As the global population continues to increase and more people are becoming aware that fish is a healthful source of protein, demand for seafood is growing rapidly. Too rapidly, in fact. Seafood consumption worldwide has doubled since 1973 and marine scientists predict that by 2020, there will be an additional need for 32 million tons. This tremendous increase in seafood consumption coupled with industrial fishing methods that damage the oceans’ ecosystem has placed major stress on our oceans. At this rate, all commercially fished wild seafood will be wiped out by 2050 unless we change our ways.
Why are many industrial fishing methods so harmful to our oceans? Because they focus on maximizing the number of fish caught regardless of long-term consequences; in other words, current fishing methods are not sustainable. Sustainable seafood is defined by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program as “seafood from sources, whether fished or farmed, that can exist into the long-term without compromising species’ survival or the integrity of the surrounding ecosystem.”
The consequences of the unsustainable fishing methods used today, including overfishing, bycatch, habitat destruction and other harmful activities, are putting many fish populations at risk. Click on the various issues below to learn more.
Overfishing means we are catching fish faster than they can reproduce. This is because a result of the significant increase in the demand for seafood over the past several decades coupled with our capacity to pull in huge quantities of fish also growing exponentially. Not only is the global population increasing, but per capita seafood consumption has also increased over 50% since 1980. Many of the fish species we depend on are seriously endangered and the situation is becoming more critical every day.
One example of an overfished species is Patagonian toothfish, commonly known as Chilean seabass. Patagonian tooth fish don’t reach sexual maturity until 9-10 years of age. Because it takes a decade for these fish to breed, Patagonian toothfish can’t reproduce as quickly as they are being caught. Fish with slow reproductive cycles are especially vulnerable to overfishing.
Overfishing is not merely an environmental issue, it’s an economic issue as well. More than 200 million people worldwide rely on fishing and related activities for all or part of their income. Overfishing reduces the fish population lower and lower, until fish are so few that fishermen can’t make a living any more. More than 75% of the world’s fisheries today are either fully fished or overfished. Many fisheries have already collapsed, throwing thousands of people out of work.
Bycatch, the unintended capture of fish and other species, significantly contributes to overall declines in many marine life populations. Fishing operations worldwide throw away about 25% of their catch—that’s approximately 44 billion pounds of (dead) fish each year. In addition, dolphins, sea turtles, seals, sharks, and even seabirds can get caught by accident in fishing gear and drown.
Shrimp trawls have historically been among the worst culprits when it comes to bycatch. On average worldwide, for every pound of shrimp caught, up to ten pounds of bycatch is discarded. Fortunately this number is declining with improved catch methods and a commitment to sustainability on the part of some wild shrimp fisheries. A much preferred alternative is catching shrimp in traps, which lets fishermen release 98% of unwanted animals alive.
Fishing gear commonly used to catch shrimp and bottom fish like cod and haddock, can cause long-term damage to sensitive marine ecosystems. For example, bottom trawlers drag nets along the seafloor sometimes with “rockhopper” gear attached (such as old tires) to catch fish living between rocks and reefs. Another damaging method known as dredging pulls nets with a chain mesh base through soft sand or mud to catch scallops and sea urchins. These fishing gears severely destroy the ocean floor and damage the places where fish feed and breed.
Most of the damage done by trawlers and dredges is irreparable. Off the Australian coast, for example, bottom trawlers destroyed coldwater corals that were over 700 years old. That small area alone will take centuries to recover. Also, many areas of our ocean floors are repeatedly trawled or dredging further compounding the devastation. Marine scientists estimate that parts of the North Sea (off Denmark) are trawled up to 400 times per year.
There are fishing methods that don’t damage the seafloors: hook-and-line fishing, longlining and trap fishing. Hook-and-line fishing uses a single pole and line with a single hook to manually catch fishes. Longlining refers to catching seafood with a central fishing line, sometimes more than 50 miles long, that is strung with many smaller lines holding baited hooks. Trap fishing is when submerged baited wire or wood cages are used to attract fishes and hold them alive until the fisherman returns to haul up the gear. All three of these methods are considered habitat-friendly fishing practices.
Seafood is now increasingly being raised in captivity, a practice known as aquaculture. Over one-third of all fish consumed in the United States is farm-raised, including shrimp, salmon, tilapia and catfish. Most of this food is raised outside the United States, although aquaculture is growing in all corners of the world, and is likely to continue to grow as demand for seafood rises.
Many fish farms are highly resource-intensive and have significant ecological impacts on the oceans or inland waterways where they are located. Below we have outlined problems with many existing systems, problems that need to be addressed if aquaculture is to supply a significant percentage of the world’s protein on a sustainable basis.
