usually considered separately.) So valuable are billfish to the economy as quarry for anglers that using them for food is economically insane, and anglers almost always release the fish they catch. Marlin are frequently laced with dangerous levels of mercury, and most of the ones offered for sale are bycatch that has soaked dead for days on tuna longlines.

Selling Atlantic billfish is against the law. But legal traffic in Pacific billfish continues. This facilitates a huge black market because there’s no good way to tell what ocean the meat comes from. Hence the United States is the world’s leading billfish importer. Taking marlin off the menu isn’t much of a sacrifice for restaurants or stores, and more and more are profiting from the green image of being billfish free. In 2010 the campaign succeeded in getting The Billfish Conservation Act introduced in both the House and Senate. If enacted, it will ban sale of all Pacific marlin, spearfish, and sailfish.

Meanwhile, general seafood guides provide the opportunity for immediate action on your part. But they won’t work if you just shop and shut up. A guide can even be counterproductive if it gives people the notion that they’ve accomplished something by simply not buying an overfished species when what they really need to do is become political activists. You need to wave seafood guides in the faces of store managers and restaurant personnel, urging them to boycott mismanaged species. Green fish buying is like green investing. If you do it silently, you’ve merely left a commodity to be purchased by someone who doesn’t worry about the planet. And those types are, alas, in the vast majority.