Eat Your Hake and Have It, Too
By RAY HILBORN and ULRIKE HILBORN
WHOLE FOODS recently stopped selling fish that are on the “red lists” of seafood to avoid, issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute. Other major food retailers are considering similar measures, under the assumption that because a species is overfished, it is not sustainable.
Those decisions are based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes a sustainable fishery. The fact is that we can harvest a certain fraction of a fish population that has been overfished, if we allow for the natural processes of birth and growth to replace what we take from the ocean and to rebuild the stock. Instead of calling on consumers to abstain from all overfished species, we should direct our attention at fisheries that consistently take more fish than can be naturally replaced.
Bluefin tuna is a classic example of a species that has been consistently harvested too hard and should be avoided by consumers. But at the same time, the United States has made remarkable progress in rebuilding overfished stocks. Wild populations of 27 species have been rebuilt to “healthy” levels in the last 11 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Earlier this month, the agency announced that six formerly overfished stocks had been rebuilt, including Bering Sea snow crab, Atlantic Coast summer flounder and Gulf of Maine haddock.
But even as those stocks were being rebuilt, there were no apparent conservation benefits from the refusal of consumers to buy those overfished species. The catch was limited by rules set by regional fisheries councils based on quotas determined by fisheries scientists and enforced by the oceanic agency and by the Coast Guard. Any boycott punished American fishermen, who got a lower price when the catch was sold abroad.
Elsewhere in the world, many fisheries have become unsustainable because of fishing pressures. Most of Asia and Africa do not have management systems that regulate those pressures. And while Europe does have a management system, the quotas are often based on politics rather than science. Many European stocks are fished too hard — some cod stock, for example — and should be avoided by consumers.
If we are to fully harvest the potential sustainable yield of fish from the ocean, we cannot follow the utopian dictum that no stocks may be overfished. After all, even in sustainably managed fisheries, some stocks will almost always be classified as overfished because of natural fluctuations in their populations.
At the same time, we should recognize that seafood-labeling systems hold seafood to much higher standards than other forms of agriculture. The same stores that won’t sell an overfished species are selling other foods whose production affects the environment far more.
During a recent visit to a Whole Foods store in Seattle, we saw no evaluation of the environmental impact of the meat being sold. Free-range chickens were labeled, but there were no labels telling us if pesticide and fertilizer runoff from growing the corn used to feed the beef caused dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, or if the soybeans came from land clear-cut out of the Brazilian rain forest.
Truly informative seafood labels must distinguish between the abundance of a fish stock and its sustainability. Some fish will be disappearing from supermarket shelves over the next few years even though they are being sustainably managed. Consumers should tell retailers and environmental groups not to “red list” fish stocks that may be overfished but are being replenished.