Many farmed fish are carnivores and depend on being fed wild fish. This means that instead of taking pressure off the oceans, fish farming may increase the demand for wild fish. For example, farmed salmon commonly requires three pounds of wild fish as feed for every pound of salmon raised. Current global farmed salmon production exceeds one million tons requiring 2 to 3.5 million tons of wild fish be processed into feed annually. This type of feed-intensive farming results in a net loss of protein. In other words, some farm operations use more fish than they generate.
On the other hand, some fish raised in farms are omnivores and can be fed plant-based diets. Catfish and tilapia are examples of species that can be raised without wild fish inputs. Thus, instead of resulting in a net loss of protein like salmon farms, these catfish and tilapia farms do not put additional stress on the oceans.
Another environmental concern of aquaculture is the pollution caused by net-pen farming. Many farmed fish, including salmon, are raised in net-pens in the ocean where thousands of them are concentrated in one area like cattle in a feed lot. These fish produce tons of feces which can significantly pollute the water. An average farm of 200,000 salmon produces the daily equivalent amount of feces as a town of 62,000 people. This waste accumulates on the sea floor below the farm pens and generates killer bacteria that consume the oxygen vital to wild bottom fish.
Chemicals and Antibiotics
Algae and shellfish growth on the net-pens is a problem for fish farmers because it leads to equipment damage. Therefore, fish farmers apply toxic chemicals (like pesticides and copper sulfates) on the nets. Since the purpose of these chemicals is to kill off algae and shellfish, contamination of the surrounding water poses a serious threat to native wild marine life.
Also, diseases are easily spread among farmed fish due to the high concentration of fish in each net-pen. Antibiotics are commonly used in aquaculture in order to prevent (or treat) a disease outbreak but overuse (especially if used for non-therapeutic purposes) may lead to drug-resistance in these farmed fish and wild fish if the antibiotics leak outside of the net-pen.
Farmed fish that escape from net-pens may have a significant impact on the surrounding marine ecosystem. They can compete for food with the wild fish and take over limited marine habitat area. Farmed fish can also spread diseases that did not previously exist in wild fish populations. In addition, farmed fish (that are often genetically modified) may interbreed with the wild fish and alter the natural genetic makeup of that species. A good example of this is farmed salmon. There have been known cases of millions of genetically modified Atlantic salmon that escaped and traveled thousands of miles from their farms, interbreeding with the wild salmon and disturbing nesting habitats.
Human Health Concerns
Fish farming is not only detrimental to the marine ecosystem but may also pose human health risks. Studies have shown that farmed salmon have 10 times more residues of PCBs and dioxins (chemicals linked to cancer) than wild salmon. This is because feed pellets produced for farmed salmon consists of concentrated fish meal made from wild fish that are most commonly exposed to environmental pollutants such as pesticides, dioxins and PCBs.
Although many fish farms can be resource-intensive and damage the environment, shellfish farms tend to be more eco-friendly. Farm-raised oysters, clams and mussels are examples of environmentally-friendly seafood choices. Because they mainly eat plankton, which they filter from the surrounding water, they don’t require extra feed. In addition, farmed shellfish are not raised concentrated net-pens like other farmed fish. Oysters and mussels are raised in bags suspended off the seafloor and clams are often raised in beds on the shore, so little ecological damage is done when the shellfish are harvested.
Mercury in Seafood
For many people who enjoy seafood, the conflicting health and safety messages of fish, omega-3 fats versus mercury contamination, may have caused some confusion. Here’s the bottom line: Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet because they are low in saturated fat and contain omega-3 fatty acids (heart-healthy fats). However, certain fish species should be avoided due to their high levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin.
Mercury contamination of seafood is a serious public health threat to children and women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. About 70% of mercury comes from human sources, the worst polluters being coal-burning electric plants and chlorine production plants. Mercury accumulates in streams and oceans where it is converted to the neurotoxic form methylmercury, which is then absorbed by the fish that feed in those waters.
Human Health Concerns
Even at relatively low levels, mercury can accumulate in the human liver, kidney, brain, and blood and harm the nervous system. At higher levels, mercury can cause kidney failure, cardiovascular disease and genetic damage in both children and adults.
Women should be particularly cautious because mercury consumed before, during or after pregnancy can significantly affect a child’s development (particularly in the womb). Children exposed to mercury are at high risk for birth defects, impaired motor skills and other developmental disabilities. .
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend that women who are pregnant, nursing or planning to become pregnant should not consume any swordfish, shark, tilefish, or king mackerel because they contain the highest levels of methylmercury and are considered unsafe for consumption. Organizations such as the Environmental Working Group also recommend avoiding tuna (except light canned tuna) because of the mercury risk.
