It's not too late to rescue the oceans--and keep seafood on our plates
We've already had hints of what heedless consumption could mean for diners. In the past decade, it drove the orange roughy from abundance to scarcity in just a few years. Only after the fish, which can live 150 years, had become a popular staple did scientists realize that roughies could not stand up to heavy fishing because they take decades to mature. Overfishing has made the bluefin tuna a rarity, sold at high-stakes auctions. And it is gradually driving fishers to smaller, faster-growing fish, further down the food chain. As one species after another is fished out, says Scripps Institution of Oceanography ecologist Jeremy Jackson, we're creating decidedly less appetizing ocean ecosystems. "Jellyfish have become a commercial fishery in many places," he says, "because that's all that's left. That and the bacteria."
The lowly barnacle has lately become a hot item in haute cuisine, offering what could be a glimpse of the future--although for now it's simply a culinary adventure. Pasternack serves a gooseneck barnacle appetizer; chef Rick Laakkonen serves a tangy barnacle and sea urchin soup, "the tidal pool," at his Manhattan restaurant, Ilo. And at Patria, also in New York, Douglas Rodriguez made a splash several years ago with giant Chilean pico roco barnacles.
Not every bite of seafood has to come with a side of environmental destruction, Earle admits. "We do have to eat something," she says. "But we do have choices." Conservationists hope to blunt some of the worst impact by steering consumers toward more sustainable seafood (box, above) and by urging changes in fishing practices.
Often, it wouldn't take much to ease the pressure on the oceans. Ratana Chuenpagdee at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and Lance Morgan of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI) in Redmond, Wash., enlisted a team of scientists, fisheries managers, and commercial fishers to assess the relative bycatch and habitat damage caused by 10 types of gear. They ranged from bottom trawls (the worst) to purse seine nets and hook and line fishing (the least damaging). Remarkably, Chuenpagdee says, all the parties agreed on the rankings, presented in a report entitled "Shifting Gears." "The consensus blew my mind," she says. "Now we can start managing fisheries according to their environmental impact." That means things like using traps instead of bottom trawls for shrimp and harvesting scallops by hand instead of scraping them up with dredges.
Commercial fishers, who can be ruined by fishery closures, have long resisted stricter management. But now that the consequences of overfishing are unmistakable, some in the industry are taking a leading role in the effort to save it. John Pappalardo, a commercial hook fisherman in Chatham, Mass. (box, above) and member of the New England Fishery Management Council, says that after years of bad news, the local outlook is finally improving, in large part because of the creativity of the fishing community. "We had a whiting fishery that was closed for like five years," because so many other fish were taken as bycatch, he says. "They went away and came back with a new net, and we just opened the fishery back up to them." The new gear, called a raised footrope trawl, catches whiting but leaves lobsters and flatfish alone. Similarly, Gulf shrimpers have equipped their bottom trawls with grates that keep out turtles, and long-line fishers deploy lines of brightly colored streamers to keep birds away until the freshly baited hooks sink out of their range.