It's not too late to rescue the oceans--and keep seafood on our plates
Out of mind. But politicians and the public have been harder to sell on fish conservation. The fish are still showing up from somewhere, and the destruction is out of sight under the waves. "The catastrophe is already happening," says University of British Columbia fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly, who tracks historic fishing in the North Atlantic in his new book, In a Perfect Ocean. "But we don't see it because people don't remember what used to be in the seas."
Even the major environmental groups have been slow to embrace marine conservation, but that's changing. In a conference from May 30 through June 3 called "Defying Ocean's End," the largest groups are meeting with scientists, economists, and government representatives to hammer out a global strategy for preserving sea life. And on June 4, a blue-ribbon commission sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts is releasing an in-depth report on the state of U.S. oceans, including an outline for overhauling the fisheries system. (Another federally mandated commission is expected to make similar recommendations later this year.) The Pew commission will call for a new approach to fisheries management, based on preserving ecosystems and habitats rather than just setting catch limits for individual species. And, says Oregon State's Lubchenco, one of the commissioners, they'll recommend setting up a network of marine reserves, linked by protected corridors, to safeguard fish breeding and nursery grounds. Existing sanctuaries account for less than one tenth of a percent of American seas, and offer very little real protection, says Pauly. Right now, he says, "a sanctuary is a place you can fish. So what does a sanctuary mean? It means nothing."
The most controversial recommendation in the Pew report is the call for a moratorium on new marine fish farms. Aquaculture now accounts for one third of all seafood. Some is benign, or even beneficial--cultured clams and oysters actually clean the water as they grow. But the most popular ocean "crops," Atlantic salmon and shrimp, pose serious problems. Salmon are predators, so producers feed them fishmeal made from wild-caught fish. That depletes ocean stocks even further and also explains why farmed salmon have to be dyed to replace the orange color that wild fish pick up naturally from their usual diet of small crustaceans. And shrimp farmers in places like Ecuador and Southeast Asia--major producers--often clear stands of coastal mangrove trees to build their pens. The trees' submerged roots are essential habitat for wild shrimp and for the juveniles of dozens of food fish species. "I feel sure that aquaculture will be very important" for the future food supply, says Lubchenco, "but we have to step back to consider how to implement it in a way that's not detrimental."
"If we give the oceans a chance now," says MCBI President Elliott Norse, "we'll be able to take food from the sea for as long as there are people on Earth. But we have to start now, not in five years, not in 10 years." For now, Pasternack has found enough seafood at the Fulton market to delight and intrigue his customers for another day. "You never know what you're going to find out here," he says as the sun comes up through the suspension wires of the Brooklyn Bridge. "But that's OK; I can sell anything."