Fish containing highest levels of mercury
|Fish||Average mercury level
(in micrograms per gram)
|Tilefish (golden bass or golden snapper)||1.45|
Mercury and Fish Recommendations
Not all agencies have provided the same advice about mercury in fish, so there has been some confusion as to how much mercury is considered safe. A reliable guideline is the EPA’s “reference dose,” which is a recommended limit on mercury consumption that’s based on your body weight. The EPA’s reference dose is 0.1 micrograms/kilogram body weight per day. So for a person who is 120 lbs (or 55 kg), the reference dose for methylmercury would be 5.5 micrograms per day.
What does this mean in terms of fish consumption? Based on the chart above, four ounces (or 113 grams) of swordfish contains 110 micrograms of mercury. For the person weighing 120 lbs, this is 20 times more methylmercury than is considered safe by the EPA.
To find out if your mercury consumption is above or below your recommended reference dose use the Mercury Calculator on GotMercury.org.
Although the health risks of consuming mercury are serious, this does not mean everybody should avoid fish completely. Fish and shellfish are healthy sources of protein because they are low in saturated fat and contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may lower your risk for heart disease. As seen in the chart below, the most commonly consumed fish and shellfish in the U.S. are relatively low in mercury.
Top 10 fish and shellfish consumed in the United States
|Fish and shellfish||Average mercury level
(in micrograms per gram)
|Omega-3 fatty acids
(in grams per 3 oz. serving)
|Canned tuna (light)||0.12||0.26 – 0.73|
|Salmon||0.01||0.68 – 1.83|
|Cod||0.11||0.13 – 0.24|
|Catfish||0.05||0.15 – 0.2|
|Flounder or sole||0.05||0.43|
|Crabs||0.06||0.34 – 0.4|
Source: American Heart Association
According to the American Heart Association, the benefits and risks of consuming fish and shellfish depend on your stage of life. For children, women of reproductive age, pregnant and nursing women who have low heart disease risk, avoiding high levels of mercury is more important than consuming fish for the omega-3 fatty acids. However, for middle-aged or older men and women after menopause, the health benefits of eating fish far outweigh the mercury risk. There is no set recommendation for omega-3 fatty acids but research shows that consuming 0.5 g to 2 g per day significantly reduces one’s risk for heart disease. Eating fatty fish like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon at least twice a week is recommended to achieve this level.
Mercury Awareness Campaign
Because the health and safety of our guests is our number one priority, Bon Appétit launched a Mercury Awareness Campaign in 2006. Signage throughout our cafés directs our guests to www.GotMercury.org where they can calculate their mercury risk based on the type and amount of seafood consumed. We believe that it is our responsibility to provide the necessary information for our diners to make educated choices about their seafood consumption.
Sustainable Sushi at Bon Appétit
In October 2008 the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program launched a brand new Sustainable Sushi Guide. These recommendations are based on several new studies conducted by the science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Bon Appétit has committed to serving sustainable seafood in all of our cafés since 2002, and we fully support this new sushi program as well. In Bon Appétit cafés where sushi is served, our chefs only provide sushi from the green (Best Choices) and yellow (Good Alternatives) lists. You can also pick up a Sustainable Sushi Guide to help you make informed sushi choices when dining out at other restaurants.
At Bon Appétit, we realize that our seafood and sushi choices can have global impact. By choosing species from fisheries and fish farms that are healthier for ocean wildlife, we can help protect the health of the ocean ecosystem and so can you.
Since 2002, all of the seafood served by Bon Appétit Management Company is purchased in accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines for sustainability. We have since taken our commitment to promoting sustainable seafood choices beyond the four walls of our cafés. We co-sponsored the making of the Emmy-nominated documentary “Farming the Seas” which was shown on PBS stations and at schools and museums around the world. Furthermore, the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation and the Seafood Watch program were joint recipients of a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to create the Save Seafood Tour to educate people about the issues surrounding seafood and activate them to make sustainable choices.
Bon Appétit Management Company is also the lead sponsor for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s annual “Cooking for Solutions” event, where attendees enjoy sustainable seafood cuisines prepared by celebrity chefs while learning about ways to preserve the health of the soil, water and ocean wildlife.
Our deep commitment to sustainable seafood has been internationally recognized. In March 2007, Bon Appétit’s CEO Fedele Bauccio received the Seafood Champion Award from the Seafood Choices Alliance, the global trade association for sustainable seafood.
Supporting sustainable seafood has become more than a food standard. It is part of the Bon Appétit culture; part of who we are.